Positive Parenting: “Yes Sally, I understand”

“Swish! Swish! Swish!”

It was evening and I was in the kitchen cleaning up the dishes. Sally was playing with one of her daddy’s belts, whipping it around, listening to the noise it made.

“Ouch!” I yelped as the belt caught my leg. “Sally, that hurt!” I got down on Sally’s level to talk to her. “Listen honey, when you whip that belt around and hit someone, it hurts. You need to be careful.”

Sally nodded, but two minutes later she was at it again, whipping the belt through the air dangerously close to Bobby, who was sitting in his high chair across the kitchen from the sink. Once again I got down on her level.

“Sally, what’s the problem? I asked you to stop whipping that around! I’m afraid you’re going to hurt someone!”

“But I like to!” Sally explained. She liked the swishing sound the belt made. And she was right – it was a pretty cool sound!

“I know! It’s fun isn’t it! I understand why you like doing it,” I affirmed. “But if you do it in here you might hurt someone.” This wasn’t enough, I knew. I had already told her this once, and still she had done it again. “You know what, Sally? I understand why you want to whip that belt around, and that it’s hard for you to hold that belt and not do it. Would you like me to hold the belt for you? I can keep it safe, and that way you won’t be tempted to whip it around like that.”

Sally looked at me, then looked at the belt, then looked at me. “Okay!” she said with a smile, handing me the belt.

“Wait a minute,” I said, having another thought. “How about you go outside and whip the grass?”

“Oh!” Sally’s face broke into a sudden smile, and she took the belt from my hand and was off. It was dusk, so she returned a moment later for a flashlight. I continued cleaning the kitchen as she swished the belt around outside.

One of the things I work hardest at as a parent is understanding my children and their needs. When Sally is “acting up,” I try to understand why and address that, rather than simply punishing her behavior. When she speaks up to explain something or make her desires heard, I see that as communication, not “back talk.” And most of all, I make sure to let her know that I understand. I understand that she doesn’t want to leave the library yet. I understand that she wants to stay up later and not go to bed. I understand that dumping the flour all over the counter is fun. I get it. I really do. And somehow, knowing that I understand and am willing to listen to her and hear her out makes Sally just that much more willing to cooperate and try to understand my perspective in turn. Because it’s not about me versus her. It’s about me plus her. And there’s something beautiful about that.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Niemand

    It occurred to me after reading your post on “back talk” that discouraging “back talk”, especially when it is defined as ANY talk at all (i.e. the “I’m going to hit you another time for each word you say”) really is saying “Don’t try to communicate with me.” And that’s the lesson that children will learn, often to the great regret of parents when they are older and want their children’s help or just their companionship.

    • smrnda

      It seems to fit into the hierarchical model where the person on top of the hierarchy is assumed to know everything and have perfect sense and judgment, and that the inferiors have nothing of value they could possibly contribute to the understanding of any situation.

    • A Reader

      I totally agree. I wonder if that’s also why people in our culture sometimes have so much trouble communicating their feelings later in life.

  • Eric D Red

    I don’t always like my kids talking back, but I like that they can.

    However, I do expect them to talk back with a meaningful counterargument or solution. There’s been many times I’ve been left open-mouthed as they’ve just pointed out something I’ve missed, or my own unintended hypocrisy. And it trains them to think. Many times it leads to exactly the kind of solution that Libby describes. I don’t mind horseplay, but I absolutely won’t allow it in the kitchen (hot pots, knives, dinner).

    But sometimes, “cause I’m the parent and I said so” still has to trump. Sometimes you can’t reason, and sometimes somebody had to simply decide and move on. I find that happens less and less as they grow up, which is as it should be.

  • smrnda

    Working with kids I realized that many of the rules we make are simply arbitrary and are more done for our own convenience than because of any objective value. The sooner you admit that, the sooner you can start to reason with your kids, or even bargain with them.

    This got drilled into my head once in a store. A woman had a kid in the shopping cart and was wandering up and down the wine aisle. The kid was fidgeting and screaming about how she wanted a toy. The woman seemed to be pretty pissed but I thought, how would she like it if the kid plopped her in the toy aisle and made her sit still while the kid looked at each and every toy. But really, that’s what was going on – the adult expected the kid to sit with military discipline while the adult was doing something that was utterly and totally boring to the kid.

  • AnotherOne

    I know this is off topic for this post, but I couldn’t find a “contact me” place on the blog, so I thought I’d share this link here: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/simcha-fisher/i-always-thought-i-wanted-a-big-family-but-.-

    I’m so disturbed by how this author is basically telling people to ignore their own feelings about having lots of children. Of course, it’s very common in Quiverfull/conservative Catholic circles to say these kinds of things, but this post seems particularly overbearing in its insistence that everything will be ok as you have kid after kid, just put blinders on and don’t think about. What the author says is probably applicable to many people, but there are so many others who don’t need to be told to ignore their feelings and concerns about having a large family.

  • http://jesusandvenus.com Ryan Stauffer

    This is actually the second of the Four Questions practitioners of Therapeutic Crisis Intervention (developed by Cornell) are trained to ask themselves when confronting problematic behavior in a young person. The full question is “What does the young person feel, need, or want?” Don’t be misled by the word “crisis”; TCI works in situations well below what most of us would consider crises.

    By the way, the first of the Four Questions is “What am I feeling now?” There’s a reason it’s the first question.

  • http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com krwordgazer

    This is so true. People wonder why kids are more cooperative when you raise them this way. It’s because they trust that their perspective will be listened to, so when you do tell them “no, you can’t do that in here,” it’s not a threat to their personhood.

  • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

    I almost felt like crying reading this. It really sounds like you and Sally have a great relationship and I am sure yours and Bobby’s relationship is going to be just as great once he starts playing more actively.