At The Parent Practice we usually like to focus on the positives. Not just because we’re a jolly little band but because it’s more effective for training. When we ask our kids to do things it’s more efficient to say what we want them to do rather than what we don’t want them to do. That’s because our brains conjure up images and they have a hard time processing negatives. So if I say ‘don’t think of pink elephants’ you will almost certainly be imagining a pink elephant. Likewise if you say to your child ‘don’t run inside’ he will be processing an image of himself running in the house. So instructions need to be positively framed. Instead say ‘walk inside’. Family rules also need to be positive for the added reason that lots of no’s feel very restrictive and may provoke rebellion. ‘Enjoy time on the computer after homework’ feels much less constraining than ‘No screen time unless homework is done.’
We also need to focus on the positives of what our children do because we get more of what we pay attention to. So if we notice and point out when they forget to hang up their towel or are mean to their sister but we don’t say anything when they put their book bag away or help unload the dishwasher then we can be sure to get more meanness and uncooperative behaviour. Children have evolved to do what gets their parents’ attention so we need to be careful what we prioritise with our words.
Another reason for positivity is that a positive connection between parent and child is the very best basis for discipline. Positive discipline teaches a child how to behave well rather than just not to get caught doing something wrong. It encourages self-discipline and the adoption of a set of values. Spending time with your kids doing fun things and letting them know how much you value them builds self-esteem and gives them a very strong incentive for accepting your influence.
But have you noticed that at this time of year with all the talk of resolutions how much they focus on negatives? How to get rid of excess pounds or drink less or spend less etc. While it’s not generally very motivating to focus on what we need to do less of there may be some merit in looking at some of the negative things we say in parenting so that we recognise them and can change. So many of the things that slip out of our mouths do so so automatically that we don’t even realise that we’re doing it.
So here are 4 things we shouldn’t say to our kids, what they sound like and why they kill connection: (before you read any further do realise that all parents have said these things –we’re human and we make mistakes but we’re trying to limit the number of mistakes we continue to make.)
- Criticism “Josh, you’ve forgotten your homework diary again! That’s the second time this week.” What we are trying to do as parents is use our words to encourage good behaviours and to build up a strong sense of self-worth. Criticism gives attention for the wrong things. Repeated criticism paints a picture of the child as not lovable, capable or worthwhile. It’s very easy to criticise without meaning to so we need positive practices to help us focus on positive behaviour. Keeping a pasta jar (in which we drop a pasta piece for every good behaviour) is a very useful tool. Notice when Josh remembers anything and acknowledge that as well as setting up systems to help him remember.
- Personal attack “I am so DISAPPOINTED in you - I should have known better than to trust you.” This killer statement clearly communicates that the child does not have the approval that they crave. This is likely to lead to diminished self-worth and poor behaviour in future. Some children grow up always seeking approval, sometimes by succumbing to peer pressure or getting involved in inappropriate sexual relationships. Even as adults some people seek approval through people -pleasing behaviours or in relentlessly pursuing qualifications or positions. Instead talk about how the behaviour, not the child, is disappointing and why. Explore how it happened non-judgmentally and what the child can do to rectify it.
- Labels “You’re so mean! How could you say such things to Jake when you know he’s having a hard time settling in to his new school?” While teaching our children to be kind is part of our job as parents these labels only serve to paint a picture of the child as a mean person. Your child believes what you say and is very likely to act in accordance with this portrait. Instead explore what prompted the mean words since this will demonstrate the empathy you expect of your child. “When you say something like that it makes me wonder if you’re having a hard time with something yourself. Sometimes our pain comes out against those we care about….. What you said hurt Jake’s feelings. Now that you’re calmer perhaps you can think of something to make it up to him.”
- Dismissing feelings “You’ll be fine, you’ll love it at camp.” “Don’t be such baby. You’re too old for this carry on now.” “You don’t hate your sister. That’s a terrible thing to say!” These statements tell our children that they cannot trust their own judgments about their emotions or that they shouldn’t have those emotions at all. This teaches kids to suppress their feelings. But feelings will come out. And they will usually be expressed in behaviour in the moment or later. Sometimes suppressed feelings can come out in physical symptoms such as eczema or stomach aches or headaches. A habit of suppressing feelings makes it difficult for adults to communicate their own needs or understand those of others and makes it unlikely that they will seek support when they need it. Dismissing your child’s feelings tells them that feelings don’t matter and that they don’t matter.
Phew! Now go hug your child and tell them why you love them!