"Smart, audacious and often hilarious. Takes everything you thought you knew about parenting and turns it on its ear." - Jennifer Jason Leigh

SO WHAT EXACTLY AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?

Being a parent who is attempting to be less controlling and judgmental of a child’s tantrums, hitting, throwing things, speaking rudely and lashing out in other “unacceptable” ways and instead is trying to be more empathetic and unconditional in their parenting so that the child not only feels heard, understood, considered and cared for but becomes more empathetic herself is…

SO FUCKING HARD!

For me. For my husband John. For the people in our Echo Parenting class. For RIE parents. For the parents at my our super progressive preschool. For my friends that love Alfie Kohn and for those that follow Dr. Laura Markham. As in, it’s fucking hard for everyone.

This week in my life there’s been a lot of frustrated, self-questioning parents talking about what we did, what we maybe should have done, what we’re trying to do, and if we should even be trying to do it:

“Is taking them to another room but staying with them a ‘consequence’ or a ‘solution’?”

“If I can’t tell them that they can’t say that, what am I supposed to say?”

“I don’t know how long I can take doing this…it doesn’t seem to be ‘working.’”

“If I don’t tell them they’re being rude, won’t they just continue being rude? Don’t they need to know?”

“I don’t want them thinking the world revolves around them. Don’t they sometimes just have to suck it up?”

“Don’t you at some point need some kind of consequence? The real world is full of consequences!”

“Okay if they’re crying, but what if they’re hitting ME? Then what? How am I supposed to deal with THAT?”

“I’m exhausted! She’s totally unwilling to get up and go to her room to go to sleep.  She grunts and sticks out her tongue.”

“Okay, I get the idea, but just tell me what the fuck I’m supposed to do already?!”

To make matters worse, everything is conspiring against our best intentions:

  1. OTHERS: Many of us have parents or spouses or neighbors or friends or nannies who can’t believe the way we’re trying to parent and give us glares that say,”Enough with how they feel already! Your kid needs real discipline.”
  2. OUR CULTURE: We live in a  rewards and punishment based society. It’s alive and well in schools, business, religion and our penal system. (I live in California where seven out of ten prisoners return to jail or prison within three years which tells me that punishing, isolating and threatening isn’t the answer.)
  3. TIME: It’s just easier to demand our children’s compliance via some kind of threat so we can then just get on with our lives. Trying to see the world from their point of view, helping them understand how their actions affects others and engaging them in the solution takes so much time, so much thought, so much patience.
  4. OUR PAST: And then there’s our subconscious that’s working against us! It’s hard to actually try to keep in mind that the way we’re subconsciously driven to parent our kids is a direct result of the way we, ourselves were parented and that it is only with some serious, plodding efforts to do otherwise (classes, therapy, journaling, twelve-step work, RIE, reading) that we can begin to break the cycle. Here are some quotes from the late pyschologist Alice Miller who  devoted her career to making the world realize the role of our childhood in how we parent:

“The reason why parents mistreat their children has less to do with character and temperament than with the fact that they were mistreated themselves and were not permitted to defend themselves.”

“Those children who are beaten will in turn give beatings, those who are intimidated will be intimidating, those who are humiliated will impose humiliation, and those whose souls are murdered will murder.”

“Wherever I look, I see signs of the commandment to honor one’s parents and nowhere of a commandment that calls for the respect of a child.”

“It is very difficult for people to believe the simple fact that every persecutor was once a victim. Yet it should be very obvious that someone who was allowed to feel free and strong from childhood does not have the need to humiliate another person.”

And while that is all well and bad, it seems what people just want to know is:

“WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?”

“WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO SAY?”

And the frustrating answer is that parenting is an art. And a practice. It takes trial and error. Each situation is different. Each child is different…

BUT

I’m not going to leave you hanging.

Today I’m offering TWO go-to phrases that I think can be the life saver you toss yourself to start making your way through:

When you hear a child threaten to uninvite their friend to their birthday, or tell their friend they are no longer friends, or a sleep over with never happen again, or someone is yucky,  or mean, or stupid, or poo poo….Instead of telling them that their words aren’t nice. Or that you won’t allow that language. Or that they are rude. Try starting with this:

“I’M HEARING SOME ROUGH LANGUAGE…”

It’s non-judgemental! It’s descriptive! So far, so good.

“I’M HEARING SOME ROUGH LANGUAGE…”

It says, I’m here. I hear you. Something is wrong and an aware, calm, helpful adult is here to help!

Feel free to continue describing from there. Perhaps something like:

“I see some hitting (put your arm up to block the hitting). I see some tongues sticking out. Some grunting. Some growling. Some crying. Some name calling. There are a lot of feelings here….”

Now for #2..

WHAT HAPPENED?

“When you’re finished crying, I’d like to hear what happened from both of you..”

Both sides should be heard. Miscommunications clarified. Solutions sought.

This takes time.

And sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes kids just want to move on.

To review my recommendation:

I’M HEARING SOME ROUGH LANGUAGE…

followed by a very genuine…

WHAT HAPPENED?

If you do try it, will you tell me how it goes?

Tell me where you get tripped up.

Tell me what doesn’t work. What might be working, even just a little bit.

Tell me what the kids say.

I think we’ve got take this one step at a time.

xoxo

22 Responses to “SO WHAT EXACTLY AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?”

  1. Michelle D says:

    Great post! I haven’t had a chance to read the other comments but have you heard of Say What You See? It’s a method where you do just that :-) Say What you See! I’d been reading a lot of the same people/websites you mentioned but say what you see was some practical and easy to remember what to do that it really helped me. It’s a free short book you can read online here:
    http://www.languageoflistening.com/resources/read-swys-book

    The gist is you just say what you see, like “I hear loud noises in there”, similar to how you said in non-judgmental way!

  2. Soshanna says:

    I just stumbled onto your blog and couldn’t find the subscribe button fast enough! Thank, I look forward to continuing this journey with you… x

  3. Carol Bradbury says:

    Hi, I love your blog. I have a 5 yr old boy (nearly 6) and a 2 yr old girl. Over the past 6 years I have read a whole heap of parenting books & have applied a lot of your ideas – talking about feelings, trying not to label him etc, but I’ve reached an age where I am a bit lost. He really doesn’t want to discuss any bad behaviour or feelings anymore. If I try that tactic, he will talk over me, block his ears etc. What do I do now? I see myself returning to the old parenting ways, which I really don’t want to do. Any ideas?

  4. Shawn McGormley says:

    Observations (rather than judgements) are good in most situations with children. Especially as a teacher. This helps the children look at and think about their own actions.

    I see that you used a lot of green in that picture.
    I see that you spent a lot of time working on that.
    You finished that very quickly.

    Nice post.

  5. I love this post, Jennifer! Really great observations. I like the points you make about not labeling behaviors and rather, narrating what you see. I have found it hard to hold my tongue when my children get into it with each other. Our daughter, especially, has behaviors that trigger me big time, but I HATE that I tell her she’s being mean, rude, obnoxious etc. It’s so ineffective & only makes her feel bad. I’m definitely going to give this a whirl.
    xo

  6. Mary Willis says:

    Yes, as another teacher I think that “rude” is name calling. Also, what does it mean? I had a child a few years ago who called a fat mom “fat”. Every day. He was giving her helpful information. Unfortunately, it was unwanted information that she already had.

    So, I had to ponder that one. Finally, I came up with a rule: “don’t make personal comments” I think it would be good for adults as well (correlary 1: unless they are positive, which takes us into the “aren’t you pretty” slipper slope….)

    So, we practiced “no personal comments”- no fat, thin, hair is so short, long, your skin is so brown, your dress is so sparkly….

    I, personally, am annoyed when told by 12 adults in a day: “you got a hair cut.” Really? Even, “I love your earrings” leaves me with nothing but “thank you.” it doesn’t lead to bonding comments.

  7. Kathy says:

    I’ve also heard that this is good (though as a non-parent and nearly qualified teacher I’m thinking more of a classroom situation):

    “That was rude. Did you mean to be rude? Because you don’t seem like a rude person to me.”

    It describes the behaviour, but then also offers the child a way out.

    • Jennifer says:

      Thanks so much for weighing in Kathy

      I’m not so sure I agree with you here.

      A person can certainly say something rude but that doesn’t mean they are a rude person. I think if you label a child, “rude” or “shy” or what have you, it becomes something they then live up to.

      And someone may say something rude because they don’t know how to express their feelings without hurting someone else. I’d go back to “I hear some rough language….so and so how did what X say make you feel?” And X, you are using some strong language…” and then try to get at WHY they are acting in a rude way instead of just saying because they aren’t a rude person they shouldn’t be talking like that.

      Does that make sense? Do you have other thoughts on this?

      Best,
      Jennifer

      • Kathy says:

        I suppose that even though you this method doesn’t say they are rude, the comment “Because you don’t seem like a rude person to me” could work to make them feel like they are – especially if the child is already prone to focusing on the negative of a statement.

        I think for older children, when you KNOW that actually they do know how to express themselves and are being rude for the sake of it this can be appropriate, but for younger children, I agree with you.

        I think it’s important to seperate the behaviour from who the child IS. Actually I think even as adults you still need to do that for your peers sometimes!

        • Brittany says:

          I agree with Jennifer… to me saying “you don’t seem like a rude person” is passive aggressive… It’s calling them rude without calling them rude.

  8. Hilary says:

    Yay Jennifer! Love the blog and will continue to read. So helpful and informative. xoxo

  9. Liz Phelps says:

    PS Magda talked about biting in one of her books–I think it was 1, 2, 3…The Toddler Years. Some children wear wooden biting rings around their necks.

  10. Liz Phelps says:

    Love this blog! Been reading for a while but first time commenting.

    @elka: I know you didn’t ask me, but I’ll jump in and share my experience with biting. First: I have a BA in Child Development and completed RIE I (where these tips came from). I was a nanny for a family, and I was with the youngest, all day, 5x/week. When she was 21 months, she bit me for the first time. In the case, it was always with anger or frustration (but side note, I’m working part time with a family now and their boy bites his mother out of excitement). For me, what worked with this lovely child, was redirecting the bite. My mantra is, it’s not the action but how it’s done that is the problem. As in, you can hit a pillow but not your brother. You can bite a teething ring or a toy but not me. I started carrying a raspberry chew toy with me and if I saw a bite coming on, I’d offer it to her. She chomp. Hard. (It used to be my skin!) All of this went with discussions such as, I see that you’re angry, I know you’re frustrated, I can see that you need to bite something, I know you’re upset with me, but this hurts my body…or something similar, whichever one/combo was appropriate. After a bit, I got good at recognizing when her blood began to boil, and she got better at holding off for a few sessions while I fished in my diaper bag or grabbed the nearest object to hand to her so she could get the necessary release. And chomp. It helped a lot! Hope that at least helps some.

    • elka naranjo says:

      thanks for the tip, i really appreciate it :)

      • Jennifer says:

        Hi Elka,

        You might get a lot out of the book Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. For some reason I can’t find my copy! It’s driving me crazy because I think it had a great passage on biting.

        Here’s something I’d copied down from it re: hitting and a lot can be applied:

        “Behind every behavior is an impulse or an attempt to communicate that can be supported. Even “hostile” gestures can come from a basic desire to communicate.

        People hurt others only as much as they themselves are hurting. When they hurt others it is because they are often feeling hurt, mad or scared themselves. A child who pushes another child out of the toy car may be feeling crowded and scared.

        When a child is hurting other children it may be hard to remember that he’s feeling vulnerable or scared himself. But if you merely punish him you load more hurt onto the existing hurt. If instead you take into account his circumstances and motivation, you can approach conflict resolution from a less punitive perspective than “let’s punish the wrongdoer.”

        • people in conflict are best served by mutual solution. When conflicts are resolved in a way where somebody ‘wins’ and somebody ‘loses’ there are always scores to be settled later on. Mutual solutions are far more satisfying to everyone in the long run.

        • everyone deserves to be listened to. really being able to listen to another person’s point of view while being able to clearly state your own, is at the core of effective problem solving. Listening helps people grow. Even when people’s opposing desires and needs and wants make it impossible to come up with a mutual solution, people who feel their ideas have been heard and valued experience a lot less disappointment and anger when they don’t get what they want.

        • conflicts are resolved only when each person in the conflict is finished with the interaction.

        KEEP BOTH PARTIES SAFE. If one child is hurting another child, get down to the children’s level, step in and stop the interaction. Firmly and gently hold back the child that is about to hit, bite, shove, push or slap. Set clear limits both in words and physcially. “I’m not going to let you hit Ahmed. Hitting hurts.”

        also it goes on to tell you to model what they can say, “move back”

        I hope that helps. When my daughter Jules was hitting as a two year old, i always told her to tell kids “I need space” that way she would have something to say other than wanting to just hit the person. i think OVER TIME it really helped.

        the key is to help kids in conflict to communicate, not to single one out as the wrong doer. ideally you help the children talk together.

        “Do you want to tell jules how her hitting made you feel?”

        “Do you need my help to tell her?”

        Thanks for writing in Elka.

        Best,
        Jennifer

  11. Lisa Fragner says:

    Jen! I LOVE YOU!!!!!!! I love this blog and I love what I am learning from you! I love that even though we have known each other for years but NOT seen each other or stayed in regular touch or even live on the same coast and yet you PARENT the way I want to parent and believe exactly as i believe! I love that worlds apart we have come incredibly close to each other thru our parenting philosophies. Girl, this blog rocks my world and is REALLY helping me on a daily and weekly basis. I can’t thank you enough for passing along what you are learning and doing!!!
    xoxox
    Lisa Fragner

    • Jennifer says:

      Lisa! I’m so happy to hear you’re reading the blog and getting so much out of it.

      What a great way for us to reconnect.

      Share some stories! I’d love to hear them. And if you have any particular books or readings to recommend, pls send them my way. Did I hear you are having a third? Or wanting one?

      xoox

  12. elka naranjo says:

    hey jennifer! do you have any tips for addressing biting? my 2 year old loves to bite me, and only me. she does it when she’s happy, mad, or just whenever (it’s pretty random). i’ve tried telling her it does not feel good to my body. lately i’ve tried fake crying, although sometimes the tears are pretty real… it hurts!
    thanks-e

    • Jennifer says:

      Hi Elka,

      I have something to quote for you but I’m not home now…but I won’t forget, meanwhile see Liz Phelps great answer above! Thank you Liz for chiming in.

      I really DO want this to be a place where we can all help each other.

      Hmmm…maybe i should add a message board??? Thoughts?

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