The Wrong Way To Speak To Children.
Parent-speak. It’s a language that no one sets out to learn but that most of us can’t help speaking. If you have children or work with them—or if you’ve ever talked to a child—you probably speak it too. There may be an infinite number of ways to say something, but the way that American adults talk to kids is often as limited as it is predictable.
If our kids are climbing, we implore, “Be careful!” If two toddlers are grabbing the same toy, we tell them, “Share!” When saying goodbye, we ask, “Where’s my kiss?” When they eat broccoli, we exclaim, “Good job!” And so on. We say these things to ensure that our children feel loved, encouraged and secure and also to instil self-control and manners. But how do our good intentions translate? The problem is that at its core, this way of speaking is all about control. We use it to tell our kids what we want them to say (“Say sorry!”); how we want them to feel (“You’re OK!”); what we want them to do (“Behave yourself!”); and what will happen if they don’t (“Do you want a timeout?”). In other words, parent-speak is about compliance—and that often keeps us from understanding the feelings, motivations, thoughts and behavior of our children. Rather than teaching them to communicate and problem solve, we are essentially teaching them to obey.
I have been as guilty of defaulting to this way of talking as anyone else. I recall one particular playdate when my daughter, Jules, was 4. We were leaving, and I was chatting with the other mom when I turned to Jules and asked, “Can you thank Beth for having you over?”—as if Jules should have known that our brief silence was her cue to express gratitude. She looked down. “Jules?” I asked more pointedly. “Thank you,” she dutifully mumbled. My heart sank. My sparkling daughter seemed so kowtowed. It was like I was a ventriloquist and Jules, my dummy. I know how I’d feel if my boss said, “Jennifer, can you thank Keith for listening to our presentation?” I’d feel demeaned and resentful, and I imagine Jules felt no different. Essentially, I was teaching her that because she’s young, she’s subject to my control. And that how I look to others is more important than her dignity.
Now I take a wingman approach—I try to have my kids’ backs until they get the hang of modern-day etiquette. If Jules has forgotten to thank someone, I’ll jump in with, “What a gorgeous sweater. Thank you!” Usually, she will follow my lead. But if she doesn’t, I’ll share my concern with her later: “When you didn’t thank Maria, I worried that she thought you didn’t appreciate her gift.” Inevitably, Jules will want to thank Maria and will decide on her own if she should call, send a text with a photo or write an old-fashioned note. My motto: Better late than coerced. While “Can you say thank you?” is a prompt fronting as a question, “Good job!” is even more covert in the way it manipulates children. I realized this one drizzly day at preschool pickup as I watched a fellow mom “good-job” her daughter into wearing a raincoat. It’s a scene familiar to any parent: “Here you go, honey,” Paula said. “No!” Georgia replied adamantly. “I know you can do it, sweetheart.” she said, flashing a warm smile. And on the coat went. “Good job! That’s my girl!” Paula exclaimed proudly. Georgia beamed. Paula wasn’t complimenting Georgia for her ability to put on her jacket; she was praising her cooperation. Praising a child into wearing a raincoat that she doesn’t want to wear seems innocuous enough. But played out time and again, these moments teach a child that how others feel is more important than how she feels. As psychologists like to point out, children who learn to defer to the preferences of grown-ups risk losing touch with their own.
We could try instead to ask our children why they don’t want to do something and explain why it’s important to us. Perhaps Georgia was hot from playing and knew that she’d feel uncomfortable in the jacket. Maybe Paula was headed to the market and was afraid that Georgia would get too damp and cold. Once everyone’s reasons are on the table, we can solve a problem together. That is a skill that will serve children better than blind obedience.
Credit: Jennifer Lehr for The Wall Street Journal 6 January 2017