Shhhh...Your Kids Are Listening

It happens all the time: people talk about their kids to other people. This isn't a big deal, if the kids aren't around, but when they are I'd really rather go somewhere else to talk.

There's an old phrase I love --"Little pitchers have big ears." This doesn't mean that I don't occasionally say a stupid thing now and again in front of my son, but I try really hard not to talk about him within his hearing. Oh, the casual conversation about Kiddo is fine:"Yeah, he's still into his drums and guitar" or "You should see him with those puzzles, it's like his brain is made for them" or "He's in love with the Cuisinart. I can't use it without his help"...all this stuff is more or less benign as long as my tone of voice is pleasant. But discussion about how to deal with some of his challenges (a propensity to climb on the table, for one)is something we do after he's in bed or away from his little ears.

I don't discuss too much of my parenting challenges while he's around because I figure I wouldn't like being spoken of that way if I were a kid either. Even as an adult, if I were having some difficulties in the office, I wouldn't want to have to listen while my boss was enlightening someone else as to my weaknesses and his frustration with me. It would be absolutely humiliating and make me a less trusting employee. How can you trust a boss that runs and tattles to the nearest friend right in front of you?

When parents try to problem solve in the midst of children, things may likely backfire: the more we talk about our kids in front of them, the more interested they will be in what we are discussing. Most often, talking about a child's undesired actions in front of them only reinforces the behavior. Children privy to their parents challenges in raising them are likely to internalize some very confusing things about themselves and have issues with their self esteem. I sometimes hear parents explain their child's behavior in very negative tones, and use derisive or dismissive language in regard to the motives they've assigned to the child. For example, I know when Kiddo gets onto the table that he wants to climb or needs to feel big or just wants my attention. These are all perfectly reasonable desires, it's just unsafe to climb on the table to satisfy them. Conversely, parents may become dismissive of why their child is upset, which may leave the child feeling very misunderstood: they aren't making a fuss to be a pain, but because they have real feelings. Remember, young children have no discernment between desires and needs; instead, disappointment, loss and pain are all processed in the same lower section of their developing brains. So when we are bringing their undesired actions to their attention, is it any wonder that this is what they give us? Yet parents regularly push their children ahead of them in their strollers and tail behind, chatting with a spouse or friend and sharing all of their fears and frustrations with their child--right within earshot. We need to be more aware.

You might think I'm being overly sensitive, but consider this: our kids don't have the logic to assign fault to parents at an early age. In early years, even when our children are furious with us, they're also frustrated with themselves for not being able to do as we ask, even if it isn't what they want. I think our kids really love us and want to live in harmony with us-- only it's just the rattled, hormonal harmony of a tiny teenager who really has no idea of what the heck's going on, they just want our love and acceptance and to follow their own agenda. So, when we parents are upset, our kids are upset too. This is very different from my relationship with the hypothetical boss: I have the capability to recognize the boss's lack of professionalism, be mad, vent to a friend and know that while the boss might be justified in wanting to address some issues, but can still be a jerk. Our kids just aren't capable of this sort of relative objectivity. For what it's worth, I'd wager there are some adults that aren't, either.

So all this to say: shhh. We don't have to raise perfect kids, so don't worry so much. Chances are, if you don't talk about it right this minute, it's going to either go away on it's own, or you'll have another time in private to discuss it. Your kids need to hear the best about themselves, especially when they're feeling their worst. I think we all do. Be nice. Be quiet.


Amanda said…
...a good reminder for me. I'll be remembering that.

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