“We have to present a united front or the kids will” be confused, manipulate us, doubt our authority, what else? What are all the terrible things that will happen if parents do not fuse together like a brick wall for the children to shatter against? But, good cop/bad cop parenting doesn’t work either, right? This article by Judy Koutsky for SheKnows.com lays out five reasons good cop/bad cop parenting is no good.
It divides the family.
It creates instability.
It makes kids choose sides.
It can create unhealthy gender labels.
It pits one parent against the other.
And, I’m sure it does all of those things. Sounds awful! Any form of parenting that invokes any form of manipulative policing definitely isn’t the answer. When parents are angrily playing off each other to coerce their kids to behave in a way they prefer, not much good can come from it. The same is also true of parents who present a resolute, unified mindset. That united front? It’s manipulative and forceful too. It leaves no room for discussion. No room for growth for the kids or for the parents. So, what do you do? Fortunately, there’s a more natural, reasonable, human-centered way to communicate as a family.
Have a conversation, without all the reactive posturing. Develop a family plan for how decisions will be worked out when there’s disagreement. It’s wonderful for kids to see logical, respectful discussions being had by their caregivers. What a wonderful way to learn how to agree and disagree amicably. Having family conversations that involve the children also allows their voices to be heard and helps them understand the reasoning behind why their caregivers might have reservations about whatever it is they want to be able to do. If it’s too big of a decision for one conversation, take extra time to think and chat. Then, even when a decision has been made, it’s ok to rethink it and find a compromise that works better.
Presenting a united front or battling in front of kids results in little more than cutting the children out of the problem-solving equation. It disregards their intellect, their development, and their agency. While adults should avoid laying too heavy a question or decision on children, involving them is beneficial for everyone who will be impacted. There will be times when caregivers have to make a decision that upsets their child and if that upset happens, it is justified and understandable. When the process of coming to a decision – even one that is unfulfilling for the child – eliminates the hostile, overbearing approach of traditional parenting methods, there is room for connection. For empathy. For all the things children need to find their way through their disappointment and receive support in transitioning to different plans. No one in our families should be pitted against one another. Not the parents against the children and not the parents and against the parents. Not when everyone can work together for the good of all.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “Are You Raising An Entitled Child?” in which I looked at the qualities that trigger adults to label children “entitled” and the reasons such a position is ill-informed. Today, I’m going to talk about another dimension to the problem of misperceiving children’s motivations. I’m sure you’ve heard people speak of certain children as needing to “get their own way” in order to be happy, though I daresay we all know how nice it feels for things to go our way. That should be the first signal that there’s a problem. We know it’s lovely to have things go the way that makes us feel best, yet we criticize children for their very same, very normal, human desire.
This is childism, plain and simple, and it’s a paradox. On one hand, we won’t acknowledge children’s right to autonomy and agency. On the other hand, we expect more of children than we expect of ourselves. We place them in this impossible position, because we have relegated them to a position beneath us such that we don’t want them to be our equals and we also don’t want them to bother us. But, we can’t have it both ways. We have a couple choices. Either we pour goodness and gentleness into them when they’re little, so that they can gain wisdom, resilience, and empathy as they get older. Or, we order them around and hold them accountable to our impossible standards, preparing them for little more than compliance with an authority figure. Children can succeed because of our approach or in spite of it. The choice lies with us as caregivers.
Recently, in a group for caregivers of Autistic people, and I saw a brilliant commenter explain that the behaviors we’ve come to expect from children “not getting their way” are actually evidence of a difficult transition. The child meets a barrier to the thing they desire and they struggle with the change as well as the disappointment around it. What a wonderful insight! Children who are upset at “not getting their way” are, in fact, experiencing dysregulation due to a transition they were neither anticipating nor inviting. They simply weren’t ready. And, then, an adult effectively places the responsibility onto the child to self-regulate during and expertly navigate the upheaval of these moments of disappointment. Why not become part of the solution instead?
When children begin to demand that we bend to their desires, we need to listen. What are they asking for? Is it something we can provide? Have we been unreasonable in our expectations of them? Are we saying no because we don’t want to be bothered or is there a reason we have to say no that we can help our child understand? How can we respond empathetically whatever our decision might be?
Take this scenario for example.
Child: “I want another cupcake, please!”
Caregiver: “Not right now. We’ll have more tonight.”
*Child begins to dysregulate*
Child: *screaming and stomping* “I want another cupcake!!!”
If we view children as demanding, annoying underlings, the child in this scenario might look combative, entitled, even ridiculous. But, if we see what’s really happening, that the child met an unexpected barrier and does not have the tools to work through it, we can offer real, lasting help.
Caregiver: “Oh! I can see how much you want another cupcake! They are yummy. It’s really hard to wait when you see some cupcakes left over and you want one of them.”
*Caregiver might offer a hug, deep breaths, some time outside, or other calming strategy*
Caregiver: “Since there are just enough left for our family to share this evening at suppertime, I was hoping to put them aside until then. Would you like to have your cupcake now or would you like to have it with us later on?”
It doesn’t matter how the child responds here. That’s really the point. Children have a right to input on decisions that affect them. There will be times when the answer is simply no and we will need to stay with our children to offer empathy and support. But, the reality is that no is all too often our kneejerk reaction to a question from a child, any child really. We come up with all sorts of reasons to deny children even the simplest choices. If we can make these difficult transitions easier, especially when we can yield control over a child’s decisions to that child, why not go for it? We’d all be better off if we trusted each other to make age-appropriate decisions and jumped to empathy before judgment.
A few days ago, I settled in to hear the entire hour-and-a-half long talk on How to set limits with your kids… DON’T! from Gentle Parents Unite podcast. In this talk, Sujai and Vivek discuss why arbitrary limit setting can be a form of coercion and control. If you’d like to give the talk a listen, I highly recommend it:
Levels of Limits
I am a strong proponent of the use of limits instead of punishments or consequences (which are just punishments given with a smile). However, something I haven’t discussed at any length is my strategy around limits. I restrict my own employment of limits to instances I judge to be imminently dangerous or destructive. For instance, I won’t let my young kids run into the street alone or dunk their hands into boiling water. Sure, a natural consequence might deliver a more memorable message, like getting hit by a car or hospitalized with third degree burns, but you can surely see why that’s not an option for me. My limits in these cases protect my children from endangering their lives and health. They are rather hard and fast.
Some of my softer limits involve harming belongings, people, and animals. These are more difficult to navigate as there is great benefit to children learning about the world on their own. If a child is smashing their toy into pavement, I will mention that smashing the toy will break it and generally give the child space to make a decision. On the other hand, if the child is using a toy car to try and break a glass window pane in my living room, that is an instance where I may remove the toy and say, “I can’t let this toy break through the glass.” And, I won’t allow children to beat each other up in my presence, but I might hold back if I see a child smack another and the harmed child standing up for themselves. If appropriate, I will intervene and work on some sportscasting to help the children broaden their understanding of the situation. If a child is poking at a cat, I will tell the child that I can tell the cat is unhappy because of its pinned ears and that cat might scratch.
My goal in any instance with my children is to give them as much autonomy as I possibly can while recognizing that they might not understand the potential outcomes of their actions. In some cases, I intervene, as much as I’d rather let them work things out on their own. In other cases, I don’t employ limits at all. For instance, I never force toothbrushing. I start introducing the toothbrush and toothpaste at the first tooth eruption, so that it becomes part of the standard daily routing. Then, if the child resists my efforts at cleaning their teeth, my first step is to hand the toothbrush over and back off. What I’ve found is that, invariably, curiosity and independence kick in, and the child starts to brush their own teeth. And, then when I offer to get the teeth in the back of the mouth, my offer is usually met with willingness, because at that point, I am working with the child on the child’s terms. I don’t use force unless I feel strongly that I absolutely must. And, that’s rare in my house.
Destructive vs Deconstructive
One area I know a lot of parents struggle with is the messiness and chaos of childhood. Kids wreck stuff in one way or another and it’s crucial that they do. It’s one of the most basic ways they have to interact with the world and learn how things work. Sometimes it’s accidental and sometimes it’s on purpose. Either way, it’s ok. Our response depends on the motivation.
Destructive and deconstructive actions have a similar result, but a very different purpose. Children who destroy are often calling out for help. I have found that many times children will smash things that are important to them and then burst into tears at the results of their actions. These instances usually indicate a child who is in a state of distress and dysregulation. And, our response must be compassion and understanding with a goal of connecting with and building up the hurt child.
Deconstruction is educational. Deconstructive activities usually occur when a child is happy or curious. A child dropping an egg on the ground is learning about gravity, shell strength, and splatter. Plus, it’s just fun to deconstruct. Adults do it by smashing sandcastles at the end of the day and turning over dominoes. There’s just something pleasurable in wrecking things in this way. Giving children ample opportunities to deconstruct and be messy is a fantastic way to foster sensory integration! So, do it often.
A big part of what we do as peaceful parents is investigating our own perspectives and responses. Limits are ok when used judiciously and are certainly preferable to punishment. So, first things first, think about your non-negotiables. What is it you feel you absolutely cannot allow your child to do. Write down a list of these non-negotiables.
Second, pause at each item you wrote down and consider carefully if you’ve included it because of imminent threat to your child or because of your own feelings and conditioning around it. Ask yourself what harm it would really do to strike that limit from your list.
Third, take your pared down list and discuss them with your children, regardless of whether you believe your children can reason through them. If your kids are able to discuss the limits with you, have a conversation. They might bring up something you hadn’t considered. Talk with them about how you can best support them in respecting the limits and be prepared to negotiate if they feel the limits are too restrictive.
Fourth, shift your mindset to figuring out how you can say “yes” to your children more often. You and your children can eliminate the perceived need for many limits by finding ways to balance freedom and respect for each other. Practice telling your kids, “I want to help make this happen for you. Let’s think about the possibilities.”
So, does all of this mean we should never say no to a child? Nope. It means we should be cognizant of why we’re compelled to say no. Is there an immediate danger? If not, can we accommodate our child? If not, how can we come to a mutual agreement that respects both parent and child?
If you remember nothing else from this piece, remember this: limit less, trust more, and be curious about what your child is doing rather than shutting them down.
Several days ago, I shared a post from Dr. Rebecca Kennedy, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. I found there was quite a bit of discomfort about what she said among parents. And, a couple of my friends even private messaged me to clarify for themselves what the meme meant for them and their kids. Before you read on, I want you to be thinking about your own emotional awareness and see if what she says was also true of your childhood.
I saw clearly what she was talking about because I experienced it as a child and vowed never to do it to my own children. As someone who has had to heal from emotional manipulation both as a child and an adult, let me say this first:
OTHER PEOPLE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR EMOTIONS
So many of us don’t understand this, because we’ve been conditioned from childhood to believe that our impact on other people matters more than our ability to recognize and adjust what is happening inside of us. BOTH of these things are important and children understand neither until we show them. There’s an entire industry around “emotional intelligence” and re-teaching adults how to look into themselves to better understand how to relate to others. We wouldn’t need to be trained in emotional intelligence if we learned about it organically as children.
Everything we do here at Peace I Give is centered on the idea that behavior is communication and that children need our support more than they need our chastisement. I recently wrote a how-to on emotion coaching that may be of some use to those of you who are reading this and feeling uncertain about how to address behaviors that impact you negatively. I am not saying it’s ok for children to do hurtful things to us. I’m saying that, as parents, our first step has to be to help them understand why they are lashing out and resolve the root issue. The behavior is merely a symptom.
Within our healthy adult relationships, it’s good to talk with each other in times of peace about our feelings. I can tell my husband that, when he behaves in a certain way, it triggers feelings of sadness or anger in me without being concerned that he will take on the responsibility of being my therapist. He understands the impact of his behavior and can choose to make a change once he knows something he did was not appreciated. Know what else I do that is not healthy? Sometimes, in my frustration, I say things like “You obviously don’t care what I think” and “Do you even love me?” This is emotional manipulation and I daresay most of us do it from time to time when we are not in a good place psychologically. It comes from emotional immaturity, which I still struggle with as a fully grown adult because healthy emotional responses weren’t modeled for me consistently as a child. I am in the process now of reparenting myself.
Just like adults, children can understand their impact on other people when we have conversations with them in times of peace. However, that’s not usually what happens. Usually, we react to our children’s behavior in the heat of the moment, attaching our emotions to their behavior by telling them how they made us feel. They may change their behavior as a result, but not to improve as people. Any change that follows is meant to avoid upsetting others and that breeds codependency. With children, we need to address the behavior and name the emotion in order to build the emotional awareness they so desperately need for positive mental health.
When we point to our emotions in addressing a child’s behavior, it is a form of control. If our kids are lashing out, something is going wrong and our first step has to be to help them figure it out. Once that connection is made, we can circle back around as needed to let them know what their impact was without creating a situation where they have to console us. If we want to teach our children empathy, we have to SHOW them empathy first.
Kids can say some really hurtful things to us like “I don’t like you” and “You embarrass me,” which can trigger lots of difficult emotions in us. It’s important to stop and understand that something is happening inside our child that is uncomfortable and may be difficult to express. A friend of mine uses a phrase that might help in these situations. She extends a judgment free invitation to “say more.” Just those two words and then she listens. You could try that next time your child says something that hurts you hard as you engage in emotion coaching to help your child process what it is they’re feeling.
I’ll close with another video. In it, Dr. Kennedy dives deeper into the message behind her earlier meme. She answers several questions, including ones you likely have. Give it a thorough listen and see if anything hits home:
For very important anti-childist, anti-authoritarian reasons, many peaceful parents promote friendship between parents and children. Yet, I struggle with the concept of being in a friend relationship with my children for similar reasons why I don’t believe people who support marginalized communities can declare themselves allies. I can’t dictate to my children how they will regard me. I can demonstrate to them the qualities of friendship and how positive relationships work, but I will simultaneously be working out my anti-childist journey. While they remain children, there will be tension in the balance of power and fragile progress in my unlearning of childism. It’s not as simple as declaring myself their friend and then palling it up with them.
It’s up to my children to decide how they will characterize our relationship. I can provide many of the wonderful qualities of friendship like honesty, acceptance, and respect, but I am also responsible for teaching, guiding, and protecting. It’s… complicated. If they don’t view me as a friend, I’ll be ok.
Truth be told, I completely understand and agree with the reasoning behind why parents want to be friends with their kids. I don’t think it’s strange at all that adults and children enjoy friendship. Obviously, the content of such friendships is different from adult-adult friendships. For instance, we should never burden children with our adult worries. But, we already know that different friendships manifest in different ways. We have coworker friends that we go to lunch with but may never see outside the office. We have childhood friends who remain in our lives but at a distance. We have mom friends online who know our deepest, darkest secrets but whom we may never meet in person. Friendship is not a one size fits all scenario. Adult-child friendships are cool as long as there’s a high degree of propriety and a complete absence of abusive behavior. I hope someday to achieve the status of “friend” to my children and here’s why.
Friends are their own complete people first and foremost. It’s one thing to want to be close to another person and another to be codependent. Friends have their own separate identities, needs, and wants, and they have mutual respect of all these things.
Friends care and are invested in each other. Friendship involves a selflessness in that friends pay attention to each other and elevate each other’s needs.
Friends have integrity. They are trustworthy and dependable. They tell the truth, even when it’s unpleasant. And, they do these things with the intent to uplift and never to tear down.
Friends improve morale. Friends offer a self-esteem boost. It feels good when people want you around and even better when they go out of their way to seek you out. As social creatures, humans need friendships for our mental health and this aspect of friendship in no small way explains why.
Friends believe in each other. It is so important to have people in our lives who know us well and understand us. One of the most critical aspects of friendship is being trusted.
Friends forgive. All relationships experience decline and growth. When we mess up, we have to know that our friends love us enough to mend the bond and move forward even stronger than before.
Friends listen and support. Good friends know when they need to be quiet and listen intently. They empathize and seek to support their friends in the most helpful ways whether that means validating feelings or giving advice or even riding out to take care of business when the situation calls for it.
Friends give and take. Allowing for free flowing reciprocity is so important. Friends don’t need to keep score. They just need to provide whatever support is required and ask for what they themselves need. That’s how friends show up for each other in the good times and bad.
There isn’t a single thing in that list that doesn’t also apply to my hopes for parenthood. This is the type of parent I want to be, which means there must be room for friendship in my relationship with my children. How that will end up looking is anyone’s guess. It’s going to develop organically, fostered with love and intentionality. I will demonstrate friendship to my children whether or not they consider me their friend and, maybe in time, I’ll hear those sweet words “You’re my best friend, mommy.” What an awesome day that would be!
It’s what’s known as an anecdotal fallacy. This fallacy, in simple terms, states that “I’m not negatively affected (as far as I can tell), so it must be O.K. for everyone.” As an example: “I wasn’t vaccinated, and I turned out fine. Therefore, vaccination is unnecessary.” We are relying on a sample size of one. Ourselves, or someone we know. And we are applying that result to everyone.
It relies on a decision-making shortcut known as the availability heuristic. Related to the anecdotal fallacy, it’s where we draw on information that is immediately available to us when we make a judgment call. In this case, autobiographical information is easily accessible — it’s already in your head. We were smacked as kids and turned out fine, so smacking doesn’t hurt anyone. But studies show that the availability heuristic is a cognitive bias that can cloud us from making accurate decisions utilizing all the information available. It blinds us to our own prejudices.
It dismisses well-substantiated, scientific evidence. To say “I turned out fine” is an arrogant dismissal of an alternative evidence-based view. It requires no perspective and no engagement with an alternative perspective. The statement closes off discourse and promotes a single perspective that is oblivious to alternatives that may be more enlightened. Anecdotal evidence often undermines scientific results, to our detriment.
It leads to entrenched attitudes. When views inconsistent with our own are shared we make an assumption that whoever holds those views is not fine, refusing to engage, explore or grow. Perhaps an inability to engage with views that run counter to our own suggests that we did not turn out quite so “fine.”
Where is the threshold for what constitutes having turned out fine? If it means we avoided prison, we may be setting the bar too low. Gainfully employed and have a family of our own? Still a pretty basic standard. It is as reasonable to say “I turned out fine because of this” as it is to say “I turned out fine in spite of this.”
Recently, I participated in a large 1,000+ comment discussion about spanking. Nearly every commenter supported spanking and many made the “I turned out fine” claim. Anywhere you see adults treating children in a violent manner, you are bound to also find people making complimentary comments to the effect that they received the same treatment themselves as children and it taught them to respect their elders. Respect? I’d be curious to know what that means to them, since so many people cannot believe that giving respect to children engenders respectfulness from children.
I was discussing that heartbreaking thread with a friend who remarked:
I was ruminating on statements of erasure like that. And I wondered if it exists because it’s too painful to consider that they themselves were also mistreated.
Because to acknowledge someone’s pain means realizing you were maimed too.
Statements of erasure. She took my breath away. That’s exactly what people do when they suggest that the often unbearable pain one person experiences can’t be that bad if others survive it without obvious scars. What about the deep scars? The ones they deny. The ones they can’t accept. The ones that offer points of empathy and connection to others who shared the same experience?
Adults who defend spanking, and were spanked as children, openly admit that they tried to avoid being spanked. They know it hurt. Yet, they inflict the same uncomfortable experience on their kids. Not only that, they also vehemently defend their parents’ decision to spank them. Consider the following description:
[Children who will become adults who condone spanking] are placed in a situation where they feel intense fear of physical harm and believe all control is in the hands of their tormentor. The psychological response follows after a period of time and is a survival strategy for the victims. It includes sympathy and support for their [parents’] plight and may even manifest in negative feelings toward [advocates] who are trying to help [spanked children].
The evidence is clear that harsh treatment does maim kids. For instance, a 2009 study found reduced prefrontal cortical gray matter volume in young adults who had been exposed, as children, to occasional spanking with a paddle on the buttocks that neither resulted in injury nor was conducted in anger. To be clear, the area of their brains that was affected manages the abilities to 1) distinguish oneself from others, 2) see oneself in others, 3) empathize with others, 4) predict behavior in others, and 5) use logical judgment in interpreting behavior in others. You can imagine how incredibly detrimental such brain changes would be. And, there are millions upon millions of people who have been affected and may not even realize it. And, the scariest part for me is that there is no way to predict the effects spanking will have on a child. Why take the risk?
When a commenter in that spanking discussion I mentioned earlier was asked what spanking offered that other forms of punishment didn’t, she responded “immediacy.” People are willing to permanently damage their children’s brains to achieve immediate compliance even when they know what the evidence says. And, if you’re thinking that perhaps spanking without the use of an object is a better option, think again. The evidence is staggering that physical (e.g. spanking, calisthenics, etc.) and emotional (e.g. public shaming, belittling, etc.) violence harms kids.
The harsh treatment we felt was unfair as children was unfair. We didn’t deserve it and our parents were wrong for it. The fact that we (me included) have ever felt any different is the result of the gaslighting our culture does to kids. We’re all left believing a lie. Consider times your bad experiences have been minimized. Think back to those frustrating moments when you’ve been made to believe you were overreacting when you weren’t. That’s what our culture does to children every day. Our entire culture is childist, so it’s no surprise that so many of us are convinced that it’s normal to yell at and hit kids. After all, they can be irrational and we adults have to assert our authority over them… just like men did to women not that long ago and just like white people have long done to people of color. We’ve seen this kind of discrimination carried out before. It’s not new, but kids simply don’t have enough social capital to effect change on their own.
Who would we be if our parents had been gentle and respectful with us? What would society be as a whole? Here’s the saddest part. No one can possibly know who they might have been had their parents been gentle and respectful with them. What we do know is that respectful, responsive parenting approaches are evidence-based. They succeed with all children, because they account for eventualities. They succeed across neurotypes and other differences. Even kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder [ODD is an questionable diagnosis. What I should have said here was “Even kids who experience significant behavioral struggles”…] find relief with peaceful techniques.
I have great empathy for parents. I know how stressful it is to be a mom with a unique set of challenges and others have so many more challenges. What some may see as judging parents, I see as protecting kids since kids are the ones affected by childism. I’m always speaking for the child’s perspective. The unfortunate truth is that no one who experiences violence in any form, be it yelling or spanking or whatever, comes out ok on the other side. We survive and can flourish, but we still carry those scars with us and they come out in unexpected ways, like losing patience with our own children. We fall back into the patterns we knew as children and those often become our parenting vices.
If you were treated harshly like me, you did not turn out fine. You survived… with scars. But, humans are extraordinary and resilient. We can turn challenge into promise through force of will and support by people who want to see us succeed. Now that you know, here’s the inevitable choice: continue the generational trauma, or choose a completely different path. The path I chose was Peaceful Parenting. You have to find your own path, though I do hope you find your way back to this blog! I would love to support you in your efforts to improve the lives of your kids.
Recently, I was talking with a sweet friend about her energetic son. We’ve had many discussions about his behavior, her responses, and steps moving forward. She lives on the west coast of the U.S. with her husband, her teenage daughter, and of course, her little boy. The family is experiencing quite a bit of turmoil due to the strain of interacting with the healthcare system as her husband lives with a chronic, degenerative condition. But, together, this family is making it work and growing in gentleness.She writes:
I have always considered myself a peaceful parent, because I refuse to use physical punishment with my kids. It hasn’t been until recently that I learned how much more there is to being a peaceful parent and have started trying to make changes. I have a teenager and a kindergartener. I’ve had a lot of struggles with the younger one. My son is strong willed and very hyper, and I am not as patient as a wish I was. I get frustrated quickly, which makes for a hard time in our house more often than I would like.
Lately, I’ve been trying new things that seem so simple when I think about them, but aren’t always as simple in practice. The biggest thing is when my son is having a hard time and I’m starting to get frustrated, I try to stop, breathe, and ask myself WHY is he acting the way he is. When I’ve been able to figure out the why, it’s made finding the solution to help so much easier. The other thing I’ve been doing differently is making sure I take the time to explain things to him rather than just answer yes or no. Sounds super simple, almost so simple I can’t believe I haven’t always done it, but better late than never.
Since I started explaining in more detail to him why things need to be a certain way, he’s responded a lot better. Here’s an example of that. A couple weeks ago I had one of those days, we all know those days. Super busy, dealing with way too much and not enough time. I was working on cleaning the house before family was coming to stay with us and my son comes up to me while I’m super busy and asks me to sit down on the couch with him for a bit. I explained to him I couldn’t because I had all this cleaning to do before family got here and that I needed to make sure everything was done so everyone would be comfortable and happy when staying here. He said ok and left and I could tell he was a disappointed, but I was so behind I figured I would make it up to him a little later.
About 20 mins later he came running into the kitchen and said “Mom I helped. Come see!” So I followed him into his bedroom and it was spotless. He cleaned his entire room by himself without me asking him to! He did a great job, so I was able to take break to sit with him and watch a show. Things are far from perfect, most days are still a struggle, but the more I have been following gentle parenting techniques, the better things have been going.
When my friend shared this story with me, I genuinely teared up. What a sweet, precious child she has who loves her so much, he will go out of his way to relieve her burdens just to have a few moments of time with her. And, he’s such a young child too! I can’t help but think about what a wonderful person he will continue to be as he grows up in this household. And, mom. She empathized with him and explained what was happening. Then, when he came to her, she stopped and took him seriously. When she saw what he had done, she showed him appreciation and she gave him her time knowing it was short supply. This is the way we build relationships with our children.
Several weeks ago, a friend told me this story about an interaction between her tween son and her mother. Since many of us are gearing up for big family events tomorrow, this topic is something worth thinking about. My friend, a 30-something-year-old Black mother of two in Texas, had this to say:
So today she apparently asked my 12 yr old if he could help her get 2 gallons of water from her car and he said no. She came to snitch and I’m sure was trying to embarrass him and I just said “I’ll help you.” He seemed annoyed she interrupted our conversation to tell me that. My family has no respect for children. I honestly assumed he didn’t feel like it. He had just gotten home and rode his bike from school today and he was getting his snack together. I wouldn’t want to stop preparing food to get water either when it can wait. It wasn’t perishable food she was asking for help with but it honestly didn’t matter to me. I teach them ‘you can always ask but sometimes the answer is no.’
She explained further that there is some background between her son and her mother. It seems she oversteps her bounds and tries to impose her ideology on the children. My friend’s son receives her actions as judgmental. When she asked “Do you want to help me with something?” he answered literally “No” because he was busy.
I can almost see the pearl-clutching! I come from a very Southern, very authoritarian background where adults owned all rights to the labor of children and children had no right to refuse. It was considered the height of rudeness and deserving of quite a spanking. I’ll grant that a young boy who had the strength to ride his bike all the way home from school surely has the strength to go outside to grab a couple gallons of water. Plus, it’s perceived as rude not to be considerate of an elderly relative’s wishes.
Before we had our children, Peaceful Dad and I created family guidelines, and one of those guidelines is “We always choose to help.” We teach our children that we are the heart and hands of Christ to our world. We help out of love. Not obligation. And never because someone wants to assert a flawed belief that my children should be subordinate. I don’t entertain discussing my kids negatively like this grandmother did, no matter who the adult is. I will always ask the adult to speak directly to my child if there’s been a problem. I can be there for moral support, but my child needs to be part of the conversation.
Had this scenario happened in my house, I probably would have broached the topic with my son to understand his perspective while affirming that no one is obligated to help anyone. I would want my son to know that there are relationship consequences for refusing a request for help, particularly since there exists a social expectation that children are to serve adults. This is something children need to be aware of, and it’s something worth discussing as we guide our children through the trials of childism.
Her entitlement was completely inappropriate. No one has a right to anyone else’s labor. I imagine my friend’s son would have graciously agreed had his grandmother asked, “When you finish eating your snack, would mind helping me get some gallons of water out of my car?” So, let’s flip this around. Is it not also rude of an adult, knowing this child was tired and hungry, to demand assistance with a non-urgent matter while the child is in the middle of making himself something to help him recover from his long day and his long ride? Could the request not have been made in a more understanding and compassionate way wherein both of their needs could have been met?
The trouble here is that, for many adults, the outcome isn’t as important as the interaction. They say they like seeing kind, cooperative, and respectful children, but what they really expect is deference and obedience.
Rudeness is a matter of perception. In this case, the requester ultimately got the help she was requesting, so the problem was solved. I don’t want to suggest that kids be encouraged to break social “rules” for the sake of being controversial. I think it’s important for children to be aware of expectations and cultural consequences. But, at the same time, we also need to be holding adults accountable for how they interact with kids, and we need to instill self-confidence and self-worth in our kids so that they know how to navigate social expectations with grace and wisdom.
If a child is uncomfortable with a request being made of them, we can be there to help guide the conversation. Otherwise, we can give kids room to work out their own relationships and support them in upholding boundaries… even with elderly relatives. And, even at big family events.
I asked my friend what had changed since her own childhood that caused her to support her son in his interaction with her mother. She said:
In the past I would have felt pressured into forcing him to do something he didn’t want to do. When my daughter came along I realized that I was raising my kids differently than I was raised and than the kids in my family were being raised. One day my grandma asked my 1 year old for a hug at easter and my nephew who was about 4 said she “don’t do hugs.” My granny said “I don’t care, come give me a hug girl!” It was right then that I was like “oh hell no!” She is not about to force herself onto my child and traumatize her and then leave me with the job of cleaning up. So I stopped her in that moment and said “we don’t force physical contact on people,” and I looked at my daughter and said “can you wave bye bye to granny?” And she didn’t do that either and I said “maybe next time” and shrugged it off. That’s when I started looking into ways to fend off my pushy relatives because I knew there would be more situations like these in the future.
I went from spanking my son to not believing it was necessary I hardly ever took my kids out during nap time or would leave when they got tired because they just slept better at home and to prevent putting them in situations where they were over tired and would act out. Long ago, I decided that just because something is the way we’ve always done it, that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong.
Just because something is the way we’ve always done it, that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. That is an entire lesson right there on its own! We can teach our children how to say, “I’m busy right now, but I’ll be with you as soon as I finish.” We can foster relationships in our children’s lives that meet their needs and those of the adults they care about. When the challenge in a child’s life is a social expectation, let’s allow genuineness and honesty to win out. It’s ok for children to say “not now” or even “no” to adults. Unclutch those pearls!
So, how do you instill a sense of selflessness in your kids? How do you foster the development of a human who enjoys being helpful whenever possible? I’m sure there are many ways families are doing this every day (and I’d love to hear from you in the comments!) I’ll mention one of the ways that has been invaluable for my family. We include our children in our everyday lives. Sounds pretty simple, but it takes planning and patience. It can be difficult to allow kids to help in their own developmentally appropriate ways. It’s messy and time consuming, but it is wonderfully affirming for your child! If you’d like to try it out, the key is to resist the urge to do things for your children. Don’t take over. If you want to insert yourself into the activity, help out! Demonstrate by modeling what’s expected. Openly speak with your child about the expected outcome, step by step. Children don’t know the process to get to an end result until they learn it. For example, including children in putting laundry away might look something like this:
Parent invites the child to help
Parent quickly explains what’s about to happen – “We’re going to take the clothes out of this laundry basket, fold them neatly, put them back into the basket, and then put them into their drawers. I’ll help you!”
Parent demonstrates how to fold an item of clothing and hands some clothes to the child
Parent and child go through the steps together
Many children will likely not be able to fold to an adult’s expectation, be able to open drawers and sort, and the like. Some direction is helpful, but allowing the child to try and accepting their effort as is goes a long way to instilling a love of helping in a child. And, start young. Thank your infant for helping you pick up toys even if it becomes a game. There are so many ways to include and appreciate kids. You and your child will figure it out together.