This entry is rather lengthy, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this subject. I welcome comments or any insights you may have in regard to my theories regarding language and parenting, and hope you might find a nugget of useful information somewhere in this.
“Language is virus” said William S. Burroughs, and indeed, the twenty-first century is proving his point to a degree we would never have thought possible. There is an invasion of acronyms created by text messaging that are slowly becoming part of our spoken language. Terms that were created to describe activities specific to computers now apply to all things human. The other day my partner recently described the job of one of his coworkers as “interfacing with the client”. His description, to me, sounds rather more like inter-cyborg relations than a business consultation.
Across the board, we discuss much of our world with words influenced by technology and marketing spin—enter the euphemism!—yet our language regarding parenting is comparatively stagnant. While we rarely hear such old truisms as “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” or “A stitch in time saves nine” (indeed, nearly obsolete in our fast, cheap and disposable society), when it comes to raising children, we seem to be repeating some of the same old catchphrases. No parent is unfamiliar with concepts like “the naughty chair” or “spare the rod and spoil the child”, and there’s no question that when a parent tells a child “I’ll give you something to cry about”, they aren’t threatening to make their child watch “Old Yeller”. We have few words to describe updated parenting concepts, and the ones we do use, such as “gentle discipline”, “child-centered parenting” or “unconditional parenting” are less understood by our society at large; thus, their use can generate controversy in a mixed group of parents. Phrases like “toilet learning” make parents scratch their heads and wonder what was wrong with plain old “potty training”. More than just a question of semantics, our new words bring with them a shift in what we understand about child development and our part in it as parents, but these concepts are not widely shared. Add to this the fact that, for many of us, change can feel like an affront to our sensibilities and a criticism of our parenting. Consequently, we as a society don’t have a wealth of common language to draw from when it comes to sharing newer parenting concepts, and without this common vocabulary, we continue to parent in some of the same old ways without questioning why. The lack of change isn’t doing us any favors.
Here’s one such phrase that’s been around for a long time it’s almost considered a truism:
“You have to pick your battles.”
As parents, we hear these words of advice from loving and caring people who want to help us make our lives easier. Our parents said it, sometimes to each other, and sometimes to us, especially in regard to our conflicts with other people within the family. And I like the idea of making things easier for parents. But couldn’t we put a better name on it, so to speak? When we talk of picking battles, what we really mean simply this:
“Decide what’s important, and let the rest go.”
Here’s a question some might be asking: if the two phrases mean the same thing, why should we put a better name on it? Because our language not only influences our attitudes and perceptions, but it is also an expression of how we experience the world around us. And as a person who is a bit fixated on language, I am always concerned about the words we use to describe our interactions with children, and the affect they might have on those moments when we most need a positive outlook or broader view.
Here’s an example to illustrate my point: there’s something empathetic and understanding in describing a child as “tender” when they are feeling sensitive, whereas the old habit of declaring that the child is “fussy” seems negative and blaming. Seeing a child as being “tender”, we have an emotional picture of the child as feeling highly sensitive and needing of some tender loving care. The word “tender” is capable of not only altering our perception of the child, but how we respond to their higher degree of need. We may be gentler, more sympathetic, and our hearts may soften. But use the word “fussy”, which almost suggests that a child is choosing to be upset and unwilling to be consoled, and a lot of that sympathy can fly out the window, replaced instead with a growing sense of frustration. While these descriptions are idyllic, one can see that language does make a difference in our attitudes as parents.
I’m a person who can take words or an expression pretty literally, and while I don’t take “pick your battles” to imply that we should cart our kids out onto a battlefield, I don’t like the idea of engaging in anything even euphemistically described as “battle” with the children in my life. There is a certain undeniable win/lose implication intrinsic to the phrase. To me, “picking our battles” is a deeply negative way of describing how we might engage with our children in regard to resolving conflict. More to the point, is it healthy to look at our relationships with our kids in such a black and white view? To see our selves, and our children, as winners and losers during those moments which are better met without the idea of one party coming out on top?
The semantics may seem trivial, but I am concerned because this idea of “picking battles” seems to have permeated the thinking of many parents and gone unquestioned. This becomes evident to me as I read online parenting forums and anecdotes regarding the challenges we have with our children. I notice the win/lose language, often present and lurking just below the surface. “You have to stand firm” one parent will admonish another. “You can’t give in. If you do, they will take advantage of you and then they win.” Parents are encouraged to reestablish their authority and take charge of these situations. One question from a parent seeking advice in regard to their child’s undesirable actions can often inspire a slew of uncreative and unintuitive advice, usually considered punishment in light of the situation. Does a child constantly need help clearing up their room? Take away the toys if the child doesn’t put them away when asked! A youngster starting preschool is regressing to diapers? Hide the diapers, or better yet, make her earn the privilege of going to school by wearing only underwear for a week. (I’m not joking—these were actual suggestions.) One can almost hear the unstated but firm exit line in these posts: “That’ll teach’em!” Many parents do care what our kids need or want, but these posts are a true display the philosophy that we must win at all costs.
Even more disconcerting to me is that other, more loaded phrase I have started to see: “Pick your battles—and pick them to win them.” Is it healthy to avoid potential moments of conflict or challenge because we might not get what we want? We might not win?
This statement suggests that parents decide whether or not to take action based on hypothetical risk assessment. And here’s a deeper question: do we avoid picking battles that we can’t win, or do we decide that when we pick battles, we will win at all costs? Sadly, there’s no wholly satisfactory answer.
Once I started to tease this particular phrase apart, I also noticed another wrinkle that disturbs me. I don’t find it coincidental that the times I have read “pick them to win them” have been exclusively in the context of justification for spanking one’s children. It troubles me is that this is somehow perceived as part of a “win”. When we spank our children, their hearts harden toward us because they experience fear, hurt and anger; their minds are so consumed by these emotions that what they will remember isn’t the mistake they made that needed correcting, but rather, the punishment itself. To think that we have genuinely won our children over to our way of thinking because they appear contrite and promise to “never, ever do it again” after being physically punished is naïve and frighteningly misguided. I believe that we can teach our children better when they are approached with love and can listen to our words instead of fearing a punishment, most especially a physical one.
All this being said in opposition to the idea of picking one’s battles, you might be wondering how changing a few little words could produce a win/win situation. If one is in the habit of Picking One’s Battles, transforming our thinking to Deciding What’s Important takes a leap of faith, and a belief that teaching our children isn’t just a day-to-day task of little wins and instant results, but a long-term plan for the future, where we see the results of our work in the adults our children have become.
If what I’ve said sounds too touchy-feely, let me make this perfectly clear: I don’t believe in letting kids ride roughshod over us by any means. We have to guide them, to teach them that their actions directly affect others, and by all means, we should teach them what we value. Not just that it’s wrong to tell hurtful lies, or to take what one wants without asking, or to smack your brother because he breathed on you, but why it’s important to us that our children not do these things. It’s important that our child not tell people things about another person which are untrue and which other people could believe, because this dishonesty might cause harm to the reputation of the person in question. It’s important that we ask permission before we take something, even if we only planned to borrow it, not only because it isn’t ours, but because that person would be upset not knowing where their possession is and not being able to use it. And it’s important not to hit your brother because it hurts him and because the fighting distracts the driver from watching the road, which could cause an accident and possibly hurt many people.
As parents, the explanation part of this sort of discipline is pretty easy. The harder part is to back up our statement with actions. Especially in the case of moral issues: walking a child through the process of correcting a hurtful lie or giving back a stolen object is heartbreaking for us and can be embarrassing for them, but holds so many lessons. Letting a child experience the emotions that come with correcting a wrong done to someone else is a better teacher than any punishment we could conceive, which traditionally require a loss on the child’s part. We don’t make our children losers, and believe it or not, in the long run we all win. Children slowly learn that they can correct their mistakes because we gently teach them how to go back and right their wrongs; and they are encouraged to do this when they do not fear adult-initiated punishments. Our children are slowly developing a new and important life skill, and will feel better and more capable of fixing problems in their relationships in the future. They will also become more capable of initiating corrections when they have made mistakes, and be more likely to seek our help when they need it most.
With regard to those kids in the car who are hitting each other: sometimes we have to stop the car, take the keys out of the ignition and help the kids figure out a plan to keep everyone safe, including the drivers and people around them. We don’t have to passively sit there until they stop fighting; but along with helping the kids solve their conflict, they learn that their parents have concern for the safety of others. It’s not just important to mom and dad that the kids ‘behave’, but that they themselves are able to be safe when they could potentially hurt others. It may not be a particularly dynamic moment, but the repeated point of being clearheaded and conscientious behind the wheel is a message that will be firmly placed in our children’s minds when they become young drivers themselves.
Sometimes, too, we find ourselves in those situations where multiple “important things” run into conflict with each other. Unlike picking our battles, where we may have a lot of “sticking to our guns” on a myriad of issues, deciding what’s most important allows us flexibility in our parenting. Instead of adhering to the status quo for fear of setting a precedent, this flexibility can often be used to the appreciation of both children and parents alike, and helps us to make better choices. Families often face a situation like this when we have out of town family or friends staying as our overnight guests. The kids would love to stay up late and play with each other and the adults all desire a chance to connect. Add to this the little one who is too excited to sleep and does not want to stay in bed while the older kids are up. We have to take a moment and decide if bedtime is more important than our “grown up time” with our visitors. Maybe it’s a Friday and yes, we will all be a late getting up and a little cranky tomorrow, but it’s a special night so the three year old stays up and has a blast and falls asleep on the playroom floor and the adults have a glass of wine and some good conversation. Or maybe we need a good night’s rest because the kids are tired or because we have work and school tomorrow, so we make our apologies to our friends, one of us goes to lay down with the little one until she falls asleep and we have a shorter, quiet conversation over a cup of tea. Either way, our priorities as parents are met with less conflict and our children receive what they most need from us in the moment, our support and love.
Walking our children through rough transitions, teaching them to correct their mistakes and showing them what is important to us goes far beyond what “picking a battle” requires of us. It goes beyond asking our children to be merely obedient because we say so, or because “mom’s right and I’m wrong”; it actually takes their hand and shows them lovingly how to “be right” too. If our goal is to live in harmony with the members of our family and those around us, we must decide what’s important. For everyone.