Sally fidgeted on her mother’s lap throwing the toys her parents brought for her. “She’s just like me when I was a child,” her mother complained. “She never settles down and is always into everything. I just can’t keep up with her.”
I told Sally’s parents that she might be affected by her mother talking about her actions in front of her. I suggested that children learn about themselves in part by the stories they hear.
Realizing the power in their words, the father tried a different approach. He talked about how he and Sally have such a good relationship. He looks forward to coming home at night so that he can be with her. He talked about how much he loves her, and how she is the joy of his life. Before he finished talking Sally left her mother’s lap and moved across the couch to sit next to her father. She gave him a hug and snuggled next to him. After a few minutes, she went back to playing with her toys.
It is a common practice to talk in front of small children, sometimes even older children, as if they were either deaf or foreigners incapable of understanding what they hear. The reality is children understand many words they do not yet have in their vocabulary. It is estimated that most children over the age of 18 months understand about 500 words more than they can speak.
When the mom talked about Sally to me, she was telling Sally a story about herself. This story let her know how her mother sees her, and what it was about her that made her important enough to have this story told.
Most of the time, when people complain about their children, it is simply to connect with others. “I don’t know how I’m going to get that bottle away from him” is said in the same spirit as “She just started walking.” Parents are often not seeking help as much as a way to share what is going on with their children. They believe the same events would be happening whether they told these stories in front of their children or not. This is simply the way their children are, and it’s great to be able to share the challenges of being a parent.
If you think that way or recognize yourself in these examples, try an experiment. The next time someone asks you about your child, think of something that is working and talk about that. “Sam loves it when we read together. It’s our favorite time of day.” “Sally has such a good time when she takes her bath. She loves to play in the water.” Or if you have been teaching your child to use her words instead of screaming and you have had any success at all, say, “Kathy is learning to use her words. She’s doing better all the time.”
The more specific you can be about the behavior, the better. Avoid generalized statements like, “Sam is a good boy.” This tells Sam little about what he does that is good, and only gives him two alternatives, good or bad, to live up to. Plus, children love stories. As stories go, the good boy/bad boy story is pretty dull.
If you do this, however, don’t be surprised if you miss commiserating. These statements are not nearly as interesting as “I thought I’d die when Kathy had a temper tantrum in the middle of the grocery store yesterday.”
Let your friends and family know about your new way of talking about your children. They will be able to support you better if they know your intent, and no one will mistake your efforts for bragging.
Most of all, be patient with yourself if you have difficulty doing this. This new way of talking often feels awkward at first, as if you’re not telling the whole story.
Of course, you aren’t. But try it anyway. Someone is listening.