Act 1, Scene 1:
4-Year-Old, shouting (or his regular voice since they’re the same): I don’t want to put my shoes on!
2019 Mom, calmly with cheer and understanding: I see that you’re frustrated and aren’t feeling happy about getting your shoes on to go to school. You can hop like a bunny to put them on or slither like a snake. Which one?
4-Year-Old: No! [Hops like a bunny in the opposite direction.]
2019 Mom, a little more firmly: You can choose which shoes you’d like to wear! Your sandals or your sneakers?
4-Year-Old, pure defiance and glee: I want my boots! And I want a snack! And I don’t feel safe when you talk to me like that.
2019 Mom, apologetically: I’m sorry you don’t feel safe. Let’s use your words to tell me how you feel.
Thirty minutes later, it’s likely the kid is crying while being hauled to the car. If he’s not, he was probably bribed. And if he wasn’t bribed, he’s a magical unicorn and the mother should drive directly to procure a lottery ticket and then buy me wine with what is surely a winning ticket.
Now, consider that same scenario 25–30 years ago with you and your own mother. Or, better yet, consider a negotiation between foreign leaders with different agendas, motivations and entirely different languages. Because that’s essentially what’s happening. Our children — our brilliant, beautiful, precocious, curious, observant children speak a different language than we do. More than that, they’re looking to us to show them how to act.
I’m definitely guilty of wanting to “talk it out” with my own 3-year-old. I mean, she uses big words and uses them correctly. But what my #mombrain sometimes forgets is that just because a child can negotiate with us doesn’t mean that they should. And just because she can parrot back rhetoric in context, doesn’t mean she knows what she’s saying.
I was struggling recently because I couldn’t seem to break through. (Did I mention she’s 3?) Nothing could “make her understand” why she should behave a certain way. Then I remembered a podcast that you should all go listen to right now. You don’t even have to finish this post, it’s that good.
Dr. Wendy Mogel is a renowned child psychologist and the author of a couple of amazing books. In the episode I heard, she was complimenting Dax Shepherd on a parenting choice for no other reason than the fact that what he said to his daughter was brief. Five words, in fact.
So I decided to try something new with Adair. The next time she started to negotiate, I turned to her and said, “I’m sorry. The answer is no.”
She drew a quick breath and puffed up her chest. I prepared myself for the whiny diatribe that was sure to follow and… silence. She just walked away. I couldn’t believe my luck because that’s clearly what it was. But then it worked several more times and in varying situations — even bedtime.
She may have resisted more in certain moments, but the result was always a shorter exchange with fewer tears and muttered swear words. By both of us. (My 3-year-old swearing will be another post entirely. Probably called, “My kid called you an asshole and it’s my fault.”)
Obviously, there will be times where this doesn’t work and I know that parenting is a constant evolution of figuring out how to relate to our children. But this was an amazing reminder of a premise that the French employ in their child-rearing. Children really do crave boundaries! It’s our job to teach them how to manage themselves, and it can’t happen all at once, certainly not when they’re toddlers.
Dr. Mogel touched on how we, as a generation of parents, are so scared of the phase between precious baby and functioning human that we’re attempting to raise “junior statesmen.” But attempting to preempt difficult moments or smooth them over with a compromise on which everyone can agree is doing us all a disservice. Not only are we extending stressful moments, but we’re also preparing them for a lifetime of self-centered rigidity and robbing them of the ability to adapt to a situation that isn’t to their liking.
This is not to say that considering our children’s feelings or teaching them to communicate is unimportant. This is to say that we’re considering our kids’ feelings to a fault. We need to stop obsessing about their comfort and their happiness. We should allow them to act the way their quickly developing brains are programmed to act. We should stop measuring our abilities as a parent by their decorum as citizens.
We should stop talking to our kids so much.
Please note: I am not a psychologist or an educator or a therapist or in possession of any higher education credentials pertaining to childhood development. I would also never presume to know better than another parent. This is an essay on what happened when I took a professional’s advice and stopped talking so darn much.