“Clean your room.” “Finish your broccoli.” “Brush your teeth.” … the never-ending things we tell our children to do. Will our child wither away if they don’t finish their carrots? Fail at life if they don’t practice cursive? No. In the arc of their lives, these are trivial. Supposedly, we know better, and they should do as we tell them. But why? Why should they listen to us? What’s in it for them? They’ll earn our approval, and conform to arbitrary social convention. And this is exactly the problem. In telling them what to do and not to do, we’re imposing our own stuff on them. We internalize social norms and our parents’ issues, then we project those onto our children. We’re imposing our biases onto them.
If we value academics, we say “finish your homework.” If we value tidiness, we say, “Put away your toys.” Into athletics? We pressure “practice with the ball, bat, racket …” We are a culture that celebrates “doing.” We meet someone at a party and ask, “What do you do?” We never ask, “Who are you?” We focus on output, measuring our children, others, and ourselves by the yardstick of achievement. Our advice never ends. It goes on ad nauseam.
What’s the problem here? It’s not about our child. It’s about us. We’re preoccupied with our own needs. We want a mini-me. We look at our children and hope to see ourselves. We created thinking, feeling little beings with spirits independent of us, but we forget this. So badly do we want to see a reflection of us, we try to mold our children to resemble us. We get lost in our mire.
What’s the most prized, precious way of relating to our children? What should we be doing differently with them? How do we shine a light on them? What’s the single key question we should be asking? We should crouch to our child’s level, and ask “Who are you?”
The seminal thing we should do as parents is be genuinely, authentically curious. Being curious requires us to be open. Without judgement, we’re open to everything. We don’t assume or resist, we open to the awesome possibilities: Who is my son? Who is my daughter? Who is the little person? What makes her tick? What motivates him? When she resists doing homework, what does she feel? Why doesn’t he want to go to bed every night? We should be asking questions about their ‘being,’ not their ‘doing.’
Instead of insisting our daughter eat all her peas, we can be open and curious about her experience. For example, “You don’t want to finish them?” Okay; I have an idea. Let’s play a game. It’s called an ‘experiment.’ First, let’s get a big sheet of paper or calendar and colored pencils. We’ll divide the page into sections, where each part is a separate day. On day one, you eat zero peas! On day two, you eat just one pea. The next day, you eat three peas. In each section, we’ll draw a face which shows how you feel when you eat zero pea or one. . . .”
“You don’t want to go to sleep? Did I ever tell you the story of the ‘Princess and the Pea’? Do you want to pretend to be a prince or princess? We’ll tuck one under your mattress and see if you can feel it at night.”
The point here is that we’re real and raw with our child, engaging back and forth with genuine interest. Rather than telling them what to do and getting frustrated when they resist, we’re relaxing and being open to whatever they teach us. We’re humble, open to everything our child can teach us about who they are.
You don’t want to clean your room? Okay, here are all these faces with different expressions, e.g. angry, bored, sad, excited, sleepy, happy, surprised, etc. Ask your son “How do you feel when I ask you to put away your toys? Point to the face that looks like how you feel. Where do you feel it in your body?” Let’s play with arranging your room in different ways … let’s put your toys all over your room, and let’s throw some of your underwear up in the air, bunch up your T-shirt and play ball with it … we’ll leave it like that overnight. Or do you want to leave it like this for a few days? You can tell me what it’s like for you, how you feel, and what you go through in your body. After a few days, we can pick up just one thing off the floor, and let’s see what you feel.”
This approach works best for late toddlers to tweens. Young toddlers may not be able to identify or verbalize emotions, and adolescents will need to assume more responsibilities, as well as require more limit setting, but not in a blindly structured and rigidly enforced way. I’m not advocating ‘letting it all hang out,’ chaos, and willy-nilly acting out. Your kids should not be able to do whatever they please, without reason.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: When my nephew was 7 or 8 years old, he went to school with the lunch his mom had packed for him, and instead of eating it, he sold it to another kid! Without blaming, with humor and wide open curiosity about what motivated him, I asked him about it. He said, “I wanted to see what it would feel like to sell something, like stores do, and I wanted someone else to taste how good my mom’s sandwiches are.”
Wow. I was blown away! In one sentence, he manifested at least ten facets of sensitivity:
- His action itself was borne out of curiosity.
- Manifested empathy, wanting the other child to experience his pleasure.
- Showed originality, thinking outside the box.
- Driven to move beyond what was ‘safe.’
- Embodied generosity in wanting to share.
- Was socially proactive.
- Acted assertively.
- Organized a successful transaction in a schoolyard.
- Acted based on observing our economic model.
- Felt free not to adhere to the status quo of lunchtime activities.
How much can we get from being patient and asking questions? Vast and infinite amounts, more than we can fathom. If we pause long enough to ask, we learn our child is more magical and remarkable than our limited imaginations can conceive. Without inquiring, we see only ourselves, and our challenge is to let our children teach us who they are.
This is not a substitute for medical advice, nor is it meant as professional consultation with a mental health professional. If you have parenting difficulties, or if your child is in chronic distress, please seek appropriate help.
Brumelman, E., Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S.A., Orobio de Castro, B., Overbreek, G., Bushman, B.J. edited by Fiske, S.T. (2015). Princeton University, Princeton, NJ. Origins of Narcissism in Children. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 112(2)3569-3662, doi: 10.1073/pnas. 1420870112.
Parents talking to son photo available from Shutterstock