Updated: Aug 1
Revelation: children are people.
That simple fact needs to be the cornerstone of all parenting. Especially if you want to have any meaningful relationship with your kids when they reach the teen years.
When my sister had her first child, she introduced me to that simple idea. Yet it was so utterly foreign to me that it produced a complete paradigm shift in my thinking about children. Children are people. They’re just smaller versions.
Before you roll your eyes at what seems absurdly self-evident, consider that we adults often behave as though it isn’t, or don’t fully accept it. And yet, this simple truth is at the very core of the way we communicate with our kids.
I grew up in a culture that viewed children as entities to manage, not as individuals. To be fair, all cultures do this to some degree. In fact, it would be fair to say that the very notion of viewing children as anything else is a relatively new phenomenon.
And yet children are individuals – persons who, just like fully-formed adults, have opinions, emotions, habits of mind, personality traits (helpful and otherwise) and struggle with life issues as we do. These may be less mature than those of an adult but they are no less real and no less valid to their experience of life.
This perspective has been the foundation on which I have built my teaching, coaching and parenting practices ever since. It has completely changed the way I see and communicate with kids, whether in the classroom or at home.
When I approach my daughter as an entity to manage (usually when I am feeling impatient or am lacking the energy to deal with the issue at hand), the outcome of the exchange is almost always disappointing to both of us. I may still win the power struggle, but the result is usually:
Both of us feeling irritated, angry or resentful from the emotion-fraught power struggle;
My daughter walking away from the exchange convinced she has not been heard nor her feelings respected;
Both of us firmly ensconced in our opposite camps .
That sort of outcome contributes nothing toward keeping those lines of communication open – in fact, it hinders it. And that results in our kids shutting us out, so that by the time they reach adolescence they have long stopped listening.
Of course, exchanges of this kind are going to occur, and frequently enough, in any family. By themselves they are not going to cause permanent damage. It is when they become the rule rather than the exception - when they characterize our relationship with our children - that is when we are in danger of our kids choosing to negotiate adolescence without our guidance. Without feeling they can trust us or our motives.
But what does the other approach look like?
When, instead, I approach my child as an individual, when I validate her personhood, everything about the exchange is different, including the outcomes. When I recognize that she, too, has opinions and moods, all of which are still in development but no less valid to her, then our communication takes a different tone. I may still want her to clean her room, or forbid her attending a particular party, and those outcomes are still non-negotiable. But when I approach her like she is a person, I can relate to her; I can empathize with how I would feel if the situation were reversed and therefore acknowledge her sentiments on the subject, and sincerely. I can also explain that the cleaning still needs to be done or the party missed and, if the situation calls for it – perhaps she is particularly exhausted or the party is ‘politically’ important in her circle – may negotiate some small consolation to ‘help the medicine go down’.
When we take this kind of approach with our kids, we are proving to them that we acknowledge and respect their individuality and that we are truly listening to them (without surrendering our authority). It will almost certainly not – at the time – seem like they are appreciating that fact, but it will become evident when, later on, they feel safe enough to tell us about something that is concerning them. When, perhaps, years later, a friend begins experimenting with drugs, they are much more likely to feel that they can discuss their concern with us because we will talk with them, not at them.
And we will be in a position to provide our guidance, however subtle, because the lines of communication have been kept open.