Scroll down for Q&A
I’ve come to believe that there is no Truth with a capital T. When you’re living in a family, you either push, pull and dictate to get your capital T kind truth across or you let go and realize there are many truths, one for each member of the family. The fear is that letting go means losing your truth—what you think is right. Fear causes friction and fighting to get your truth to the top—because you’re the parent after all.
The jockeying that goes on in a family, sometimes with pain and agony, is really the process of negotiating all these truths. If negotiation doesn’t happen, some truths go unheard and unrecognized. Someone else’s truth has bullied its way through and made it the Truth, the only truth, the whole truth. When one truth is on top, everyone else’s is subverted. And we know what that leads to.
When negotiation happens, all the truths bat up against each other. It’s messy, not easy, and sometimes quite unpleasant. Maybe one person’s truth comes out on top this time and another next time or a little bit of everyone’s truth combines to make the resolve. But the result is everyone’s truth is heard.
This carried right into the world at large, and city, country or worldwide problems arise when people believe their truth is the one and only Truth. What does it take to let go of that and incorporate other truths? Fear arises that my truth will be stamped out by someone else’s or a bigger truth if I don’t yell and scream and throw money at my truth and demand that it is the one and only. Unfortunately the truths with the most money usually win.
Back to the family. Doesn’t it stand to reason that if we all teach our children that their truths matter, that they will create a society in which we acknowledge and respect many truths—world peace? I know, pie in the sky. But I think it’s a movement that is worth starting and what better place than in our families so our children grow up knowing that their truth is their birth right as is everyone else’s.
Not only did my truth not matter, I didn’t even have a truth when I was young. Or I lost it somewhere early on. My father’s truth ruled with a capital T. But any system of authority when there is one Truth only is about control. And when control rules, no other truth is heard because control fears discord more than anything. It has to be right and so everyone else either goes along or has to be wrong. I went along. My brother was wrong.
When children are fighting and screaming, they are just trying to get their truth heard. The more they feel heard, the less they fight and scream. When your kids argue with you they are pointing out what is true for them. Their arguments are attempts at saying, Hey wait a minute, we’re headed in the wrong direction, we need to change course. You might see it differently. That’s fine. It’s just your truth bumping up against your child’s. It’s messy. One truth might win this time or each gets a little win. But if your child thinks he never wins, you’re in for more and more arguing—the nasty kind.
Whenever there is disagreement with the one Truth, there is reprisal. Reprisal means fear is at work. When you have to be right, ask yourself, What am I afraid of? Answer that question before you go any further. You can even say, “I can’t answer you right now. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” Then do it.
When the capital T truth rules, children go unheard. Perhaps they get used to it as I did. But if they can’t just take it in, they rebel. So the task at hand is to learn how to back off—not from actively parenting, from being right. Parenting actually gets more active when everyone’s truths are being heard. It’s harder than having one Truth per family. It means you’re listening, you’re thinking, you’re respecting, you’re considering, you’re weighing options. There isn’t a right and a wrong. That’s why this parenting business is so hard. But ironically, once you let go, it has an amazing way of getting so much easier.
Questions and Answers and a Story
Aggression in a preschooler
Q. I was reading your response to defensive behaviors in children and how parents need to stop blaming for change to occur. Can you give me an example of a conversation I could have with my son? He is 5, has just started Kindergarten and has a history of being too aggressive with peers. He struggles with being impulsive but also is just very physical. I worry about the way it occurs, because sometimes I sense a deliberate tone in his actions. I’m trying to find a new way of talking about it with him because my husband and I are finding that he is blaming others, lying about it and getting angry. How would you proceed?
A. It’s important that your son knows that you understand and accept him for who he is-physical and aggressive-nothing wrong with those innate attributes. If he grows with confidence, they will serve him well. If he gets the message that he is wrong or bad, the aggression can go in a more violent direction. When he gets too aggressive it is either due to his impulses, which will become more controlled with development, or he is fighting back against those who think he is wrong and taking it out on a more vulnerable child. You might say:
“You really want what your friend is playing with and it’s too hard for you to wait your turn so I’ll help. Can you think of something else you can do until he’s done with it?”
“You are so strong and know just what you want. That’s great. Sometimes it gets you in trouble doesn’t it? Other kids get mad at you and I bet you wonder why. Do you know why? What do you think you could do instead?”
“That doesn’t work for me/I don’t like it when you do that. Want another chance to do it differently?”
“You are really mad about that. So mad you feel like hitting me. I won’t let you hit me but what can you hit instead?”
So the idea is to first connect by accepting and acknowledging his feelings, even if you are guessing at them (he’ll be happy to tell you if you’re wrong!). Then observe what the problem is and state it. And then use problem solving to ask him a question about what he could do differently or how he can get what he wants without hurting another, etc. Young children are totally egocentric. You will make better connection when your focus is on helping him get what he wants. The key to problem solving is making sure the solution works for everyone involved.
Q. My 9 yo daughter talks a lot and has a tendency to be a bit of a know it all with other kids. If they are going somewhere she’s already been she may hold forth on what is there etc rather than saying ‘its really cool there’. Today she said that kids didn’t let her speak her turn when sharing experiences. I know this isn’t nice but I know she can take too long explaining something without cutting to the chase. In addition her consequential thinking is quite good and she can see things may end in tears before others and may warn her friends when they don’t want to be told and then may say I told you so when some mishap occurs. She also puts her hand up a lot in class and I have actively discouraged her from doing this too much suggesting instead to sometimes take a back seat and be quietly confident. I have also advised that sometimes she should aim to say less and listen more and that silences are ok and can often say more than words. She is a lovely and largely popular child who loves school, learning and being with her friends. I just want to be armed with some knowledge of how best to help her develop a bit of tact and diplomacy and be better prepared to deal with any unkindness.
A. If she is receptive to your advise about listening more, great, but you don’t want her to think her voice doesn’t count. You said that she told you that kids don’t let her speak her turn. In that instance I would suggest asking her why she thinks that is rather than telling her that perhaps she does the same to them. No one likes to be told how their behavior comes across to others–unless she is receptive and wants to change. You might ask her if it’s all okay with her or if she would like your help or support in this area. Some kids are bossy because they actually are ahead of their peers intellectually and get frustrated when their peers don’t understand something. And some kids are bossy because they are insecure and need to prove themselves by telling others a lot about their own experiences. Which do you think it is? She will likely get her teaching from her peers and then your job is to listen to her anger/sadness about her friends. Then you can try a role play. You can take turns being her and the other child. When you play the other child, you might say things like, “You’re not giving me a chance to talk, etc.” When you are her, she gets to hear your bossiness. It’s tricky but might help.
He won’t take “No” for an answer
Q. My son is 11. Ever since he was 8, he can’t understand why we say no and feels we’re being unfair… so we do the usual thing, send him upstairs, no xbox, no pocket money etc… and nothing seems to work. I am worried that if we don’t correct this behaviour he will have problems in later life. He is great at school, works hard, has friends.. so no problems there. A friend told me that my son was punching her son on the arm. Her son and mine do not get on, never have, but we are close friends. So I talked to my son today and said (in quite a calm voice) “Can I ask you what happened in the car yesterday?” He didn’t respond.. so I said that my friend told me you were punching her son on the arm.. and because her son didn’t say anything, she didn’t tell you off.. can you tell me what that was about? what happened? He refused to answer, so I unfortunately was less calm, shouted, and I did blame him and said you did something, you were caught, can you explain it? He went on the major defensive (which he does anyway), but has still refused to talk to me. How could I have handled this better?
A. Are you are willing to rethink your approach? Staying with the punitive approach will only push him further away. Your son feels misunderstood and powerless. Perhaps your “Nos” don’t give him a chance to negotiate. Punishment and blame–sending him to his room, no money, no xbox–are arbitrary coercive tactics and feel entirely unfair, because they are and will only lead to defensiveness. Children like your son are sensitive to the injustice of punishment and won’t be told what to do. More compliant children will do what you ask but may have problems later on finding their voice. Punishment is always about power held over the child–the traditional approach to parenting. However, it doesn’t work with kids like your son. With a connective approach, relationship is more important than punishing unwanted behavior. Once your son gets that you care about how he feels and you listen to his side of the story, a lot of unwanted behavior disappears. Problem solving replaces punishment. Your son would likely communicate with you more if you talked about the fact that he does not like this other boy and doesn’t have to. It is after all your agenda for them to drive together because of your friendship. Acknowledge that. He refuses to talk to you about it because he assumes you will get mad and lecture, blame or punish him, which you do. When you understand how hard it is to be with the boy he doesn’t like or are willing to hear his side when he thinks you’re being unfair and are willing to work out an agreement, communication will happen. Once he gets it that you get it, you can say, “If the same situation happens again, what can you do when you are tempted to hit him?” or “This doesn’t work for me. How can we make it work for both of us?” It will take awhile because he needs to trust the change in you. Your consistency with empathy requires a shift in the way you see him and his behavior. You lose your cool with him because you are making assumptions of his behavior (he’s mean, he never listens, he can’t hear no, etc.) Naturally thinking that way causes you to feel angry, which provokes you to lose it. So it’s the way you think about him that needs to change. His behavior means that he is having a problem, not being a problem. You need to change your approach instead of expecting your son to.
Knowing developmental information is so critical to setting reasonable expectations, isn’t it – not making a problem out of what is actually normal. I was getting concerned about my son but after what you wrote, I think my son is doing well – he does get frustrated when he can’t master things, but we have found various ways of persisting and problem solving, and he is quite willing to do this. (Eg when drawing a picture which got “messed up”, we put sticky labels over the mistake so he can re-draw, and with a more serious mess-up, cut off the whole background and attach another clean piece of paper so he can try again.) I hope you will flag this info for other parents who may have similar concerns. These days we get all these messages about what our kids ‘should’ (or more often, ‘shouldn’t’) be like, eg they ‘should’ never be aggressive, they ‘should’ enjoy playing and not focus on winning, etc. I loved the statement in your book that some children are simply born ‘aggressive’ but it doesn’t become violence unless it’s handled wrong. That is definitely my son, and once again gave me permission to see him as normal and just needing good handling, not as some kind of aberration.