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.
One of the things I really like about working with other people’s kids is that they are other people’s kids. When I’m playing with my child clients, it’s very easy to hang back and be observant and to feel invested in their play without fighting any urge to “help.” With my own children, it’s hard not to take advantage of so-called “learning opportunities.” It’s hard not to push a little bit — “What if we added this curved block there?” But I know from my time working with other people’s kids that hanging back and watching creates more opportunity for learning and growth than butting in ever can.
It’s hard not to be a help but well intentioned helping can often be a hindrance.
I notice this when children are opening new toys. Grown ups often start unpacking the items more quickly or they’ll grab the instructions and start to read them out loud. New toys are exciting even for adults! But if we can stand back and let the child come to his exploration in his own sweet time then he will have the chance to make the toy his own. He will get to try things that don’t work before discovering things that do, which is a great big part of learning.
If you are like me and often impatient with your child’s play, try sitting on your hands and watching next time.
- Watch your child put the puzzle piece in the wrong place, discover the wrongness and then try something else.
- If you would like to participate, describe what you see once you know your child has seen it, too, “Huh, that puzzle piece is blue and that space has mostly green around it.”
- Resist the urge to head off mistakes.
- Wait to be invited or ask, “You seem like you’re getting frustrated, can I help?” If they say no, believe them.
- Do the bare minimum of help once your presence is welcomed and be prepared to step back again when your child wants to take the lead once more.
- Allow your child to do things “wrong” because there really is no wrong (as long as people are safe). (It’s a good reason to buy sturdy toys — they need to be able to stand up to rigorous inspection, especially when children are younger.)
- If your child is used to you taking the lead prepare for some push back. If she gets angry because you are not showing her how to do it, model exploring. Let her correct you when she watches you do something that may not work.
Even though I am comfortable watching other people’s children struggle until they figure it out or ask for my help, I sometimes have to take a break from watching my own children get frustrated with a K’nex model or art project. I want you to know this because sometimes parents will watch me with their kids in my office and they’ll tell me they feel guilty. But it’s much harder with your own children! The dynamics are so different!
(You know what’s really hard for me? Stickers! The stickers that kids are supposed to put on the plastic cars or dollhouse furniture. I feel very stressed watching my kids trying to get them on right!)
So when it comes to my own children, I’ll make an excuse (“I’m just going to get a drink of water”) or find something else to do (“I’ll just be over here sorting the mail so holler if you need anything”). I sometimes have to steel myself for the tears I know are coming because there is value in frustration and learning to manage it even though what I’d really like to do is head it off and avoid it (and sometimes that’s appropriate — you know your child best!). But as frustration tolerance improves so will our children’s abilities as architects of their own experiences.
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When I was teaching parenting classes in Portland nearly two decades ago I had one parent in the class who was there because she’d been mandated by child protective services. I don’t know the whole story but I knew that she didn’t want to be there. She made it clear that she resented having to sit there listening to a youngster many years her junior (me) who didn’t even have any kids yet.
I can’t say that I blamed her.
Fortunately the other parents in the class were there to help her process the information in a loving, respectful way that she could hear.
At one point we were talking about how children have their own experiences in the day beyond what we might witness. I don’t know how she got the message — I think another parent was telling a story about her child in school — but she burst into tears and said, “I had no idea, I had no idea. I never thought that maybe she could have her own bad day or be in her own bad mood.”
It was such a powerful moment.
From that point of the class on she was able to talk about her children’s experiences with compassion and empathy. The class was not easy for her — she was away from her kids and she was confronting a lot of things she wished she’d done differently — but I hope that what she learned there she was able to bring back to her relationships with her children.
It can be difficult to remember what it’s like to be small or even smallish. It’s especially hard to do if we weren’t allowed the full scope of our feelings. If we were treated harshly, we may have stuffed some feelings down so deep that we don’t know how to remember what it’s like to be scared or sad or to feel hopelessly overwhelmed by the big wide world and our small place in it. If we have that extra challenge then we can practice imagining. We can picture what it must be like to worry that we will suffocate if we fall asleep with a stuffy nose. Or to not have the experience to know that one lost book report won’t derail our scholastic dreams.
When we remember or can imagine what it feels like to be a child, it’s easier to know how to react with the firm and loving support that our children need.
Do you ever get stuck explaining something to your child? Why he needs to put his dirty socks in the laundry. Why you can’t buy the cookies she wanted for her lunch this week.
“I’m not making you put your socks away because I like bossing you around; I can’t wash them if they aren’t there to wash,” you might say. “Listen, the cookies just aren’t in our budget; I don’t like saying no.”
We explain and we explain and we explain because we want them to not only understand but to believe us. We want them to see our point and quit whining about laundry and lunches. We want them to both do the thing we want them to do (put away socks, quit whining about cookies) AND be happy about doing it.
That’s not really fair, is it?
We need to keep our eyes on the prize. The goal isn’t cheerful understanding, it’s understanding period. Weirdly, kids — like the rest of us — are more likely to come to understanding when no one is desperately trying to make them understand.
Remember this: nobody — and I mean nobody — likes to be lectured.
So explain it once, that’s it. Don’t get trapped thinking that if you can only explain it exactly right your child will light up and say, “You know, now that you’ve explained it so well I really understand the value of picking up my Lincoln Logs.” Because that’s extremely unlikely to happen. In fact, I can say with certainty that it has never ever happened in the history of parent-child relationships. (On the bright side, older kids have been known to say to their parents, “NOW I see the point!” but that’s years in the making.)
Fortunately most children will figure out the value of clean underwear and clear floors on their own eventually. It may take a very very long time. Until then we need to appreciate that what makes sense to us doesn’t make sense to them even when we spend a lot of time and effort trying to talk them into coming over to our way of seeing things.
And we need to give up on the idea that if we are very reasonable and very clear in our explanations that our children won’t be disappointed about the lack of cookies in the house or be thrilled about doing laundry.
Sometimes people get afraid of feelings so we deny them or try to ignore them or explicitly tell our kids to shut those feelings away. But how children feel and how they behave are too different things.
There’s being angry and then there’s yelling or hitting. It’s ok to be angry with your little sister but it’s not ok to hit her. It’s ok to feel frustrated with the Legos that won’t work right but it’s not ok to kick them across the floor.
When we correct or redirect our children to express their negative emotions (anger, frustration, sadness, guilt) appropriately, we need to make clear that we accept their feelings even when their behavior is unacceptable.
For kids, feelings may be so overwhelming and painful that they have to act them out in their bodies. We can give them appropriate ways to show their anger in their bodies. They can punch pillows instead of punching brothers. They can go outside and yell instead of screaming inside. They can stomp their feet instead of knocking down blocks.
Help give kids words to describe their feelings.
“You are so angry!”
“This puzzle is so frustrating!”
Sometimes sad or worried or scared look like angry so if you see that, say it.
“I think you are sad that we have to leave the bouncy castle and that’s why you don’t have the patience to tie those shoes. Leaving can be so hard!”
“I wonder if you’re feeling worried about the big swimming pool and that’s why you’re snapping at me.”
However we feel, it’s fine because feelings are morally neutral. How we manage our feelings — how we treat others, how we treat ourselves — is what matters. The more we find acceptance for all or our feelings, even the yucky uncomfortable ones, the easier it is to manage them.