Ever ask your kid why they did some (dumb, unwanted, whatever) thing? Yeah, me too. But! When I’m running my parenting “A” game, I try not to–for at least 2 good reasons.
The first reason is that an influential teacher early in my career always said that the only answer to “Why did you do that?” was something along the lines of “…because I’m a jerk.” (except when he said it, he usually used a more colorful word than jerk!) Strong language aside, it’s a very good point–“Why did you do that?” is often a rhetorical question, because what a parent means to say is more along the lines of “I wish you hadn’t done that.” Better to actually say what we really mean, you know? It makes for better communication, more honesty, better relationships, etc…
I found a second reason not to say “Why…” a few months ago while listening to the Total Transformation CDs. The TT folks sent me a review copy of their program, and though I haven’t finished listening to all of it, I have already found lots of good stuff. One such item was the author (James Lehman) saying that when we ask our kids “Why” they did something, we are in effect teaching them to make excuses for their behavior. His point is, we’re plainly saying that if they can just give us a good enough “why” answer, then we will understand/forgive/overlook their behavior. So of course they are going to try to come up with a reason (ie, make an excuse) EVERY time they get in trouble–we taught them how! I realize that every once in a while there really is a situation where the reasons justify the actions, but that’s much more rare than our questioning. And certainly with younger children, who may not even have the cognitive development to understand the concept, much less answer it–what parents instead get is a series of guesses that the child intuitively hopes will satisfy the parent (NOT real explanations!)
So, experiment for a while–try to banish “Why” questions from your parenting vocabulary for a couple of weeks, and see what happens. Let me know how it goes!
(I’m excited to get to pull out 1 of 3 Latin phrases I know with today’s post.) ;^)
Wikipedia defines the “De Jure” versus “De Facto,” as what the law says versus what actually happens in practice.
I talk about this difference with parents frequently. We parents often say things like “She needs to understand that no means no” or simply “He doesn’t listen!” Behind these complaints is often a big ugly truth that just happens to have a Latin description: sometimes what we parents say isn’t what we actually do.
Mom: “Zachary, we’re leaving in 5 minutes.”
5 minutes go by unnoticed, Mom’s still chatting with friends, Zachary is still playing.
20 minutes later, Mom tells Zachary that it’s time to go and he resists. Mom feels annoyed that he isn’t listening, and gets frustrated with him for it. She yells, and then–only then–does he get up to leave.
But, what’s really going on here? Is it:
A. The child is really not listening, and/or needs to be yelled at to get his attention.
B. The mother is not being real about the messages she’s sending. She has taught her son that “We’re leaving in 5 minutes” is a throwaway comment, and that the real indicators of her meaning business are when she is (a) upset and (b) yelling.
Yeah, it’s B. And we all do some version of this. The hard truth is that if we want our kids to consistently do what we ask them to do, we need to be consistent with them first. First step to consistency–paying attention to what we say & do, and making sure that they are one in the same.
PS. The #2 Latin phrase I remember is “Rara Avis,” which is what the fun professor who taught my Latin class called herself. :^)
“Is it okay for me to do that?”
Parents ask me this question from time to time, and while I feel awkward answering it* (My job is not to judge!), I can totally understand where it comes from. Modern parents are bombarded by advice, books, judgments, and conflicting opinions about how best to parent. We are often weighing Expert A’s opinion against Expert B’s, and they both are different from how we were parented, and different still from how our friends are all doing things, too… no wonder we’re left confused about what’s right.
Setting physical limits** is a particularly sticky area for many of the parents with whom I work. When our toddlers are 18 months old, we’re confident that steering them away from the electrical outlet is “right,” but the water gets murkier when they are 3 and refusing to walk to the car after music class. Don’t even mention the bane of children (and parents) everywhere: the carseat.
But, yes, I advise parents that it is okay to set a physical limit, and–as with all things in parenting, there are a zillion contingencies to consider. Here are two:
- By far the most important… in fact you could stop reading after this it’s so critical–is YOUR emotional state. If you are upset, don’t do it. Period.
- A very distant second consideration: can you avoid it? Let it go? Use a different tool? Be playful? Talk it through? Wait patiently? If the answer to any of those is yes, try those first.
After weighing your options, and perhaps trying a few other tools, let’s assume that you do have to set the physical limit. As you proceed, here are a few things to consider including in the process:
- Describe to your child what needs to happen.
- Remind your kid that if they can’t make the right decision, you’ll have to make it for them.
- Take your next steps more slowly than usual.
- Later, talk together about what happened. Be a problem-solving consultant to your child: “What could Mommy do to help you make the right choice next time?”
- Next time, remind child about this time (“Remember the last time you & I came to this library, you couldn’t keep your body from going up those stairs, and I had to pick you up to keep you from doing it–and you really didn’t like that.”) Play the role of the problem-solving consultant again: “What can I do to help you make the right choice this time?”
So, the next time you’re faced with a (parenting) problem that you can’t solve with talking, I hope some of these suggestions will help.
* For the record, with few exceptions, I always say the same thing: yes. You can parent the way you want to. Of course, I am direct with my clients about things I advise against, like spanking, losing your temper, being inconsistent, etc, but the parents who take the time & energy (and money!) to come in to see a therapist/parenting coach are conscientious, caring, proactive people who are working on fine-tuning their already loving and thoughtful skills.
** Obviously, I’m excluding those times when your child’s immediate safety is in jeopardy. You do what you must in those situations, and that’s what’s right.
When our kids are sick and we don’t know what’s wrong or how to deal with it, we usually go to the doctor. We don’t feel conflicted about seeking that professional’s help, and we don’t wait until things are so bad that our child is comatose. But for some reason, with behavioral/emotional/relationship challenges, people can be reluctant to seek help, often waiting until the problems worsen and get cemented in place. John Gottman says that, on average, couples wait 7 years before they seek the help they need. I think that parents do better, and seek help much sooner, but it is so important to remember that therapy can be supportive at any stage, and can help improve relationships by resolving minor challenges before they become a major problem.
When a child has behavior problems, parents come in to my office, and say that they worry that “x” behavior might be a sign of something very serious. I understand that fear, I really do (I’m a parent, too.) But, it’s not just when something’s terribly wrong that we can get help from a professional. Even when “everything’s fine,” it’s possible for a professional to help parents identify and improve the small hangups in their daily life. A skillful child & family therapist can help parents tweak a particular area, and–via the magic of the parenting relationship–even if the parents had little to do with creating the problem, they can still be largely responsible for fixing the problem.
So what is a small area of your daily life that you’d love to see get better? Bedtime? Transitions? The dinner table? A difference of opinion between you & your spouse about how to handle something? Homework? Mornings? Chores? I encourage you to seek out a supportive, non-judgmental therapist who specializes in kids/families/parenting. Please feel free to email or call me if I might be of help!
The New York Times website has a blog called “Well” that recently interviewed Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, one of our country’s most known (and loved) pediatricians. He’s the author of at least 24 books on parenting, child development, and the like, and he’s a bit of a hero to me.
In the interview, Dr. Brazelton and co-author Dr. Josh Sparrow answer questions from readers, on several topics including self-esteem, spanking, learning from your kids, and nutrition. I wanted to highlight 3 things for you from the interview. On self esteem, they describe the importance of unconditional acceptance from the parent, and the opportunity for challenge, failure, and success as keys to building self-esteem.
On spanking, they say:
Our belief is that spanking is not necessary, can be harmful, and certainly does not serve the purposes of discipline.
And on nutrition, Dr. Brazelton says:
Vegetables! I hated them as a child — and I still hate them. My younger
brother hated them more. As I watched my mother hover over him for
hours trying to shovel vegetables into him, while completely ignoring
me, I began to hate my brother even more than vegetables. Now you know
why I became a pediatrician — to stamp out vegetables, and to overcome
my guilt at wanting to kill my brother!
He goes on to advise parents: “Forget about vegetables!” and focus on exposure and avoiding power struggles instead. It’s great advice, of course!
To read the entire post about self-esteem and spanking, click here.