Friday, November 14, 2008

No Labels Please


I'm reading a parenting book called ScreamFree Parenting by Hal Edward Runkel, LMFT. The subtitle is "The Revolutionary Approach to Raising You Kids by Keeping Your Cool." It's a book with a startling premise (among other ideas): Your life does NOT revolve around your children. It helps us keep a space (figuratively) between us and our kids to help them become more independent and self-sufficient while learning to deal with challenges before parents swoop in and "save the day." Also, the book purports to help parents "learn to calm your emotional reactions and focus on your own behavior more than your kids' behavior...for their benefit." I know, crazy stuff, right?

There are methods in the book to help turn around certain situations that arise and put the responsibility back to the child to get them to try and deal with it, making it more of a learning experience. For instance, when a child says the cliche' "Are we there yet?" we may start to get angry or retort anxiously with a "We just left!!" or "There are still two hours to go" which invariably leads to the response, "Two more hours?!?! Oh noooo!" This response would lead to more anxiety and more back and forth that gets you nowhere. A ScreamFree response, according to Runkel, might be the following: "Wow, you're already asking that question? You must really not want to be in the car today." (Empathy) "Come to think of it, I don't want to be in the car either. And I really don't want to be in the car for a whole two hours more either. I think I want to be out of the car more than you do! What do you think?" By joining with your child, you can commiserate together (and actually have a fun time doing it).

Interactions like this lead to mutual respect between you and the child. If you can create an environment of mutual respect, your child is more likely to want to approach you with problems or other issues. If your child feels you will only react negatively or anxiously when they come to you with an issue, they are surely less like to do so and instead hide things from you or let the situation fester (and possibly get worse). Lording over our children (or hovering), trying to get them to make us feel good about ourselves by "behaving" will only create a great actor, not a dutiful child. We want our children to behave because THEY want to, not just because they know we will leave them alone if they do. That's just a robot.

The part of the book that I've gone over most recently deals with labeling the children. Most labels seem harmless or even sound beneficial (gifted, funny, skinny, the star, athletic), while others produce a negative connotation (a little slow, big-boned, the black sheep). Putting a child into one or more of these "categories" can lead to disappointment if the child doesn't "live up" to the high expectations. Conversely, a child with a "negative" label may leave an impression of the child that could stick for years, even if the label proves correct in some way. So when granny says "I knew he would grow up to be a troublemaker" or Aunt Mable says "he has a temper like his father," they must be prophets. Like Runkel says in the book, the scientific community has yet to determine whether there are genetic determinants on whether our children carry behaviors in their DNA (so the behaviors are learned from people, not born into them). So how can our family know this?

What if our child doesn't want to be funny because everyone says "she's so funny"? Or your son fails a test though "he's the smart one"? Then what? Because of this box the child is put in there will be this pressure to perform, or even under-perform. We are forgetting that children change all the time and have moods just like adults. A troublemaker today does not necessarily make one in 10 years, just like the athletic kid now will not change his mind about sports and get into music, for instance.

Also, when we say our child is "always" something or "never" does this or that, we put unnecessary pressure on him/her. They may be being dramatic discussing how unfair chores are, but telling them "you're always so dramatic" is harsh and most likely untrue. Runkel suggests changing our vocabulary to "can be" which is a lot more forgiving. Try saying "You can be really dramatic at times, but I remember how it was when I was twelve, so I know how you must feel." This empathy shows your child that you acknowledge their feelings, but you are not upset about it. You and everyone will be able to look at your child in a much more positive way, and your child is not pegged into yet another category. Try it!

My wife likes to think our son will be a "momma's boy" which now frightens me (I'm half joking). While I hope he loves her to no end, the connotation of the label de-masculinizes him (is that a word?) or makes him less of an individual. Again, we see these labels as harmless because they've been bandied about for so long. What adult do you know that's still called a "momma's boy" and you see it as a good thing?

Wasn't Norman Bates, from the Psycho films, a momma's boy? I'm just sayin'...

1 comment:

KMT said...

This was a great post. I had no idea that there was actually a book designed to school empathetic parenting versus the 'norm' of 'do as I say, not as I do'. As I was raised with much of this from the paternal aspect of my rearing, I was determined NOT to do that with my kids. I'm not always successful in this initiative, mind you, but I'm totally down with the empathetic approach and based on my experience...IT WORKS. Kids are amazing in their ability to understand 'why' they need to do something, and totally respond to you 'feeling where they're coming from'. It's cool that you're thinking about this already and I hope it works for you.

As far as 'labels' are concerned, both of my kids have already experienced this...my oldest is 'smart' and 'funny' and my youngest is a 'charmer' and a 'handful'. Not labels that we've attached to the kids, but rather what their personalities are exuding to those that they encounter (as none of us lives in a bubble, which would be nice sometimes :)). For what it's worth, and maybe this book has addressed this adequately for you, I really believe we create our own 'labels' if we choose to believe those that others try to impose on us. So if your son favors his mom more than you at some point, I wouldn't worry too much about him being a 'momma's boy'. He'll likely share lots of your interests, too, just by you spending time with him as he forms into his own person. Don't label HIM as 'Norman Bates' just yet...that is unless you see him reading 'Oedipus' a little too much...:).