Sunday, February 26, 2012

5 Revisions I'd Like to See Made to the Parenting Phrasebook

As someone who has had a love of words and language for most my life, I pay attention to how we use language, how we use specific words to describe things, or how one’s use of language reveals not just a specific thought, but how one views herself and her particular situation. For example, when I hear on the playground a parent disclosing that they are in the midst of the “Bedtime Battles,” I can’t help but wonder to myself if this particular parent views all of parenting as a war, where their child is the enemy and the aim of each day is to gain the upper hand. Comparing parenting to fighting a war makes me sad; I think of all the moments in those relationships that end up lost because the attention is on “staying in power”. I’d like to see the comparison drop out of use. There are a few other words and phrases I’d like to see drop out of use:

1) Naughty. As in, “You’re being kind of naughty right now.” Generally used when the child is not doing what the parent wants or is not listening to the parent or doing something else the parent considers disruptive. Yet, it doesn’t describe the child’s behavior that is frustrating the parent: essentially it’s a judgment and label used for the parent’s convenience. When parents label a child in such a way, they are in no way working with the child. Did the parent get down on the child’s level, make eye contact, and specifically say what the desired behavior is? As in, “I know you would like to keep playing with your toys, but we need to leave now, which means we need to put your shoes on. Can you help me find your shoes?”

Labeling a child’s behavior also negates the child’s experience. Alfie Kohn in Unconditional Parenting points out that when every time a child “misbehaves” or exhibits challenging behavior, there is a valid complaint on the part of the child, whether it’s that the child is hungry, over-stimulated or tired (especially in younger children) or that the child is upset about something and doesn’t feel safe expressing their emotions. Telling children they are being naughty may be effective in shaming them to give parents the desired result, but it’s not sustainable parenting because it doesn’t get to the root issue causing the “naughty” behavior. Doing a little detective work to get to when the child's behavior started to go south, however, can go a long way to getting to the source of what happened. So can teaching your child self-awareness by asking how s/he feels when s/he engages in such behavior or if s/he can use her words instead of acting out.

2) Good. As in, “What good children” where it is essentially saying the children are being well behaved. It seems harmless in this context, but it’s still a judgment. It also infers that by “good” we mean the children are being quiet, polite, and don’t require much attention from the surrounding adults. Because good is also a judgment, it can be seen as praise, which can be just as manipulative (if not more so) as punishment or shaming.

When it comes time for children to differentiate themselves (called rebelling in some circles), the "good" label becomes an easy thing to test, as in, "If I get bad grades, am I still good? Shoplift my clothes? Skip school?" On the flip side, children are less likely to take chances, push themselves, challenge themselves or take on big projects, because they're scared they might lose the "good" label.

3) “I’m your parent, not your friend.”

Friends listen to each other. Friends talk to each other in a respectful manner. Friends share their feelings with each other. They accept and respect each other. Friends are always on each other’s side. They guide each other through difficult situations and tough moments. They offer perspective when a friend is about to be untrue to her values. Friends celebrate each other’s triumphs. Friends work and play together. Friends ask for – and take – each other’s advice. They laugh and cry in each other’s company, where it’s safe to be vulnerable. In the friend relationship, the relationship has to work for both parties, and both people are equally important. In healthy friendships, one friend does not manipulate or take advantage of the other, because it would be disrespectful. In arguments, friends can say, “My feelings are hurt,” or “I feel frustrated,” or “Let’s work this out.”

Parents – traditionally – judge, approve, disapprove, punish (whether it’s spanking, giving time outs, shaming, or putting their kids down, etc) reward, manipulate or bribe (but frown on being manipulated or bribed by their children) and are full of “teaching moments” and corrections. Traditionally, the parent-child relationship privileges the parent and the parent’s experience. This is convenient for the parent, but in the long run, it doesn’t contribute to building a strong relationship with the child, since it mainly is about having the child behave.

Some parents are more interested in having their children behave, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, just that it has limitations. Many seem to think that if they are “friends” with their children, somehow they will spoil their children or their children will not behave because in being friends their parenting has slipped down the slope towards Philistine permissiveness. Yet if parents brought some of the qualities of their friendships into the relationships with their children (enjoying each other’s company, laughing together, respecting each other’s autonomy), they could have their children behave and a beautiful relationship with their children.

4) “Distinguish between the child and his behavior. Make it clear that it’s not the child who’s bad, it’s the behavior.”

Right. Because young children have the intellectually advanced self-awareness that this distinction requires. Adults struggle with separating what they do from their self-worth or their achievements (or lack thereof) from their self-worth, so it’s unreasonable to expect children to be able to separate their behavior from their self-worth. And if children are then told that they themselves are “good,” it’s just their behavior that’s “bad”? What a muddle, to be a good person who does bad things and what a challenge, as the ability to hold two contrary ideas in one’s mind at the same time is also rather an advanced mental task.

For purposes of behavior and child rearing, I’m all for dropping the uses of “good” and “bad” (aka naughty) altogether. No one likes having themselves or their behavior judged. We can use non-judgmental language instead in such situations, by simply explaining that the unwanted behavior is disrespectful to, devalues, or hurts another person (or thing). Children feel shame beginning at around two ages of age (some even say as early as ten months, but I can’t find the research that substantiates this); they already feel bad when they do something that displeases or disappoints us, but rather than add to it, why not just give them the tools to correct their actions, and in the long run, be accountable for their actions?

5) “Because I said so” or “Because I’m the parent.”

Granted, there are times when we need our kids to do what we say, and even cases where they need to do it immediately, whether it’s to get out of the street because there’s a bus coming or to hold our hands in a busy subway station where they could easily get lost; however, when these phrases are used outside of emergency-like situations, they are nothing more than authoritarian bullying. They teach a child that whoever is bigger is right just because they’re bigger. It’s an oxymoron to tell your child to stop playground bullying when you bully them at home as a discipline tactic. And it’s okay for children to question authority, to learn how to negotiate, to compromise, to ask questions. Parents aren't doing children any favors by teaching them that authority figures are infallible.

In Robin Grille’s Parenting for a Peaceful World, he cites a powerful study, where children raised in authoritarian homes where parents taught children to blindly obey, grew up to be the adults who didn’t say anything when the Nazis came to power in Germany. Children who were taught to question, however, were more likely to be compassionate and empathetic and put their lives at risk to save or hide perfect strangers. In such a situation, who do you want your child to be?


Anastasia said... [Reply to comment]

These are great! I'm currently in the midst of an "I said so" streak--this is fantastic advice.

Tara Lindis said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you! And don't worry - this week I heard my own mother come out of my mouth. I slapped my hand over my mouth and quickly said, "I take it back!"

Mórrígan said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you so much for posting this! People need to understand that the words we choose to use around and about children MATTER! My standard tends to be, "Would I want to be spoken to this way? If not, don't say it."

Tara said... [Reply to comment]


Exactly! Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you - sharing this around so my friends and colleagues - I'm a teacher - can see that I'm not the only one who says stuff like this! :-)

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