This important advice comes from my own wise mom. Ever since we began having children, she has insisted that we remain vigilant about how we think and talk about our children because the things we say to ourselves and to them can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
She has encouraged us to avoid adjectives like “dramatic,” “difficult,” and “bratty” and instead focus on the specific instance of behavior. In this way, we can discuss the particulars of a moment without the additional assumption that it will become a permanent character trait.
I have to admit that the first several times I heard her say it, I brushed it off. At the time I had a sweet, easy-going infant and couldn’t imagine that I’d ever have anything negative to say or think about my perfect baby.
As Molly grew to more challenging phases and Emma was born with a fiery personality and a “healthy set of lungs,” I began to reflect on how my views of them could affect how I treated them and eventually how they came to understand themselves. It didn’t take long to realize that of course my mom was right.
If I cast Emma in the role of “difficult child” I was giving myself an excuse for not trying as hard to work through her frustrations and hear what she was trying to tell me. When I took my mom’s advice and forced myself to talk about her to myself and others in positive terms like “determined,” I began to see her wonderful, strong personality emerging and dream of the mountains she will move.
I also realized that just because her personality was a challenge for my own did not mean she was doing anything wrong or was less deserving of my best efforts. I began to look for new ways to connect with her to show her she was loved and valued. And it worked! She is a charming, hilarious kid and many of the things that frustrated us in trying to understand her new little soul are the things that we love the most about her. They bring a unique depth and richness to our family that is pure joy.
When Molly began her frustrating two year old stage, I was tempted to write it off as the “terrible twos” and condemn us all to simply suffer through until she turned three when it would hopefully magically disappear.
Around the same time, I read The Danish Way of Parenting where the author describes the phenomenon of Danes not having a term like “terrible twos.” They view this stage for what it is: a normal, albeit challenging, part of children growing up. Rather than trying to minimize or contain it, they use the opportunity to work with their children to teach them valuable lessons in handling frustration and provide unwavering support, encouragement, and love.
Their careful choice of language to describe this specific stage and their children at this stage was precisely what my mom had been talking about.
I won’t say that two (and three and four) didn’t have its challenges, but when we were at our best, we worked with Molly to develop ways to handle frustration. I began talking to her about asking for a break when she felt overwhelmed or upset. I told her that when she asked, we would be quiet, let her move to where she needed to be to think for a minute, and wait for her to be ready to talk or listen. In my mind, this was laying the groundwork for something she would catch onto years later and be able to carry with her through life. It shocked me when she put it into practice immediately.
One of my most vivid memories from a two week trip was telling her after a long day of travel that the waffles we had been promising all day for dinner couldn’t happen because the restaurant was closed by the time we got back to town. She was crushed, and I immediately tried to console her.
She asked for a break, put her hands over her face, and put her face on Jeff’s chest in the carrier. She stayed like that for a minute, and when she lifted her head she was completely calm and happy. She asked what we were having for dinner and if she could still get waffles at some point during the trip. Once we dragged our jaws off the ground, we assured her she could and peacefully went on with our night.
Certainly not every interaction ends so picture perfect, and we are learning that parenting is not a one-size-fits-all determination. Much of what worked with Molly simply does not with Emma, and we are left to figure out new ways to help her through challenging stages.
What is different in carefully choosing our words and thoughts is how we approach parenting. I’ve noticed that when I begin to slip back into negative ways of thinking, it’s because I am overwhelmed, and it’s easier to write off their behavior as the source and cause of my overwhelm rather than the other way around.
Every time I return to my mom’s advice, I remember the value in carefully choosing my words and mindset to highlight and draw out the positive in my children. Once I make that effort of reframing, which can sometimes take days, things immediately begin to improve in our relationships. Instead of being combatants, I go back to being a leader they can depend on to help them instead of dismiss or belittle them.