Last summer I sat at a long picnic table near a breathtaking mountain. While the parents were eating dinner, the kids ran up a trail in search of a secret fort. Twenty minutes later an exuberant and joyful bunch of seven-and eight-year-olds came running toward the picnic table to share their adventures.

One excited little boy, James, interrupted the adult conversation.

“Mom, Mom, you can’t believe what we found!”

Lovingly, his mother smiled and whispered, “I can’t wait to hear, James, but grown-ups are talking, and there will be a pause in the conversation. Please wait for the pause.”

On my other side, another boy came running up to his mother with equal enthusiasm.

“Mom, Mom, we had so much fun—”

“I am talking! Don’t interrupt,” she said.

“But, Mom—”

“Be quiet! Can’t you see that I am talking??”

“But Mom we found the—”

“Shut UP, Steve!” she yelled.

My heart sank. I knew what was coming. James, on my right, patiently waited for the pause, enthusiasm still alive and well. Steve, on my left, walked away from the table, looking shamed and dejected, carrying with him stories of secret forts never to be shared. 

What opposite interventions to the same situation. What markedly different messages to the child! “Wait for the pause” versus “Shut up” gets incorporated so differently into a child’s developing sense of self.

“I think of my kids’ brains like a computer. I don’t want to input data that I won’t be able to easily delete later.” — Mother of three

Harsh words reverberate. That’s why I want you to promise to eliminate the phrases Shame on you or You should be ashamed from your vocabulary. Shame becomes internalized self-hatred. I have seen countless patients whose parents’ thoughtless words echoed in their heads and chipped away at their self-worth, even decades later.

So we have to discipline ourselves to make our instructions constructive. One great tool is to look for positive behavior to reinforce. Well-behaved children just don’t command our attention in the same way whining or disobedient children do. But they should.

Amazing teachers and parents offered the same advice: don’t ignore the things that your kids are doing right. Highlight them. Thank your children. Tell them that you noticed how they waited patiently or cleared their plate without being asked. Find things to celebrate and reinforce. The more specific positive reinforcement you use, the more motivated your kids are. Kids want to please their parents. So catch them doing something right and then give them a big smile and a verbal high five. Chances are they will do it again. Let them feel noticed, appreciated, and valued. There’s no better way to shape behavior. 

“I always try and choose my words with care. I want to be remembered as a loving leader, not a critical boss.” — Single mom

If you are a critical parent, your kids will take your judgment to heart. Why? Because for the first six years of life, children have trouble sorting reality from imagination, truth from fiction. They rely on you to help them. Children’s brain waves are literally in a dreamlike state. This is a fascinating neuroscience fact. They don’t know the tooth fairy isn’t real or monsters don’t exist until you tell them. So if you are calling them naughty, selfish, or lazy, they’re probably going to believe you. These words are getting hardwired in when children can’t question whether they are true or false. And as children age, what you say about them still matters because they love and respect you. 

Children are listening to your words and also reading your body language. So when you are annoyed, they know. When you pile on the criticism and contempt, the message their developing self gets is: “Look how upset I make my parents, I really bother them.” Your eye rolls and negative input  will replay over and over.

Don’t beat yourself up; we all do this! No parent in the world is constantly patient and always chooses words with grace. But if we practice, good language becomes a habit, and our children internalize a loving voice.

The power of choosing your words mindfully can’t be overstated. Words can inspire or deflate, sooth or inflame. “Wait for the pause” increases the likelihood of the child being patient in the future. “Shut up” just leads to shut down.

(Excerpt from "Permission to Parent: How to Raise Your Child With Love and Limits" coming out from HarperCollins Wave on April 29, 2014)

About the Author

Robin Berman, M.D.
Robin Berman, M.D., is a psychiatrist and associate professor at UCLA.

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