|Seen recently in a video store: a young father, with a
baby in a backpack, a daughter about age four, and an overflowing
grocery bag. The little girl climbs up onto a two-foot high platform.
The platform is not dangerous for a child that age, and the little
girl is not doing anything harmful. She is simply standing there,
looking around; it's hard to be short in a world designed for adults.
But her father immediately hisses in a low, menacing tone: "Get
down!" Then, without giving her a second to comply, he grabs one
of her hands and yanks her with great force back to floor level. She
might easily have been physically injured, but luckily she was not.
Emotional injury, however, was done. She walks away from him, looking
dazed and forlorn. A store clerk assures the father that "all the
children stand up there". The father says nothing, nor does he
even look at his daughter.
Hopefully, this was an unusual, isolated incident. Perhaps this
father is normally more caring toward his daughter; perhaps he was
fatigued from having cared for two young children during a long
afternoon of errands. Perhaps he was raised to believe that child care
is not an appropriate role for a man (the children's mother was not
present). Perhaps he himself was treated with impatience and
disrespect when he was a child. Perhaps he had not slept well the
night before, or had many worries in his life. Perhaps next time when
he wants his daughter to do something, he'll have more time and
patience to give her.
All parents have moments when we become so frustrated, angry, or
wrapped up in a particular situation that we miss the forest for the
trees. Sometimes a parent is angry about something in his own life,
which has nothing to do with his child, but he takes it out on her
simply because she is there. While this is a common human failing,
such scapegoating is entirely unfair to the child, who is guilty only
of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
At these times, it can be helpful - though admittedly difficult -
to step back and consider a more positive approach. Randall Rolfe, in
her illuminating book, You
Can Postpone Anything But Love, discusses communication
between parent and child:
"We might say, 'You stop doing it because I said so.' But we
seldom feel good about saying this. In fact, the kind of filial
obedience we parents really want comes only out of mutual trust.
This we foster day by day by sharing our thinking with our children,
so that they can trust that our reasons are generally good and we
can trust that they will sense when they must rely on our
Rolfe then offers a five-step pattern for saying "no" to
a child: "We will try to say it: in a nice way; with a thoughtful
explanation of why not; with an inquiry about how the child might
feel; with a suggestion about what he might do instead, and with an
offer to help him get started."
The second step, a thoughtful explanation, is perhaps the most
challenging, as it requires that we be honest with ourselves, in order
to be honest with our child. In our example, the father might
explained to his daughter "This is where people return their
video tapes and we need to keep this area free." Yet he himself
had put his grocery bag on the same platform. It is more likely that
he was anxious about possible criticism from the store personnel and
this is the explanation he should give.
Children always recognize discrepancies between our feelings and
our words; they pay close attention to our tone of voice, body
language, and emotional state, and will detect and resent dishonesty.
If we apply Rolfe's five-step pattern to the father in the video
store, he might have said to his daughter, in a patient tone of voice,
"You look like you're having fun up there and getting a good look
around. Honey, I'm worried that the store clerks may not want you to
stand there. Here, let me help you down. We've spent a lot of time in
stores today, haven't we? On the way home, let's stop at the
playground so you can do some real climbing."
This sort of gentle, respectful request would surely have been
honored, unless his daughter had built up a large store of anger over
previous hurts. We adults all know that we are more likely to
cooperate with someone who treats us with kindness and respect, than
with someone who treats us with anger and impatience. Why should we
imagine that a child will react any differently? Children are real
persons with real feelings, who respond to the actions of others in
exactly the same predictable ways that we all do.
A five-step request may seem like a lot of effort. Respectful,
empathic approaches do require more time, energy and creativity from
parents, but surely our children deserve such care from us. As Rolfe
explains, a caring approach is "more effective than all the
yelling and scolding in the world, and a lot more pleasant for parent
and child alike. It takes a bit more time in the short run. But in the
long run, we save a great deal of time, energy, and pain." And
gain a lifelong joyful relationship with our child.