One summer evening I found myself supervising my three-year-old niece Sara as she swam in her grandparents’ pool, the rest of the adults having gone in to make dinner. At six o’clock the call came from the kitchen: “Time for diiiiin-ner!”
“Okay, Sara,” I said. “Time for dinner.”
Sara ignored me. She continued paddling by the edge of the pool not four feet from me with no change in behavior. She didn’t even look at me. When I could see that she could hear because her head was out of the water, I said: “Let’s go, Sara. They called us to dinner” and got no reaction.
Ignoring someone is rude, and being ignored feels bad. With some annoyance in my voice I said: “Come on, Sara. Time to get out.”
Again, faced with no reaction I said: “Sara, it is time for dinner. If you don’t get out by the time I count to three, I will get you out.” No reaction.
“One” got no reaction.
“Two” still got no reaction, but at what would have been “Two-and-a-half” she gave me a glance.
At “Three” I reached into the pool and pulled her out.
She stood there by the side of the pool dripping wet saying: “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.” Then, she stomped ahead of me up the hill to dinner.
It hurt. No one likes to hear “I hate you” from someone they love. But since that day Sara and I have had a great relationship—friendly, loving and respectful.
Though not necessarily a model of good parenting, my behavior was simple, straightforward and human. She ignored me. It made me mad. I made her get out of the pool and insisted on my prerogatives as the person responsible for her. She communicated the simple truth. Making her stop swimming made her mad.
A natural first reaction to “I hate you” might be self-doubt, guilt or indecision. A good adult response to a childish “I hate you” might simply be to acknowledge her feelings. If I had said back to Sara: “I hear that you are angry. I understand,” I would have been translating my empathy for her disappointment into words without letting her outburst change my decision. A longer version might have been: “I know you are mad at me. I am sorry you feel that way, but you left me no choice. We simply have to go to dinner.” Talking like this to children not only helps you stay on track, but also builds their social-emotional intelligence by showing them how to put words to feelings.
At the same time, having this kind of presence of mind is also not necessary for raising responsible, respectful children. You might not be smart enough to think of these words on the spot, but kids are smart enough to get the idea. Furthermore, too many words and children will pick up that we are trying to convince ourselves of something we are actually ambivalent about. What was critical was sticking to my guns in my own less-that-perfect way. That was something she could respect—and did.
It is natural for parents to hate it when their kids get mad, or cry, or are otherwise emotionally upset, but it is important for us to steel ourselves to it, so that we respond rather than react. If you find not reacting challenging (and most of us do), here are some mantras you can write on Post-its on your bathroom mirror:
- Keep your adult neediness to yourself.
- Over-explaining undermines your authority.
- Don’t lecture on something that should be assumed.
Children count on adults to be authorities. They are counting on parents to decide what is right and to insist on it without compromise or apology. When we back-peddle, pull a punch or act uncertain, we cause confusion and make trouble for our children and for ourselves as well. When we actually are uncertain, that is okay, too. Just say so. Kids want to know where we stand.
Yes, children want to make their own decisions and become authorities themselves, but they do not want to do this in an authority vacuum. In Sara’s case her parents had recently gotten divorced, and she was looking for some adult to exercise adult authority. Children like knowing that their social world is not a chaotic free-for-all. An authority vacuum makes people anxious and anxious people generally behave badly.