How many of you have tried to encourage your child to do something by telling her, “It’s easy! Try it. You can do it!”
I am raising my hand right now, too. I have definitely said these words to my kids many times. They are well-intentioned words. But they are also words that can backfire.
After reading a parenting book entitled How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish, I learned some very practical phrases that help kids to open up and feel heard and understood. After all, everyone needs to feel heard and understood. Kids are no exception.
Most parenting books that I’ve read have given me ideas to implement with my kids that, over a period of time, often have a positive cumulative effect. Usually, the changes are subtle and happen over an extended period of time.
That’s not how it was after reading How to Talk. I got an instantaneous response to one of the parenting tips in this book. I used a tip on my three-year-old son and, like a charm, it worked immediately.
Magic? It sure felt like it.
Here’s how it went down …
We were parked at the Costco gas station, petrol oozing into my blue mini-van by the second. While we waited, my three-year-old son asked for a drink of water.
A disposable water bottle sat in a nearby cup holder. I grabbed it, unscrewed the lid and handed it to him. He guzzled it down and then asked me to put the lid back on.
I started to do it for him, but then decided to try to encourage his autonomy a little bit. This is a concept addressed in How to Talk. It’s something I try to do in general—encourage my kids to do everything for themselves that they can do for themselves—but, since I was just reading about it, it was fresh on my mind.
When I handed him the water bottle, my son immediately threw a fit. He started screaming, “I can’t! I caaaaaannn’t!!”
I told him, “Yes you can do this. It’s not hard. Try it!”
In response to this attempted encouragement, the volume of his sobs increased. I was a little frustrated with this, but then I remembered something I read in How to Talk.
According to the authors of How to Talk, this is the wrong approach. When parents tell their kids: “You can do it, it’s easy!” to try to encourage them, kids feel like it’s a lose-lose proposition. If they are successful at completing the task, then they are simply doing what you already expected of them, so no-big-deal. But, if they can’t do it, then they will really feel like a loser, and a big disappointment to their parent because they failed to do what is supposedly “easy.” Why should they even try it?
Instead, parents should encourage children to try new things by saying: “This is really hard sometimes” or “some people have a difficult time doing this” and then prompting them to try it. At this point, trying a new thing is a win-win proposition for the child. If they can’t do it, then it’s okay because “sometimes it’s hard to do.” But, if they can do it, then they are a real winner because they just did something that is “hard.”
So, remembering reading about this, I changed my tactic with my son. In between screams, I told him, “Well, actually don’t worry about it. Screwing on water bottle lids can be tricky sometimes. It can be hard for some people to do.”
He stopped crying and immediately said, “I can do it!” He reached for the water bottle and, in one fell swoop, he screwed on that little lid successfully. Of course, his face broke into a confident, beaming smile.
At that point, I affirmed him and said, “I knew you could do it all along! Good job!”
My son tasted some water, and then he tasted some success in accomplishing something new.
As for me, I felt like a magician or something. Harry Potter with my secret wand!
You just never know what will happen when you read a parenting book.
Photo Credit: Second image by Amy Koons.