Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the book The Soft-Spoken Parent: The Top 10 Strategies to Turn Away Wrath.
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It is very hard for adults to understand what life is like for children. We have changed so slowly and so completely from childhood to adulthood, that we may not even realize how different our experience is from theirs.
For example, we might not guess that prominent among children’s concerns is the dread that they might wet their pants in school. That might seem silly to adults. But maybe we forget that they must get permission to go to the restroom. And they can remember times when they have had accidents. And they remember the humiliation of being teased over those accidents. Children often feel quite powerless in their lives.
Most of us have forgotten many of the challenges of adolescence. Teens are just learning to think about thinking. They are learning to think about how other people think about them. It can be a very confusing – though necessary – development.
We sometimes talk about adolescent egocentrisms. For example, teens tend to feel as if people are watching them. They also yearn to be heroic. And they often believe that they are invincible. As a result of these ways of thinking, teens may be very sensitive and they make take inordinate time getting ready for school. And they may ruminate about things that their classmates say to them or about them.
It may seem to adults that teens are irrational and oversensitive. But this stage of making sense of their inner world and their social world is as important as a one-year-old learning to walk or a two-year-old stringing words together to express ideas. It is a normal and important part of development.
Do you remember feeling painfully self-conscious as a child? Do you remember wondering what people thought of you? Do you remember blushing with embarrassment over things you said? Do you remember being made fun of by classmates? If so, you may have the humility to understand your child.
Of course our children are different from us in important ways. So our experiences only provide us needed humility; they do not give us the answers for our children’s challenges.
With humility in place, we can study our children. We can notice what they love and what they are afraid of. We can notice what they enjoy and what they dread. Our objective is to walk in their shoes so that we can better understand their view of the world. If we do this with genuine humility, we can then help them navigate in their lives.
Nancy and I used to go out to dinner occasionally so that we could discuss each of our children. Nancy would ask how we might help one child make more friends or deal with a difficult experience. I offered possibilities. She knew which ones fitted them best. She saw things I did not because she spent so much time with them and because she is such a good listener.
Anjelica Huston reports that, when she was young, she made some negative comment about van Gogh at the dinner table. She said somewhat flippantly that she didn’t like his work. Her father, the famous movie director John Huston, exploded: “You don’t like van Gogh? Then name six of his paintings and tell me why you don’t like them.” When she couldn’t, he commanded her: “Leave the room, and until you know what you’re talking about, don’t come back with your opinions to the dinner table.”
Harsh attacks do not humble and they do not inform. They create resentment. John Huston might have considered forms of art he didn’t enjoy. Then he might understand that van Gogh did not speak to his daughter. Contrast Huston’s harsh response with the teaching one described by Haim Ginott:
When Clara, age fourteen, criticized modern painting, Mother did not dispute her opinion.
Nor did she condemn her taste.
Mother: You don’t like abstract art?
Clara: I sure don’t. It’s ugly.
Mother: You prefer representational art?
Clara: What’s that?Mother: You like it when a house looks like a house, and a tree like a tree and a person like a person.
Mother: Then you like representational art.
Clara: Imagine that. All my life I liked representational art and didn’t know it.Clara’s mother used her daughter’s statement to educate her. And in the process she showed both respect and affection.
You know the old saying: We cannot understand someone until we have walked a mile in their shoes. That is certainly true of understanding our children. When we understand the landscape of their lives – their hopes, anxieties, dreams, and monsters, we are less likely to get angry or impatient with them. We are more likely to help them find their way to happy adulthoods.
Reflection: Think of a time when you have walked in your children’s shoes – when you have connected their experience with your own. How did it feel? What helped you get there? How can you get there again? How can you make that experience more common for you?
Stay tuned for another strategy next week. Or purchase the book, The Soft-Spoken Parent: More than 50 Strategies to Turn Away Wrath (which has just arrived at bookstores from the printers) by visiting your local LDS bookseller or purchase online by clicking here: