We often correct our children’s behavior by making them feel bad (shaming, punishments, time outs) – this doesn’t work in the long run. Here’s what does work.
Until our little ones are approximately 1 year old, 100% of our communication with them meets our mutual needs for connection, because, let’s be honest – there isn’t a real need for anything else. They don’t yet talk, or walk, or do anything that might sabotage our needs (except for that sleeping thing, but oh well). We tell them about the world, about ourselves, about them, and everything we say has to do with love.
But then – they become active. They become mobile. They become verbal. And our language changes in a heartbeat. No. Don’t. Stop. Don’t touch that. Don’t go there. This isn’t for you. You’re too small to do that. You can’t get there. Not now. No. No. No.
The problem is, that babies and toddlers don’t differentiate between themselves and their actions, that is how attuned they are to their needs and feelings. They need, they feel, they act. When we say “no” – we negate the very core of their being. This is the extent to which “no” affects them. This is as early as all of us are (unwillingly) pulled into the social paradigm of good/bad. And we constantly want to be “good” for the ones we are connected to, because otherwise – their connection to us is under threat.
I read somewhere that after the age of one, 90% of what children hear from their parents is negative. What a contrast to a 100% of love, isn’t it?
The Nature of Correction
The premise to correction is the idea of “right” and “wrong”; however, it holds another premise according to which “I know better than you and it is my job to teach you how to be better”. Nonviolent Communication teaches us that right and wrong don’t really exist, and they definitely should not exist when the price we pay for them is the price of relationship.
When we correct a child, what we are really telling her are the following statements:
- You are wrong
- I am right
- Here’s how you can be more like me
- You are wrong
- I am right
- Agree with me or (anything that leads the child to agreeing out of fear, guilt, or shame)
How does this make you feel?
Why do We Feel We Need to Correct Our Children?
The answer to this is both simple and sad: it is because we were, ourselves, taught that being a grown up means we know better than anyone who is younger. It is because we were taught that as parents, our job is to “fix”; following this, we see most things as “broken”.
I once met an amazing mother whose son had an incredible ability – whenever he’d approach a puzzle, he would spread out the pieces all over the flower, stand in the middle of all it and look at it from above. After a few minutes he’d kneel down and just put all pieces in their right place. When they first saw him do that, they felt it was wrong. “This is not the right way to solve a puzzle” they said. They wanted to help him, they wanted to correct his approach. Thank God he didn’t listen. Can you imagine what an incredible ability he might have lost?
Not everything that is done differently, needs to be done the way we do it.
The Cost of Correcting a Child
I wrote about it in a previous article on how to build a strong attachment, but this story fits here perfectly. When I was little, I had a short phase (soon you’ll see why) in which I really wanted to help my mother, so I started hanging the laundry out to dry. Not once did I do a good enough job. The socks weren’t properly straightened out, the shirts weren’t shaken out to a pleasing extent, and whatnot. Guess what – not only that I stopped with the laundry as a way of helping my mom, but additionally – this is a chore I dislike until this very day.
Believing she is teaching me useful skills, she corrected and corrected to the point there was nothing left to correct, because the little me decided that if she is the only one who does it right, she might as well do it herself.
Attachment through Sameness
Although not taken from Nonviolent Communication but from the Attachment Theory, sameness is one of the six ways in which children connect, it is an existential need (!) without which we wouldn’t survive. Sameness is the reason for which we learn how to talk, and how to walk. It is the reason for which we mimic what we see our parents doing, it the reason for which modeling, rather than correcting is the best thing we can possibly do for our children.
When we correct – we distance. When we are correct, it is as if we say “you are not like me, here is how you can be more like me”. Instead of “you are not like me and this is wonderful – show me how I can be more like you” or “this is awesome! Let’s see if we can do it even better together!”.
Children Need Constant Correction
No. They don’t. What children do need is constant connection. Connection is the best, if not only, positive source of motivation and it is, most definitely, the best reason to do things in this world. When we operate out of love, out of our inherent need to make ourselves and those around us happy, our actions are devoted to just that – making everyone happy.
When we operate out of fear, guilt, or shame – we meet the need of our loved ones in distance, growing resentment, anger, and frustration. This always comes with a price, because like all beneficial needs and feelings – painful needs and feelings need to surface, too.
So how Can You Correct a Child?
When we feel the need to “correct” our children – one of three things are actually happening:
- Our little one had lost connection and doesn’t know how to regain it; she is acting out of a connection void
- Our little one just did something in order to meet her own needs – and we don’t think this is something she should be doing.
- Our little one did something to meet our needs, but it didn’t quite work out
Correcting the Lost Connection
In the first scenario (which is a typical “terrible two” kind of thing), connection is the first and only beneficial response. Validation of feelings, offering of compassion and empathy, a place to vent or a place to cuddle. Whatever those little ones need to know that they are loved EVEN WHEN their behavior is not accepted, EVEN WHEN they are harder to be around. The more we practice this sort of responses, the less hard feelings our little ones will feel. Anger, resentment, and frustration are all wake up calls for unmet needs – the more emotional needs we meet – the less these feelings will control our lives and relationships.
Correcting Actions Meant to Meet Child’s Needs
The second scenario, which starts as early as those little ones start doing things, and never really ends, has a million connecting options that will also, as by product, lead to “correction” of behavior:
- She’s trying to reach something she cannot touch? “Wow you’re so persistent! Here, you can have this”
- She’s trying go somewhere she can’t go? “Oh my! You are so fast! Let’s run in that direction and see who gets there first!”
Either way, always say something positive! It is much easier than you think. Let me know in the comments below or join my parenting support group on Facebook if you want more examples.
Correcting Actions Meant to Meet Your Needs
And for the third scenario it is very simple: never ever correct.
Making their loved ones happy is an existential need that we all, as parents, want to preserve in our children. And our children are constantly trying to make us happy – everything they do they do to meet their needs, and our happiness is their need.
I’ll give you an example: as soon as my little one started walking, bring his dad and me water was one of his favorite things, god knows why 🙂 In the first months, by the time he had gotten to any one of us with a glass of water, water was all over the house and there was nothing left in the glass.
So what? It is not about the result – it is about the intention. Today it is enough for me to quietly mutter that I’m thirsty and 3 second later I get a toddler who is thrilled he could help his mother out. From the very first day we made him feel capable, important and trustworthy – and this is what he grew into.
Some Actionable Tips
I’m not saying that 100% of the language we speak can be connection language (or can it?), what I am saying that we must increase the presence of connection in the language we speak. And there’s no limit to it – the more we connect IS the less we correct.
- Always connect before you communicate (come closer, make eye contact, hug)
- Remember that your child never does anything AGAINST you, she is only doing whatever she does to meet HER OWN needs
- Always use positive language
- Avoid “you’re too small”, “too little”, “too young”, “too short”, “you can’t”
- Let your happiness show! “Wow! You made it! Now let’s climb down”!, “Wow, you’re so thoughtful! Thank you so much!”, “you are so curious! I have a great idea – let’s take a look at…”
- Celebrate your children’s being – they will celebrate their being in turn! Happy kids are less likely to resist – because, simply – they don’t need to.
- Forget about right and wrong – there’s no such thing (challenge me in the comments if you’d like)
- Only concentrate on connection (what I am about to do, does it breed love? Or does it negate and hurt? Is the price really worth it?)
- Remember it is never about today’s toddler – it is always about the future adult
- Remember that obedient, respectful, quiet, and easy to handle are qualities we would never use to describe an adult we look up to. So let’s not seek this in our children 🙂
I started writing this article after offering a weekly mindful parenting practice in my Facebook group – join here if you want to see how this concept is practiced in real life 🙂
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