Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How to Talk: Encouraging Autonomy

A big area of overlap between How to Talk and Bringing Up Bebe involves encouraging your child's autonomy. A key difference is, the French seem to emphasize this from birth. But How to Talk focuses more on the verbal child.

1. Let children make choices. From the basic: "you can have peas or carrots with your dinner" to the more complex: "you can eat as much or as little of your dinner as you'd like, I just want you to try some of everything on your plate." (The French call this this broader method a "cadre," a framework. They give firm limits and boundaries, but allow kids as much freedom as the kids want within that framework.) Stay out of the minutiae of a child's life, as much as possible. Show them you trust them and save them the frustration of your constant nagging.

2. Show respect for their struggles. Don't jump in to fix things or to give unsolicited advice. First offer empathy, acknowledge that the task is tough. Wait. Then, if they seem open, gently offer suggestions, "sometimes it helps..." The authors also recommend that you never talk about your kid in front of him/her, no matter their age. So no, "she is shy" or "he used to hate reading, but he is getting better." (as a mom of toddlers, I do this constantly.) The authors maintain that this makes kids feel like possessions of their parents, rather than autonomous beings. Instead, you can express confidence in their ultimate readiness: "when you decide you're ready, you'll {do whatever}." Along those lines, don't answer questions for them, "Hannah can tell you, she is the one who knows."

3. Don't ask too many questions. It is annoying. And an invasion of their much needed space. If you want to talk about how their day was or how the party was, you can say, "If you'd like to talk about {whatever}, I'd love to hear about it, just let me know."

This is me encouraging autonomy at Ikea. Run through the empty warehouse aisles, little one.

4. Don't rush to answer questions. First toss the question back at them, ask what they think. Sometimes a child just wants you to help them sort out their thoughts, instead of just getting yours. To this end, you can try to verbalize their feelings (as you understand them) and restate their problem in different ways. 

5. Encourage children to use resources outside the home. "Maybe your doctor has some good ideas?" "I wonder what your puppy's vet would say?" This shows them they don't need mom and dad anytime they have a problem, instead they can turn to other helpful people in their lives.

6. Don't take away hope. If they are interested in doing something (like being an astronaut), don't shoot them down. This seems sort of obvious, like don't be a jerk. But the author's go on to explain how this can also mean not shooting them down too harshly on things they legit can't/shouldn't do (like stay at the park instead of coming home for dinner). They don't say, "never tell your kid 'no,'" but they do warn that it can be a "call to arms" for a kid to hear it, especially if they hear it non-stop (like a toddler). So they offer some alternatives that are a little gentler.
  • Give information, leave out the "no." Instead of saying, "no, you can't stay at the park." Just say, "we are having dinner in five minutes"
  • Accept feelings. "I can see that you really want to stay here, it can be hard to leave when you are having so much fun." (sometimes it is easier to agree to something if you feel like someone understands your feelings.)
  • Describe the problem. "I'd like to stay at the park too, the problem is we have to eat dinner soon."
  • When possible, give a yes. So instead of "no, you can't have a cookie" say, "yes, you can have a cookie, once we finish dinner."
  • Give yourself time to think about it. "Let me think about it." gives the impression that you are really considering their perspective, which is encouraging to the child. And it gives everyone a time to calm down a bit, distract themselves from the urgent feelings, and maybe consider alternatives on their own.
Again, this all can apply to any relationships. Like in a marriage. It is important to give your husband autonomy (you can wear this tie, or that tie. Just kidding). But anytime you disagree on a decision, it can be helpful to ask yourself: am I getting involved in the minutiae? And if you are not, it can be helpful to re-frame the disagreement so that it becomes a problem to be gently solved.


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