The Words We Use About Our Children: Valence

negative positive

I am a strong believer in words. 

Words have power.  Immense power. 

Words reveal.  They reveal our state of mind, the way that we feel about and regard another person.  Sometimes they say what we don’t mean to say (at least out loud.)

And then there’s the level beyond words. That whole children-as-omniscient thing.  The feelings that they can hear, they can feel, they can read, even when we try to cover it up with fancy euphemisms or “the right thing to say.”  If you’re thinking or feeling that your child is “mean”, even if you don’t say it, even if you train yourself to say something else, they will hear that you think they are mean.  And (this is where it gets really tricky, but really important for parents) children become what we expect of them.  They hear “I am mean” and they manifest it.  We’re all pretty clear that that’s not what we want.

This is why I so frequently ask parents to reframe.

It’s really very simple to do.  Take what you have just said..or in the case of the internet or facebook, what you have written, and examine it.  Look at your choice of words.  If those words were used in reference to you, would you feel happy about it?   Would you feel like that person held positive regard toward you?   You can do this.

What do I do when my child is lying?

How old is your child?  Lying is an attempt to deliberately deceive someone.  This is not something that is within the cognitive capability of children under five or so, so if your child is young, that’s probably the wrong word.

Use the test.  If you went to work and someone said that you were lying, would you feel positive about that?  “Lying”, as a word, has a negative valence. You can get the same answers to your question by asking “What do I do when my child does not seem to know the difference between what is true and what they want to be true?”  That’s a great question, it’s grounded in early childhood development and it carries no judgment or label or negative attribution for what the child has done.

(True confessions: I admit that as a parent coach, it is much easier for me to answer questions that are asked with a neutral or positive valence, because it says tht parents have already done much of the work, so we are free to focus on strategies to support or help the child.  When I see negative words, I am aware before we can get to the child, we have to clear the hurdle of the negative emotions that the parent is having about the child and his or her intentions. It’s surely still doable, but it’s twice the task, and the parent stuff has to get dealt with first.)

But what difference does it make?  I’m asking other parents or professionals, my child isn’t reading this or hearing this.  What does it matter?  Aren’t you just getting a little too picky here?  Surely we both understand what we mean when we use the word “lying”?

I’ll tell you what difference it makes.

A key element of respectful and mindful parenting is something that I often refer to as “reframing.”  Reframing is when we take the automatic messages and responses–many of which are driven by our own childhoods, our own histories, and our emotions–and turn them on their heads, choosing to consciously view our children through a positive, or at least neutral lens.  “They’re making me crazy” becomes “They’re having a hard time.”  “They don’t listen to a word I say” becomes “I have to connect with them before they will fully attend to what I am saying” or sometimes “They have strong minds of their own.”  “They’re crying for no reason” becomes “I know they have a reason, even if I don’t know what it is.”

Respectful & mindful parenting is about a general commitment to shift ourselves into a positive valence toward our children–even when they do things that we don’t like–with the trust that investing positivity will pay off in enriched, trusting, connected relationships leading to mutual respect and cooperation (which it does).  It’s a commitment to positive and compassionate regard.  And if we’re going to do that, we have to be willing to see where the negative slips in without us even knowing it.

That’s why it makes a difference, whether your children are reading or not.  When we say or write that our children are mean, or bullies, or that they lie, or that they are defiant, or that they are nasty, we are revealing that we have negative thoughts about them.  And whether they hear (or read) that or not, having those feelings and thoughts clouds our interactions with our children, because they remove us from positive regard.

Wait.  So you’re saying that I should feel positively about my children at all times?  I should never think anything that they do is wrong or get exasperated or angry or frustrated?  Are you really saying that kids are never mean or that they never lie or cheat or behave inappropriately?  You’re saying that I should stand there, when my child has just poked another child in the eye with a stick and the other child is screaming in pain and my child is just standing there laughing, and think or say “He’s such a good boy, I love him so much, he didn’t mean it”?  REALLY?

No.  That’s not what I’m saying at all.  We all have moments–some of us more than others–in which we don’t feel positively about our children.  That’s natural.  Of course they do things that are wrong.  Of course we get exasperated or frustrated.  Of course sometimes kids do things that could be called mean.  Of course sometimes kids lie and cheat and behave inappropriately.   And no, of course it’s not reasonable to be oozing positive regard for a child who has just poked someone in the eye with a stick and is now laughing (is that laughing thing powerfully triggering or what?)

This is not about being perfect.  This is not about your children being perfect.  This is about perspective taking.  This is about harnessing our impulses–because we are the ones modeling impulse control, remember?–and taking the time and energy to reframe.  When we can.  If not in the moment, maybe later.  This is not a demand, it is an invitation.  An invitation to shift your frame, to shift the lens through which you see your child, in the interest of building and maintaining respectful and loving connection.

You all know the most common example of this (or maybe you dont?):
Making this sort of switch is also a challenge for most of us.  We sure FEEL like they’re giving us a hard time.  But there are powerful benefits to be found in making this sort of frameshift.  We gain an understanding into our children’s psyche, and compassion for his or her personhood, and in doing so, become more attuned and empathic parents.  Nothing bad in that. 

Making these shifts in our words–and recognizing them- are just the next step.  The goals are to 1) steer clear of heavily value-laden words and judgments, 2) be grounded in normative child development, i.e. it is normal for a preschooler to be self-centered or to not know the difference between fantasy and reality,  3) be objective in our descriptions, or 4) take responsibility and ownership for our emotional responses rather than attributing the problem solely to the child…or any combination thereof.  Some examples:

My child is being mean/a bully  –> My child is still in the process of learning how to relate to others…or…My child is struggling with (developmentally appropriate) impulse control….or…My child is having a hard time with social interactions…or…my child hit another child at the playground (objective description)…or I’m embarrassed that he hit someone (ownership).

My child is lazy –> My child is having a hard time with motivation….or…my child seems overtired…or…my child seems low energy these days…or…it’s hard for me that my child is not interested in “x”…or…my child is not picking up her clothes at the end of the day (objective description)…or…I’m worried that she’s just not interested in the things that all her friends seem to be interested in (ownership).

My child is a brat/entitled/selfish –> My child has a hard time taking other people’s perspectives…or…my child is making frequent requests and I am frustrated (objective description + ownership of our part)…or…my child frequently wants things when we are at the store (objective description)…or I hate when they want everything at the store because it’s embarassing and I feel like I have a selfish greedy child (ownership of feelings.)

My child doesn’t listen –> My child is not obedient (very different than not listening, not the goal in respectful parenting)…or…my child doesn’t come when i call (objective description)…or…I am really frustrated because I am expecting them to comply easily (taking responsibility)…or I am concerned about their hearing…or…my child has difficulty switching gears when playing.

My child is disrespectful –> My child is saying things to me that don’t feel okay to me…or…my child is not doing what I say (some people define equate compliance with respect…that’s not how I define respect, but some people do)…or…my child is having trouble regulating their emotions…or…my child is going through something stressful and I’d like to know more about it…or…my child is stretching their own independence and initative more than they have in the past…or I’m having trouble not taking things that my child says personally (taking responsibility.)

My child is rude –> My child is not behaving in the ways that I would like…or…my child has a different view than I do…or… my child is not remembering to say please and thank you (objective description)… child is taking toys from others at the park….or…my child laughs when I correct him…or…my child sticks out their tongue when strangers say hello (objective description)…or…I feel shame when people look at me like my child doesn’t have good manners (taking responsibility)…or…my child is still learning social norms.

My child is defiant –> My child has a hard time when I set limits…or…my child has a hard time with transitions…or…my child won’t do what I say…or…my child really has a mind of her own…or…my child is assertive and strong minded…or…I have a hard time when my child says no (ownership)…or…my child refuses to get into the car seat (descriptive)…or…my child says “no” to most requests (descriptive)…or my child is really starting to test boundaries…or…my child is really coming into the fierce independence of being three (grounding in development.)

None of us are perfect.  We will all use these words sometimes–either out loud or in our heads.  The goal is not perfection, or absolute language monitoring–that would be excessive and self-critical.  The goal is noticingReflection.  And then slowly consciously shifting frames.  And then maybe see it through a different lens next time.  Or if not then, then maybe the time after.  Or the time after that.

Mindfulness, intention, and awareness are the goals. 

Let’s start with our words.

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