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Words That Stick

March 29th, 2015

A father told me about a conversation he had with his ten year old daughter who was upset about something that had been said to her in a school situation with peers.  After consoling her, he suggested that the thing to do with those kinds of comments is to let them “just roll off your back, like rainwater.”  Sometime later, she reported a discussion with a friend who was very upset.  After trying to understand the problem, she told her friend that she should just let the whole thing roll off her back, like rainwater.

I thought of this story after reading an anecdote about a father’s conversation with his three year old son.  A stranger yelled at the boy for something he had done accidentally and the outraged father yelled back.  The upset child asked his father what that was about.  The father, wanting to smooth things over, explained that the man was telling him to be careful with other people’s things, and that he had told the man he was right but that he shouldn’t yell.  His son, confused, pointed out that the father in turn had yelled back.  The father, trying to teach, told the boy he was right and then apologized to the man.  In response, his son said that the man should now apologize to him and to the father’s amazement, the man then did.

As parents, we often feel that our own words are rolling off our children’s backs – “like rainwater.”  We wonder if anything we are trying to teach is sinking in.  If we are lucky, we might get feedback from the parents of our child’s friends reporting on our son or daughter’s stellar behavior in the friend’s home, or something else that indicates that what we say is not falling on deaf ears.

It is rewarding to discover that we are making an impression after all, but frustrating that we rarely get such rewards in our own interactions with our children.  Part of this is due to an expectation on our parts that children should demonstrate that they value what we say by doing what we advise or in other ways showing that we are right.  But also, it is part of the developmental process for children to push back against their parents as part of their own reach for independence and search for their own identity.  They do internalize our words and values but need to go through a process of making them part of who they are and perhaps express them in their own way.

Another part of that process can also be found in those anecdotes.  The fathers in both stories had considerable empathy for their children and for the situation the children were in.  The older child not only used her father’s words but emulated his role as a concerned problem solver.  She tried to be understanding of her friend as her father was with her.

The younger child was still at the stage of trying to apply rules, or lessons he had been taught, still trying to figure out how relationships between people work.  He was trying to implement rules of behavior – such as you are supposed to say you are sorry if you hurt someone’s feelings.  It is a good example of the limitations in trying to teach appropriate social behavior through prescribed responses.  “Say you are sorry” is a familiar injunction given to children and can become almost a rote response with no real meaning.  In this example, the father was trying to both comfort his son and also model a better method of conflict resolution – a challenge for a parent.

Too often these lessons sound critical, delivered by parents as attempts at correcting children’s behavior.  As with much learning, lessons taught with understanding and compassion are more readily learned and retained.

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