This morning Joaquin and I had the chance to read a new book. The back cover waxed warmly that this book was an expression of the unconditional love a parent has for their child, and I was looking forward to sharing it with my little boy. The first pages started out fairly typically. "I love you when you are happy, sad, helpful, busy, good" (to paraphrase). But then one page stopped me cold. "I love you when you're good, I love you when you're bad."
I couldn't say the "b" word in front of my son. I closed the book.
We went for a walk, and the book stuck with me. I thought about unconditional love, and what it really means to me. The book had stated that the parent loved the child when they were good. Hmmm. This statement seemed to assume that children are not always "good", that they are perhaps only good in moments. What a disappointing way to look at kids.
And then for a parent to read to a kid that they love their child when the child "is" bad?I don't like the sound of that either. Sure, sometimes children make mistakes and do things that we adults don't like. They damage things or make a fuss or pester or do other such activities to the point where we want to say "please stop now, little one, before I lose my mind!". But does that make the child "bad"?
I can remember being told at different times that I was a bad kid. It's a gut-wrenching thing to hear as a kid. It makes you sick to your stomach, or angry, and can leave you feeling misunderstood and rejected. How could someone say that and still call their love unconditional? Sure, the parent might feel that they "still" love their child, however, the language of that statement implies that the child's "Badness" is something that should, in fact, warrant a withdrawal of love. In short, a "bad child" isn't worthy of a parent's love.
We are definitely not reading that book again. I don't even feel like I want to pass it along to someone else.
I didn't start out this way, I must admit. Like many folks, I grew up in the mindset of the "don't let children get one over on you" mentality. There's a real focus on behavior when we think like that. Kids can do things to make themselves real nuisances to us and other children at times. And when we focus solely on what they are doing, we tend to give them very little benefit of the doubt. It's easy to label children as "good" and "bad" when we don't look very far into what the child is feeling, which could be a lot of different stuff: angry, bored, nervous, anxious, scared, left out, frustrated, excited, powerful. All of these different feelings are neither good nor bad, but can look like havoc to someone outside that child's body.
Over the years, I've softened, and like to take the approach that Alfie Kohn describes as ascribing the best possible motives for what a child is doing. That's roughly paraphrased, by the way, but I think we're all on the same page as to what I'm getting at. When we take a step back and see that maybe the child wasn't trying to hit another kid with a toy, but was trying to throw it to them, even if it was a block and a lousy choice, our ire dissipates, and we are better able to help children through those challenging moments if we aren't upset ourselves. It's easy to toss a kid into time-out or label their behavior; it's a lot harder to stop and comfort the hurt child, and ask, "Hey, what happened? I see that Susie got hit by this block." and then, listen without our own prejudices.*
Some parents can get into a trap of their own making, where they see something and make a decision about what happened, and subsequently refute the child's answer. "No, you weren't tossing it to Susie. You threw that block at her. I saw you." When a child is told that their motives are bad, they do internalize it. Which makes it more than likely that the next time Susie gets hit with a block, it may be deliberate. Children believe us to be all-powerful when they are young, and work hard to meet our expectations, even the lowest, most negative ones.
A while ago, I had a child over to play. Later on that day, I noticed that one of our popular play items was missing from the shelves. After conducting a thorough search, I told Joe about it. "Do you think that kid stole it?" he asked.
Well, I could have thought that. It would be easier than thinking beyond the basics. "No, I don't think so. The kids were putting toys into baskets and bags and I think it went home with him by mistake." A few emails later and sure enough, the toy was found.
But the best part about it was that, by not choosing to ascribe the baser motive of theft to the child, it helps to keep my relationship with him secure. He stays in good standing in my eyes. And if another mistake like this is made later on, as it could well happen again, both the boy and his parents know that there won't be any hard feelings about it. Therefore, those mistakes are more likely to be corrected.
I believe wholeheartedly that we all do better when we give kids a reasonable benefit of the doubt. It keeps our relationships open and intact and does indeed foster a sense of unconditional love between adult and child. I like to think of kids as always being good people, even when what they do sometimes causes us trouble or worry or anger. Just like a lot of adults, kids aren't always proficient at figuring out how to articulate their needs or how to get those needs and desires met. But by being patient with them, asking questions, and believing their answers, we make the road to come easier to travel together. And it's heartening to hope that Joaquin will want to travel that warm and loving, safe and secure road with me in the long run.
*Alternative to the Clumsily Passed Block:
Okay, just so no one thinks I'm living in FantasyLand, let me just say that, yes, sometimes the block is a Missile of Anger. At that point, I usually forgo the investigative "huh, what happened?" questions and just describe what I saw. "You really hurt Susie with the block. She's very upset. Let's go get an ice pack." (Making some amends here.) I don't ask if the block was thrown on purpose, because then I tempt the child to lie, and that is pretty stupid for me to do. For so many reasons, right? Plus, I already know the answer, so "if" it was deliberate is a moot point.
Once we have attended to Susie -- and no matter what happened, we always attend to Susie first-- we continue. Here's what it might sound like.
Adult:"I could see that you were really angry when you threw the block at her, but hurting her doesn't solve your problem. What were you so angry about?"
Child: "I was mad because Susie said my tower was stupid and little."
Susie: "I don't like when you hurt me. I don't want to play with you right now."
Then we can explore the safe alternatives for dealing with those emotions, and cool off, without blame or shame. Kids can cool off playing in a different area or different activity nearby to avoid conflict with their peer (or with us), or can return to the same activity if both are ready and desirous of it.
For what it's worth, as I read more and more studies, I'm discovering that punitive action actually lessens the chance that the child will "learn" from their mistakes. Parents may be convinced the punishment worked, but it sometimes only buys short-term obedience and fails to encourage children to consider other people's feelings. Many (not all, but a significant number) of children that are punished for their negative actions end up doing the same things, only covertly. In short, they make sure not to get caught. This is a big contributor to school/peer bullying, and can lead to the kind of secret bullying that teachers and parents don't catch. Children are smart, and know that getting caught gets them into trouble, so they take measures not to get caught.
I also think there is a link between this sort of bullying and the fact that isolation is a hallmark of domestic abuse. Punishment can teach kids to focus on themselves; when we show the child the hurtful consequence of their action on another person, we are more likely to foster empathy and to reduce the recurrence of the child hurting others. When we expect the best of our children and give them tools to problem solve instead of punishing, we help foster a sense of their place, and positive impact, in the world and in our hearts. Not to mention a trust of our reasonable, positive expectations.
Not everyone will agree, but that's just what I (and a hefty, large handful of researchers) have come to conclude. All families are different; this blog is just about how our family does things. That's all.