If you put yourself into your child’s shoes and think about how they understand things, there are several things many of us do as parents that could easily confuse our kids.
Confusion #1: We tell our kids that they have to listen when we say “no”, but we completely ignore them when they say “no”. We often even tell them to stop doing things because their little brother or sister said “no, thank you” but then when they say “no” to a brother or sister, we tell them they should share, or play with them, etc. So why can everyone say “no” but them?
The Fix: Try to respect your child’s “no” as much as possible. “No” has to have a consistent meaning in their life; if it never means anything when they say it, they are much more likely to stop respecting it when someone else says it. There are plenty of times when we can’t accept their “no”, but we should respect it whenever possible. Some ways to respect their “no”:
When they express “no” over something physical (hugging, kissing, tickling) – uphold their “no”. This teaches them that “no” has a meaning, and it also teaches them that it is OK for them to define physical limits in their closeness with other people. This is VERY important for their physical and emotional autonomy.
When they say “no” to another child that wants to take or use one of THEIR toys. WE’re not talking about shared toys, but toys that belong specifically to them. Yes, of course we want them to learn how to share, but they can’t properly learn the concept of freely sharing if they don’t first learn that possession has a real meaning. If a toy is theirs, it’s theirs. This means we should respect their wishes as much as possible. We can’t tell them that they may not use such-and-such a toy because it doesn’t belong to them, and then tell them that they have to let so-and-so use their toy. It doesn’t make sense. Their “no” should be respected if the toy is theirs. Then, when they know that it really is their toy, and they make the decision over whether others can use it or not, you’ll be surprised at how generous they really are, and how often they’re willing to let others use it if they are asked first, but when they do say “no”, it should be respected.
Whenever it’s possible. Assess each situation. If your child’s “no” isn’t disrespectful to you and its possible to accommodate it, do so.
When you are not going to accept your child’s “no”, you don’t have to justify your own response, but it could help to give them an explanation of why their “no” isn’t always accepted, so they can start recognizing on their own the parameters of when they may or may not say “no”. You might, for example say, “This is Mommy’s decision, so I realize you don’t like it, but you have to respect it”, or “This time, you can’t say no; it’s not your toy. When it is your toy, you decide.”
Confusion #2: We tell our kids to be honest, but then…
They hear us being dishonest (such as telling grandma that you love the shirt she got you for Christmas, when your child previously heard you say you can’t stand the color of the shirt). We don’t see such statements as dishonest because we’re really trying to be sensitive to someone’s feelings or express appreciation, but if we think about it, on the literal level children understand, we are contradicting our own “you always tell the truth” rule.
We get annoyed at them for being too honest and repeating things in public that they heard in private. Again, we have a different discretionary judgment level that makes certain statements uncalled for, but to the child, you told them to tell the truth, so what’s wrong with it?
Avoid even “white” lies. Find a way to be sensitive to other person’s feelings or say something nice without telling a literal untruth. For example, instead of telling Grandma that the sweater you can’t stand is beautiful, you might say that it fits perfectly, or matches “x” pair of pants… something that is true, expresses appreciation, but doesn’t contradict another thought or feeling you’ve expressed.
Be very careful how you phrase things around your kids. Anything you say can be repeated. Once your child has reached the age of reason, you can explain to them that certain subjects are true, but don’t need to be talked about with others. Prior to that age, your child simply can’t understand why you would be upset at them for saying something that is true when you tell them all the time to “always tell the truth”. Isn’t that what they did? Just avoid speaking in front of them about things you wouldn’t want repeated in public; if something slips out by accident and does get awkwardly repeated, try to take it with a sense of humor and at least understanding. Your child didn’t mean it is and just doing what you told them – telling the truth.
Confusion #3: We yell at our kids to stop yelling. Now that’s inconsistent, isn’t it? We’re assuming that due to a difference of roles, it’s OK for one party (the parent) to behave in a way that inacceptable for the other (child). But the child has no such awareness. Why would Mommy and Daddy do something that isn’t allowed to do?
The Fix: Always treat your children respectfully. If you do lose patience and yell at them, do what you would expect them to do if they yelled at you – apologize to them. By modeling the way you expect them to behave, you show them that you live by the expectations you place on them, and you also give them specific examples of how they can meet your expectations.
Confusion #4: False Choices. This happens when we give the child two alternatives, but are really only going to accept one answer. The second is not really meant to be a legitimate choice, but a deterrent. For example: “Would you like to clean up and go with Grandma and Grandpa or stay home?” If we ask this sentence thinking that they won’t want to stay home and will therefore be motivated to clean up, what happens when the child turns around and says they’d prefer to stay home? Another common one: “Stop _________ and get in the car, unless you want to be left home.” Again, the parent is making the assumption the child wants to go. But when the child turns around and says “OK, I’ll stay”, how does the parent react? If you proceed to make them choose the choice you had in mind they’re utterly confused. After all, didn’t you ask them what they wanted to do?
The Fix: Don’t give your child a choice unless you’re ready to accept the choice they make. Even if you’re pretty sure they’ll pick one option over the other, the way they think will sometimes surprise you, and then you’re caught. So don’t give them alternatives unless you’re ready to accept both alternatives. If you give your child the choice, be ready to carry through with what they decide, even if it’s not the choice you would have made.
In short, be consistent. Your child looks at you as an example of how to act and behave. They imitate us. This is an honor, but also a responsibility. We need to be consistent with them. If you ask them to do something, make sure you model how to do it for them and avoid doing anything in front of them that you don’t want them to repeat or do in front of others.