Young children, bless their little hearts, think their parents are perfect. It takes them awhile to realize what messes we really are but at the beginning, they think we’re All Good and so when they do things that are Not So Good they sometimes think it means they are in some way defective. After all, the adults who they love and look up to don’t seem to have trouble not spilling the milk or wetting the bed or remembering how to tie shoes. Kids are usually under the false impression that grownups are never deliberately bad. (As grownups ourselves we know that deliberately misbehaving is actually quite the grown up kind of thing — witness insider trading and and people who double park — but when our children are only noticing our stellar milk pouring skills, it’s easy to impress them.)
When you’re little and you sneak a cookie or lie about brushing your teeth, it changes how you feel about yourself. You don’t have a broad enough worldview to know that being bad is part of being human and that misbehavior is something most of us struggle with on some level for our entire lives. Little kids tend to think very black and white, “I have done this bad thing therefore I am a bad person.” When parents react with shock or dismay when they discover a child’s transgressions, it solidifies that child’s self concept as “bad person.” That’s why it’s so important to reflect back the unconditional acceptance of the small person before us even when we need to condemn that same small person’s behavior.
Keeping the focus on the bike left in the middle of the driveway (“Michael! Your bike!”) and not on Michael himself (“What is wrong with you? Do you ever think about anyone else? Do you think I like getting out of my car in the rain to move your bike?”) will perhaps help grown up Michael not cheat on his taxes. Grown up Michael will think, “I’m a pretty good person. I try hard to take responsibility for my mistakes and do the right thing. I think I’ll ignore my brother-in-law’s advice to claim the kid’s play room as my home office.”
Positive discipline: Saving your child from future IRS audits!
One thing I encourage parents to do is to make a point of reconnecting with children after particularly bad days — the days when you feel like all you did was holler at them — by talking to them about the predictable developmental challenges that kids face. Little children are encouraged to hear that it will become easier to get things “right” as their maturity levels increase. It’s terrific when parents can say to a 3-year old, “I know it’s hard to remember to use your words when you are three, but someday soon it will be easier for you. Until then, I will help you remember.”
Even teenagers are reassured to hear that their displeasure with the family is developmentally appropriate and that someday everyone will likely be good friends again.
Knowing that your parents can see the good in you when you are having trouble seeing the good in yourself is a very big deal for growing kids.