Psychology
20 Jul 2018

If we aren’t getting our point across to our kids, then we’re saying it wrong

"We don’t let strangers treat our children with disrespect, but we don’t mind doing it ourselves." An interview with Lucyna Kicińska, a “Child and Youth Helpline” coordinator.

Wysokie Obcasy
Natalia Waloch Wysokie Obcasy, Global
If we aren’t getting our point across to our kids,  then we’re saying it wrong   - NewsMavens
Woman talking to child, Google

The following selections are from an interview by Natalia Waloch with Lucyna Kicińska, a “Child and Youth Helpline” coordinator. The original appeared in Polish in the weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in June 2018.

Natalie Waloch: I was looking for the phrase heard most often by children and I’m fairly sure it’s “don’t”.

Lucyna Kicińska: I agree: “Don’t do it.” “Don’t say that.”  “Don’t go there.”

NW: I can understand that a certain dose of “don’ts” is necessary when the child is really young.

The point is that it really isn’t and it’s also completely ineffective. We shouldn’t inform our children what we don’t want them to do, but tell them clearly what we would like them to do!

If a child comes up with an idea and we’re not happy with it, but also don’t provide them with an alternative activity, they will ignore our order and go back to their original plan. This is simply because that’s the only kind of play they can think of at the time. We, on the other hand, will be convinced that they are deliberately trying to upset us and we might even start doubting ourselves and our ability to parent effectively.

If we want our child to behave in a certain way, we need to send them a clear message. Saying “don’t do it” is not enough. We should explain to our child exactly why climbing onto a luggage belt at the airport is not the best idea, and come up with a different form of entertainment: reading a book, playing with a toy or going for a walk.

Restraints are inefficient -- after all, we can’t forbid our child from becoming bored.

NW: Some of the most common parental prohibitions seem irrational and unnecessary. Why should a child be told off for crawling under a table at the cafe if they aren't hurting anyone?

First, we should always ask ourselves why we want to introduce a particular restriction. If we find climbing under the table dangerous, it’s much more reasonable to say: “Be careful doing that. Do you remember how you hit your head last time?”  Children often decide to hide under the table at a restaurant or in a cafe because for some inexplicable reason that’s the cool place to be (as I’m sure we remember from our own childhood).

Sipping latte and gossiping with a friend might be pleasant for adults but not so much for a three-year-old. 

Why do we expect our lively toddler to sit in a chair and listen to a conversation about work or politics? That’s ridiculous!

Instead of saying: “Sit still” or “Behave”, we ought to try, “Can you sit next to me? Here’s your toy car, you can play with it but be careful not to hit the cup, it's filled with hot coffee.”

NW:  If I respond “later” or “not now”, what does my child hear? Let’s say that my son is trying to show me his Lego minifigure and I reply: “Not now, I’m doing the washing up.”

He probably thinks that you have no interest in his world and that dirty dishes are more important to you than he is. You could say: “Look, I’ve got four more plates to wash, you can stay here, count down the dishes and once we’ve finished, you will tell me all about your little figurine.” Or you can let him sit next to the kitchen sink and carry on washing up while listening to his story. It’s good to encourage him and ask some questions as it shows your interest is genuine.

NW: And what if I’m not overly interested in his Lego figures?

I don’t find action figures or teddy bears fascinating either. What appeals to me is the fact that my child wants to share with me, so I say things like: “Wow, you seem to know a lot about it!” Don’t we all have a friend whose profession is either not particularly exciting or too complicated for us to understand, but we still ask them about their job?

Many of my friends are engineers and IT specialists. When it comes to shop talk, I struggle to figure out what they’re speaking about, but it doesn’t stop me from taking part in the conversation. I value their friendship, so I ask how they are or what’s been going on in their lives and if they decide to talk about work, I listen. We automatically do these things for friends and colleagues but not necessarily for our children, even though our kids are surely more precious to us.

NW: How should a parent react if their child has a tantrum in the supermarket?  Children don’t have a special “rage mode” which activates as soon as they walk into the shop. If a toddler screams and throws itself on the floor in the supermarket, it’s because that’s their everyday behaviour. At home we allow our kids to walk all over us and we’re greatly surprised if they continue to do so outside the house.

If our child usually gets a treat while shopping with us and one day we refuse to buy them a little toy or a chocolate, they simply doesn’t understand why so they get angry and make a scene. If we know that we’re not going to buy anything extra this time, or we plan to get only one present, we should let the child know, and make a clear agreement: “We’re going shopping and you’ll be allowed to choose only one thing for yourself, okay?”

If our child insists on more than one present in the shop, we remind them about our contract. If they still get hysterical, we can try to explain the situation back at home:

“We agreed that you’d choose only one thing, remember?”

“Yeah, but I really wanted two toys”.

“I know you did and we all want many different things, but we had a deal, didn’t we?”

NW: And how about “I understand you’re upset because I didn’t buy you that bear. I get angry, too, if I don’t get what I want, you know?”

Perfect! That  our child that they have a right to be mad. It’s a good moment to provoke further conversation:

“You wanted that teddy bear really badly, right?”

“I did.”

“Can you tell me why?”

“Because Marc has one.”

We can use that moment to explain that we can’t always get what other people have and try to convince our child that things they already have in their room are pretty cool too.

NW: Is distraction an effective method?

Not the “Oh, look, there’s a bird over there”, kind of distraction, but a diversion through conversation about something important to our child can be effective. Sometimes I step into these unfortunate situations in supermarkets. I crouch down next to the hysterical child and say: “Hi, My name is Lucyna. I can see you’re crying. Will you tell me why? So, you wanted this action figure? You know, I’ve heard it’s really expensive. Do you have a favourite toy at home?” And we carry on chatting together.

Children calm down very quickly once we start listening and treating them seriously.

Of course the parents often try to justify a child’s miraculous change of mood by attributing it to their respect for strangers, but I really don’t have any superpowers. I’m not a child whisperer, I just talk and listen to them. It’s a simple mechanism that always works.

NW: How to praise? My child comes to me with three crooked lines drawn on the paper and tells me that it’s a castle with knights. I say: “It’s beautiful!” What does my child hear?

Most likely they’re overjoyed. The moments when children run to us to show us something they’ve created are usually very brief but we should try to extend them, and ask some questions: “And what’s that, next to the cat? Cool! What else can you draw?” That’s how we encourage them to progress.

Their little doodles are not truly impressive to us because children have a different perception than adults. I have a friend who has always been a wonderful artist but never really enjoyed doing it. One day he told me why. When he was a child he drew a small picture of a tiger and was extremely happy with it. Years later, in his teens, he accidently found that drawing. It turned out that his masterpiece consisted of a small circular shape and a few stripes. To this day he’s very sceptical and apprehensive about his artwork.

NW: Can you think of some common praises that do more harm than good?

Praising is a tricky matter. It seems like it’s always good to compliment children and tell them that we’re proud of them. But it would be even better if they were proud of themselves. We can try to ingrain it in their mind, saying: “You did a wonderful job here. Are you proud of yourself?” If the child confirms, we can add: “I am very proud of you, too.”

NW: Can we tell our son or daughter that we won’t get angry if they tell us the truth?

Only if we mean it. We can always say: “There’s a chance that I will get sad or mad for a moment, but it should never stop you from sharing your thoughts and worries with me. I will always do my best to help you.”

Very often kids choose not to talk about their troubles because they see us as superheroes, who either don’t have problems at all or solve them single-handedly.

If they are unable to work out their own concerns, children might feel useless and pathetic, and, as a result, decide to stay quiet.

NW: They are ashamed to admit to their weaknesses?

Absolutely. We make a mistake by not telling our children that problems are an integral part of our life. Pressure makes kids mistake self-reliance with solitude and prompts them to hide their anxieties.

A child's silence gives parents a false assurance -- if a child doesn’t speak up about their problems, they clearly don’t have any -- and creates a vicious circle of distress.

We also don’t talk to our children about violence between peers and choose to pretend it doesn’t exist, even though they witness it every day. A better method would be sitting down with your child and saying: “Listen, I know that bullying happens. Perhaps you could tell me what’s happening at school and I’ll tell you whether any of those behaviours sound inappropriate or violent?”

NW: As a part of not wrapping my son in cotton wool, can I let him see me being miserable or crying, and tell him: “You know what, I’ve had a terrible day” or “I’m not feeling great today”?

That’s OK. It's even better if you explain: “I’m feeling down and that’s why I look so sad” as it teaches your child to read emotions, to understand them. You can also add: “But it will pass. Feelings come and go. I’m with you now and it makes me very happy.” It’s a much better strategy than pretending to be a robot -- kids can see straight away that something is not right.

NW: For many children, the fairytale is suddenly over when their parents get divorced. How can we explain that although the love between mom and dad is over, they will never cease to love their child?

We need to clarify the difference between these two kinds of love and assure the child that it will always be loved -- as long as it’s true. After all, some moms or dads one day disappear and never contact their child again.

NW: What should we say if this happens?

We shouldn’t focus on justifying the absent parent, but rather on ourselves and our child: “I’m here and I love you very much. For me, you’re the most important person in the world.” Or “You’re not the reason mom or dad is not here anymore. It just happened and I can’t tell you why, because I don’t know. But you have to remember that I love you.”

NW: And how to talk about drugs without sounding like a boring old grouch?

We need to explain precisely why drugs are bad.

NW: Because they damage our health, ruin relationships and affect consciousness? Isn't that too abstract for a child?

The most important thing to communicate to children is that drugs change our perception of reality and encourage us to take dangerous risks. Children also need to know that drugs can make them lose control of themselves and black out.

If a child insists: “Everyone says it makes them feel free and more relaxed”, we should ask: “So you don’t feel free? Do you have any problems? Would you like to talk about it? Because you must know that drugs only work for a very short period of time, and after a few hours you’re back to square one.”

NW: Basically we should explain that using drugs is a hoax, then?

That’s what it is, really. We need to make children understand that consciousness is the only thing connecting them with reality. A fifteen or seventeen year old will understand that.

NW: Is there something we should never tell our child?

Before we say something to our child, it’s good to first ask ourselves: would I tolerate a stranger talking to my child this way? What I mean is, if we’re about to tell our child that he or she is an idiot, I would strongly advise resisting that impulse. If I went up to a child crying in the shop and said: “Stop weeping, you little moron,” the child’s father would probably punch me or at least would start yelling at me. We don’t let strangers treat our children with disrespect, but we don’t mind doing it ourselves.

And one more thing: ““If we aren’t getting our point across to our children, that means we’re doing it wrong. The right message is always effective”.

****

--Translated from the Polish by Martyna Kardach

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