Not The Target Market

The Right Way to Speak to Children

Parentspeak is about compliance. …. Rather than teaching them to communicate and problem solve, we are essentially teaching them to obey.  (from Parentspeak by Jennifer Lehr)

You betcha we are. It keeps everyone safe and life ticking over smoothly. I thought that after witnessing all the recent silliness, excuse me, trauma, of the snowflakes in universities and the workplace, we would have learned some lessons. I thought that by now we would be sick of lectures from these 20-year-old toddlers who expect to have their feelings protected. And that supposedly rational adults would see the mistake of making all conversations with children about problem solving and communication and their feelings.

Jennifer Lehr, the author of The Wrong Way to Speak to Children wants us to reason with a four-year old about putting on a raincoat on a cold, rainy day – lest we trample on feelings and make the four-year-old feel diminished for not seeing things from her perspective.

In my world, that four-year old refusing to wear a raincoat doesn’t have a valid perspective, and encouraging her to think she does by engaging in a conversation is not going to do anyone any good – not then, as whatever is on the agenda is delayed; nor later as she grows up thinking that she always knows best.

We are adults and parents – not buddies with our children (or “wingmen” as Ms. Lehr thinks we should be.) We are charged with our children’s character formation. And that includes disabusing them of the notion that they are the center of the universe (even if they are at the center of our hearts.) It also includes giving them a tough shell so that when someone inadvertently tramples on their feelings, they don’t collapse and need – at 19 years old – coloring books, play-doh and hot chocolate to cope. Concentrating on feelings from a young age is not the way forward.

I am not advocating a Baron von Trapp system of whistles and barked orders. In no way am I advocating belittling children, or abusing them verbally or emotionally. There are plenty of appropriate moments during a day when we can solicit our children’s opinions, thoughts and feelings. There are many times when we can let them lead and choose  The middle of a busy transition is not one of them. In fact, valuable life skills for children to learn are not to hold things up – to be part of the team – to listen– to keep things moving along – no matter how they feel.

Learning that your feelings aren’t the world’s guiding light is helpful in so many situations. What are good manners, after all, but putting the other person’s feelings first? Seeing the other side. Listening.  Making someone else comfortable, even if we might not be. Letting someone else go first or have the last cookie or even just keeping our mouth shut. None of that is easy or natural and, at first, it usually requires direction.

Cognitively, emotionally, or intellectually, children are not miniature adults. They don’t have the ability to reason or control their feelings very well, and frankly, compliance helps them to do that. It gives them a script to follow until they are able to begin writing their own scripts, which doesn’t start to happen until they are about six or seven years old.

Furthermore, this ability for “reason” doesn’t happen all at once. It is a continuum and ends only when the child has mastered abstract thinking – something vitally important for fully functioning adults. Abstract thinking emerges during adolescence (roughly defined as 11-16 years old.) Knowing this, treating a three or four or seven or ten-year old as an adult is shear madness. It is an exercise in futility. It is bound to end badly.

Compliance in childhood, whether it’s putting on a coat, eating broccoli, sharing a toy, or learning when to say thank you teaches us that our feelings aren’t the end all, be all – and that’s a huge step toward learning both self-control and humility – virtues that you see lamented by their absence when the news reports on shootings, violence, or even the crazy excesses of the very wealthy; but yet virtues which also seem to be out of favor in the pandering to the intolerant “tolerance” of the politically correct, post-truth, I-can-do-whatever-I-want order.

So, parents, my advice is to work with nature, not against it. Don’t try to skip stages. Don’t sentimentalize children as little adults. And above all, when they are young, don’t feel guilty about communicating in language that is about compliance and obedience. It’s all part of good character formation.

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