Recently I was driving a route that I normally take when driving home, although I was going somewhere else. At the intersection that takes me to my home, I instinctively turned left rather than continuing straight ahead to my intended destination. My eldest daughter pointed out my mistake, and I responded, “I was on autopilot.”

In fact, most of the things that I do daily I do on autopilot. When I brush my teeth, wash the dishes, and bring my fork to my mouth, I don’t actively think about those actions. I’m on autopilot. Of course, the reason that I can do those things without thinking about them is because I’ve consciously repeated them. My conscious mind has trained my unconscious mind.

That is a wonderfully good thing. It means that I can have meaningful conversation at dinner because I don’t have to focus on chewing and swallowing. It means that I can talk with friends while hiking because I don’t have to focus all of my attention on how to put one foot in front of the other and maintain balance.

With respect to parenting, our autopilot responses are particularly important. The repeated practices that we cultivate – consciously or unconsciously – shape the way that we respond “on autopilot.” Consider just a few of these practices:

  1. Active Listening. The practice of deliberately giving our children eye contact, confirming that we have understood what they are saying, and asking good questions all form habits. When we don’t have the time or “mental space” to think about how to listen, we default (whether we want to or not) to autopilot listening skills that we have practiced.
  2. Conflict Resolution. Children have plenty of conflict – with us, and with one another. In many of those instances there are not outside pressures (like being first in line at the grocery store, or being already late for school). In those instances, we can patiently teach wise conflict resolution: identify the interests of all involved, name any wrong done, and brainstorm creative solutions that address any wrong done and satisfy as many interests as possible. Cultivating these skills of conflict resolution help us – and our children – to have good autopilot skills in the heat of the moment.

All of us operate on autopilot in life and in parenting. The pressing question is: What habits, skills and practices do you deliberately cultivate so that you can instinctively respond well to your kids?

Graham Scharf the father of two, co-founder of and author of The Apprenticeship of Being Human: Why Early Childhood Parenting Matters to Everyone (which is now available for free!). You can follow him on Twitter @tumblondad.

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