Category Archives: Language Toolkits

I’m Not Afraid to Say No. (I Just Try Not To)

noThere’s a lot of talk about “No”. About why not to use it, about why to use it, about being “afraid” of it..

It’s really not that big of a deal.

It’s just that as a word it’s a closed door. Heavy, cumbersome solid wood hanging on a rusted hinge and squeaking uncomfortably against its frame for which it is ill-fit.

In the middle, printed clearly, are two letters. “NO”.

No! Not for baby. Cut it out. Don’t do that! Stop that! Don’t! Stop! Not a toy! You’ll break that! Don’t climb! No Jumping! Not for you! Put it down!

It’s a door that, when slammed shut, is often mistaken for teaching. For being firm. For setting limits.

Sure. It teaches. It teaches “no”.

Which is fine. Many people feel that “no” is a good word and that in the early years it’s impossible to over-use.

It is not the approach that I have chosen.

In that thin strip of empty space at the bottom of the door, curious shadows dance and a bright enticing light shines. There’s a world of wonders, and the promise of those things will send children to that doorknob time and time again until they are strong enough to be able to pull it open and sneak past.

And then they will. Old enough to get in trouble that they lack the knowledge to understand.

What comes on the other side of that door? When you step past that first reaction with your child and you explore that thing hand-in-hand, side by side?

Many things.

“Look. See?”

“Can I show you how?”

“Right there. Look. It is sharp. It is hot. Ouch!”

“This is what being careful looks like.”

“Hold on to it like this, see? Yes, just like that.”

“If you fall, fall away from the edge.”

“Mind the edges.”

“That is a narrow space to stand. It is high up. Is there anything to hold onto?”

“Look? See? That pulls away easily, then you will fall.”

“Maybe if…”

“That is fragile. See how carefully I pick it up? And then it goes down slow..”

“I don’t think Alexander likes it when you do that.”

“Does she look like she is having fun?”

“Oh dear, I dropped a glass and it broke. I have to clean it up carefully because all the pieces are sharp like splinters.”

“Oh no, this room is a mess! We cannot find anything. Let me show you where each little thing lives so we can put them all away.”

“How do you think we can…?”

“Can I help you?”

“I’m watching. You’re doing it safely. I’ll let you know if you need to be more careful.”

It’s not a tear-free approach. Sometimes things get broken. But I’m pretty sure that my life isn’t tear-free either, and sometimes things get broken.

And I learn from those times.

So do they.

My job isn’t to say no every five minutes. It’s to keep them safe from the unacceptable consequences while teaching them how to do all the things that they want to do. Safely.

Playing together requires trust.

Consequences and Punishment

Playing together requires trust.
Playing together requires trust.

At the breakfast table. Isaac is back from a weekend away. He is not integrating easily back into the way that we do things.

“Isaac, if you yell at Alexander and Keenie, what are the consequences?”
“I’ll be in trouble?” he asks.
“Isaac, that would be the punishment. That is not the consequence.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well.. What if I thought that you did something but you really didn’t? I could punish you anyway, right? You have been punished before for something that you said you didn’t do, right?”
“Yeah.”
“Well the consequence of the choice to punish you was that you missed recess unfairly, right?”

The cogs start turning in his head.

“Why did you get punished when you didn’t do what the teacher thought you did?”
“Because another kid said I did it.”
“So who did the wrong thing?”
“The other kid.”
“The teacher also accidentally did a wrong thing. She punished the wrong person.”
“Yeah…”

“Isaac, why did the teacher believe the other kid when he said that you did something?”
Silence.
“Isaac, does that teacher trust you?”
“No?”
“Isaac, if that teacher trusted you and didn’t believe that you were the type of person to do that thing.. What do you think would have happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think that the teacher would have punished you if she trusted you?”
“I don’t know.” He’s thinking.
“I don’t know, either.”

“So. Isaac, if you yell at Alexander and Keenie, what are the consequences?”
“You won’t trust me?”
“I will think that you yell before you try to talk.”
“But I do try to talk!”
“Did you just try to talk to them?” I don’t actually know either way, I just know that Alexander ran into the room upset and saying that Isaac had yelled at him.
“…No.” He tells me the truth reflexively. We’re not trying to figure out if he’s going to be punished. I’m trying to help him understand how things work.
“And what will Alexander and Keenie think about their relationship with you?”
“That I yell at them?”
“Right. That’s not good for your relationship with them.”

He doesn’t look like he likes that idea. He looks over at his brother and sister who are building with blocks in the other room. He’s quiet.

“Isaac, I want you to think about something today, okay?”
He waits.
“I’m not punishing you for yelling at Alexander and Keenie this morning.”
He doesn’t look any happier than he did a minute ago. I’ve just told him that he’s not going to be punished for yelling, but he is knee deep in the consequences anyway.
“Can you think about the difference between consequences and punishment?”
“Okay.” he says.

“Can I give you a hug?” I ask.
He agrees.
“You’re a good kid.” I say. “I love you, and I hope you have a good day today.”
He runs back into the other room where his brother and sister are. He says something to them that I can’t hear, gives them a hug and comes back to wait by the door for his bus.

When children are fixated on the idea of punishments… They often forget about consequences.

Misidentified Feelings, Inaccurate Words, and The Lies of Toddlers

Nurshable“MOMMY, ISAAC PUSH ME!” she comes to me crying.
Isaac is at school. There is no way that Isaac just pushed her.
Keenie is two and a half.
What she told me is not true.
But is it a lie? Is she lying? Is she manipulating? Is she trying to get her brother in trouble? What is happening here?

“Keenie, when did Isaac push you?” I ask. Is she upset because she is remembering something that happened?
She can’t answer and just repeats herself.
“Keenie, are you sad about Isaac?” I ask.
She is.
She is sad about something. Some memory. She feels the sadness and the hurt inside but she doesn’t know why. But she knows that she felt this way when Isaac pushed her.
She is two and a half, the age where kids believe in monsters and fairies and invisible friends.
Where sequencing is not a very strong skill, but cause and effect is very firmly rooted.
She has a feeling that has just popped up from nowhere. She has a memory. She has an understanding that things happen that cause feelings. And she doesn’t quite grasp the flow of time or days. She has an intense imagination and a desire to explain the world around her.

“Keenie, Isaac is at school.”
“Isaac come home?” she asks.
“Isaac will come home later. After lunch and after snack.” I say.
Her lower lip quivers and she starts to cry.
“Keenie, do you miss Isaac?” I ask.
She nods.
“You are sad because you want Isaac to come home? You miss him?”
She melts into her sadness.
“I MISS ISAAC. COME HOME!” she says.

She was sad because of Isaac being at school. She was not lying to try and get him in trouble. She was not not sure what she felt. She was sad. Isaac. Sad. Isaac. Memory. Push. Push. Sad. Isaac. MOMMY, ISAAC PUSH ME!

Yes, little one. You are feeling something and you have words. So you try and tell me what it is that you are feeling. You need new words. More words. Not for me to get angry at you for “lying”.

If Isaac had been home would I have gotten angry at him?
Would I have confronted him?
Would I have assumed that he was lying if he told me that he had not pushed her?

If the context had been the same, if she had been trying to talk about some sadness that she had that he had not caused, what would have happened to her if I had reacted out of assumption? What would have happend to him, to their relationship?

The Annoyance of Whining (Emerging Communication Skills)

Dear Daughter,

You’re nineteen months old and your whines cut straight through me. They’re endless sometimes. You whine for everything you don’t have words for, or all the words that you forget in that moment where you feel a need or a want and can’t pull the words out of what you’re feeling.

Whines are just the sad and ouchy things, the urgent wantful wishful things, the hungry needing things. All the things you haven’t found words for yet. Something less of an emergency than cries, but that tries to tell me that something is on your mind. They are just a quiet sound that you hope my heart can translate rather than becoming annoyed.

I won’t let you down, I’ll look at your face, your body. I’ll try to see your need. I’ll offer up the words you’d like to be able to say. One day you’ll know how to say them, how to remember them in the heat of the moment.

You’ll be able to do this because I do this with you now.

I’ve been taught that whining is annoying, that it’s manipulative. “Don’t whine!” “Always whining.” “The whining’s driving me nuts.” “She whines like a baby.” “He won’t stop whining about the toy he wants.” These are the words that have been put in my head by other people, the words that color my emotions red and reactive.

The truth is, whines are a communication of want and need that are somewhat less urgent than cries. They’re a placeholder for words that you’re trying to reach for but that you can’t yet grasp hold of.

The whining’s just the words you’re looking for, and I’m here to help you find them.

You whine and lean your body towards something. I point around and ask “that?” And you learn to point at the things that you want.

You whine and grab at my shirt. I ask “nursh?” and I make the sign that we use. You learn the words.

“Sleepy?” “Hungry?” “That toy?” “Do you want me to carry you?” “Bored?” “Tired?” “Scared?” “Do you want me to put you down?” “All done with the stroller?” “That?” “You want to know the word for that?” “Yes! It’s a cat. Look at the cat run. Run. The kitty’s running!”

Choosing to put the words of others out of my head means that I don’t mistake the “makes me need to respond” feeling that whining brings on for agitation. The annoyance is something that the words of others has put into my head. Your whines are no different from a hungry newborn rooting. They are a call waiting for a response.

That response does not need to be the ineffective annoyance that I have been handed. It’s not you that I should be annoyed with when you’re just doing what you’re supposed to do. I should be annoyed at all the people that have told me that whining is useless or manipulative instead of telling me that it’s something to listen to carefully so that I can translate it to the words you’re trying to learn.

All I need to do is give you the words that you were looking for, and in time you’ll be able to choose the words instead.

<3 Mama

Are You Ready to Live As Though That’s True? (The Language We Use in Frustration)

Today I am grateful for something important that I have learned: I will not use certain language around my children.

I will not say “You’re making me crazy”, because it is an accusation that is not literally true. I will say “what you’re doing is making me very frustrated right now.”

I will not casually accept it when my children use Very Strong Language that can be taken the wrong way by someone who does not know them.

I will ask “Are you ready to live as though what you just said is true?”

I wish that I could go back in time and explain this to me-as-a-child.

I wish that I could go back in time and explain to me-as-a-child that it actually feels better and more accurate to word my frustrations accurately.

No I’m not angry enough to “want to punch you in the face”. I’m frustrated because I feel that you’re not listening to me. No I’m not “going crazy”, I’m dealing with a lot of stresses in my life that I’m trying to balance and I’m frustrated sometimes because even though I CAN balance them it’s hard. No I don’t “want to leave”. I want to feel as though I’m being listened to. No “FML or F-My Life” for me, I like my life- it’s my frustrations that annoy me but I don’t have to write off my life to say that.

I don’t need to use words that are bigger than the situation that I am in, because the words that describe the situation accurately are the words that describe the size of it and the frustration of it.

When you describe those things accurately there are solutions to be found, and no one can ever take your frustrations out of context to claim that that is who you are.

I have seen people talk “jokingly” about wanting to hurt their kids.
I have seen people vent or claim that they wanted to hurt themselves because they were stressed out in a relationship.
I have seen people “want to kill their husband” because their husband forgot to put the toilet seat down again.

There are problems with this language.

I used to use strong words to “jokingly” express frustration.

I’ve increasingly become aware that this is a habit I don’t want my kids to adopt. I don’t want them to grow up thinking that it’s okay to to proclaim that they are “insane” when what they really mean is that they might possibly be wrong about a particular idea that they have. I don’t want them to think it’s okay to say that they want to punch someone in the nose when they really mean that they’re really annoyed by something. I don’t want my kids to think that it’s okay to “jokingly” say that they want to commit suicide, because everyone who jokes about suicide makes it more likely that someone who is NOT joking will not get the help that they need.

When my two year old says “I want to hit you”, I understand that and there are limitations to his self control and to what he can understand when I explain things to him.

With my six year old, though, I ask him what would happen if he did that. I ask him if he really wants to hit me or if he just feels very very angry or very very frustrated. I tell him that if he really feels like he wants to hit me, that we have to find a better way to deal with that, and we try to figure something out together.

I want him to grow up knowing that there are solutions, and to seek out solutions proactively rather than just venting.

I never want my children to vent through saying “I WANT TO HURT YOU!” rather than working on solutions.

I never want my children to vent through saying “I WANT TO HURT MYSELF!” when they really mean that they are so frustrated that they need help in finding context for their hurts or their frustrations.

I never want my children to say “I HATE MY LIFE!” when they could look for the things that they don’t like about their life and work on making their life better.

I never want my children to say “I WANT A DIVORCE!” when they don’t get their way in a future relationship. I want them to work on problems, not threaten their partner.

I never want my child to think that if they said something misguided that they need to say “I’M PROBABLY JUST NUTS!”. I want them to be able to say “I might be wrong. I should read more about that.” Because I never want them to question their sanity instead of their research.

I never want my kids to say “I’M LOSING MY MIND!” when what they really mean is that they’re having a hard time figuring out how to balance things in their life. Because saying “I’M LOSING MY MIND!” is not as productive as saying “Okay, this really isn’t working and there has to be a better way of doing this. I need to figure out what is important and I need to prioritize.”

And because of these things I focus today on the language that I use, and on my reactions when my kids use certain strong angry words  or strong hopeless words to try to make me understand exactly how deeply they feel something.

I understand that as a child right now they feel certain things SO VERY DEEPLY that they want to throw up their hands and declare that this is the WORST DAY OF THEIR LIVES and they ARE LOSING THEIR MINDS and they WANT TO HURT SOMEONE.

But someday they’ll be adults like I am now, and I want them to understand that they are strong enough to handle the things life throws at them. I want them to recognize when they are NOT strong enough, and to understand how to seek any help that they need.

So today when I speak, I ask myself “Are you ready to live as though that’s true?” And I will ask my children that exact same thing.