Musings on respectful relationships

4 Oct

So it might be because I’m 30, or it might be (read: certainly is) because I have kids now, but I’ve been thinking a lot about intentional relationships.  Some time ago we read How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk and we LOVED it.  I highly recommend it, even for adults talking to other adults.  It’s really: how to talk and listen respectfully.  We also read How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by the same authors and that one is probably a little bit more specific.  A few takeaways that we still employ with each other and our kids:

  • Sometimes you don’t need to ask questions- just share some part of your day and the other person will feel trusting enough to share part of theirs.  (Caveat spouse and I still argue about this; I have learned to ask “how was your day?” every day even though I always hated that question because it’s so vague! And hard to answer! But he likes it because it demonstrates that I care.  And demonstrating my caring is more important to me than my belief in the inanity of the question.)
  • Validate feelings. Yes, it sounds like that was frustrating. That is a tough situation. It sounds like you’re nervous about this presentation. (No need to problem solve!)
  • Describe situations instead of telling someone what to do. The towel is on the floor.  The dog is at the door. The dishes are in the sink. (Note: this can be passive-aggressive in some contexts and extremely helpful in others).
  • Instead of praising someone with adjectives, describe what you saw.  Example: you put away the dishes; thank you. You figured out that whole puzzle without any help. I see a boy who picked up his sister’s clothes, what a helper!
  • Sometimes use one word instead of nagging. Did you take care of the tax forms yet? What about those tax forms? Have you seen the tax forms?  Instead, eye contact: taxes. Nods all around.

Anyway, I didn’t want to write this post just to fawn over these books (but they are truly great!).  I just got back from an intentional parenting workshop at toddler’s preschool, and one thing that they really really stress is don’t talk about the kid in front of them.  Even seemingly-innocuous stuff like “Yen is a smart girl” or “Yen was acting emo today”–save it for later.  Because other peoples’ opinions are like weeds in your self-image, and every time someone says something about you, they’re watering the weeds. Kid thinks “Oh, I’m a shy kid.  I’ll never be outgoing, I’m just shy.”  The idea is that it constricts their growth.

And in defense of this line of reasoning, both spouse and I have complained about constantly being labeled “smart” as kids, with the implication that things are easy/we didn’t need to work hard.  Whether someone means to imply that or not, that’s what a “smart”-labeled kid gets, which means those inevitable first failures feel crushing.  That smart kid hasn’t learned persistence.  For me it was calculus freshman year; I still remember crying in my room because I thought I couldn’t cut it and wasn’t good at math and didn’t know who I was without being effortlessly good at school.  So there’s definitely some insidiousness to labeling.

But my rebuttal to this was, what about labels that help me navigate my relationship with that person?  Example is sensitivity: kid really dislikes bright lights, loud sounds, big crowds.  When a neurologist used the word “sensitive” for the first time with us, it helped things ‘click’ with us as parents.  And we can use that word with teachers and with other adults to help us help kid navigate the world–we can prepare kid for transitions into places with those lights and sounds; we can teach techniques like putting your hands over your ears or using headphones.

Their answer was: yes, share that information with teachers and adults. But not in front of the kid.  Kids can surprise you. A “shy” kid one day might burst into song in the middle of a crowd the next day. But if you call them “shy” to others then they might never burst into that song because they’ve internalized “shy” as their label.

Definitely my first reaction to this was defensiveness, as is a common reaction when anyone feels like they’re being criticized.  These people think they have all the answers and that they’re right and I’m wrong!  Well boo to them!

But because I’m a nerd or because I’ve thought about other things that make me feel defensive (see past posts on how I am sexist and how I am racist) I tried to lean into that defensiveness and figure out what was going on.

Here’s the crux of my problem with not talking about my kid in front of them: it feels deceitful.  Like I am withholding and controlling the flow of information, which is sort of the opposite of the basic tenets of my life (education, communication, media and more information/transparency = good).  Is it patronizing to control the information we give people?  This is also my problem with public health–yes, my IUD should last 12 years, but yes, the OB tells you 10 years because they think you’ll forget, and yes, I’ve heard more recently 8 years.  So what is the ‘truth’? And does it matter?

But then can I patronize my kid?  Isn’t that sort of my job? (I just looked up the definition of ‘patronize’ and it’s acting like you’re superior to someone.)  I want to treat my kid, and all my relationships, respectfully.  And especially with a power differential like the one between parent and child (or between a person with privilege and a person without), I think you want to be super cognizant of being patronizing or not.

Anyway it’s late and I’ve written enough.  I don’t think it’s necessarily patronizing to restrict information: I actually believe that inundating people with information without giving them the tools to analyze that information is disenfranchising even if you pretend that you’re being empowering.  Example: spouse is very much not a morning person, so if we take an early morning flight I try not to fill him with info about plans, kids, etc.  because we inevitably end up snapping at each other.  My job as a parent is to empower my kids to make their own decisions and live their lives safely.  So I guess I’ll do my best to do that.

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