I went out to dinner with a friend Saturday night. We talked, we laughed, we caught up, we talked about work, our children, our spouses, and lamented over the fact that so much time seems to pass in between each visit. It was a lot of fun, and as we were about to go our separate ways in the Patriot Place parking lot, we witnessed a little skirmish between a mother and her (roughly) 9 year-old daughter. What appeared to happen was that the family (mother, father, daughter, older son) was crossing the street and the mother grabbed onto her daughter a little too aggressively, all while showering her with obscenities and degrading comments. The daughter yelled out in pain and said the mom “hit her in the stomach” as they were crossing the street. The mom denied it vehemently, admitted to squeezing her arm, and made it abundantly clear that if the girl mouthed off once more, she WOULD hit her in the stomach. So, my friend and I are watching this little exchange and I am thinking three very distinct things:
1. I might have to either call the cops on this woman, or intervene myself (or both).
2. Why is the father not saying anything?
3. This whole family needs to enroll in my Self Esteem Through Art courses.
As we continued to watch, the daughter mumbled something under her breath and then darted out of harm’s way when the mom lunged. We lost sight of them as they made their way to the car, and I can only imagine what the ride home was like.
Now, I have no way of knowing what happened prior to that moment in the crosswalk. Maybe the daughter had been a pain in the ass all day and the mom finally hit her breaking point. Maybe the mom had way too much to drink at dinner and she becomes verbally abusive after too many glasses of Pinot. Maybe the parents are having marital issues and the stress of it all is starting to very publicly show itself. A million things could be happening under the surface and I realize I am not privy to that family’s pain, nor to the private matters of the general population. But, what I DO know is that there is a right and a wrong way to handle a disobedient/mouthy/persnickety child. I DO know that there are effective parenting methods and extraordinarily ineffective ones (‘crosswalk mama’ falls into the latter category). I DO know that verbal venom begets more verbal venom, and abusive parents raise abusive children. And, I am 100% confident that there is no quicker way to have a kid tune out than to have you go on a verbal diatribe. Quite frankly, nobody wins when you lose your cool.
We have all had those moments. The ones where we raise our voices at our children and threaten them within an inch of their lives. The times where our kids are manipulative little midgets and we cannot take another second of it. The moments when we are absolutely certain that nothing exists between their ears except air and perhaps a little bit of lint. The times where you want Calgon to take you really freaking far away! I am very fortunate in that I have amazing children, but I have still had those moments. They are few and far between, but they definitely exist (and I am pretty sure that the frequency of those moments will be on an uptick as my daughters approach the teenage years).
If I could give any advice today: it is that discipline is one of a parent’s most important jobs. It is our job to discipline, and mentor, and help them make good decisions, and prepare them to be upstanding citizens so they can ultimately leave the nest and be productive members of society.
But discipline does not equal berate.
Discipline does not equal abuse.
Discipline does not equal bully.
I grew up in a house of “yellers” and I can honestly say, it wasn’t that effective. All the times I was screamed at made me want to go out and do something equally as irresponsible as kind of a middle finger to that kind of discipline. There were very few times I felt like my parents “got me” — more often than not I felt like they were trying to “break me.” Sure, they loved me, but rarely did they come from that place of love when they were pissed at me. The anger typically won out.
In the instance of that mother in the crosswalk, there is no doubt in my mind that her daughter did not learn a God blessed thing that night. The mom’s teachable moment passed her by and she missed out on the opportunity to help her daughter grow. I am sure there would have been a very different outcome if she had chosen her words and her actions more calmly and effectively. She absolutely should have spoken to her child if the girl was being careless in a crosswalk in the midst of oncoming traffic. It is her job as a mother to help keep her children safe. But, it is NOT her job as a mother to do it in a way that makes her kids feel like shit.
Can we all agree that pulling your child aside quietly and coming from a place of love and concern is more effective than screeching at the top of your lungs and telling your kids what an idiot you think they are? Which scenario do you think would generate the best response from the daughter?
- “Hey Jane! Freeze! I know you were busy looking at your iPod and you didn’t see that car coming while you were crossing the street. I need you to be sure you are paying closer attention because sometimes people are careless behind the wheel so I need you to be more aware of what is going on. I love you and I never want to see you get hurt, so please put your iPod in your pocket until you are in a place where you can safely sit and look at it.”
- The mom grabs Jane violently and yells at the top of her lungs, “You are so stupid! What the hell are you doing? Why can’t you be more like your brother? We’ll be lucky if you make it to your next birthday, you jackass!”
Please tell me you picked option #1! If you didn’t, you’ve got some work to do yourself and I hope you keep reading these posts, come to some of my classes, and maybe seek out some private sessions with me. If you are having a hard time resonating with this post, think about how you would feel if your boss publicly humiliated you for an accounting error. Would you have any respect for your boss at all if you were verbally abused in front of your peers instead of being spoken to with respect, in private?!
I know it is very difficult to remain calm in a situation where the adrenaline is flowing and you are mad at your kids and protective of them and scared for them and overwhelmed due to them. Do it anyways. Take a deep breath, let a second or two go by, and do your best to come from a place of love and understanding instead of a place of fear and loathing. Our kids are not deliberately trying to be obtuse and difficult. There are definite physiological causes and developmental reasons why they do some of the foolish things they do. Let’s try to help them navigate times like that in a healthy, productive way. Remember, it’s not what you say as a parent that will be more damaging than anything your kids will attempt on their own…it’s how you say it.
A few years ago, I had to rescue my oldest daughter at the ocean. I was closer to shore with her little sister (who could not yet swim) and Brenna wanted to be more of a big kid and play in the waves. I couldn’t go any further with her, but I gave her the green light, told her to not go in above her waist and to keep giving me the thumbs up that she was okay. Well, the waves were really big that day and Brenna was no match for them. In the blink of an eye, she got sucked into an undertow and was out way over her head. She panicked. I panicked. The lifeguards were too far away and couldn’t see us. I had her sister in my arms and couldn’t let her go. I didn’t have time to run back to shore to deposit Shay and then run back in to save Brenna. I had to make a split second decision to swim out to Brenna, while carrying her younger sister in my arms (the surf well over her head), and try to save the two of them. There was no choice…Brenna didn’t have much time left before she was going under for good and Shay couldn’t swim, so I couldn’t leave her in the water alone. As you know, we were lucky that day and this story has a happy ending. Part of me wanted to throttle Brenna for not listening, for not taking the power of the ocean seriously. Part of me felt guilty for allowing her that freedom which she was obviously not ready for. But, I still felt the desire to yell — mainly out of fear, and because I truthfully could have been minutes from watching my daughter drown. But instead, once we were back on shore, I took a deep breath and hugged her and we all had a really good cry. After that, we had a serious heart to heart about the power of the ocean and what to do if you get caught in a rip current. She has never forgotten that day (neither have I). The ocean, with all its fury, taught her all the lessons she needed to learn that day; my forked tongue would not have done a bit of good or added anything positive to that equation. Though difficult, I chose to come from a place of love rather than a place of fear and anger.
Try this formula the next time you have the urge to lambaste your offspring or bash their brains in, and then tell me how it goes:
- Take a deep, calming breath.
- Ask them a clarifying question. (ex: Do you realize that you just walked out into the street without looking?)
- Explain why there is a problem with that. (ex: There is a lot of traffic at this time of day and it would be very difficult for a driver to stop in time. I need you to be equally as vigilant about paying attention.)
- Ask if they understood: (ex: Do you understand what I mean by that?)
- Explain the consequences and come from a place of love. (ex: Do you understand what could happen to you if you got hit by a car? You could get injured, or even killed. I love you very much and would be so devastated if anything ever happened to you. I want to let you go out in the neighborhood by yourself, but I won’t be able to if you are not paying close attention to your surroundings. Please be more careful next time.)
- Ask for clarification once more and request that they be more aware. (ex: Do you promise to be more careful when you go out? What can you do differently?)
I would be willing to bet that you get a much different response than the one you are used to getting. Just remember: without realizing it, the words you choose are potentially doing more damage to your children than you know. You CAN discipline them and simultaneously build them up at the same time. They are looking to you to show them how to be good parents in the future — please set a good example. And, as difficult and painful as it is sometimes, choose your words carefully!
With much love,