In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, the main character, Jonas, is reprimanded by his parents for not using precise language when he asked if they loved him. In a society in which feelings are deemed too dangerous for the common citizen to have, “Do you enjoy me?” or “Do you take pride in my accomplishments” were better alternatives to “Do you love me?”.

There are few things that make me more ashamed of myself these days than when I lose control of my emotions at my kids and scold them. What we say to our children, especially when we are tired, angry, or frustrated, speaks so loudly to them in answer to “Do you love me?” and actually does require, as in the society of The Giver, quite a bit of precision of language.

Advances in developmental psychology and developmental neuroscience in the last decade or two have introduced concepts to parenting that were largely in departure with parenting methods of previous generations, ideas like:

  • positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment
  • there is a biological basis for impulse control and thus children need to be developmentally ready to be taught to to behave appropriately
  • parental attachment in the early years largely influence our personalities (how we view ourselves and others, our place in the world, our approach to problems and how we cope with stress and challenges, how we establish and maintain relationships, how we deal with strong emotions and impulses)
  • putting words to emotions help us manage feelings and behave appropriately

It has been said that the two greatest mistakes of parenting is believing that everything we do impacts how our children turn out and nothing we do impacts how our children turn out. Somewhere in between these extremes, we are beginning to understand how we treat our children affects them for the rest of their lives.

Speaking with friends and colleagues who are also parents, we share our horror and shame (in ourselves) when we first hear our babies drop the f-bomb and how hilarious it often is that they use it in exactly with the right intonation of voice and in the right context. This is a variation on a recurring theme of how much they pick up from us, consciously or not, for better or worse. When we scold our kids, it is easy to produce strong emotions of hurt, fear, anger, humiliation, and shame. Over the long term, these emotions drive how they behave, how they think of themselves and how they think others think of them, and essentially, who they become.

Recently, while reading through a list of better alternatives to commonly used parenting phrases, I realized I frequently used the majority of the “not recommended” versions. The three I remember right now (and thus probably the ones I’m most guilty of) are:

“Stop crying”
Instead of “stop crying”, let them know that crying is okay and and is a normal expression of emotion. Let them cry it out, and then look at whatever is causing the crying as a teaching opportunity of how to problem solve. They will learn to experience and manage their emotions better rather than just keeping it bottled up inside.

“It’s not a big deal”
Our perception of reality is our reality. If we don’t empathize with what is most important in their lives right now (what they perceive as a big deal), we shouldn’t expect them to share their lives with us when they are older about things we actually think are a big deal. Open up the conversation by being curious and asking them to tell more and how they feel about what they are trying to tell you.

“It’s not that hard”
A lot of things that are hard for them are not for us because we have had much more experience or practice with. Tell them they can do hard things too and help them out by breaking down a problem into manageable pieces. They will come to realize over time that it’s not that hard rather than believing themselves incapable.

Even in the absence of perhaps what we consider bad behaviour, these are examples how we may elicit the same negative responses as scolding. One of the strategies of phrasing what to say to our kids is to pause and reflect on whether we would speak to an adult friend in a similar way under the same circumstances. In interacting with my children, I try to appreciate their childhood while respecting them the same way I respect other adults. I challenge you to do the same. One of the joys and privileges of parenthood is the opportunity of self-improvement.