A sinking feeling hits me when the words come out of my mouth: "So, you're going to choose to act like a baby instead of a big girl?"
Ouch. Hello shaming. That must have hurt my recalcitrant 5-year-old.
Lucky for me, kids are really resilient. When I apologize and ask to start over, she's open to mending things. I tell her I was frustrated and why. The morning proceeds more smoothly.
I've been practicing more skillful communication with my daughters for a while now. I've been learning from amazing resources like Parent Effectiveness Training and Non-Violent Communication. So I've had a bit of practice now.
But sometimes -- especially when I'm tired, especially when I'm frustrated -- that old habit language comes out.
We parents miss thousands of chances to help our children and connect with them. Why? Because this habitual language pushes kids away. The way we talk makes kids feel shamed, blamed and disrespected.
Why do kids stop talking to parents about what really bothers them? Why are so few parents successful at maintaining a good relationship with their kids into adolescence?
The way we communicate puts up roadblocks. We habitually use language of non-acceptance, believing that this is the best way to raise our kids.
We don't accept our children the way they are. Instead, we try to shape them into something better with evaluation, judgement, criticism, preaching and commanding.
Parents don't realize that to get respect, we must give respect.
The language of un-acceptance turns kids away from parents. They stop talking to us and get defensive around us. These ways of talking can destroy our connection with our child.
The problem with this language is that we hear it everywhere. You'll probably recognize some of the following things coming out of your mouth. I've certainly heard them coming out of mine!
So without further ado, here are the top five communication mistakes that parents make:
1. Ordering, Directing, Commanding. This is telling your child to do something. Giving them a command. Examples:
"Don't talk to your father like that!"
"Go back over there and play with Audrey."
2. Warning, Threatening. This is telling your child what consequences will occur if s/he does something.
"Say that one more time and you leave the room!"
"If you do that, you'll be sorry!"
3. Moralizing, Preaching. This is telling your child what they should or ought to do.
"You shouldn't act like that."
"You ought to do this..."
"You should always be respectful around adults."
4. Judging, criticizing, blaming. This is making a negative judgement or evaluation of the child.
"You aren't thinking clearly."
"That's very immature."
"I can't believe you did that."
5. Name-calling, Ridiculing, Shaming. This is making the child feel foolish, putting the child into a category, shaming him or her.
"OK, little baby."
"Look here, Miss Know-It-All."
"You're acting like a wild animal."
These messages of shaming and blaming lead to children feeling unaccepted and unloved.
So, what do we do instead?
To create connection rather than disconnection with our kids, we need to demonstrate to them that we accept them exactly as they are. Then, kids find it safe to be themselves around us. In an atmosphere of acceptance, children can grow, develop, create and learn.
The nurturing soil of loving acceptance allows them to grow into adults who love and accept themselves. We can show this in our actions and our language. We want to create connection, but we also want to guide our children. So, what to do?
When we see behavior we don't like, the key is to describe, not to judge. This can be with feelings or behaviors. "Wow, you really want to buy something right now," instead of, "Stop being so selfish!"
Another essential skill to use instead is the I-message. Children are much more likely to change their behavior if their parents send I-messages containing these three parts:
1. A description of the unacceptable behavior
2. The parent's feeling
3. The tangible and concrete effect the behavior has on the parent.
For example, instead of "Stop leaning back on the chair!," you can say, "When I see you leaning back on the chair I get scared and worried about you getting hurt. Then I can't eat and enjoy my meal because of that stress."
I know, sounds wordy! But imagine if you had a houseguest over. How would you speak to them respectfully if they were leaning back in the chair? It can feel crazy and go against the grain to treat kids with as much respect as we give adults. But the beautiful thing is, it works. My children have made huge shifts towards cooperation as I stopped using these communication mistakes.