I love Jennifer Lehr’s new book, ParentSpeak: What’s Wrong with How We Talk to Our Children — And What to Say Instead, for many reasons, but the two that stand out are: it’s readable – you can pick it up and easily jump in anywhere – and the insights about how we speak to our children are both obvious and profound. I tend to be drawn to ideas that have an everydayness to them, and Jennifer delivers.
Here’s the first half of what she had to say:
Paul: Please tell me about a mistake you’ve made with your own children, Jules and Hudson, and what you learned from that mistake about yourself.
Jennifer: Hey, Paul! Before I jump into answering your questions, I wanted to tell you how much I not only appreciate your interest in ParentSpeak but also how gratifying it is to hear that you find it both readable and practical. Those were two really important goals I had. Over the years, I’ve read, or at least have attempted to read, dozens of books on parenting and too often have found myself unable to get through many of them—despite the helpful content. I wanted to share the best of what I’ve learned over the past decade in a way that was easily digested.
Now to answer your question!
As you know, mistakes are one of the hallmarks of being human—which is my way of saying there are simply too many mistakes that I’ve made to choose just one. However, what I want my kids to learn from my mistakes is 1) we all make them, 2) they don’t define us, 3) we can repair them, and 4) often we can learn something valuable from them. I want my children to know I love them—mistakes, bad moods and all. This quote by Rebecca Eanes is so true: “So often children are punished for being human.… None of us are perfect, and we must stop holding our children to a higher standard of perfection than we can attain ourselves.” It really breaks my heart when I think about how many kids get “in trouble” for basically making a mistake, for being human.
Paul: I often find myself reflecting on my behavior and tracing it back to how I was raised, so I appreciate that you advise parents to do the same. Can you explain how this might work for parents? And In the same train of thought, tell us about using this question: “When do I lose it the most?”
Jennifer: I recently went to a talk given by Dr. Dan Siegel—the internationally renowned in leader in “interpersonal neurobiology,” which is the study of the way the brain is influenced by relationships—and the biggest take away of the evening was: the best thing you can do to raise healthy kids is to make sense of your own childhood. I believe it! Personally speaking, I have found that when I can identify my triggers (the situations that make me go from zero to a hundred on a dime) and trace them back to childhood experiences, it helps me leave my past where it belongs—in the past.
I start by trying to be a neutral observer of my behavior so that I can step back and see if there are any similarities to the types of situations that cause me to get anxious or angry. Then I ask myself, “Does this remind you of anything?” I have found that an answer is usually forthcoming. Let me give you an example.
Like many families, our mornings can be hectic. But ours were too hectic—so much so that I really dreaded getting up in the morning. Every morning I found myself getting very mad at the kids for dragging their feet. They weren’t getting out of bed, getting dressed, coming down for breakfast, brushing their teeth, etc. In other words, I was upset because they weren’t doing what I asked, and they were going to be late!!!! Sometimes I would get so overwhelmed by anger and anxiety that I’d unleash on the kids. This always backfired as they’d withdraw or start to scream and cry because it feels awful to be yelled at. Then we’d be even later getting off to school because we’d have to recover and repair. So you can see why I wanted to look at how I was contributing to this mess. This certainly wasn’t how I wanted the kids to start their days.
Instead of just blaming them for not doing their part, I asked myself: “What exactly is getting you so upset?”
The answer came quickly: “I’m afraid they’ll be late.”
So I followed up with myself, “And what’s so awful about that?”
Just asking myself that question threw me back into my childhood.
When I was a kid, my Grandpa, who was the patriarch of our family, made it very clear that good people were on time, bad people were late. To him five minutes late was five minutes way too late. I wanted to be seen as good, but I also worried about family members he was going to be mad at because of their lateness. It made sense that just the thought of my kids being late rattled me so deeply. I didn’t want to be a bad mother! Realizing that I was bringing my own baggage to the mornings helped. But it was just a start.
Next, we had a family meeting about our mornings. I shared with John, Jules, and Hudson that while I definitely over-reacted in the mornings, I wanted to let them know why being on time was important to me. Then I asked each of them to share how they felt about being on time. I learned that while it was important to them, it wasn’t as fraught or urgent for them. Five minutes late certainly didn’t mean to them what it did to me. We talked about how their teachers responded to people being late. And I asked if they found other kids being late disruptive. It was a very enlightening conversation.
We also brainstormed about ways everyone could pitch in to make our mornings go smoother. For example, the kids suggested putting their shoes by the front door at night, and John agreed to bring the toothbrushes in the car, which eliminated a whole other step.
Deconstructing the mornings really helped. Reflecting on why I was so triggered instead of just blaming my kids (which I think so many of us naturally do) changed the whole tenor of our home in the morning.
Paul: I agree that we raise our children with conversation, and we can start by noticing what we are currently saying. What would you suggest parents strike from their conversations?
Jennifer: Unfortunately, and this is one of the underlying points of the book, I don’t think we have enough actual conversations with our kids. Instead, we too often simply tell them:
- what we want them to say (“Say please!” “Say thank you!” “Say sorry!”)
- what we want them to do (“Give me a hug!” “Share!” “Behave yourself!”)
- when we want them to do it (“I said right now!” “I’m going to count to three.”)
- how we’ll feel if they do do it (“Good job!”)
- and what will happen to them if they don’t (“Do you want a time out?” “A spanking?”)
Alas, “parentspeak” is a language of control.
I’m all for conversations, for hearing each other’s points of view, feelings, and needs. Then when all that information is on the table, we can solve the problem together.
Being able to work with our children instead of using rewards or punishment to get compliance takes a shift in perception from seeing kids as children who must do as they are told, to respecting them as full-fledged people with their own feelings, thoughts, and needs that deserve consideration. In our culture, this remains a radical idea.
Paul: Your book also offers some new perspectives; for example: “Expecting young children to be sorry is unrealistic.” Would you explain the thinking behind this statement?
Jennifer: I certainly don’t mean to imply that children are never sorry. However, many child development experts believe that children don’t genuinely feel remorse until they have the ability to take another person’s perspective and there seems to be some consensus that that happens around seven years old. But getting there is a process.
Children are more able to see another’s perspective when we can see theirs and they can share their own. So when we expect a child to apologize when they aren’t genuinely sorry, but instead are mad at the other kid for grabbing their toy, we’re really just asking them to say something they can’t truly comprehend and don’t mean at a time when they feel an injustice has been done against them. When we tell them to say sorry, we’re essentially ignoring their experience, perhaps to smooth things over with the other parent or child.
If our child has hurt another child, we can apologize. “That hurt! I’m sorry he hit you. Do you need any ice? When you are feeling better, let’s talk about what happened.”
When there is a conflict, my goal isn’t to identify the wrongdoer and get an apology but instead to help both parties communicate with each other about how they felt and how they can work it out, the details of which I get into in the book.
Come back next week for Part II of my conversation with Jennifer Lehr.