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.
I was thinking about this quote because a few weeks ago I spent an afternoon talking about open adoption with a group of people looking for more education on the topic. One attendee was expressing her concern that adoptive parents might feel hurt if their children “choose” their birth parents and it’s true that some adoptive parents can feel insecure or afraid in open adoptions and in reunions, too. But love truly is infinite and when we give our children that experience of infinite love, we can know that they will reflect this back to us.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Your tractable kid turns mouthy. You’re outgoing child turns shy. The child who wasn’t afraid of anything is now telling you that she needs a nightlight, a teddy, and someone to sit with her until she falls asleep. You’re left wondering what the heck is going on and how to handle it.
Sometimes children start behaving differently because of a new developmental stage. How can you know if that’s the case?
First of all, look around at your child’s peers. Most 9-year old boys get very silly, even the serious ones. Pratfalls, weird noises and general ridiculousness become the order of the day. If you see every other third grader acting goofy then you can feel pretty confident that your kid has just hit the goofy stage. This too shall pass.
Next talk to other parents whose kids are the same age or older. You might find that bedtime dread is a common issue for previously hearty 5-year olds and then it’ll be easier to accommodate her fears with a handy flashlight and some extra lullabies.
You can also look at a general child development book, talk to your child’s teacher or give a therapist a call. They can help you get perspective and encourage you to get greater help if the personality change sounds like something more than typical kids trying on new ways to be.
Sometimes it’s easier to live with that goofy stage or the longer bedtimes if you know that these stages are part of the long journey towards growing up. And certainly it’s easier to come up with coping plans (whether it means turning a blind eye or setting down limits) when you understand what’s driving the behavior.
Do you need more help understanding what personality changes may be atypical?
I know that one of our greatest hopes as parents is that we can somehow protect our children from the inevitable hurts of life. We cry with them when they fall as toddlers. We chew on our nails fretting about them when they don’t get invited to the birthday. And sometimes if our worry for them is too great to bear, we pretend everything is all right even as it’s all falling down around us.
When we do too much protecting we raise kids who won’t know what to do when they’re grown and gone and something bad happens. Those slings and arrows? Those are opportunities for your growth as a parent and your child’s growth as a human being.
I know, I know, some kids get more than their fair share and it’s all right to rant and rave and shake your fist at fate about it but then you need to get down to the task of dealing with it all.
So what then? What can we do when we can’t protect them from suffering?
We can give them resiliency.
- You can listen to your daughter through her tears when her friend isn’t speaking to her;
- You can answer his hard questions about divorce;
- You can find her a grief group when a grandparent dies;
- You can find him a book about moving when you sign the new lease;
- You can give her time and space to run when her feelings get away from her;
- You can give him tools like meditation or prayer to find his center when he feels lost;
- You can give her a journal to write down her feelings;
- You can find him a mentor when you feel overwhelmed;
- You can invite friends or teachers or coaches or counselors to help;
- You can break out popcorn and boardgames when everyone needs a break from grief or anger;
- And you can model resiliency by taking care of yourself and your sorrows, too.
You don’t have to go it alone. There are community resources and counselors, there are web sites and self-help books. You may not be able to protect them but you can shore them up. You can help them build their strength. You can be there.
Today as we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wanted to share some resources for incorporating more discussion about racism, civil rights and social justice in your day-to-day parenting life.
Why talk about racism?
- Here’s some research that shows that Children Are Not Colorblind (opens as PDF)
- And when we pretend that they are or that this is a worthy goal then, as the Southern Poverty Law Center site “Teaching Tolerance” points out, we help perpetuate racism
- A video from “A Girl Like Me” that illustrates the way children internalize racism and reminds us that we must be proactive
How to talk about racism?