Fifty-four years ago, my older sister Becky attended her first day of Kindergarten. At the end of the day, my mother picked her up and started a critical conversation. While she was driving, she asked some questions:
“How was your day?”
“How was your teacher?”
“She is so nice! She is funny too!”
“Did you make any friends?”
“Yes. Linda and Susie are really fun.”
“Did anything interesting happen?”
“Well...Billy Compton pushed me down in the playground.”
Stopping the car, my mom turned to my sister and responded, “He did what?!? I cannot believe that. You poor thing! Are you okay? Did you tell the teacher? I wonder if I should talk to his mom.”
The next day, Mother picked Becky up again. This time, Mother did not even need to ask any questions.
“Mom, you won’t believe what Billy Compton did today! He called me names and pulled my hair!” She then waited for my mother’s reaction.
In that moment, she did something that I personally find extraordinary. She turned to Becky and said, “Oh that Billy Compton is just a silly boy.” Smiling wide and giving her undivided attention, she then added, “Tell me about your teacher. You said she is nice and funny. That sounds like a perfect teacher. You are so lucky. Tell me what makes her nice.”
My sister was a little surprised at first, but she quickly redirected her attention to the topic of her new favorite teacher. After five minutes of excited explanation, Mother shifted to a new topic, “Did you have fun with Linda and Susie today? Tell me everything that you did together.”
For 15 minutes, Mom interviewed Becky about the positive aspects of her day.
She shared this story with me when my wife and I had our first children. She then added an explanation.
“When I reacted so strongly to the story about Billy, I was telling Becky what stories mattered to me. Those stories would become the definition of her experience at school. I glossed over the good aspects of her day and honed onto the 15 seconds that were unpleasant. By the next day, she could not wait to regale me with new tales of Billy. If I wanted her to see kindergarten as positive, I needed to help direct her attention to the positive aspects.”
“But did you worry that she would think you did not care about her troubles? Isn’t it important for your child to know that you are 'there for her’?”
“Of course I was there for her, but I do not have to prove that every moment of every day. By diminishing the importance of Billy, I was helping make Becky stronger. If Billy had been truly cruel, she would not have been so easy to redirect to positive topics. “
She then shared a story from a playground many years before. Two mothers were there with 2-year-old toddlers. While playing, both toddlers fell and scraped their knees within five minutes of each other. The first mom responded nonchalantly to the injury, “You’re all right. Look, your friends are waving at you. Go play with them.” The little girl skipped off and forgot the scrape.
The second mom leapt to her feet and rushed to her child. In an excited voice, she gasped, “Sweetheart! Are you okay? Look, you are bleeding! Come to Mommy!” At this point, the little boy began to cry.
It is worth noting that the first injury was slightly worse than the second, yet the second child ended up in tears. In each case, the child was reacting to the mother’s emotional signaling. Parents are emotional barometers to their children. Children learn much of their reactions from the leads that parents provide. Of course, if the first child had been truly injured, she would not remember her mom saying “You’re all right,” and the mom would have quickly realized her mistake and helped the daughter.
For over two decades, I have worked with children and their parents and have noticed a clear trend in parent-child interactions. Parents deeply want to be available to their children. They worry that their children might not feel listened to or supported. Empathy and support are important parental skills, but so is emotional leadership. In the example of Becky and Billy, my mother first signaled that Becky should be sad and indignant about Billy’s treatment. As a result, she saw school as a negative experience. On day two, the topics became positive and Billy diminished in importance. Suddenly, school was something she enjoyed. The environment did not change, but her experience of it did.
I call the former “interviewing for pain” and the latter “interviewing for power.”
My suggestion to parents is to have faith that their children are more resilient than they might fear. Once they develop faith in a child’s ability to bounce back, they can commit the time to modeling emotional strength and optimism. Children raised by parents who take this approach are noticeably more content, flexible and confident than those that are constantly interviewed for pain.
Interviewing for power sends a subtle but undeniable message, “You are capable and I believe in you. I am here to hear about your inevitable successes.” Of course, if something truly difficult or threatening happens, a parent should not ignore it. But truly challenging situations are actually quite rare. Also, children appreciate the assumption that they are capable. It builds trust and love. When the truly tough times come, they will share the truth with their parents.
But in the meantime, believe in your children and interview for power.