Friday, August 5, 2011

How To Help My Child

Sammy got her hair cut a few days ago. There was a drinking fountain in the salon which she could just barely reach with her lips if she stood on the tips of her tippy tippy toes. She had one drink, and then later came back for more - mostly for the challenge, I think. I watched from a few yards away as she struggled to coordinate the pushing of the button with the standing on the tippy toes with the placement of her mouth. Just then, the woman who had cut her hair saw her efforts and ran over to "help" by lifting her up. I swear, Sammy almost hit her across the face, also yelling, "No, stop!"

There was no actual hitting - Sammy just lashed out with her hands, but the woman was behind her so she missed. The woman immediately put her down and Sammy got her drink and didn't make any more fuss about it, but was obviously a little bit disturbed. As we were leaving, I told Sammy that she was entirely right to say "no" to the help, and that the woman should not have picked her up without asking, but that she needed to control her hitting. I told her that a firm "no" would have sufficed. But thinking about it later, I shouldn't have reproved her even for that. What would you do if you were in the middle of a physical task that requires focus, and some stranger came up behind you without warning and picked you up by the waist? I'm not sure I'd lash out, but I certainly wouldn't blame an adult who did so. The important lesson in that situation for Sammy should have been that she did essentially the right thing, not the wrong thing. I should have kept my mouth shut completely.

I love my Sammy's independence, and I'll be damned if I'm going to be a part of killing it. Shame on me. Next time, I'll do better. It's all a matter of being on the lookout for the good, not the bad. Kids don't need to have every minor mistake corrected. (They make so many mistakes it's not like we parents could ever run out of material!) It's much more important that their achievements are recognized, and their virtues acknowledged. I think it's all too easy to slip into the parental mode of just hovering over the child, waiting for the next "teachable moment" to guide their behavior. I'm a big believer in using those moments, but in our roles as guides I think we can get too caught up in looking for those situations. That is what turns even the best of us into the "critical parents" that we all strive so hard to avoid becoming. Let's all just take a chill pill. I will.


  1. Man o' SteeleAugust 5, 2011 at 4:15 AM

    Three cheers for chill pills.

    In my many years of careful observation, I've found that the hovering-correcting-teachable-moments mentality is much more about the parents self-image than the child's growth. Most parents internalize the mistakes of their children: if they do something wrong, I've done something wrong. Or even worst they import social metaphysics into the mess: If others disapprove of my child's behavior, I am a bad parent/person. The child has little at stake when a parent corrects them, but a parent puts everything on the line when correct his child.

    It's really hard because avoiding these mistakes requires us to constantly hold a context that isn't easy to hold. "I don't care how others view my child. Mistakes are good things. If I constantly correct my child, I will do damage to him."

  2. I don't think the way Sammy reacted was a mistake: the mistake was in the lady's end, assuming that she wanted help when she didn't. So many adults (parents like myself included) assume that because children don't know how to communicate well yet, that we adults need to do everything for them. If we saw an adult struggle at the fountain, we wouldn't help him unless he asked for help or clearly looked as if he was going to hurt himself or others.

    With that said, if Sammy actually had intent to hit the lady, shouldn't that be addressed? To show that force is not necessarily a way to react, even though the lady did make the mistake of trying to help Sammy without first communicating with her? Sammy was not wrong to react the way she did, but I probably would have taken a little time to communicate to both parties that there was a lack of communication in this situation, mostly on the part of the adult (though I probably would have said the latter more clearly to my child later).

  3. Mr. Steele - (I feel like one of your students when I call you that!). I agree, but I also think there is a much more innocent reason for the hovering. I'm sure many parents are second-handed about it, but I know that is not my reason. My reason is more about being on the alert for mistakes, instead of being on the alert for successes. And this next is the answer to Yuen as well:

    The thing about this situation is that Sammy did something that was right AND she did something that was wrong. She defended her body, and she did it assertively, which was entirely appropriate. It's also not automatic. Sam did go through a period where she was not acting assertively. (We've spent a lot of time and effort teaching her how to use her "firm voice" and even though I said she yelled it, it really was an appropriate tone that she used. I was proud of her for that.) Her attempt to hit was more like an instinctive swing. It was still wrong, because she has to learn to control that impulse to lash out physically. But here's the thing. No matter how much I tell Sammy that she did the right thing by telling the lady to stop, if I add in that she shouldn't have hit, that is all that will register. Or, at minimum, the recognition of her achievement will be weakened by the "but." I have to choose which "lesson" is more important in this situation. And she hits enough that she gets that lesson all the time from me. The hitting was not the fundamental aspect of this event. What was great and more unique here was that she successfully defended herself. She never made contact with the lady, so the words actually accomplished it. And importantly, the lesson was made entirely without my intervention. I didn't have to add one thing for Sammy to get it. By adding any of my comments at all, I think I weakened the impact.

    So my whole point is that "No, the attempt to hit should not have been addressed." The lesson that I learned from this is that I don't have to address each and every instance of "wrong" behavior. And this ties in nicely with my last parenting post, where I'm concerned about correcting Sam when I'm busy with the other children. (And later, vice versa.) If I have the mindset that every instance of improper behavior needs to be corrected, I'm going to get very frustrated. It's not practical, and I'm beginning to see that it's not even advisable.

    Again, this doesn't mean that I believe that kids will learn all their lessons through natural consequences. I am firmly against that view. I think parents absolutely must impose logical consequences where the natural consequences are beyond the child's comprehension (mostly due to the inability to have a long-range mentality). I just don't think it needs to be done every single time. Context matters.

  4. Nice point, Amy! I was astounded today to receive a glowing compliment on my parenting from a FedEx guy. Alex saw him, opened the gate, let him in *and* signed for the package. The man explained - no adult signature was required on that one - so he was delighted to see a five-year-old act so much like an adult taking charge. "What great parenting!" he said. My surprise was that he did not criticise me for letting my child open the door to a stranger, as I usually expect, you know, in the rough Orange County neighborhood we live in. He did not ask him to get his mom. Instead, he was glowing with vicarious pride, seeing a boy well on his path to independence. I was a lot more proud of the man than I was of Alex. :-)

  5. Kate, that's a great story. I should note that I've encountered many, many thoughtful adults like that. In fact, I'm glad to say that I also see a lot of parents speaking respectfully to their children as well - and actually listening to them! I don't want it to seem like I think most adults except us enlightened few are horrible to children. The physical boundaries issue seems to be the most common, though, and when I see it it makes me so angry.