Post Written by Markus
NOTE: Hello, Reader. This is a post about love, healing, and connection that happens to be on the topic of raising a child – as I write this, specifically that’s my five-year-old daughter. There are many ways to raise a kid and one of the awesome things about being a parent is that we each get to choose the way we want to raise our kids. I am not here to tell you anything about what you should or should not do in that regard. These words are here to share my experiences and the things that I have/have-not found useful in hope that they will be helpful to others. I have no intent of shaming any person for any reason. Your method of raising your kid is your choice – take these words with a grain of salt, use what you like, and ignore the rest. I have no judgment for you – only love and compassion.
My daughter is almost six years old. During those years, I’ve said tons of things I never expected to come out of my mouth. Things that are so obvious to me that I can’t believe they wouldn’t be obvious to everyone, automatically, without explanation.
They mostly begin with “Please don’t…”. The full list across all those years could fill a book, things like:
“Please don’t put that stick in your mouth.”
“Please don’t pull that dog’s ears.”
“Please don’t lay down in that puddle.”
It was a slow progression getting to the point of needing to even say things like this. About the first 18 months there really wasn’t a need (or a point) to saying specific things like that because the comprehension wasn’t there. Neither was the rampant, reckless, enthusiastic physical mobility that accompanied years two and three.
Then slowly, I started saying more and more things like that. Not just “please don’t” but also “please do” whatever – get dressed, wash your hands, get in the car, etc.
I wasn’t prepared for how many specific things I would need to say to get her to do the things I wanted her to do so that our time together would run somewhat smoothly. And I had no idea how frequently I would need to ask them as she was learning, or how many different ways she needed me to explain them so that they would make sense to her and she would “buy-in.”
I realized on pretty short order, that it was almost every. Single. Little. Thing. And so, so, so many times that I would need to ask or tell her these same things. It turns out that nothing was obvious to her, I mean NOTHING. It’s like this was her first time on this planet and she had no clue about personal safety, physics, germs, or social convention.
I started wondering why that might be the case until I realized that – oh yeah, that’s exactly why: she’s brand new at all of this. The first time she sees anything, she doesn’t even know what it is. Instead of seeing it as something potentially dangerous, unstable, germy, or inappropriate like I did – she was viewing almost everything with childlike wonder and curiosity. How dare she.
STICKS AND STONES
I needed a tool – something that I could use to have the desired outcomes that I wanted to effect. The outcomes that I wanted were for her to:
Do the things I needed her to do
Not do the things that were unsafe, unhygienic, inappropriate, etc.
To begin to learn to do/not-do these on her own so that eventually they would start to become automatic and one day I wouldn’t have to ask her to not lick rocks off the ground anymore
My theory was that as time went by, she’d get increasingly more exposure to the world around her and thereby have an increasing understanding of what things fall into which of those two main buckets: to do, or not to do.
Looking back, I see that I never really considered more than one tool – just my normal voice. That was fine, I thought – I can definitely ask my daughter to do/not-do whatever I need her to do/not-do. But it was all the time with every little thing. It started to feel like death-by-a-thousand-cuts, especially at the end of a long day when there were still so many things that I need to ask/tell her just to get to bedtime.
I think of it like Leonardo Davinci creating the statue of David. Sure it looked beautiful once he was done – but up until that point, he had to chisel away every little piece of rock that he didn’t want there. He had to intentionally remove every single piece so that he would create the finished piece of art that he had envisioned before he began.
Sure, there were other options besides my normal voice that were technically “on the table” in the canon of child-rearing in the twenty-first century. I was raised with a heavy dose of all these methods and the intensity of the negative impact they had deep into my adult life is difficult to overstate.
Giving the silent treatment
Spanking / physical intimidation
It’s not so much that I specifically decided “hey, these were used on me when I was raised but I don’t want to use them on my kid” – although that’s definitely true. It was more that they just didn’t even register as options to me. I don’t see how the benefit of these could ever outweigh the cost of how emotionally/psychologically harmful they can be.
USE YOUR WORDS
I mean, I’ve definitely raised my voice at her and I’ve definitely yelled at her. Those have been few and far between and usually related to immediate physical danger (like “GET BACK ON THE SIDEWALK NOW!”). From just those type of incidents, I’ve seen how deeply that type of experience hurts her little heart. The times that I’ve “needed” to say things like that I’ve apologized as quickly as I could, explained the reason for it, and made it clear that I won’t talk to her like that unless it’s a safety emergency.
There are others too that I don’t consider harmful and that seem like they can be effective, especially during the older childhood years – things like privileges and consequences. I expect that these will come way more into play in the upcoming years and will be a very useful tool as she learns to understand the effects of choices.
My “normal voice” – that’s what I had at my disposal. I say “normal voice” because it’s a phrase that my daughter understands and that we say very frequently. When she says one-word “questions” in a baby-voice like “Hungry?” instead of “May I please have a snack” – I respond with “Will you please ask me your question in your normal voice?”
She’s learning to understand that the way she gets the things in life that she wants and needs is to specifically ask for them. I’ll be honest, that’s a lesson that I myself just learned very recently.
She also knows the phrase “normal voice” because she very much dislikes when I use a serious tone of voice with her. She dislikes it so much that these days, all it takes from me is this statement to avoid even getting to that point:
“Kid – look me in the eyes please so that I know you’re listening. I’ve asked you to do this a couple of times already. I’ve asked you very nicely and in my normal voice. You haven’t done it yet and I really need you to do this. If you don’t do it right now, I’m going to ask you in a way that you’re probably not going to like.”
Anymore – that’s usually all it takes.
The times that it has gotten past point, she’s said that I was “being mean.” She really, really dislikes when I ask her something in a way that she describes as “mean.” “Mean” to her looks like:
Not smiling (anymore)
Dropping the word “please”
Adding the word “now” (or “right now”)
Using a more stern tone of voice and speaking more loudly (but not approaching yelling)
I explain to her that “mean” means unkind or hurtful. When I say point-blank “Go get dressed right now” after going through the prior rounds of due diligence – that’s not unkind or hurtful. It’s clear and direct – but not mean. I make it clear that I still love her so much and that she’s not in trouble. But we’re at the point where now is the time to do this thing – right now.
I’ve learned through this that our connection is the important part to my daughter. If she feels like she belongs and if she feels like she’s not in trouble, she’s generally a happy kid. By using my normal voice and being clear with her (“clear is kind, unclear is unkind”) – I’m able to keep that connection with her most of the time while still getting her buy-in and getting her to do/not-do the desired thing.
YOU SHOULD GO AND LOVE YOURSELF
The impact of this connection and dialogue is no small thing. It goes way beyond just the childhood experience and I believe it has far-reaching impacts across a person’s entire life. The way caregivers speak to a child ultimately becomes the child’s inner dialogue and how they speak to themselves when they’re an adult. I think of it as me basically writing lines of code into her brain for the future. When I’m about to say something, I think “Would I want her to say/think this to/about herself when she’s off on her own as a young adult?”
That’s based on my own life and what I’ve observed around me. I know the way that I was spoken to as a child, and though it took me forever to realize it – I eventually realized that my inner dialogue was exactly the way that I was spoken to when I was little. The conscious effort that it’s taken to re-write that programming is another topic unto itself and it’s been worth every minute and has been incredibly healing.
All this business about how I talk to her is all well and good – if I speak intentionally and consciously, just the way I would want her to speak to herself – then we’re doing great, right? Here’s the catch – it’s not obvious to me either (especially given the auto-pilot from how I was raised myself), it’s not the fastest way to ask/tell things, and I’ve found that I have to play the long game and have a massive amount of patience.
Also – I’ve noticed this thing along the way of raising my daughter that’s really touched my heart. When I speak to her into those kind, compassionate, intentional, slower ways – I notice it being really healing for myself. As in – it feels like I’m speaking to my own inner child the same way and that I recognize it as being exactly what I need.
It starts to bleed over into my own inner dialogue and I’ve noticed that becoming more compassionate as I move through each day. That includes the times of overwhelm – for her, I say “stop and take three big, big breaths with me.” We’ve done it so many times that she’s very receptive to it and she expects it. The side-effect of that has been me noticing that I’m doing that for myself too, almost automatically, when I find myself in similar situations.
Thanks for the lessons, kid – your little heart is teaching me more than you’ll ever know.