By: Dr. Erica Wollerman
So often, as a parent, I will notice myself making assumptions about my son's behavior. For example, he likes to sneak little toys or Pokemon cards to school, which his kindergarten teacher is not a big fan of (big surprise!). At times, it is easy to slip into a relatively negative and presumptuous thinking pattern like, “He just doesn’t care if he gets into trouble.” Or “He is never going to follow the rules.” And even further like, “What will happen to him if he can’t respect authority!”
While this thought process is perfectly understandable, it is pretty unfair when it comes to our children and their motivations for doing things. I find it similar to when parents say something like, “They just want to scream,” or “They are just lazy.”
What I tell them, and myself, when this pattern presents itself in my thinking, is this: All people are trying their best. Kids want to be “good,” and if they are showing different behavior, there is a reason.
I recognize how hard it is to think this way. Most of us were conditioned in our childhoods to assume that if someone isn't doing whatever it is you think they should be doing, they are doing so intentionally. However, while people may have intentions to do certain things, often the true reasons for our behavior are unconscious. Without that level of self-awareness, we are all just sort of blundering around, acting in ways that have roots in patterns we are not even aware of. My focus as a therapist is to bring those reasons to consciousness so a person can truly make choices and be more intentional about their lives and parenting.
Because I am aware of this pattern, I generally approach people differently. I approach them with curiosity and assume positive intentions. I also try to focus on this as a therapist and parent consultant, I also try to focus on this in my own life with myself and others through self-compassion (check out last week’s post here for more details about this!). And guess what? This is also a particularly helpful reminder that I try to incorporate into my parenting mindset daily.
Remembering to approach people with curiosity and positive intent helps me to remember that my son wants things to go well. He wants his life to work out, just like I do. When I shift my role from less of a director, needing to dictate every area of his life, to a curious participant and guide (when allowed), it helps me remember that we are on the same team, his team. I can ask curious questions, assume that he is trying his best, and check in with him by asking questions that are using these principles such as:
Often, when we can have a dialogue like this, my goal is to lead him towards more prosocial, compassionate outcomes for him and others. However, I am trying hard not to lecture or put those values on him directly but helping him come to those conclusions himself. It is very similar to how I approach my clients in therapy.
To be clear, though, if my son’s behavior crosses a line, I am, of course, stepping in with limits and sometimes consequences. So while this approach may seem “soft” to some who expect all consequences and a little conversation, it is more effective because it helps children come to their own conclusions about their actions and what they want. It helps bring their feelings to consciousness and, hopefully, avoids years of patterns that can be particularly unhelpful.
Here is a real-world example of how this plays out for my family with the Pokemon card example again. When this comes up, as it so often does, instead of going into the more unhelpful narratives about my son’s choices that I described earlier in this post, I work to remember that there is a reason for his choices. I first connect with him and ask curious questions. Such as, “What do you like about bringing them to school?” and “What makes it hard to stop bringing them?” or “Are you worried about getting into trouble or the teacher’s reactions?”
I hope these questions will help him reflect on his choices and develop more of an internal guideline for how he wants to handle it moving forward. Since my son is five, though, I will keep my expectations in check because what I get from him is often a discussion about how he really should be able to bring them to school. He is particularly strong-willed, as I have mentioned a few times before!
So I remind myself that I am planting seeds that will hopefully grow in the future. And then I give my son the limit that since his teacher has asked for kids to stop bringing the cards to school, if he sneaks them and we find out, he will no longer be able to play with them at home. I also offer that when we have play dates with other friends, he is welcome to trade with them (as a big part of what we have learned from asking curious questions is that trading is a very social activity for the kindergarten boys at our school.) So, while he is unhappy about the outcome, my goal is to help him feel connected, understood, and cared for while also having the opportunity to reflect on his choices. I accomplish this by connecting with curiosity and asking questions rather than making assumptions. Since he is developmentally unable to make the prosocial choice, we set limits to help him with that and guide him in the direction that benefits his community and him in the end.
Remember that in parenting, just like in the rest of life, it is rarely a simple approach that works best (kindness or consequences) but a blend of the two. This parenting tip is all about how we approach our thinking and, hopefully, our conversations in situations that require kindness and often consequences.
Keep reading next week for Tip #6 - Allow your child to solve their problems!
At Thrive, we take a positive, client centered approach to therapy that is focused on creating a genuine connection with our clients. If you would like to talk with a Thrive Therapist about yourself, your child, or teen attending therapy via video sessions, please reach out to us by phone at 858-342-1304.
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