Blog Post

between-child-and-parentby Haim G. Ginott; Revised and Updated by Alice Ginott and H. Wallace Goddard (Three Rivers Press 2003)

This book was first published in 1965, had multiple editions and sold millions of copies. All for good reason, as Dr. Ginott wrote the quintessential book of Positive Parenting. A beautifully written, moving book about the transformative power of communicating with respect, compassion and authenticity despite any circumstances.

He is urging the parents to become skilled on using the words recognizing that in real life situations we tend to respond with language, expressions, words that have the potential to hurt deeply. As parents, we often fall in the trap of relying excessively on criticism to modify behavior. Something is not done adequately and critical, corrective, at times sarcastic and belittling words tend to surface. Dr. Ginott suggests that preferable …

“It is a language that is protective of feelings, not critical of behavior”

Parent-Child Conversations

Parent-Child Conversations often go by a code that is different than adult conversations. Often what a child seems to say is different than what he means to say. If we do not recognize this, our words as parents will be ineffective or, worse, damaging.

The temptation is to respond to the child’s words or to child’s behavior but it is better to the child’s emotion. The more puzzling or frustrating the behavior is, the more we need to avoid focusing primarily on it. Instead we need to guess what are the feelings the child seems to have and reflect them back to the child. The correct response is to acknowledge the feelings and the complaint even if we consider the situation unimportant, minor or we plainly disagree with the child.

The idea is not to agree with the child but to acknowledge the child.  That is perceptions, feelings, wishes, opinions, experience etc. Especially if I disagree with the behavior, in order to have a reasonable chance at changing the behavior I need to acknowledge the underlying feeling, give the child the right to have the emotions and the beliefs he seems to have and only after that to display any sign of challenge or correction.

Examples:

“You miss your friend already.”

“It is really hard to be apart when you are used to being together”

“You are disappointed. You were looking forward to….”

“I see an angry boy. In fact, I see a very angry boy”

 

Often the behaviors get to be more and more problematic over months and years exactly because the underlying feelings and beliefs have not been acknowledged. Possibly, no effort to change them would have been necessary if the proper validation and mirroring were provided.

I used here two words that may be important to explain and to some extent they can be used interchangeably. Validation essentially means to acknowledge the other one’s position. Again not necessarily agreeing with it. In order to be able to do that I need to “put myself in the other one’s shoes” (empathize) and to be curious about them.

Mirroring is a term describing a person’s reaction to another individual’s display of emotion. The mirroring of another person’s emotion can be helpful or unhelpful. For example, I may respond to someone’s anger with irritation (unhelpful) or with calm and validation (helpful). Or to someone’s sadness with annoyance (unhelpful) or with compassion (helpful). The helpful form of mirroring is technically called marked mirroring.

Parent-child dialogues can be quite frustrating.

Example:

“Where did you go?”

“Out”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing”

Sounds familiar?

“Children often resist dialogues with parents. They resent being preached to, talked at, and criticized. They feel that parents talk too much”

“When children are in the midst of strong emotions, they cannot listen to anyone. They cannot accept advice or consolation or constructive criticism. They want us to understand what is going on inside them, what they are feeling at that particular moment. Furthermore, they want to be understood without having to disclose fully what they are experiencing. It is a game in which they reveal only a little of what they feel. We have to guess the rest.”

Before we jump with advice, instructions in a long lecture we could probably say something like:

“It must have been terribly embarrassing.”

“It must have made you furious.”

“You probably hated the teacher at that moment.”

“It must have hurt your feelings terribly.”

“It sounds like a bad day for you.”

Showing understanding indicates to the child that their feelings are a “normal part of human experience”.

“Strong feelings do not vanish by being banished; but they do diminish in intensity and lose their sharp edges when the listener accepts them with sympathy and understanding”

About Praise

Praise is a very useful tool in parenting but often “misfires” if it is not used adequately. In a nutshell, praised should be used only for “efforts and accomplishments” and never in regard to “character and personality”. If praised for effort, the child is more likely to become “more persistent in difficult tasks.”

Examples un unhelpful praise:

“You are a good little boy.”

“You are such a wonderful daughter”

“What would Mother do without you?”

Such comments may increase anxiety and actually be threatening. They may create internal tension, a distorted image of one’s own personality (today I’m good yesterday I was bad, who am I actually? Would mom still love me if I will not be a good little boy?).

Many times, the reflex response to a statement like “You are beautiful” is ” No, I’m not”.

Recommendations:

  • Focus on the difficulty of the task and let the child draw the inference about his personal characteristics.
  • Be specific on “your delight and admiration, words that convey recognition of effort, and statements that transmit respect and understanding”.

About guidance instead of criticism

“In guidance we state the problem and a possible solution. We say nothing to the child about himself or herself.”

“When things go wrong is not the right time to teach an offender about his personality. When things go wrong, it is best to deal only with the event, not with the person.”

Dealing with anger

Parents do get angry too and this may lead to escalations in the moment and damage the relationship for a long time.

“When angry, describe what you see, what you feel, and what you expect, starting with the pronoun “I”. I’m angry, I’m annoyed etc. Avoid attacking the child”.

Self-Defeating Patterns

Threats

Threats may have the opposite effect, to invite the child to misbehave; then you must be ready to enforce the threat otherwise it’s empty and the child will know you don’t mean it. Still, you need to deal with the meltdown.

Bribes

A bribe may get the child to do something now but will not  create lasting change. In addition is a moral hazard and over time you will have to pay more and more for the expected result.

Promises

Better is never to promise or to demand a promise in our relationship with the children. Like threats, promises may lead to misbehavior.

Sarcasm

Is not humor. Never a good idea.

Lecturing

Authority calls for brevity and for occasional silence.

Lying

“On one hand, we should not play prosecuting attorney or ask for confessions or make a federal case. On the other hand, we should not hesitate to call a spade a spade. When we find that the child’s library book is overdue, we should not ask, “Have you returned the book to the library? Are you sure? How come it’s still on your desk?” Instead, we should state, “I see your library book is overdue.”

I particularly like this strategy and it goes beyond lying.  Trying to outsmart the child or to squeeze confessions is a perilous strategy. The child may dig his heels in, reject your arguments, attack back, and the talk ends up in an argument. We don’t need to be shaming, we don’t need the child to lose face. This only brings resentment. Instead tactfully call the child on the mistake while allowing him to save face. He will realize you know but will also feel respected, and it may be more likely that will actively try to put an end to that type of behavior.

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