Picture this: A four-year-old is playing with her 6-year-old sister and her sister’s friend. Can you already see what is going to happen?
At some point, the younger sister became frustrated—probably from being excluded or mocked. The young one became angry and scratched the arm of the neighbor child. Screaming began and Mom ran to the mayhem.
Mom was understandably upset. She hated that her daughter had hurt another child—and she especially hated that the other child was a neighbor child. (We like to keep cruelty within the family!)
Let’s pause the story. Let’s see if we can enter the world of the daughter who scratched the neighbor child. Scratching is not normal or acceptable in the family. Why would she do what she did? Can you think of several reasons why she might scratch? I am not suggesting that scratching is the right thing to do. No. The question is: Can we see why she did it?
It seems pretty clear to me. She was probably being treated dismissively by her sister and her sister’s friend. She felt lonely, powerless, and humiliated. She lashed out. I am not justifying her actions. I am arguing that we cannot help her unless we understand her.
Mom wanted to be sure her daughter got a clear message that her behavior was not okay. So she scratched her daughter’s arm and sent her to her room. For three days.
The daughter undoubtedly got a message from her mother’s actions. I doubt she got the message that there are better ways to resolve disputes or that violence is unacceptable. Instead, she learned that she is powerless in a hostile world. Other children are hostile and her mother is too.
Is that what we want our children to learn? Do we want them to feel isolated and powerless in a cruel world?
How could the mother have responded better? I suggest that, if we want to change hearts, we must work with the heart. Heart work is delicate work. It requires preparation.
Both mother and daughter may need some time to settle down. Maybe they sit in a rocker and rock for a while. Or maybe they sit on the porch and hug. Just as we would not undertake heart surgery when frazzled or intoxicated, we shouldn’t undertake heart repair when hostile. So mother and daughter might snuggle and relax until they are both ready to undertake the delicate task of repairing a hurting soul.
Mother could start with words of understanding: “You’ve had a terrible experience, haven’t you?” The little girl is likely to cry, “They were mean to me and called me names.” Mom does not need to start an inquest. Her objective is simple: Help a hurting little girl to feel safe.
As the girl tells her story, Mom can simply say, “I’m so sorry, Dear.” “You must have felt terrible.” Mom continues to show compassion as long as her little girl shows distress. This may take a while.
Some may object: “She needs to learn not to scratch people when she’s frustrated!” I agree. But research is clear: We are most likely to learn when we feel safe, loved, and hopeful. Messages of civility cannot be delivered effectively with sledge hammers.
We continue to offer comfort until the girl feels peaceful. Then she is ready for a transition to learning. A wise parent might ask: “I’m so sorry you were treated badly. Did scratching help you get what you wanted?” This may set off another round of complaints about the treatment she received. We continue to show compassion. When she is peaceful again, we ask the same question again. At some point she will see clearly that scratching is not the path to friendship.
Then we might ask, “When you are frustrated, what could you do instead of scratching?” She may need some coaching. “Any time you’re not sure what to do, will you come get me? I am always glad to help you.” If the child is mature enough, you might also teach your child effective ways of making requests—like saying to her sister, “I’m feeling very left out. I would like to be able to play with you without being treated badly.”
Think what the little girl takes away from this approach. Instead of feeling lost and confused, she knows that Mother is a place to get comfort and guidance. She knows that there are better ways of dealing with frustration than scratching.
Mom learns important lessons as well. She probably realizes that it is a mistake to have her 4-year-old play with two older children.
“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of [parenthood], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (D&C 121:41).
Next time you are tempted to blow up in response to a child’s misbehavior, try some soothing time together instead. Let your child tell about his or her experience. Show compassion. When the child feels safe, help him or her find better ways.
I think the best book on the planet for teaching compassion is Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child. If you want to be an effective parent, get his book and read it. (Disclosure: I revised his original book to make the current edition.)
John Gottman’s Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child describes five steps in emotion coaching—which you could read in his book or find in a Google search.