This is such an important topic, and there is so much to say about it, that I’ve divided it into three parts. Click here to see Part II and Part III.
Also, for a list of parenting sentences that you can refer to and practice, click “There’s a Better Way to Say It!”
Positive speaking is the second most important parenting principle, after Explain Expectations. I really believe it is the key to effective parenting. There are so many powerful effects our words and tones can have on children, for good or for bad. This principle really began to take form in my mind when I moved to a new area and met a wonderful woman who had seven children, all quite young. She was a positive person by nature, always smiling and reaching out to be friendly to others. I felt like she was a really impressive mother (with impressive children!) and decided to observe her more closely. The most striking thing was how positive and kind she was to her children. No matter what she was telling them (to not interrupt her, to go do something, to not do something) it was always in a calm and kind manner. This is not to be confused with being passive or a push over. She was calm and kind BUT ALSO firm and following through with her instructions. This was the epiphany to me – you don’t have to be mean to discipline! Isn’t that a revelation?! In my mind you had to act and look mean to get your point across, to let them know that this was really “not okay!” But no, it turns out a soft answer turneth away wrath (and produceth better behavior, too!!)
If you watch parents, they are often unkind or curt with their children. They treat them like second class citizens, sometimes in subtle ways. Children need lots of attention, and they are not just being annoying when they try to get attention. It sounds trite, but treat your children like you would treat a friend. (I know, I know, friends don’t pull on your pants and say, “Mo-om!” over and over, but that’s why they say parenting is hard!). You have to take the time and effort to speak to your children kindly, and explain things to them, and teach them appropriate behavior, and a thousand other things that take time, but the investment will be SOO worth it. It really will pay off in a better relationship and in better behavior from them. You will feel more positive about your parenting efforts and about your child. It’s worth the time and effort!
Speaking kindly is especially hard to do when you are angry or irritated. See Parenting without Irritation and Practice Patience for more advice on that.
Here are a few ideas related to this principle, the list of ideas is continued in Parts II and III.
*Don’t lecture. When you need to redirect your child, be brief and unemotional, try to use 6 words or less for the most part. Save all your words for focusing on the good behavior! (See Positive Reinforcement). Some parents like to talk and are naturally longer winded. I am not one of those; I am not much of a talker anyway, so I don’t fall victim to the temptation to lecture. I’d much rather listen by nature, which served me as a benefit in parenting. If this is not your strong point, you’re going to have to work on this. There is a lot of listening in parenting! If you want to talk, make it about future expectations (in a kind way, not a “here’s what you’re doing wrong” way. See Explain Expectations). When you are reprimanding or disciplining, that is not the time for a lot of words. That is not a teachable moment – children are turned off and not paying attention. Going on and on about something just makes them irritated at you and doesn’t inspire them to do the right thing next time.
*Validate their feelings. News flash: children are people. People like to be validated. Don’t you feel better when someone says, “That must be hard” rather than, “Just get over it!” We can always be on our children’s side, even when they misbehave. We can always empathize with them and validate them, even while following through on the consequence we established. Say Jane was hitting her brother with a hard plastic toy. You’ve asked her not to 2-3 times (coming close to her, looking her in the eye, explaining why she can’t), so now you’ve put the toy up high and she is crying. You can say, “I know it’s hard to not play with that toy right now. You’ll get to play with it later. How about this one for now?” instead of, “Well, it’s your own fault, if you could ever learn to not hit your brother with that toy then you would be able to play with it!” Your role is not to dig in the shame and guilt, but to unemotionally administer the consequence and empathize with her distraught.
This may sound very foreign to some of you, to be empathetic when they are upset about consequences of their own misbehavior, and it takes some practice to get right. Sometimes the validation can come off as sarcastic, like, “Oh, so sad you can’t play with that toy, why do you think that is?” You have to be coming from a kind place to pull it off, and it takes practice to get to that place!
Another example is when your spouse has reprimanded or administered consequences to your child. You can go to the child and empathize, while still being firm in agreeing with what your spouse did. After asking what’s wrong, your crying child tells you how daddy took away the toy and put it up high. You could say, “It sounds like you’re very sad about that. I’m sorry that happened.” Saying ‘I’m sorry that happened’ is not the same as saying ‘daddy shouldn’t have done that’ or ‘you weren’t doing anything wrong’. It’s just validating their feelings. The child is sad about something, and I am empathizing with the sadness; I care about her and her feelings. Empathy with consequences communicates that we’re in their corner, we accept them and love them, and they’re ok.
There’s a lot written and said about the importance of validating feelings in marital relationships, and the same principles apply in parenting. Children want to be heard; they don’t necessarily want you to fix the problem right away or tell them what to do about it. They just want you to listen to them. Sometimes they will tell you they want you to do something about it, but sometimes they will just finish telling the sad or hard story and then be done. Sometimes they take a long time to get the story out or the story is really boring! But you listen anyway, and validate the feeling at the end. “Sounds like you had a rough day.” “You’re feeling very angry right now.” “You must be tired after doing all of that!.”
One funny and cute idea I read somewhere about listening to and validating children was to say, “I’m going to write that down!” If the child is angry about something she doesn’t like or want, the mom says, “Ok, I’m going to write that down.” Even though the mom doesn’t intend to do anything with the idea or the paper it’s written on, the child feels thoroughly listened to because her opinion will be written down!