Last week, my 6-year-old daughter took a toy away from her younger brother and then swatted at him as he attempted to get it back. I gave the toy back to my son and put her on the stairs for a time out. Following this, I began the familiar line of inquiry:
My attempts at turning this into a teaching moment get me nowhere, mainly because my daughter has stopped listening to me as soon as the first words left my mouth. Just for context here, my tone was not all that civil…I was frustrated and did very little to hide it.
In the moment, I am frustrated yes. But I’m also experiencing an overwhelming desire to impart on my daughter words of wisdom that will help guide her on the road of life, or at the very least, words that help her get the issue and stop. What drives my passionate frustration is the fear that she is going to miss out on an opportunity to learn. Mixed in with my anxiety is a sense of urgency that if she keeps doing the same thing and keeps reacting this same way, then she will never learn. Fast forward twenty years, and she’s still covering her ears and singing “la-la-la” as her boss comments on her recent slip up at the office!
Change is Hard and it Takes Time
As parents, we often feel that if we could just say the right thing, a light will go off in our children’s heads and they will get it and remember forever. The reality is that for most parents, any attempt at imparting words of wisdom in the heat of the moment results in frustration.
Either our kids tune us out subtly by focusing on other things (like the lint on their shirt) or by not so subtly telling us to “shut up” and that they know already. We are left holding the bag…feelings of frustration, anger, and helplessness. It’s important to know that these are the very same feelings our kids experience as we start our lecture.
While I am trying in vain to get my daughter to understand what she did wrong, she is simultaneously trying to get rid of the bad feelings she experiences when she does something wrong and upsets me. This dynamic makes my lectures, as well-meaning as they are, counterproductive.
As adults, when we are told to make adjustments at work, the assumption is that we understand and will comply. As parents, we know that as they get older, our children will have to make changes on a dime in a work environment. So we assume that they better learn how to do so now.
Often, these adjustments may be hard to swallow and might even be hurtful to our pride, but most people comply because the consequences of not complying could be severe. While comparing a child’s behavior change towards her brother and adjustments in a work environment makes sense, we’re not quite comparing apples to apples.
Change is Not Just Behavioral, It’s Emotional
The work example assumes that change happens mostly on a behavioral level. You work in a job, your boss tells you to do a task this way instead of that way. Your boss (and everyone else) expects that you can put your emotions aside and will just make the change. We often expect the same turnaround from our kids, but forget that most often they have not yet learned the same level of mastery over their emotions. Therefore they can’t just do it.
My daughter hit my son because she is jealous and angry that she has to share anything with the likes of him. A better comparison of the change I am expecting from my daughter might be found in those everyday adjustments adults struggle with if they are not facing serious repercussions such as losing a job.
Everyday emotional change is the diet you’ve started and abandoned five times over in the last two months, or the physical exercise you were going to get at least three days a week, or that book you were going to start writing. I think these examples more accurately reflect the struggle our kids go through in making behavior changes, because they do not think of long-term consequences.
Kids are most often reacting to emotions in the moment, which influence the way they behave. Even if our kids make the right choice or decision today, there is no guarantee they will do so tomorrow. This is just like that diet which can be thrown off by a rough day at work or a fight with a family member. Now imagine your spouse or your friend calling you out when you break the diet. “I noticed that box of Entenmann’s cookies have been dwindling…you’ll never fit into that bathing suit if you keep that up.” How would you feel? Likely pretty similar to what our kids feel when we lecture them.
Lecturing is the Anti-Motivator
The lecture is counterproductive for kids because rather than assist in overcoming feelings of disappointment and guilt, it often serves to elevate the bad feelings that contributed to the behavior initially. Most often kids are not listening, because they are still trying to deal with the emotional letdown of having messed up.
The lecture gets it wrong because it attempts to convey information when the recipient is not able to receive it. For most people, doing something wrong is already an unpleasant experience, but doing something wrong and having someone lecture them on it is much worse.
The lecture I gave my daughter did not address any of the emotions that accompanied the incident before or after, and therefore the lecture does not address the heart of the issue. I asked: “Why do you keep doing this over and over?” This question goes to the heart of her continued transgressions and it is this question that needs to be addressed in order for her to move on and change her behavior.
Alternatives to Lecturing
Set the Limit and Walk Away: I put my daughter in time out. This tells her that her behavior was wrong and that is enough for the moment. If I can distance myself from her here, she will have time to process her mistake and move past the emotional sense of loss that comes with the mistake. She may then be in a position to discuss the mistake, once it is removed from the sense of loss. In the near future, I’ll post on how to handle the Time Out refusal.
Don’t ask why: I made the mistake of asking her why she did what she did and I got what I deserved: a frustrating head shake and the standard “I don’t know.” A better course of action would have been to speak to the emotions that led to the incident initially. “You hit him because you don’t like that he uses your toys, and it makes you angry, sad and maybe jealous to have to share.” It doesn’t matter if you’re absolutely right. Even if you’re only close, your kids will have a chance to reflect on what might be going on inside of them. The long-term goal is that one day my daughter will say: “I’m angry that my brother took my toy!” rather than acting it out by hitting him.
Tell a story: Kids are defensive and sensitive about what they do wrong and about feeling negative emotions. A narrative about your own life, about the mistakes you made and how you dealt with them, is much less threatening. It sends the message that it’s OK to feel what they’re feeling. Less threatening means less defensiveness, which in turn means more listening and hopefully more learning.
Don’t expect changes overnight: There is no quota about how many mistakes children can make before they get it. Some things take one mistake, others take many. Once you give up hope, they will certainly do the same. As long as your expectation for change is there, so too will be their will to actually make the change.