Have you ever noticed that the moment people become parents they can’t help but start to talk differently?
There’s a parenting vocabulary in the ether that grabs a hold and won’t let go. And, unfortunately, it’s damaging our children and our relationships with them. It starts off innocently enough with a well-meaning “Shhh, don’t cry.”, a fawning “Ohhhh, she’s sooo cute!” and a string of animated “Good job!”s and before we know it, we’re begging our kids to take “just one more bite”, gasping “Be careful!”, admonishing “No!”, threatening “If you don’t…” with a wagging finger and isolating kids in “time outs”.
Do we say these things because we truly believe they’ll help us raise loving, caring, confident, healthy, self-respecting children? Or, are they born of anxiety, fear, frustration and exhaustion? Do we say them because our parents said them to us? Or, simply because everyone else does?
I began asking these questions about five years ago, not too long after my husband John and I started taking Magda Gerber’s R.I.E.parent-infant classes with our three-months-old daughter Jules. As I quickly learned, the essence of the R.I.E. approach is treating babies with a level of respect one would afford, as Gerber put it, “an honored guest”—which is much easier said than done. As I began to see the world through Gerber-colored glasses, I noticed that there were certain things parents seemed to knee-jerkingly say to their kids over and over (and over) again. Without question, most were well-meaning. But were they helpful? And, most importantly, respectful? And if not, why not?
Four years later, John and I supplemented our ad hoc, self-designed parenting education by taking Echo Parenting classes largely based on Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s principles of Non-Violent Communication developed to help people resolve conflicts peacefully. Through these classes, I came to understand that undesirable behaviors — i.e. tantrums, screaming, whining, hitting, biting, refusing — are the result of a child in distress trying get their needs met. Basic human needs for things like love, understanding, comfort, connection, autonomy, safety, inclusion, freedom and reliability. As one mom succinctly put it: “My child is not giving me a hard time, my child is having a hard time.”
Echo Parenting advocates for an empathy-led approach of working with children to help meet their underlying needs instead of doing things to them— everything from praising to punishing, isolating, humiliating or chastising—in order to control their behavior. An empathy-led approach fosters connection, increases emotional intelligence and hones problem solving skills, whereas the traditional rewards-and-punish approach leaves children wounded, confused, resentful and anxious, if not obedient (at least for the time being.) The class brought about a significant shift in my understanding of human nature and as a result I began to also scrutinize all of these parental go-to phrases to see if they were compassionate. And if not, why not.
Several years of obsessively observing and deconstructing the ways adults respond to kids has revealed a largely dim view of children. They are decidedly more capable, aware, well-intentioned and sane than we imagine. When we try to see the world from their perspective, approach their struggles with empathy, bring them into the problem-solving process and encourage them with a “you’ll get the hang of it” attitude, children become remarkably more respectful, trustworthy and eager to cooperate. But that’s not why I advocate for treating them with respect and compassion. I advocate for it because IT’S THE HUMANE THING TO DO.