When we find ourselves just baffled by our children’s actions, it’s typical for us to ask kids to explain themselves. We don’t always ask nicely. Really, we can be downright mean about it. Everyone gets frustrated with their kids from time to time. We’re human, and we lose our patience, say things we don’t mean, and react without thinking. It doesn’t make us bad parents. Still, those moments add up and we might be surprised at how quickly a critical question results in injury to a child’s self-esteem. When you ask kids, or anyone, a question specific to them, in order for the brain to translate, they have to decode it. If you ask your kids, “how are you today,” they will decode it to, “how am I today,” and respond. What did you eat today becomes what did I eat today. How was school today is different than how was your day in school today. Anytime a question is specific to you, the translation becomes, ME. Do you see it? When we ask kids a question, we have to be very careful that we aren’t really just making a statement that criticizes who they are.
The other day, my 11-year-old son, Pedro, tried to intervene between two of his younger siblings. The two were throwing swings and someone was about to get hurt. Pedro handled things great. He was quick, gentle, kind, and got ground-level with his younger siblings when he started talking to them. He was holding one sibling’s hands in his own, then said, “what’s wrong with you?” His tone was loving and sincere, but his brother’s (Enrique) expression went blank. After a few moments of silence, Enrique muttered, “I don’t know.” We’d never heard that response before. At least, never related to that question. I felt very uncomfortable for the rest of the day. I wasn’t sure why, but something felt very wrong about the way Enrique responded earlier. His expression, tone, body language, and everything was just off. The following day, my oldest son Antonio must have replied to some social media message with quick fingers before thinking because he shouted out, “Ugh! What’s wrong with me?” That same night, I sat down with Pedro to have a heart-to-heart. We recalled the two years he spent with a teacher who made him feel terrible about himself. Pedro constantly felt like something was wrong with him. We decided to make a pinky-promise. We both swore to remove a common phrase from our vocabulary.
One question you should never ask kids, or anyone:
What’s wrong with you?
We decided that the phrase, regardless of intentions, sends the wrong message. Imagine hearing that phrase twice a week at home, and three times per week outside of the home. It really is a common phrase. It might be meant in a compassionate or empathetic way, a critical or derogatory way, or not “meant” in any particular way at all. Nonetheless, hearing “what’s wrong with you?” over and over again means we’re asking ourselves, “what’s wrong with me?” over and over again! Here are some things we could say instead:
Why did you do that?
Do you want to talk about it?
What were you thinking?
You can do better.
Everyone says things without thinking about them. We shouldn’t have to over-think everything. When you ask your kids a question that requires them to answer in a way that puts themselves down, they will either keep answering, continually putting themselves down, or begin to shutdown and hear it as a rhetorical question, completely interrupting any meaningful interaction at the moment.
I’ve also chosen to remove the phrase, “you are being bad,” from my vocabulary. I mean, I’m working on it! Really, I’m human, too. It still slips out sometimes, but I try to remember to say, “you are making bad choices,” or “you are behaving badly,” but not being bad. Whenever we must address our kids with some negatively toned words, it’s best to use words that describe the what or the how and not the who. After all, it really is the what or how our kids are doing something that make us mad, right? We don’t think less of our children as people when they are behaving badly or making bad choices. We think less of the act, not the person. Our real objective is to help them, not hurt them. Unfortunately, kids don’t always see it that way. A few poorly chosen words from us, said over and over through time, can make things a whole lot worse. We don’t want our kids to think we don’t like them or love them. Subconsciously, some kids will come to this conclusion. Removing some of the arsenal from our vocabulary can help prevent this from happening.
So, when we must comment, intervene, ask kids to explain, and correct their actions, we should do so in a way that doesn’t attack their person and identity. Now that I have a son smack in the middle of the teen years, I know there are times when this is so much easier said, than done. There is nothing in the world that tests a person’s patience more than parenting. There is also nothing in the world that builds more patience.
It’s important to talk to our kids. It’s important to communicate. Asking questions is key. Just remember, there is one question you should never ask your kids. Once you’ve mastered abstinence of the phrase with your kids, try removing it from your vocabulary with all people. It really is more hurtful than helpful.
What phrases have you already removed from your parenting vocabulary?
By: Alicia Gonzalez
Photo Credit: R. Cabading