When your kid does something you’re not pleased with, it’s easy to connect the behaviour to their identity.
“You always interrupt people. Please stop.”
“Look at this table. You’re so disorganised.”
“You left your water bottle at camp again? Such a forgetful child!”
Even if your intent is to make them more self-aware, these phrases and labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dr. Shahram Heshmat, who writes the “Science of Choice” column for Psychology Today, explains: “Children come to define themselves in terms of how they think their parents see them.”
A way to address negative behaviour in a way that breaks the cycle is to use this phrase: “That’s not like you.”
Rebecca Eanes, author of Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, writes for the Hand in Hand blog that this approach is about building children up instead of tearing them down. She gives the example: “Wow, you must be upset to speak to me like that. It’s not like you to be disrespectful. Let’s talk when you’re feeling ready.”
Kids are aggressively looking for clues about who they are. (This is why toddlers as young as two or three become obsessed with spotting differences in people: “I’m a boy, she’s a girl. I have brown hair, he has yellow hair.”)
As parents, we can guide them to be more kind, brave, helpful, honest, resilient and self-disciplined, but to do so, we must work to bring them back to those values, which are already locked into their core selves. Behaviour that falls outside of these values is a deviation (yes, even if that behaviour has been happening every night for the past six weeks).
When we see it this way, it’s easier to get to the root of the issue. (“It’s not like you to leave out your little sister. You’re an includer. I’m here if you want to share what’s going on.”) You can still give your kid consequences with the assumption that you’re on the same team.
I try to use this type of framing with my six-year-old daughter. This weekend, when we bought a birthday gift for her friend and she immediately told me she wanted to keep it for herself and give her friend a random toy from the closet, I could have said something like, “Well, that’s a little selfish.” Instead, I told her, “What? You’re always so thoughtful.” She let go of the idea of keeping the gift pretty quickly.
Framing your kid’s misbehaviour as uncharacteristic might be hard and may even seem a little disingenuous at first (especially when the behaviour feels so characteristic), but as that Peggy O’Mara quote that’s all over Pinterest goes: “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” For us parents, that can be a terrifying thought, and a powerful truth.