|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
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 judgment."
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
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.