Last weekend, I was chatting with a friend I have known since our kids were two years old. He mentioned something that he told his boys early on in their life: “You can do a whole bunch of good things in your life, but sometimes all it takes is one mistake for things to go downhill.” The mistakes he was talking about were things like cheating, stealing, drinking, and other things we worry about when it comes to our teens.
This got me thinking about myself as a parent. Unfortunately, I think the same concept is true when it comes to our parenting: The negative things we do as parents have a much greater chance for harm than the positive things we do have a chance for good.
That last sentence was a mouthful, so I’ll try to explain. It is important for us to treat our kids well, to instruct them about life, and to praise them for a job well done. But our positive actions toward our kids can only get them so far. The rest is up to them. Even if we praise them in all the right places and all the right ways, it is still up to our kids to take that praise and do something with it. Sometimes, when kids hear praise from their parents, they think to themselves: “They have to praise me because they are my parents. But is their praise really true?”
The opposite isn’t true, however. When we yell at our kids, treat them poorly, and/or call them names, they take it to heart. They think to themselves: “Parents aren’t supposed to treat their kids this way, so they must really mean what they say.” The truth about parenting is that our kids take to heart our mistakes much more than our successes. They remember the times we lose our temper much more than they remember the times we stay calm.
So, what do we do about this reality? The first thing to do is to stay vigilant on our outbursts. There is almost always a better approach than losing our temper. If you feel yourself ready to boil, go to another room and cool off. Try to remember that if you act on your anger and frustration, there is a big chance your kids will not benefit.
I try to remember to Hippocratic Oath that has steered the medical profession: “First, do no harm.” The more I remember this, the better things are for everyone.
The basics of “do no harm” are pretty simple on the surface. Don’t hurt, don’t name call, don’t degrade, etc. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. Sometimes we don’t realize that we are name calling when in fact we are. Take, for instance, the concept of “you are acting like a…”
There are many varieties of this. “Stop acting so lazy.” “Quit being so rude.” “You are acting like a jerk.” “I wish you would stop being so mean.” We think that, since we aren’t directly calling our child a name that it doesn’t count as name calling. We think that naming the behavior is different than naming the child. But the hard truth is that our kids (and most adults) don’t see the difference. When we call our kids actions selfish, our kids hear that we are calling them selfish. When we tell our kids they are acting like a jerk, they think we are calling them a jerk.
There is a way, I think, to characterize a behavior that doesn’t end up characterizing the child. Instead of saying “stop acting so mean,” try saying “stop hitting your sister. It’s a mean thing to do and I know you aren’t a mean person.” It’s more words, but it sends the message much more clearly.
Try to keep Hippocrates in mind this week and remember that what we do well is important, but it’s even more important to avoid doing the negative.
Neil McNerney is a licensed counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.