Controlling words

Sometimes when my kids are hanging out with each other they disagree about things. During those disagreements it is not uncommon for one of them to say “you are being mean to me”. I bet this happens in other families too.

Over my 20 years of parenting, I’ve learned something about the phrase “you are being mean to me”. It usually is code for “you did something I don’t like”. Sometimes the person who feels slighted comes to me and says “They were mean to me”. I’ve learned that this is code for “they did something I didn’t like and I feel disempowered so I want you to do something so they will do what I want.” I usually respond with something like “did you tell them what they did that you didn’t like and what you would prefer them to do instead?”. Sometimes the upset child is then able to go and resolve things on their own, sometimes they need support and I go with them to talk about the situation and help everyone articulate their thoughts and feelings until everyone feels heard and things are set right.

I’d like to take a minute to make sure it is really clear that there is no value judgement on my part when I tell you this story. I do not see it as “bad” or “wrong” that my kids have disagreements, or that they sometimes use words in ways that don’t entirely accurately represent the big picture of what happened. I do not feel angry at them or see them as being in the wrong for needing help navigating these social interactions. I see it as part of their learning process- they are gaining skills in being around others and figuring out how to self advocate and how to be responsible for their own feelings and reactions. They are also learning about other peoples feelings and reactions and how to interact with those. It’s just part of being a kid and growing up. Part of my role as a parent is to support that process gently, with calm and acceptance of the lives that are developing through these experiences.

I need to admit, though, that I didn’t always feel this way. As I said, through 20 years of parenting I have learned……

There are some things I used to say to my kids that I no longer find helpful, and I certainly do not think are respectful of my children’s feelings or stage of development. Some of the things I used to say when my kids struggled and I found their behavior confronting are “you are being naughty”, “you aren’t trying hard enough”, “that was rude” and (I really cringe at admitting this one) “how dare you”. When they changed their behavior and did what I thought they should I would often say “good girl/boy”.

With time, experience and self reflection I’ve been able to identify what I actually meant when I said those things.

you are being naughty: “I cannot control you right now and it makes me uncomfortable”

you aren’t trying hard enough: “you aren’t doing what I want you to and I am blaming that solely on you without being willing to consider that you might be doing your best but my expectations are unrealistic”

that was rude: “you said/did something I found confronting, and I want to control your behavior so that you don’t say/do that again”

how dare you “my desires are more important than yours and you should be ashamed to have done something I didn’t like”

good girl/boy: “I am happy with you right now because you did what I wanted you to”

Implied in all the above is the statement “if you want me to be happy (and you should want me to be happy) you need to do what I want you to do”. I was relying on a combination of shaming my children and coercing them into compliance to make my life easier as a parent.

I could spend paragraphs justifying why I began my life as a parent in this style, but I won’t. I’m just going to say, I’m really glad I learned to do better!

As adults we are actually responsible for our own feelings and reactions. We have no right to rely on the compliance of our children to ensure our own happiness (or any other feelings). Likewise, our children’s behavior is not responsible for our feelings of discomfort. Sure it’s tiring and can be frustrating when someone needs our support and help often and in intense ways, but that is neither a child’s fault or responsibility.

Our children are children. They are still learning. They do not have all the emotional tools available to them that we do, and cannot be expected to self regulate or self monitor the way we expect adults to. They are children.

We are the adults. It is our role to support and empower them, not to shame them for being young and not having gained skills yet.

I am still learning and refining my skills as a parent. I still need to apologise to my kids sometimes. But I am doing better than when I started out. Fortunately my children are forgiving and patient with me. I am glad I am learning to be patient for them.

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