Saturday, February 11, 2012

Honest And Genuine

Yesterday's post on the weakness of "authoritarian" parenting/teaching, prompted a long discussion, both in the comments here and on the Teacher Tom Facebook page, that generally ran along the lines of, "I agree, but I'm having trouble making the alternative work," with the end result being that it causes some parents to feel like they're "going insane," or that they're at their "wit's end." I don't claim to be a parenting expert, but I've spent the last 24-hours noodling over the two things that seem to be going on here, and this post is what I've come up with.

The first issue, I think, is how we as adults feel (e.g., "insane," "wit's end"). The second, although we were discussing it first yesterday, is addressing the behavior of the child (i.e., repeatedly engaging in unacceptable behavior).

Handling our adult feelings in the midst of a conflict with a child

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders. But they never fail to imitate them. ~James Baldwin

Children in our Pre-3's class frequently hit me, snatch my glasses or hat, stick their hands up my shirt and pinch or scratch me, or otherwise treat me in ways in which I don't want to be treated. Sometimes they even bite me, often without malice, and in fact out of misguided affection. I always let them know how I feel as directly as possible: "I don't like that," "Those are my glasses," "That hurt me!" I strive to keep my response calm, but man when they really hurt me or I'm really worried they're going to break my only pair of glasses, it's impossible to not show some of the heat I feel. And that's okay because it's honest and genuine. And I don't think it's ever wrong to be honest and genuine.

The natural consequence of hurting another person, the natural reaction when you take something from someone, is some combination of anger and sadness, and calm words, quite frankly, are a lousy way to convey that. When we actually "show" our emotion, we're much more effective, not to mention honest and genuine, communicators with both children and adults.

I think we forget sometimes in our efforts to be super parents or super teachers that our own feelings are every bit as valid and worthy as those of a child. It's never healthy to stuff emotions, nor is it good for our kids when we pretend that nothing's wrong when, in fact, we're in turmoil. We worry that our "adult" emotions will somehow overwhelm the child, that they won't be able to handle it, that it will frighten and confuse them. And it will if we irresponsibly rant and rave and blame and fume in a kind of out-of-control manner.

As teachers, as parents, one of our first and most important jobs is to "teach" children how to manage their emotions and the best way, perhaps the only way, is to be their role model: indeed whatever we do, as Baldwin suggests, we can't help but be their role model. If we get in the habit of bottling up our emotions, that's very likely what our children will ultimately learn to do. If we throw tantrums, that's probably where our child will learn to go with their strong feelings. If we tend toward the tight-lipped mope, so will our children.

First of all, we have to understand that this is not an easy thing. No one can control their emotions. The best we can hope for is to control our behavior, and most of us spend a lifetime working on it. Even people with doctorates in this stuff fall short of the ideals on a regular basis. This is true lifelong learning, and it's important to realize that if we're still working on it, and we are, our very young children can hardly be expected to do better. So I guess the first thing our kids learn from us when it comes to dealing with their strong emotions is that no body's perfect. You, of course, don't need to say this to them: they'll learn it soon enough, if they don't already know it.

Secondly, if you're feeling out of control yourself, there's nothing wrong with taking a moment to collect yourself. This is healthy behavior and good to role model. Ideally, there's another adult around to mind your child while you retreat to another room, but if not, you'll need a safe place for your child to be while you take this important time for yourself: a bedroom, a crib, a car seat. They may be throwing a tantrum, but you're no good to them as you are, you'll only make it worse if you're on the verge of a tantrum yourself. This is not letting them "cry it out," it's not abandonment, it's role modeling how to take care of yourself first, giving yourself a moment to pull yourself together, maybe to cry a little, maybe to punch a pillow, because your feelings are every bit as important as your child's. 

Talking to children about your feelings

Let your feelings flourish and get on with your life of doing. ~Lao Tzu (The Tao)

Then you return and engage, perhaps not entirely calm, but at least having taken a moment to let your own feelings flourish before getting on with your life of doing. And in this case, your life of doing involves being a parent.

We are all responsible for our own emotions, no matter what our age. This is something I want children to understand. Most experts agree, advising against saying things like, "You made me mad," or even, "When you did that it made me sad." This places the responsibility for our own emotions on another person, in this case a child, which is unfair at best.

And I agree. Much more honest and genuine is to simply say, "I'm mad," or "I'm sad." If your facial expression or body language supports this, all the better. I'm not talking about a disingenuous pantomime here. Kids see right through that, but they will be much quicker to understand when all the social cues line up. 

That said, I don't expect every 2 or even 3-year-olds to understand this, although some of them are ready. Just as some kids walk or talk late, some come to empathy late, but like walking or talking, it's very rare for a child to hit 4 without knowing the basics if they've experienced good role modeling. And the point isn't really understanding at this point, but rather to practice our own role modeling. This is what they will not fail to imitate, even if they don't seem to be "listening."

When kids push our buttons
When kids engage in destructive, hurtful, or dangerous behavior, say they throw a bag of Legos in a roomful of people or snatch the glasses off our face, I like to start with a statement of fact about myself. Something like: "I'm worried you'll hurt someone," or "I'm worried you'll break my glasses."

When they throw the Legos again, I take away the Legos, making another factual statement like, "I can't let you hurt people," because that is the job of the adult. If they find something else to throw that might hurt someone, I take that away as well, saying again, "I can't let you hurt people." When they snatch my glasses again, I might say, "I can't let you break my glasses." If they refuse to relinquish the glasses, I take them away even if it means prying their fingers off of them, because indeed, what I said is true, I can't let them break my glasses. Turning it into some sort of stand-off serves no one.

In the Facebook thread yesterday, Toby, one of my parent-teacher colleagues, and parenting expert in her own right, suggested the words, "When you hurt Mommy, Mommy is done playing with you." Not only does this have the virtue of being honest and genuine, it's excellent role modeling for what we want our children to do and say when someone is hurting them.

We often have to repeat these things over and over, especially when the child is under 3.5, before he is finally ready to understand that these are, indeed, the natural consequences of this particular behavior. Often, you'll look at "authoritarian" parents and envy how their regime of unnatural consequences (commonly called punishment) "works," but remember its effectiveness is superficial and teaches the lesson that might makes right. These children have not learned the natural consequences of their behavior, but rather the fear of punishment, something that goes away when the punisher isn't present.

Non-authoritarian parenting/teaching doesn't mean that we're push-overs. It simply means that we see children as fully formed human beings and we treat them as such. It doesn't mean that we've relinquished our role as parent or teacher, which is to guide and protect them, and to help them learn how to not hurt others. It means that we understand that learning, especially when it comes to living with the other people, isn't usually an instant gratification game, that, in fact, it takes a lifetime.

I'm sorry I can't provide a step-by-step approach or an organized list of tips, but I have a hard time putting my interactions with other people into that kind of framework. It doesn't feel honest and genuine to me, which, I think, is what it's always all about when interacting with the other people. That, above all else, is what I hope to role model.

Here are some other posts I've written on and around this topic to which I haven't otherwise linked above:

(Note: I want to repeat, I'm a teacher and parent, but not a parenting expert. I'll try to answer your questions, but I might try to leave it for some of you who are better equipped to reply.)

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Practical Parenting said...

When kids lash out, it can be very hard to remain calm. But they're not doing it to hurt others, they just know no other way. I am a parenting expert, and I can attest that this is one of the more difficult parenting issues that arises. How do we manage our own emotions when we hit our wits end? Even on the best day, it can be difficult when the last hours of the day approach. Labeling our emotions (in a neutral tone) is very important. When parents yell, kids only hear the loud voice. When parents are neutral, the hear the words. Feelings charts/posters are very helpful at this age. Kids need to learn how to label their emotions in order to understand them. Feelings charts should be used in calm moments throughout the day so that they can be effective in moments of frustration. Verbalizing what you think is happening also helps the 3's: "it looks like you might need some attention from mommy right now", "someone too your toy and now you feel frustrated/mad/sad, etc" and empathizing makes all the difference: "I bumped my hear when I was your size and that hurts". Also...parent time outs are really important when emotions run high. Saying "I feel frustrated and I need a quick break to take some deep breaths and calm down" in a neutral tone reaches kids that sometimes you need a break. I use relaxation breathing exercises both with my kids and in my office and they work wonders. Examples in strategies tab at my site

Aunt Annie said...

Tom, I think this is the best post you've ever written.

I agree with everything you've said about being honest and authentic, about letting your feelings show, about taking a time-out yourself if you're about to lose the plot, and about forcibly removing items from a child if the message really is 'NO' or 'STOP'.

I would add that it's easier for toddlers to understand the message if we don't use the third person. Rather than 'You hurt mummy. That's the end of mummy playing with you', I would suggest 'You hurt me. Now I'll stop playing because I'm hurt.'

And to avoid laying blame when we're trying to be authentic about cause and effect, 'I feel (emotion) when you (behaviour)' statements are very useful, backed up by a reason if possible. So 'I feel sad when you hit me, because it hurts me' and 'I feel worried when you take my glasses, because they might break' are rational, honest cause-and-effect statements with no blame attached.

Congratulations on a great piece of writing as well as the quality of the content.

rosesmama said...


Also, not only do the children eventually learn that parents are not perfect, but parents need to learn this as well. Even with the best intentions, and all the lessons we might learn from Teacher Tom, at some time, we will yell, or even hit, or otherwise make a mistake of some sort. That doesn't mean we have failed as progressive parents. It means we *made a mistake*, or simply fell back on the lessons about parenting that we got in our own childhood.

How we deal with our mistakes is when role modeling makes all the difference. I find that a conversation with my child that begins, "I'm sorry I was yelling. I was really frustrated when (in our home this blank is inevitable filled with 'you were dawdling while I was trying to get us out the door in this morning'). I'm hoping you can help me think of ways to not be so frustrated" is often very fruitful.

Some of the most depressed mothers I know are the ones who stuff their feelings in their quest to be perfect.

Arianna said...

I a bonus for you!
: D
hello Arianna

Liz Ditz said...

Dear Tom,

I am not a preschool teacher but I am the step-grandmother to 5 children (7, 3.7, 2, 1, & BRAND NEW).

I just wanted to tell you that your thoughtful, heart-full writing has made me a more thoughtful, heart-full grandmother.

Also, I'm sharing this with both my stepsons & daughters-in-law.


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