Tag: parentspeak

Q&A with Jennifer Lehr, Author of ParentSpeak: Part II

Last week I introduced Jennifer Lehr, whose new book, ParentSpeak: What’s Wrong with How We Talk to Our Children —  And What to Say Instead, is both readable – you can pick it up and easily jump in anywhere – and its insights about how we speak to our children are both obvious and profound. I tend to be drawn to ideas that have an everydayness to them, and Jennifer delivers. If you missed Part I, you can find that here.
Paul: Why do we yell at our kids, and why is it so difficult to stop?
Jennifer: Certainly, no one wants to scream at their kids. And yet, we all do it. Well, according to a 2003 study reported in The New York Times, at least 98 percent of us do. (I can’t imagine things have changed much since then.) I know many parents (like me!) are eager to quit yelling but find it nearly impossible. Unfortunately for all of us, if we yell, then if often leads to even more yelling, because we’ve been training our kids to know they don’t really have to listen until we start screaming. Soon we’re on the path of turning ourselves—our children’s source of support, comfort, and guidance—into people to be feared.
Usually parents who scream were screamed at themselves. And it’s a hard habit and cycle to break. As I mentioned earlier, it can be very helpful to identify the things that trigger you and to unpack them. I also love how one mom put yellow hearts around the house to remind herself to take a deep breath and not yell. If we can catch ourselves right before we unleash (which can feel so good because it drains the stress from our bodies) and take a breath, or have a drink of water, or go to another room, we can center ourselves and respond to our kids instead of react to them. Dr. Laura Markham and others have online courses designed to help one quit the habit of yelling. It’s a worthwhile endeavor!
Paul: As I read through the six categories of ParentSpeak (phrases that manipulate, objectify, micro-manage, distress, invalidate, and threaten), I found myself thinking that parents who face the everyday challenges of getting kids to behave might get the most immediate results from working on the last two. And I thought that many grandparents, who are less involved in the daily interactions with kids, might be more likely to use phrases that manipulate or objectify. What are your thoughts about grandparents and parentspeak?
Jennifer: I have to say I was delighted when several grandparents came to a talk I recently gave at Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena. Like you said, these grandparents were very involved in their grandchildren’s lives and as such were aware of the considerable challenges that arise when grandparents and parents have different parenting philosophies. Surprisingly, in these two cases, the grandparents were more progressive than their kids.
One of the reasons I wrote ParentSpeak was to give parents something to read and discuss—with each other, with parents, in-laws, nannies, babysitters, and other childcare providers. I tried to lay out my arguments in a very clear way so that they could agree or disagree and be very specific about why. I think it’s wonderful to be able to say, “I’m so happy you are in our child’s life. I want to share with you where I’m coming from on some issues and would love to discuss them with you. Can you read this book so we both have a common reference first?” Takes guts but is well worth it!
Paul: Another approach that you open up is to begin to notice what distracts us from being the parents we want to be; for example, you talk about the act of blaming. Would you say more about this?
Jennifer: It was definitely an aha moment for me when I realized, thanks to the work of Brené Braun, that blaming is really just a way to off load stress. So often we adults blame children for “making” us yell at them or for driving us to threaten them as though we had a gun to our heads and we literally had no other way to manage the situation. But it’s not true. There are other ways to manage our stress. Blaming children is easy. Taking responsibility for our actions and finding other ways to manage stressful situations is harder, but ultimately more rewarding.
Paul: You also challenge the conventional wisdom about time-outs: “A time-out can break a child’s trust in his parents,” and “Time-outs teach that withdrawing love solves problems.” This chapter is worth buying your book all by itself. Can you explain your reasoning and give us some alternatives?
Jennifer: This is a big topic, Paul—a really important one and hard to answer quickly. But I’ll try. According to a Time magazine article, time-outs are the number one form of discipline in America. As such, they deserve real scrutiny.
I think time-outs became so popular because they seemed like a kinder, gentler alternative to hitting kids. And I agree, isolating someone is better than striking them, but not that much better. Time-outs hurt kids emotionally, while hitting them other harms them both emotionally and physically. I do want to acknowledge that if you are a parent who has used time-outs, hearing what I have to say won’t be easy. In fact, I can understand why it may cause someone to resist and dismiss what I have to say. I think it’s important to know that if you have used time-outs and do set out to educate yourself on how they may have harmed your child, it’s not too late to talk about it with your child, ask him how it felt, and truly listen and apologize for any lasting pain you may have inadvertently caused. It is never too late to try to repair.
When we send our children away from us, from their friends, and from the fun because we don’t like their behavior, it does absolutely nothing to help them understand what feelings and needs drove them to act in a way that isn’t acceptable. Nor does it help them learn how they can better meet the need(s) driving the behavior. It just leaves them angry at us, humiliated in front of others, and filled with thoughts of revenge. In other words, it takes someone who is having a hard time and just gives them more hurt.
Simultaneously, time-outs convey to our children that they are only worthy of our love and attention if they act in ways we deem proper. Family therapist Susan Stiffelman explains:
“Time-outs convey to the child that we cannot handle them unless they’re good. Children need confident captains of the ship to help them through life’s difficult lessons. When we send a misbehaving child to his room because we can’t handle his misbehavior or moodiness, we’re effectively ‘jumping ship,’ creating anxiety in a child who needs to know that we can handle whatever challenge he may face.”
Furthermore, as Dr. Laura Markham explains in her article, “What’s Wrong with Time-Outs,” time-outs can break a “child’s trust in you by triggering his fear of abandonment.” In other words, time-outs can threaten the vital connection that makes children feel safe, and that’s genuinely scary. If a child gets the message over and over again throughout his early development that he is unlovable when struggling, that message will get wired into his brain. Meaning he will believe it as truth. So it is essential that we then ask the question, how might that belief affect his future relationships?
According to psychotherapist Dr. Susan Lacombe, people who suffer from a fear of abandonment often have compulsive behaviors and thought patterns that sabotage their relationships, ultimately driving people to abandon them. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, affirming their belief that they aren’t truly lovable as they are. Which makes sense because that’s what we’ve told them.
Punishing behavior with a time-out or another form of discipline may, in the moment, scare a child into “behaving himself,” but it won’t help address the underlying feelings and needs driving the behavior. And so the need won’t be met, which means the child will only continue to try to meet it in some other way. Punishing a child only creates more problems without truly solving the original one.
So what’s the alternative? Well, in short, when a child does something we don’t like, we need to understand what the behavior is telling us so we can find a different, more acceptable way to meet that need. I discuss this in depth in the chapters “Behave yourself!” and “Do You want a Time Out?”
Paul: Lastly, where do you think parents should start? I’m a big fan of putting one or two ideas into practice and then notice what changes in the relationship. What would you suggest parents do first—say for the next two weeks?
I love this question, Paul. I know it can feel overwhelming to make changes, like an unfair burden to have to be the one to break cycles, learn new skills, and heal old wounds. It can feel like both a blessing and a curse. But it needn’t be so daunting.
One of the reasons I named each chapter a classic parenting catchphrase is so that people could identify a phrase or two that they find themselves defaulting to most often. And they can dive in there. As an experiment, if one chose just a single phrase and really identified what their best intention is, why it’s likely not translating, and experimenting with alternatives that either I recommend or they come up with, then perhaps making change won’t be so overwhelming. Perhaps after they get comfortable with one, then they’ll want to build on their success and try another.
That said, I think the most impactful thing that any of us can do to strengthen our relationship with our kids is to take ten or fifteen minutes every day (or every other day!)  to just hang out with them with no agenda and no judgements. Let them lead the way. A walk. Playing basketball. Reading next to each other. Watching them play video games. Playing video games with them. Watching a video even if we have no interest in it. A manicure. This no-agenda time will inevitably bring you closer and build good will. And often that’s when they’ll open up about something that’s bothering them or they’ll simply tell you more about their lives.

Q&A with Jennifer Lehr, Author of ParentSpeak: Part I

I love Jennifer Lehr’s new book, ParentSpeak: What’s Wrong with How We Talk to Our Children —  And What to Say Instead, for many reasons, but the two that stand out are: it’s readable – you can pick it up and easily jump in anywhere – and the insights about how we speak to our children are both obvious and profound. I tend to be drawn to ideas that have an everydayness to them, and Jennifer delivers.
Here’s the first half of what she had to say:
Paul: Please tell me about a mistake you’ve made with your own children, Jules and Hudson, and what you learned from that mistake about yourself.
Jennifer: Hey, Paul! Before I jump into answering your questions, I wanted to tell you how much I not only appreciate your interest in ParentSpeak but also how gratifying it is to hear that you find it both readable and practical. Those were two really important goals I had. Over the years, I’ve read, or at least have attempted to read, dozens of books on parenting and too often have found myself unable to get through many of them—despite the helpful content. I wanted to share the best of what I’ve learned over the past decade in a way that was easily digested.
Now to answer your question!
As you know, mistakes are one of the hallmarks of being human—which is my way of saying there are simply too many mistakes that I’ve made to choose just one. However, what I want my kids to learn from my mistakes is 1) we all make them, 2) they don’t define us, 3) we can repair them, and 4) often we can learn something valuable from them. I want my children to know I love them—mistakes, bad moods and all. This quote by Rebecca Eanes is so true: “So often children are punished for being human.… None of us are perfect, and we must stop holding our children to a higher standard of perfection than we can attain ourselves.” It really breaks my heart when I think about how many kids get “in trouble” for basically making a mistake, for being human.
Paul: I often find myself reflecting on my behavior and tracing it back to how I was raised, so I appreciate that you advise parents to do the same. Can you explain how this might work for parents? And In the same train of thought, tell us about using this question: “When do I lose it the most?”
Jennifer: I recently went to a talk given by Dr. Dan Siegel—the internationally renowned in leader in “interpersonal neurobiology,” which is the study of the way the brain is influenced by relationships—and the biggest take away of the evening was: the best thing you can do to raise healthy kids is to make sense of your own childhood. I believe it! Personally speaking, I have found that when I can identify my triggers (the situations that make me go from zero to a hundred on a dime) and trace them back to childhood experiences, it helps me leave my past where it belongs—in the past.
I start by trying to be a neutral observer of my behavior so that I can step back and see if there are any similarities to the types of situations that cause me to get anxious or angry. Then I ask myself, “Does this remind you of anything?” I have found that an answer is usually forthcoming. Let me give you an example.
Like many families, our mornings can be hectic. But ours were too hectic—so much so that I really dreaded getting up in the morning. Every morning I found myself getting very mad at the kids for dragging their feet. They weren’t getting out of bed, getting dressed, coming down for breakfast, brushing their teeth, etc. In other words, I was upset because they weren’t doing what I asked, and they were going to be late!!!! Sometimes I would get so overwhelmed by anger and anxiety that I’d unleash on the kids. This always backfired as they’d withdraw or start to scream and cry because it feels awful to be yelled at. Then we’d be even later getting off to school because we’d have to recover and repair. So you can see why I wanted to look at how I was contributing to this mess. This certainly wasn’t how I wanted the kids to start their days.
Instead of just blaming them for not doing their part, I asked myself: “What exactly is getting you so upset?”
The answer came quickly: “I’m afraid they’ll be late.”
So I followed up with myself, “And what’s so awful about that?”
Just asking myself that question threw me back into my childhood.
When I was a kid, my Grandpa, who was the patriarch of our family, made it very clear that good people were on time, bad people were late. To him five minutes late was five minutes way too late. I wanted to be seen as good, but I also worried about family members he was going to be mad at because of their lateness. It made sense that just the thought of my kids being late rattled me so deeply. I didn’t want to be a bad mother! Realizing that I was bringing my own baggage to the mornings helped. But it was just a start.
Next, we had a family meeting about our mornings. I shared with John, Jules, and Hudson that while I definitely over-reacted in the mornings, I wanted to let them know why being on time was important to me. Then I asked each of them to share how they felt about being on time. I learned that while it was important to them, it wasn’t as fraught or urgent for them. Five minutes late certainly didn’t mean to them what it did to me. We talked about how their teachers responded to people being late. And I asked if they found other kids being late disruptive. It was a very enlightening conversation.
We also brainstormed about ways everyone could pitch in to make our mornings go smoother. For example, the kids suggested putting their shoes by the front door at night, and John agreed to bring the toothbrushes in the car, which eliminated a whole other step.
Deconstructing the mornings really helped. Reflecting on why I was so triggered instead of just blaming my kids (which I think so many of us naturally do) changed the whole tenor of our home in the morning.
Paul: I agree that we raise our children with conversation, and we can start by noticing what we are currently saying. What would you suggest parents strike from their conversations?
Jennifer: Unfortunately, and this is one of the underlying points of the book, I don’t think we have enough actual conversations with our kids. Instead, we too often simply tell them:

what we want them to say (“Say please!” “Say thank you!” “Say sorry!”)
what we want them to do (“Give me a hug!” “Share!” “Behave yourself!”)
when we want them to do it (“I said right now!” “I’m going to count to three.”)
how we’ll feel if they do do it (“Good job!”)
and what will happen to them if they don’t (“Do you want a time out?” “A spanking?”)

Alas, “parentspeak” is a language of control.
I’m all for conversations, for hearing each other’s points of view, feelings, and needs. Then when all that information is on the table, we can solve the problem together.
Being able to work with our children instead of using rewards or punishment to get compliance takes a shift in perception from seeing kids as children who must do as they are told, to respecting them as full-fledged people with their own feelings, thoughts, and needs that deserve consideration. In our culture, this remains a radical idea.
Paul: Your book also offers some new perspectives; for example: “Expecting young children to be sorry is unrealistic.” Would you explain the thinking behind this statement?
Jennifer: I certainly don’t mean to imply that children are never sorry. However, many child development experts believe that children don’t genuinely feel remorse until they have the ability to take another person’s perspective and there seems to be some consensus that that happens around seven years old. But getting there is a process.
Children are more able to see another’s perspective when we can see theirs and they can share their own. So when we expect a child to apologize when they aren’t genuinely sorry, but instead are mad at the other kid for grabbing their toy, we’re really just asking them to say something they can’t truly comprehend and don’t mean at a time when they feel an injustice has been done against them. When we tell them to say sorry, we’re essentially ignoring their experience, perhaps to smooth things over with the other parent or child.
If our child has hurt another child, we can apologize. “That hurt! I’m sorry he hit you. Do you need any ice? When you are feeling better, let’s talk about what happened.”
When there is a conflict, my goal isn’t to identify the wrongdoer and get an apology but instead to help both parties communicate with each other about how they felt and how they can work it out, the details of which I get into in the book.
Come back next week for Part II of my conversation with Jennifer Lehr.