Monday, February 11, 2008

What are we teaching our kids?

A client recently brought this to my attention:

Madeline is four years old, and her mom, Alice, avoids any situation where she would disagree with Madeline, as Madeline just doesn't like it when they disagree. The most recent situation involved choosing a gift for a friend of Alice's - Alice knew Madeline wouldn't approve of Alice's choice so she just didn't involve Madeline in the decision process at all.

In reading the last paragraph, who is acting like a child, and who is being given the adult/decision making energy?

There's nothing wrong with Alice choosing a gift by herself for a friend of hers. What isn't going to work in the long run is that Alice is not gifting Madeline with the opportunity to learn how do disagree, have different opinions, and different ideas. This isn't just when Alice is buying a gift - it's when they're making plans for activities, choosing which photo to use from the photo proofs for the christmas card, it's picking a library book, or what to listen to in the car. In every situation where Madeline might not like Mom's choice, it just isn't brought up, or Alice sneaks it past Madeline to avoid confrontation.

Alice mentioned thinking that four years old is a hard time developmentally to be disagreed with.

I disagree:

I think that when our kids can't handle having a different opinion from us as caregivers or parents, and we change our behavior to not make them upset, we're setting them up for a lifetime of confusion and angst over opinions and people with different beliefs than ours. Also, I can only imagine that Alice may have the very same problem, and therefore Madeline not only does too, because of the example she's been given, but it's escalated.

Alice is teaching Madeline how to use and live in a Boundaries problem style (see for more about healthy boundaries) called "invisible". Invisible is when we don't state our likes and dislikes, even if we know that we do or don't like something. It's saying "okay" to things we don't want to do. It's eating foods we're allergic to so we don't hurt someone else's feelings. Invisible is a problem. And usually when using that problem style, we'll eventually get really fed up and jump over to another problem style called "Rigid". When using rigid, it's "my way or the highway", it's having a very strict set of rules that I think everyone needs to use. It's unapproachable, and also really unpleasant to be around. Alice is training Madeline to be invisible by kowtowing to her dislike of differences.

Four is a brilliant age to learn new things. All ages are, but four is especially cognizant and curious about what other people are doing. Especially what other poeple do that is different than what their family does.

The classic statement I'll hear from a four year old is "But Mommy doesn't do it that way, you're doing it wrong!" To which I say "The thing that makes people special is their differences. How else are you and I or me and your Mommy different?" And then lead them into more concrete ways that we're different: Per hair color, eye color, clothing, the cars we drive, the cell phones we have, our handwriting, different words we use, and then the different ways we do things. And then how it's okay for others to be different, and how it's okay to disagree with people and how they do things. And what to do when those differences do pop up. "This is how we agree to disagree". Something many adults really don't know how to do.

Four is a great age because they know how to share by now (whether they like to do it or not) and teaching that we can disagree and still be friends or family is up the same alley as sharing. It means taking turns getting to talk, or play with a toy a certain way, and that we don't get to tell them what to say or how to play. In the same respect, we don't get to tell people they're wrong just because they don't think like we do, or play like we play.

I often will create experiences for the children i'm around where I do something silly with a toy, like putting a block on my head instead of in a tower on the floor, and then we get to discuss how it's okay if I want to do it that way, and that they can do it differently when it's their turn.

The last thing i'd love to get through on this point is that avoiding conflict with our children is only teaching them how to avoid conflict. It's not teaching conflict resolution at all, which I think we all can agree is an imperative skill in the world. Something most of us wish we were even better at.

Oh, and a special note to the grown ups out there: Remember not to believe everything you think. It's okay to think things and then throw them out the window because you've decided that the THOUGHT is not something you're going to take on as a BELIEF.

Happy parenting,

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