The Subtle Art of Conversation

Abby has a new trick.  Or maybe not.

It’s hard to decide whether she’s being willfully disobedient or just…distracted.  The other night I was putting lotion on her sister before bed time, and she volunteered to help.  I accepted, and told her I would get her lotion.  After she had applied it all to her sisters chest, she turned to get more.

The first pump gave her too much, and I told her so.  I told her to stop.  This is the tricky part.  She didn’t say anything, she just got another pump, then she turned toward her sister still looking at the lotion in her hand.

I got frustrated, and told her she was being disobedient and that she didn’t get to put the lotion on her sister because she continued to get more when I told her to stop.  She didn’t get mad, or sad, she just said okay and let me take the lotion from her hand.  In fact, it’s her lack of emotion that makes me wonder if she really was being disobedient.

In the moment, I was frustrated by my expectation that she obey me.  Not that she always does, but she has a pretty good track record.  I was tired, and I let my frustration get the best of me.  Instead of talking about the situation, I just stopped her and told her she couldn’t participate anymore.  I don’t feel great about that, I felt very sad afterwards.  I always want her to feel included, and I never want to just punish her without talking about the situation, even though she seems too young to really understand that kind of conversation.

I don’t know if she was deliberately ignoring me and disobeying or if she was so focused on using the push top on the lotion that she really didn’t process what I was saying, but I do know that my reaction was wrong.

Since she was very young, since long before she could talk, I’ve had conversations with her.  We’ve had negotiations about bed time since before she could say “nightnight”, and she’s always been…receptive.  I think children can understand us long before we realize it.  I think having conversations, even with very young children, as if they can understand, is a powerful tool.

The underlying idea here is that children deserve to be treated with respect.  Not dictated to, but engaged.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be punished for wrong behavior or attitudes, it does mean that their punishments should be conducted with respect and with buy-in.  Will you ever get a child to buy in to timeout or a spanking?  Probably not, but you can certainly help them understand where they went wrong, and that this punishment is that natural result of that error.

It’s easy, in the moment, to push them away or to deliver a quick punishment, but this isn’t dog training (Despite a vast ocean of similarities).  Children need to be engaged in a conversation about the behaviors that are wrong, and the effect that those behaviors have on their families and on themselves.

Their basic humanness requires that we treat them with respect.  I think it’s vital to treat them this way, if we want them to respect themselves and others.  Dictating to children is only easier because it requires from us less mindfulness.  It doesn’t require us to slow down and enter a conversation.

It also doesn’t connect us to our children’s souls, it doesn’t win their hearts and minds, and it doesn’t teach them very much, except that a specific behavior gets them a specific negative reinforcement.

How long will it take to raise loving, respectful, pleasant adults if we have to teach right behavior one infraction at a time?

I’m glad, especially when I disappoint myself as a parent, that my children will evaluate me on my quality over their lives, not on these single instances.  I’m glad that every day I have the opportunity to be more, to be better and stronger and sweeter than I was the day before.  This is a great gift.


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