Imagine that your teenaged son made it to the national cricket team. He was on cloud nine, of course. You felt proud of him and couldn’t stop singing praises. As he headed for his first practice session beaming with eagerness, everything changed unexpectedly. After the match, the coach called him aside to inform him that he was rejected due to inadequate performance.
Your son comes home and tells you the ill-fated incident. As a parent, you try to cope with the bad news. The following are seven typical responses that parents, teachers or adults usually adopt when addressing issues of children:
- Denial of feelings
“Oh, come on. You are fretting about nothing. It’s not the end of the world, just because you didn’t make it to the team. Forget about it. It’s not worth your time.”
- The philosophical response
“You see dear, that’s what life is all about. It’s never fair. But you have to face it bravely.”
“You can’t let this failure hold you back! You must try for another team.”
“Oh, honey, why do you think they dropped you? How did the other players perform? What will you do now?”
- Defense of the other person
“Well, the coach does have a tough job. He can only hire the best to create a winning team after all. Try to understand his point of view.”
“Oh, my baby, after all the hard work you put yourself through, you just weren’t good enough. Imagine! When this news spreads, you will feel so embarrassed in front of your friends.”
- Amateur psychoanalysis
“Did you analyze the real reason for this failure? Maybe your heart was just not in it. I believe that on a subconscious level, you never wanted to play cricket, so you messed up deliberately.”
For a minute, try imagining that you were in your son’s shoes and it was your parent telling you any of the above. How would you have felt at that moment? Would any of the above responses console you? Most probably not.
As parents, we might wonder what is wrong with some of the above reactions. Undoubtedly, we mean well for our kids. However, often unknowingly and sometimes purposely, we start building walls around us, rather than bridging the gaps. And it is simply due to the language we speak.
In response to your above reactions, this is how your son might feel about you:
- When you deny his feelings, he would think: “Don’t tell me how to feel.”
- When you respond philosophically, he would think: “Don’t tell me what to do.”
- When you offer advice, he would think: “You will never understand.”
- When you begin to interrogate him, he would think: “You know what you can do with your questions!”
- When you pick sides, he would think: “You’re taking everybody’s side but mine.”
- When you sympathize with him, he would think: “I’m a loser.”
- When you take up the role of an amateur psychoanalyst, he would think: “That’s the last time I‘ll ever tell you anything.”
If not all this, then what? What else could you tell your son as a parent? Talk to him in French? No, it’s much simpler: just acknowledge your son’s distress. You could say: “This must have come as a shock and a big disappointment for you.” And let him respond further. If he does, fine. If he doesn’t, don’t pester. If some of us wish to talk about the pain, expecting the other person to listen and understand, then others might prefer to grieve in silence and solitude. A warm hug or holding the hand gently might work better than a speech or worse, a tirade.
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish introduce the above strategy in their book “How to Talk so Kids Can Listen”. They explain what makes perfect sense: “There is a direct connection between how kids feel and how they behave. When kids feel right, they’ll behave right. How do we help them to feel right? By accepting their feelings!”
However, since we are products of the past, as parents, we keep repeating the same script that was read to us. The adults in our life were not sensitive enough about the words they chose for us, thus, naturally we are clueless about their impact on our children.
Consider the following situations, and common responses of parents versus creative ones. Notice, how each one of them produces unique feelings in kids.
|No.||Common Response||Kid’s feelings||Creative response||
|Child: “This book is stupid!”
Parent: “No it isn’t. It’s a classic and very interesting.”
Child: “I hate reading.”
Parent: “No you don’t. You’re a good reader.”
Child: “It has too many words!”
Parent: “Now you’re being silly. The words are all easy.”
Child: “It’s too hard.”
Parent: “You’re not even trying. You’re just being lazy.”
|When a child’s feelings are denied, he can easily become discouraged.||Child: “This book is stupid!”
Parent: “There’s something about it you don’t like.”
Child: “It’s boring. Who cares about Tom Sawyer?”
Parent: “Oh, the character doesn’t interest you.”
Child: “No, I liked the last story we read: the one about the horse and dog.”
Parent: “Sounds as if you prefer books about animals.”
Child: “Yeah… I guess. After I finish this, I’m going to get another book about dogs.”
Parent: “Okay, I’ll help you look for one on our next trip to the library.”
|When a child’s negative feelings are identified and accepted, he feels encouraged to continue to strive.|
|Child: “I lost my watch.”
Parent: “Again! Where was it?”
Child: “Right here in my pocket!”
Parent: “No wonder. I told you last time that your watch needs to be on your wrist not in your pocket.”
The child stares silently.
Parent: “You need to be more responsible about your belongings.”
Child: “I try to.”
Parent: “Well, try harder. Money doesn’t grow on trees that we can buy you a new watch every other day. You better be careful in future, young man.”
Child thinking to himself: “I am dumb and cannot be trusted.”
|When a child is bombarded with criticism and advice, he finds it difficult to think about his problem or take responsibility for it.||Child: “I lost my watch.”
Parent: “Oh, no!”
Child: “I had it right here in my pocket!”
Child: “It must have fallen out in the bus maybe.”
Parent: “You think so?”
The child stares silently.
The parent consoles him by patting at the back. “So, what are you going to do?”
Child: “I’ll call the bus driver to check.”
Parent: “Seems like a good idea. What about next time?”
Child: “I’m not taking it off.”
Parent: “That will be very responsible of you.”
|When a parent responds to a child’s distress with concern and an occasional nod or grunt of understanding, he frees the child to focus on his problem and possibly solve it himself.|
|Parent: “Hurry up! Get changed!”
Child: “I am.”
Parent: “No, you’re not. You’re just sitting there. Let’s go! We are visiting Aunt Sakina today.”
Child: “I don’t feel good.”
Parent: “That’s what you always say, when we visit her. She is our relative.”
Child: “It’s too boring at her house.”
Parent: “It’s not boring for others. Now, get going or we’ll be late.”
Child: “I’m feeling sick.”
Parent: “Oh! Quit making excuses. How do you expect to learn social skills, if you remain cooped up in your room all day?”
|It’s frustrating when a child refuses to respond to reasoning. Is there a better way to help children overcome their resistance to a task?
|Parent: “We’re leaving in 15 minutes.”
Child: “I know but I just don’t feel good.”
Parent: “I’ll bet that you wish we were going anywhere but to Aunt Sakina’s.”
Child: “It was so boring last time at her house.”
Parent: “I remember there wasn’t anyone your age.”
Child: “I’ll be dozing off right in the middle of the party.”
Parent: “Wouldn’t it be great that Aunt Sakina actually threw a slumber party and you could just crawl into one of the beds there and drift off to sleep!”
Child: “Right mom! Well, I’d better change.”
|Instead of reasons and explanation, give in fantasy, what you can’t give in reality. When the parent expresses a child’s wishes in fantasy, he makes it easier for the child to deal with reality.|
|“That’s mine!” 1st child. “No mine!” 2nd child. Parent: “Wait a minute, you two, that’s not nice! Samiya, give the pencil back to Ali this moment. And wait for your turn.”
|It’s hard for children to change their behaviour, when their feelings are completely ignored.||“That’s mine!” 1st child. “No mine!” 2nd child.
Parent: “Samiya, I can see how much you want to use the pencil. Right now it’s Ali’s turn to write. I’ll give it to you after five minutes. And your time starts now.”
|Even as you stop unacceptable behaviour, accept the child’s feelings. It’s easier for children to change their behaviour, when their feelings have been accepted.|
If we want to free our children’s minds for thinking and learning, then we have to deal respectfully with their emotions. Most importantly, if we want our kids to be caring individuals, we have to deal with them in more caring ways. The point is you don’t teach swimming to a drowning person. With the right intentions, we generally opt for the wrong language and bad timing. As parents, we have to learn to handle them with dignity and acknowledge their feelings. Sermons and lectures make children more irresponsible.
Look how the Prophet (sa) dealt with people. He did so in few, crisp and clear words. Whether it was a teenager seeking permission to commit Zina or an infant urinating on the Prophet’s (sa) lap, or the rowdy youngsters of Taif pelting stones at him, the Prophet (sa) never verbally abused children. As parents, teachers and adults, we are answerable for using foul or inappropriate language, or belittling and demeaning the emotions of children.