Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Way We Talk to Our Kids

In my parenting classes I teach a specialized workshop on using respectful language as part of a loving parenting approach. Recently I overheard a parent in a store talking to their child is a way that just made me cringe. "Get over here!" "What did I tell you?!" " Do you want me to put you in the cart like a baby?" I do not approach parents in stores and give them parenting advice, much as I would like to, but it did remind me that there are lots of parents who struggle with their own anger, frustrations, stress and other emotions and don't realize how they sound to their children, or what kind of damage they do to their child when they speak to them with hostility, irritation or disappointment. 

I hear from parents in my workshops who say they always felt like their children would simply 'forget' the things they said because they were too young to remember, and it wouldn't affect them long-term, or they thought/hoped their children would simply forgive them or be understanding that they lost their temper. Unfortunately, while children are very forgiving, the emotional and psychological damage words said in anger can inflict isn't always as easy to erase, and the longer it goes on for, the harder it is for the child to recover.

How we speak to our children matters. It matters now, when they are very young, and it matters when they are older. 

In our home, respect is our number one rule. I respect Alex as a person, not just as a child. I speak to him the way I want to be spoken to. That doesn't mean I don't parent or set rules. I do. But we discuss things together rather than me dictating how things will be. I respond to his emotional needs with the same love and respect I would want. His feelings are not treated like insignificant 'things' that aren't real, because I know they are as powerful and as real and my own. Maybe even more, because as a child he doesn't have the regulators over his emotions that I as an adult do.  

Respectful parenting is not permissive parenting. I think parents who were raised with strict or authoritarian parents themselves tend to believe that if they validate their children's feelings, or allow their children to make decisions or ask for their input they are giving up their control, their power. And they are. But that's a good thing! Because parenting respectfully is not at all about power and control. It is about love. When parents fear losing control over their kids, at the root of it what they are really afraid of is their children will grow up and be out of control, they won't be stable, well-adjusted adults. Yet hurting our children emotionaly is the very thing that could cause that to happen. Talking to our kids with love and respect lets children develop into the best versions of themselves. 

Power and control in a relationship is harmful & damaging. It is disrespectful, belittling, condescending, dismissive, controlling or impatient. When we parent this way, it affects what kind of adults our children will one day become, and it affects what kind of parent they will be to their own children. Some parents believe that if they don't physically abuse their children, there is no harm. But our words matter so very much, and should be chosen carefully when we speak to our children.

As an adult, these sentences would hurt my feelings if said to me:

Stop crying.
Knock it off, you're fine.
There's nothing wrong with you. 
Be quiet.
Shut your mouth and do what I told you to do.
You'll get over it.
I don't want to hear another word about it.

Whether you are 7 or 70, being emotionally shut down hurts. And yet, in some households these are common phrases used by parents. 

In my workshop, we do an exercise where I have parents close their eyes and picture in three separate rounds, their spouse, boss and one other adult of their choosing- a sister, parent, co-worker, friend, etc.,  saying phrases like the ones above, then rating how they feel after. No one ever rates that they feel supported, loved or respected after doing this exercise. Yet almost all had previously stated at the beginning of the exercise that they had said one, some or all of these phrases to their child at some point. 

Parents emerge from this exercise with a new understanding of how their words affect their children, and a new awareness of the double-standard often accepted by society that lets parents speak this way to kids but not to other adults. If your boss told you to 'Shut your mouth and do what I told you", they could probably be fired, sued for creating a hostile work environment, or you would want to quit. How would words like that make an adult react? You probably wouldn't do your best work for that boss anymore, and you would not have a very good attitude about being at work either. You would certainly have no respect for that person, and you would likely be angry, bitter and resentful toward them for treating you that way. Yet, children can't quit, fire their parents or sue them. They just have to take it and internalize or externalize the damage it causes.  

Children are people first, and deserve our love and respect just as any other person we interact with does. Children deserve to be spoken to the way we ourselves would want to be spoken to. 

Using loving, respectful language with your child helps them achieve positive self-esteem, develops trust, confidence, positive attitudes, healthy relationships, self-love and respect for themselves and others. 

So the next time your child is upset, sad or is telling you they need you, and you are feeling tired, frustrated or stressed, think about the words you want to say and try to imagine how those words would make you feel if your partner, spouse, boss, co-worker or neighbor said them, and adjust your words accordingly to be words you would want to hear in that situation, words that would make you feel loved, respected and valued as a person. 

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