I recently observed my 5-year-old daughter do something surprising that called into question my parenting skills. We were at someone else’s home and she wanted water. The person who lived there invited her to take a cup and get water from the dispenser on the refrigerator. My daughter took a cup, walked to the refrigerator and just stood there. She turned back to me, with fear in her eyes, and asked if I could help her because she was afraid of spilling water.
My confident, spunky, determined daughter whom I taught to take risks, to jump from a swing when it was at its highest point, to color outside of the lines if she thought it looked better, was afraid of spilling a little water? I was shocked. As we coached her through it, I realized that somehow we had sent her a message that making a mess was so bad an offense that she should be afraid of an everyday task. I felt like I had made a terrible mistake and for days, I thought back to what I had done to make her fearful of doing something so mundane, especially since being independent and doing things for herself are skills we have encouraged in her since she was a baby.
After a lot of thinking, I realized it was not one thing I had done but consistent messages I had sent in my offhand, daily direction of her actions. The number of times I said, “Be careful you don’t spill that food” or “Hold it with two hands so that your milk doesn’t spill” or “Bend and eat so that crumbs don’t fall on the floor” had led her to believe spilling or making a mess was some kind of high crime.
Recognizing my own role in creating this behavior, I started to reflect on other hidden messages parents send their children. I started thinking about the thousands of kids I have worked with and some of the trends of perplexing behavior that I’d observed without understanding where it came from. One in particular stood out: kids’ aversion to telling their parents about their problems for fear they’ll get in trouble or be dismissed.
One of the first things parents do is try to teach our children how to take care of their own problems, especially when it relates to relationships with other kids. As early as kids can play together, I have heard parents say to children, “Don’t tattle” or “Stop telling on each other. Work it out yourselves.” Some have even gone as far as to tell their kids, “Snitches get stiches,” implying that if you tell on another person, that person has the right to hurt you. (Please do not ever say this to your child. It teaches them that they deserve to be hurt for sharing something that bothers them.)
While the intention of teaching our kids to learn self-reliance and responsibility may be noble, we are actually teaching kids that they are completely responsible for solving their own problems and that we shouldn’t be bothered with them. We’re teaching them that they do not have a responsibility to speak up if they see or experience something that is wrong, a dangerous message for our kids to internalize. It’s something we need to correct.
The solution is not to stop kids from expressing their problems or needs, it’s to model what happens next. They should be able to tell us, their parents, anything about anyone. Kids do not always have the right experiences or words to resolve their own issues; part of our job is to help them develop the tools to manage things on their own.
For example, my daughter came to me and told me that a few kids were telling her she could not play with them at school. She’s 5-years-old and tells me everything (which I love and never want to stop!) I had a choice to make: I could call the school, tell the teachers about the issue and ask that they fix it. I could call the parents of the other kids or talk to the kids myself. I could also tell my daughter that it wasn’t a big deal and just to play by herself or find another friend.
Depending on the scenario, any of these choices probably could have been OK. In this case, I decided to use this opportunity to teach my daughter how to deal with this on her own by coaching her through what she could say to her friends. We went through what happened, how she felt and what she thought she needed to say. We practiced saying things like, “When you say I can’t play, it makes me feel sad” and “I would like it if we could all play together” and “What can we do so that we can all play together?” so she could express her needs and invite empathy without getting angry or telling anyone else what they needed to do. I also encouraged her to tell her teacher herself and to ask for help so the teacher could decide if she needed to intervene or not.
What I wanted my daughter to learn were some skills she could use to take some responsibility for making her needs known. I wanted her to see that she could tell me anything and that I would help her, while not setting an expectation that I would resolve it for her. The only follow up I did was to tell her teacher that she was going to talk to her about something and to let me know if she didn’t. My daughter ended up talking to the kids and the teacher; the teacher had noticed some problems but was not aware of their extent. Together, they resolved the issues to a point where they were manageable. More importantly, I heard my daughter using these skills with other friends when they were not getting along. Listening from afar, I was amazed at how the kids managed to have their own mini-discussion without adult intervention. They just needed some words to get them going. I was equally pleased when my daughter told me about that interaction in her own words and said, “We are all friends now and everyone is fine.”
As someone who has worked with of kids of all ages and, in many cases, been the adult they have come to with their problems, I know how important it is to keep the lines of communication open between you and your children. When kids come to me with their problems, I ask them to talk to their parents and most are not willing to do so because they are afraid or think that their parents will blame or judge them.
No matter how old your kids are—5, 15, 25, 55—you want them to feel like they can come to you about anything and know that you will be a good, non-judgmental listener. Every day, I see well-intentioned parents dismiss their kids’ concerns, get angry at them for sharing something or get so overly involved that their children never learn how to manage their own problems. As parents, we have to allow our children to share their concerns so that we as the adults can decide how to help. We often hear about horrible things happening to children like bullying or abuse and wonder why the children never told anyone. Many times, it is because of a hidden message they received when they were young that adults did not want to hear their problems.
Kids do not always know how to tell the difference between little concerns that they can manage and big ones that require adults to get involved, so they don’t always tell us what they need, which means we may never even know about problems. There may be times that you do need to tell your child to take care of something on their own or that something they are telling you about another kid is not their business. That’s OK; think of it as teaching them how to tell the difference. If a kid who is in high school tells you about a friend who is staying up late gaming, you might tell her to encourage her friend to get some rest but that it is not something that she needs to tell a teacher. But if she tells you about a friend whom she knows is taking drugs, you may want to help her learn the proper way to intervene.
Above all, we should not stop lines of communication between ourselves and our kids. The support of parents is a gift we can give our kids for years to come simply by being there and listening. We adults have the wisdom and skills to decide what to do with the information they bring to us and what to teach our kids about responding to it. If we don’t teach them, they may never learn.