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.