Summary: Use language that is neutral, informative, and concise.
Living with kids is like piloting some ancient, exotic car across country, with no map: the problems just keep coming. Especially with elementary-aged and younger, we often need daily, or hourly course correction.
A lot of these problems are extra infuriating because we solved them for ourselves so long ago. It’s hard to empathize with a kid tracking mud into the living room, because we stopped doing it eons ago. Sometimes we’re embarrassed for our children, or ourselves. We might feel like we’re failing as parents or that our kids are failing to learn when the same problem shows up repeatedly. Perhaps we’re reminded of how aggressive people treated us as kids with problems, and deep down, we’re terrified. It’s hard to keep your cool with all of these factors compounding. It can be a constant, stress-inducing environment, and can trigger some of our most painful memories and emotions.
But we’re our kids’ coaches, teachers, doctors, and if we lose our composure and then dump our frustration on our children, with name calling, threats, demands, or hurtful comparisons, we’re failing them. So here we’ll talk about how to bring up problems with your children, without adding to them.
This is for problems that you find. We have different solutions for children coming to you with their bundles of conflicted emotions (found here). This is for when your child forgets to bring their shoes, or reaches out with little peanut-butter hands towards the upholstery, or bigger things like when you catch a child using a tool or appliance that could be dangerous.
Here are some common examples of off-the cuff responses to such situations:
“Where are your shoes!? How do you expect to go to the store barefoot? You really think that’s a good idea? What is wrong with you?”
“Little pig! Get your nasty hands off my couch. You’re disgusting.”
“What are you doing? Don’t you know that’s dangerous? How many times have I told you not to touch the microwave? You’re going to end up setting the house on fire! Why do you like to scare me like that? Do that again and you’ll be sorry!”
Any of those responses sound familiar?
Just imagine yourself encountering a problem. You’re trying to watch a movie in your living room, and you have 6 remotes and devices to contend with. How would you like to be addressed in that situation? Imagine your spouse comes in with the “what is wrong with you?! I’ve told you 100 times!!” attitude. Nobody wants to hear that.
But if he walks in to the room and simply notes “Oh, hey, the receiver is off.” It’s done! He respects you enough to know that he can just point out the problem, and that’s it!
That way of speaking remains neutral, and simply describes what’s being observed. If needed, a little information might be added. “Receiver’s off… The big remote.” It’s helpful, it’s respectful.
Address children in the same way:
“You’re not wearing shoes. They have a rule at the store about wearing them.”
“Your hands have peanut butter on them. Peanut butter stains furniture, and it’s difficult to wash the couch.”
“It’s not safe for you to use the microwave without supervision. In some cases the microwave could even cause a fire.”
Now you might be thinking that these responses are not realistic, or that they sound too long-winded and robotic.
To address the first point: they can be shortened, sometimes to just a word or two.
In these examples, at no point do we tell the child what to do. Because 9 times out of 10, they know what to do! A simple reminder of the problem presented is usually sufficient to trigger the correct response.
Regarding the emotional content, it’s important to use somewhat neutral, non-aggressive language. But, to be honest with our children means being honest with our emotions. So say how you feel, and show it!
“Michael, you’re using the microwave without my permission! That makes me angry and scared! Angry because we’ve talked about this, and you’re ignoring my safety request, and scared because it could really hurt you. Will you help me come up with some solutions that will keep it from happening again?”
Life is a giant series of problems to be solved. Keeping your cool when calling attention to them, and having trust in people to identify solutions after that, is a great attitude that will help you and your family through them all.