Our children are inundated with demands from the adults in their lives…. What an exhausting way to parent, especially when there are more effective ways to get the job done. –Maren Schmidt
On a recent trip from Chicago to Oakland I sat at gate B20 next to a mother with her three-year old son. In our collective boredom, the boy started fiddling with the handle of my brief case, which sat on the floor between us.
“Stop that!” his mother blurted out and launched into a long explanation as to why it was wrong to touch someone else’s stuff. His face went blank, and he didn’t look at her as she talked to him. At a couple of points in her diatribe, he looked up at me.
As soon as she was finished, he looked me in the eye and touched the handle of my bag, again. I leaned toward him a little and said in a matter-of-fact voice, “That’s my brief case,” and moved it. He turned, walked to the empty seats across from us, and sat in one. Less talk; more action.
It is not uncommon for a parent of a preschooler to marvel in frustration that their young person has become disrespectful. “Where does that come from?” the parent asks. Answer: their integrity. They are saying, “You’re not the boss of me,” with their body.
Parents deliver a barrage of messages: Hurry up, or you’ll miss the bus. Go outside and play. Don’t put things off to the last minute. Put things back where they belong. Practice the piano. Don’t play with those children; they are a bad influence.
Except for the last one, these are good messages. It is our job to help them learn effective action and to discard the improper. An adults’ thirty-some years of experience should be worth something to our children.
But how would you feel if someone kept firing commands at you?
The content is good, but sometimes the motive is dysfunctional. Messages about the requirements of the environment should be delivered as information—straight, matter-of-fact and unwavering. But when our messages are an attempt to engineer a child’s behavior, the child’s self-respect pushes back.
Here’s the dynamic. The main determinant of person’s wellbeing is his ability to make internally motivated decisions and to learn from the results. Failure is not a real danger; passivity is. Children instinctively know this, and by the age of two they are driven to make their own mistakes.
Children are born assertive. But around two, as we know, a child’s self-assertion runs up against the assertiveness of others. By age three a child is quite experienced at being in conflict with an adult—over 27,000 hours of practice.
As Maren Schmidt asks in Walk Your Talk, “When we are constantly telling our children what to do, when do they have the time to figure out what they should do?” The functional purpose for saying, “No,” is not a child’s compliance, but strengthening his decision-making mechanism.
For a long time, when I saw children treat their parents with disrespect, I was incensed. It is not okay to be disrespectful to anyone, not even your mother. But the more I work with children the more I see that they felt disrespected first (though of course, they can’t verbalize it.) They are trying to show us what they can do. If we are trying to make them do what we want, at the same time, it’s a problem.
Contrary to what we adults would like to think, children are more open to being told they are wrong than adults are. Unlike adults they know how imperfect and precarious their knowledge is. They may protest and resist, but they respect adults who “tell it like it is” to them. But being told you are wrong is one thing. It is quite another to be treated as if you are incapable of thinking for yourself.
Once I advised a parent not to lecture, but to simply deliver the message in one sentence and then act. She said, “I do that, but it’s not working.” I said, “How do you know? You won’t know till he’s older. He has to practice. You are not trying to change his behavior, but give him information about the effect of his decision.” She later said it was the best parenting advice she’d ever gotten. For best results, deliver the information (“Don’t touch the bag,”) then act decisively. A word to the wise.