May 1, 2009

Four Things Not To Do To Your Kids

Apart from letting them watch Japanese horror movies.

John Gottman, from the University of Washington, has a "marriage lab"  in which he videotaped/s married couples disagreeing about something minor, in order to study predictors of divorce. He came up with four.

You might think they're obvious, but if you actually try to avoid them during an argument, it's harder than you think.  Try it.

It then occurred to me that these often some of the same reasons why some kids "hate" their parents. Again, you'll think it's obvious; but again, try to avoid it when talking to your kids.

Disclaimer for the sensitive: the below are inflated examples; these are done to varying degrees, of course, sometimes it's unavoidable, etc, etc.


The most difficult to avoid.  Parents may not realize how a majority of their interactions with their kids are comprised entirely of criticisms.

"Did you put away your backpack?" means "I know you didn't put away the backpack."  It's worse when mom doesn't even bother to check, she just knows it.  That drives kids bananas.  "What is it about me that you just assume I don't do anything right?"  What it is, of course, is history-- he hasn't done it the past 20 times.  Kids are empiricists though not statisticians. Past doesn't count: if you don't check now, then you can't know now. 

The kid thinks, mom just assumes I do things wrong.  Ultimately, this means he stops trying.

It teaches one other awesome message: it doesn't actually matter what I do, only what people think of me.


Stonewalling means: "I am not going to discuss this with you." It means the kid has no say, no voice, there's no one to appeal to, even logic.   When a kid doesn't feel people will seriously consider their position, they'll go find someone else who will.  That person will have weed.

Stonewalling teaches kids that those who have more power simply don't care to hear you.  So they avoid the attempts at dialogue and try... alternative means of communication, e.g. not through words, but actions or the creation of emotions. And weed. 


NB: this is done by the parent

In a marriage, defensiveness takes the form, "hey, don't blame me, you're the one who told me to do this."  But you can't look at that defense and deduce who is actually at fault.

But when a parent does it to a kid:

1. the kid is criticizing the parent.
2..the parent is actually in the wrong, caught by the kid; 
3. the kid has latched on to this single instance of parental wrongdoing to unload all of their  pent up hostility, in the form of criticism about this single issue.

And so, the parent, defensively, tries to flip it: "the only reason I did that is because you...."  That's disaster. 

Kid: you always break your promises!
Parent: no I don't, but if you would just give me a moment to myself, I would have been able to...

Kid: you lied to me!
Parent: I didn't lie, but you were going to X, so I had to Y-- if you hadn't done X, I wouldn't have had to Y.

The kid understands that even when he is right, no one will care.  He realizes he'll be used as a scapegoat, forever, by those more powerful than he.  Now where's that weed?


It is said (by me) that rolling the eyes is a more reliable way to divorce than recording yourself cheating and then asking your wife to pull some highlights clips.  Seriously, this is true.   Anyone want to fund a clinical trial?

Why is the toy store a reliable place to hear a parent screaming at a kid?  It's a toy store, what did you expect he'd want to do there?

I sense your frustration.  It's the same frustration you have with the toll booth operator who can't count the money correctly, you think, "what an idiot!" but you don't think it through: you expect the toll booth guy to function at the same intellectual level as an engineer.  Is that reasonable?  If he was smarter, he wouldn't be working in a toll booth.

Yet frustration is released on the kid as contempt: the speaking with disgust, the sneering.    "Jesus Christ, what is the matter with you?  Are you retarded?  Is this what you do in school, too?  No wonder you can't read."  You don't see you do it, because you think it's a brief interaction out of your day.  But the kid feels the full force of it, and it represents a significant minority of the interactions he has with you.  "I'm going to beat the crap out of you!" even though you've never actually done it.  The kid knows you're not actually going to hit him, so he figures, "this nut hates me."

If you roll your lips inwards while you yell at your kid, you're pissed at him.  If you find yourself jutting out your bottom jaw, you hate him.

I know, I'm sure you don't hate your kid, but like I've said a thousand times, you don't get to decide who you are, your actions decide.  If the kid, most of the time, hears contempt, then you hate your kid.

Go ahead.  Write on a piece of paper the tone of every interaction you have with your kid for one day, and tally it up at the end of the day.

Have a good night.  Sweet dreams. 

I'm going to add one more of my own:


You can't say to a four year old, "if you don't put that down, you're not going to watch TV later tonight."  That cannot possibly work, ever-- do you really think the kid can process this consideration of the future, especially since you're not really rigorous about applying it after all?

In truth, you want them to do something only because you want them to-- which is fine.  So say it that way: "Put that down."  That's it.  Teach them they have to do what you say because you said it, period.  Don't subsume your authority to some other power in a reflexive attempt to make things happen: "If you do that again, you're going to your room!"  Now the room has more authority than you do.  And it gives him the opportunity to test: "I'm not afraid of my room."

Instead, say only: "Don't do that again."  And if he does, then send him to his room.

Some things are wrong, regardless of consequences.  The sooner a kid learns he has to behave certain ways not because of anything, but just because, the sooner he'll be able to develop his own superego strength.