Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dr. No--aka "Could you please move your hands away from Jimmy's nose now? It's bleeding."

When my son was in early elementary school, he went through a pretty typical phase of thinking that he should never have to do anything that he didn't like.  I remember riding in the car with him one day as he was grousing about having to do something, and Sheryl Crow's tune "If It Makes You Happy" was playing on the radio.  To this day I still affectionately think of that song as belonging to him at that time, because of the lyrics:  If it makes you happy/ It can't be that bad/If it makes you happy/ Then why the hell are you so sad?  My son, like an amazingly large number of people, could never move past the first line and get to the second.  Everything should make me happy, and if it does, it's good, right?

We have become a nation held hostage to our own children.  Over and over I see parents, grandparents, teachers, and other adults who are afraid to utter one word to children:  NO.  The word "no" has taken on evil connotation in our society; we have somehow come to believe that telling a child no squelches self-esteem, creativity, intelligence, curiosity, and a whole host of other traits that are good and desirable.  Even my daughter weighed in on this the other day as she told me with all of her eleven-year old confidence, "Did you know by the time a child is twenty-five years old she has heard the word 'no' more than any other word?"  My response to her?  "Really?  It takes twenty-five years for that to happen?"

Much of this fear of limit-setting and the word no, in my opinion, is an unintended result of a very popular parenting approach from the nineties known as Positive Discipline.  Jane Nelson, Ph.D., wrote several wonderful books about her approach, extolling the virtues of respecting your child and using more positive approaches to disciplining children.  Basically, the approach calls for adults to use more positive phrasing with children, encourage them more, listen to them more, give them age-appropriate choices to help them learn how to make good ones.  All good, right?  And it is, until the public at large got hold of it without a comprehensive understanding of what Dr. Nelson was talking about.  You know how they say that you can have just enough information to make you dangerous?  Well, yeah.  Case in point.  

Dr. Nelson's approach somehow morphed from "use positive phrasing" and "listen to your children" to "never tell your child no"; "give your child lots of choices" became "give your child all the choices".  Positive phrasing can be a very powerful tool in parenting and teaching, in my opinion.  Telling a child what you WANT him to do instead of what you don't keeps the focus on a positive outcome and is a good, direct teaching tool.  Too many parents tend to tell their children, "Don't do that!" without explaining what they want to see instead.  In offering children age-appropriate choices, kids get experience making choices before the consequences become too dire.  Have you ever seen a kid get to college who's been either completely controlled or never controlled?  It's not pretty.  But nowhere in her books does Dr. Nelson ever say, direct or implied, that setting limits with children is a bad thing.  In fact, it's something she thinks is critically important--it's her strategy in how to set those limits that was considered extraordinary.  If you're interested in reading her book Positive Discipline, you can check it out at your local bookstore or library--it's a good, easy read.

One of my colleagues and I were talking once about our experiences in our teacher training programs.  She had been told, as a student during her classroom laboratory time, that she was not allowed to say "no" to a child.  Ever.  I remember in my laboratory time, I was highly encouraged to utilize behavioral techniques that today I find to be manipulative of children in a misguided effort to avoid any kind of negativity in the classroom environment  (I'll talk more about this in tomorrow's blog--rewards and punishment).  Neither of us was taught how to set appropriate limits with children because limit-setting sometimes involves telling children "no".  My colleague expressed how frustrated she often felt, and how little respect she had for her lab instructors, because of their inability or unwillingness to stop the insanity.  I remember myself having an uneasy feeling that somehow I was disrespecting the children I was working with, and twelve years later I still feel the same way.

I've worked with kids for twenty-three years, and here's what I know.  No child has ever suffered horribly at the hands of a caring adult telling him or her "No, you can't do that, and here's why."  In fact, for many children, a direct answer of "no" is extremely helpful.  Often, adults make the mistake of trying to reason with young children, who are incapable of processing large amounts of information at once.  Kids need to know if something is or isn't okay and why.  They need to know what you want them to do.  If you give them that information in a simple format and show them what it looks like, most problems dissipate on their own.

I'm not saying it's a great idea to run around after your child yelling "No!" every time she touches something you don't want her to touch.  Certainly, "no" can be reserved for more serious situations.  I tend to rely on, "Oh, we can't do that because..." and explain the reason why in a few words, as well as what we can do instead.  But I'm not afraid to tell kids they can't do something that's dangerous, disrespectful, or just plain ridiculous.  They have limited life experience here and are relying on us as adults to guide them.  If we aren't willing to step up and do it, who will?

The answer is that eventually some other kid will, but that's another post.

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