Tearing a Child Down Will Not Build Him Up

December 13th, 2009 by Dionna | 11 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Gentle Discipline Ideas, Successes, and Suggestions, Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

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I recently saw a quote (from positive discipline enthusiast Jane Nelson) that resonated with me1:

Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?

More often than I would like, I find myself using a sharp tone of voice with Kieran to express displeasure. For example, yesterday I was on the phone and Kieran started walking on my laptop. I raised my voice yelled at him to stop and sternly told him that walking on the computer could break it.

His face was immediately downcast – literally and figuratively. His eyes dropped, his chin drooped, the corners of his lips turned down in a quiver.

I knew at the time that he simply wanted my attention (he’d been dancing around my legs with his “mama mama” face on in typical toddler fashion). I’d been on the phone for at least 15 minutes, and he wanted me to read him a book. He didn’t want to break the laptop, he only wanted to move up my priority list.

Instead of yelling, I could have acknowledged him. I could have excused myself from the phone call for 30 seconds in order to get down on Kieran’s level, tell him that I would finish soon, and have him pick out a few books to look at while he waited. I could have put the carrier on and put him up on my back for the remainder of the call. I could have sat down with him next to his train tracks and moved a train back and forth while chatting on the phone. I could have called the person back during Kieran’s naptime. (And in the long term, I can respect Kieran while he finishes activities at his own pace in the hopes that he will eventually model that behavior.)

All of those options occurred to me in a calmer moment. At the time, though, I yelled. Yelling is a habit I learned long before Kieran. I am consciously breaking that habit and replacing it with parenting tools that are based on respect and on being responsive to Kieran’s needs.

As Naomi Aldort expressed so eloquently:

What leads most often to difficulty are the common parenting techniques of punishment, including threats, deprivations, time-outs, bribes, insults, shouting, scolding, inducement of guilt, and other attempts at controlling the child. The best thing we can do as parents to ensure that our children will grow into compassionate, communicative, responsible, caring and considerate adults is to treat them with those same qualities, and then trust them to model our behavior at their own pace.

Do you ever find yourself (unintentionally) tearing your child down in an effort to “teach” her something?

If you are trying to break old and ineffective parenting habits, what strategies do you have for not falling back on them? (Counting to ten, excusing yourself to the next room, etc.)

If you are trying to stop yelling and/or lecturing, what tips do you have for breaking those specific habits? How do you maintain your calm?

2009-12-05 14(How can I yell at this precious face?!)

  1. To preface this story, my parenting style does not incorporate “making” children “do better.” In this context, that implies I would be trying to bend the child’s will to my own. That’s not how I intend to parent, but I still appreciated the sentiment of the quote.

11 Responses to:
"Tearing a Child Down Will Not Build Him Up"

  1. Tonia

    I have noticed sometimes you don’t even realize you have done it until later. But that I notice it more in my hubby and him in me. And we are both good about saying to the other why don’t I take Mischka and go play so you can have some you time and think for a bit/calm down etc. It really helps out.

    My hubby and I are both from very verbally and sometimes physically abusive parents and breaking cycles is hard. We don’t hit at all, we did start out spanking and realized it did absolutely nothing and made us feel horrible. So luckily she doesn’t seem to remember any of it and it only happened a couple of times. I still feel bad for it though :(

    The yelling is definitely better than our parents did with us but could still use some improvement.

  2. Mandy

    My advice to parents going through this – in the time when they do something they don’t like – is to take a deep breath, and do a retake. Yes, you said/did something you wish you hadn’t. Humans make mistakes. It already happened and you can’t take that back. However, you can take a deep breath to give yourself a second. Then, after apologizing if you feel you need to, replay the situation they way you wish you had originally handeled it. It allows you to own your mistake, to model how you can apologize and work to rectify situations, and it also allows you to make a new habit – acting the way you wish you had.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      That’s a great idea, and I’ll do it more consciously in the future. With this particular incident, I did stop and immediately apologized and explained more gently that I would be done in a minute. I feel like by addressing both his need and the fact that I yelled, I helped avoid an even bigger attention-getting tantrum.

  3. “I could have excused myself from the phone call for 30 seconds in order to get down on Kieran’s level, tell him that I would finish soon, and have him pick out a few books to look at while he waited.”

    In my opinion, one of the best pieces of parenting advice I ever received was “Sometimes you forget how big you look to them and how little they are to you. So, get down on their level and look them in the eye when you really need them to listen.” I’ve never regretted listening to that advice :)

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Absolutely! I’ve thought about it from a work standpoint – I have been uncomfortable in situations sitting at a desk and having a boss (or coworker) leaning down over me. I’d rather be at eye level. Same thing for kids!

  4. Amber   AmberStrocel

    I love Naomi Aldort’s SALVE technique, although I admit I don’t always use it. I try to be gentle with myself, because I’m only human, too. I think it’s less important that I am a perfect parent and that I never lose my cool, than that I am doing my best. Living with little kids is stressful, after all.

    One of my sure-fire mood lifters is to take the children outside. No matter the weather, they’re happy as long as they’re dressed properly. And even I feel better when I’m not cooped up inside with two cranky little ones. It’s my day-saver, when things are not going well.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I agree – kids need to know that we get stressed, sad, angry, etc.
      I do like SALVE while trying to break a bad habit – I think it’s especially important to stop and think before acting if your first impulse is always going to be hitting or screaming.

  5. Heather   xakana

    Unfortunately, it’s something I have made little to no progress with, maybe even gotten worse. But I do know that I personally feel more patient when I’m out of the house and of course, when I’m not trying to do anything that requires concentration or otherwise removing outside distractions–or if I just park myself on the couch to do it, so I’m more accessible. Or the floor. Anywhere but a single-person chair (like I’m in now). Kids don’t get as hurt being put down on the same surface as you are as they do being put down away from you.

    Also, attention-seeking always seems to come at the most inconvenient times… because of the nature of those times.

    So I’m no help, just sympathetic and trying to work it out, too, although sometimes I feel like I’m one step forward, two steps back and falling on my butt in the process so I’m not sure where I end up *sigh*

  6. Heather   xakana

    Oh, also, when we were leaving your house the other day, you saw that Lilly was approaching meltdown. Well she hit it when Brandon put her in the car (so my seat wouldn’t be soaked in snow) when she wanted to climb in herself. Maybe it was just the leftover calming influence of getting some of that kid play out somewhere else, but instead of losing it or getting upset, I actually used playful parenting (which I have not read, but I’ve read enough on to get the idea… especially since it’s brought up so much, lol) and stopped the meltdown. I started pretending I wasn’t strong enough to lift the car seat straps, etc. and she had to help out her “silly Mommy” so she couldn’t be upset any more.

    One technique I do have when I just want to blow up verbally is to mutter goody nonsense words (‘sock monkey parrot bubbles’ for instance). They have no power and it diffuses the anger better than actual cussing, lol, because there’s no power in them and no scaring the kid, either ;)

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Both of those are really good ideas! Both the nonsense words and Playful Parenting techniques. I read that book before Kieran was born, I want to read it again now that he’s older. It does have some excellent ideas for interacting with toddlers on up.

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