I had the good fortune last night to attend a meeting at which Sara Schuelein Perets, the director of our children’s preschool, was speaking. I have written about her and the school in previous posts and am truly a huge fan of hers. The topic of the meeting was using empathetic communication to avoid power struggles with our children. As parents we all want our children to have good self-esteem. But it is not where they go to school or what gadgets they have that gives them this; it is a relationship with their parents that is full of honor, respect and optimism that allows our children to grow up into the adults we envision them becoming. Our language, and the way we choose to communicate with children, reflects who they are and how they see themselves. For me, that is the key to self-esteem; the way we speak to our children is more important than anything we do or even what we actually say.
Understand Your Child’s Needs
So how do we build this honest relationship with our children? According to Sara, it all begins in getting to really know your child. As a preschool director as well as a parent and teacher educator, she knows that in order to do this you must learn to observe your children well. At every moment every child (in fact, every person) has a need. It is your job to figure out what your children’s needs are. Do they need to construct? Do they need to feel powerful? Do they need to figure out how things work? That is, ask yourself “in this moment that my child is (having a meltdown, banging a pot on the table, arguing with his baby sister etc.) what does he need?” Does he need a hug? Is he needing to understand how things work? Does he need to be understood? Is he in physical discomfort? If you are able to step back and consider what need is being met or what need is not being met, you will have a better idea of how to connect as opposed to simply reacting.
Learn About Child Development
Sara’s advice for the second step in building your relationship with your children is to really learn about child development. By this she doesn’t simply mean the “flavor of the month” latest in pop psychology, but by beginning with the real theorists such as Erikson, Piaget and Skinner [note: if these seem too intimidating, or you don’t agree with these theorists’ views, I highly recommend the series “Your One Year Old”, “Your Two Year Old” etc. I have “Your Three Year Old” highlighted in my “Great Parenting Books” section]. When you really understand a child’s stages of development you know what is age appropriate and you can accept what is happening much more easily. There is less anxiety as a parent when your 2 year old is biting if you know that this is actually a developmentally appropriate stage.
Reflect The World Back To Them
The next thing discussed was using reflective language. This allows your children to experience things through their own eyes as opposed to coloring it with our value judgments. If we can avoid evaluative statements such as “that’s a beautiful painting!” or “you did such a good job!”, we avoid raising children who become reliant on praise and who look to us to know whether something is of value. Instead, reflective language such as “I see you are painting a picture. Can you tell me about it?” allows them to reflect their place in the world and their experience as they see it. Additionally, as parents we need to reflect emotions that are varied, subtle and which move beyond just “happy” and “sad”: “I see that you are very frustrated/disappointed/lonely now. I’m sorry about that.” Be in the emotion with them as opposed to trying to solve it. Instead of saying “Don’t cry”, let them know that all emotions are fine, but all behavior is not. Really let your children feel the fullness of their emotions. If you are constantly trying to fix things for them you don’t allow them to feel the full range of emotions and they don’t learn to work through these emotions. I always point out (to women in particular) how frustrating it is for us when we complain about something and someone (usually our husbands) immediately launches into “fix it” mode; sometimes all we want is to be heard, to feel felt, to complain. The theory is the same when it comes to our children. You don’t need to solve everything for them; it is often better to just reflect what they are experiencing (“you’re having a hard time getting that puzzle done”) and then sit back and see what happens next.
Family Mission Statement
We’re all somewhat familiar with the idea of a mission statement from college term papers or even resume writing. Sara’s idea in this case is quite similar. Write one or two sentences that capture what you want to achieve as a family or what values you want to instill. In some ways, without this declaration of intent, you are just drifting through your days. So give it some thought; what things do you believe in? What do you stand for? What rituals have meaning for you? An example of a family mission statement is “To treat each other with love, respect and honesty and to always listen to each other”. Once you have your statement, frame it, hang it up, put it on the door of your children’s bedroom; basically, show that this statement has some value and importance to your family. And don’t forget, you’ll want to revisit your statement from time to time as your children get older to see if it needs updating.
Sara spoke about a few key ingredients for diffusing power struggles and building self-esteem, in particular “I” messages and tone of voice. Imagine that your child has thrown all of his toy trains around the room and is refusing to clean them up. You might feel like saying: “You are making such a mess! You never clean up and you’re making me so frustrated!”. The problem is, this type of language, and the tone in which you would probably would say it, succeeds in making your child feel small, weak, powerless and very defensive. The perfect scenario for a power struggle. If, however, you use a calm tone of voice and say something like: “I’m really frustrated. It looks like there are too many toys here; maybe we need to get rid of some” you are instead setting up a situation in which they have some power and they feel respected. When they feel this way they want to cooperate. When your children do what you ask them to do, don’t use “good job” as a way to praise or say thank you. Instead, say something along the lines of “I’m so happy that you remembered to clean up; that makes me so happy”. This way of speaking shows that you appreciate them; additionally it is specific enough so that they understand what they did to make you happy, thus giving them a clear idea of what they can do the next time.
Empathetic Listening and Being a “Big Boy/Girl”
The last part of the evening Sara spent discussing these last two concepts. When we set boundaries and our children experience natural consequences, they will probably be upset, angry, sad etc. We must be empathetic about these emotions. By saying to them “Don’t cry, everything will be OK” we are telling them that their feelings are not ok to have. You want to comfort your children but not coddle them. Additionally, teach them to cope and sort out how they feel. For example, if your child were to fall down you could say “Did you fall down? That must have hurt! Let me make it all better” which is a very natural reaction for most parents. However, you might want to draw out their experience by letting them tell you what happened and, as described above when I was talking about reflective listening, don’t add your judgments into it. Perhaps it didn’t hurt. Maybe they were startled or embarrassed or scared. Let them figure out their emotions and then, perhaps, offer an empathetic “I’m sorry you fell. That must have been scary (or whatever the emotion was). What would you like to do now?”
As for the “big boy”, “big girl” comments which many parents use as praise or a way to encourage cooperation, Sara’s belief is that this can actually backfire. For most children the world feels really huge and, in comparison, children can feel awfully small. Constantly referring to your children as “big” when they don’t feel that way can result in the child acting out in an effort to feel powerful. Additionally, when you label a child “big”, she then feels that she has to live up to that label which can cause regression in some instances. For example, Sara brought up the “big girl bed”. When your child moves from the crib to a big bed it can be really scary for them. If it is loaded with all sorts of “encouragement” about how the child is now a “big girl” and gets to have this wonderful new thing because of it, the child may think along the lines of “if I do something where I’m not acting big, will I have my bed taken away?”. Better to just call it a new bed or a big bed but not label your child as “big”. Another example Sara used was in reference to potty use. “Look at Johnny! He’s such a big boy, he goes pee pee in the potty!” and the there’s Sam who has felt like a big boy up until now but begins to wonder if maybe he’s not big after all because he’s not quite ready to use the potty. Better to just say Johnny must feel so proud of himself for peeing in the potty and Sam will go too, when he’s ready.
And so the evening ended. I think we could have gone on talking to Sara for hours more. I am a compulsive note taker when I go to these types of workshops. In part because I anticipate being able to write a post which I hope will interest and enlighten those who read my blog; I’ve also noticed that in taking these classes, attending these lectures and writing these posts I am able to take information I am somewhat familiar with already and make it fresh in my mind once again. Thus, today I noticed myself being much more patient and more in tune with our children. I think, for me, the act of writing about parenting keeps me in the moment and in the best frame of mind to be the kind of parent I want to be. Thanks for indulging me!