My wife and I were standing in the cleaning supply aisle of a grocery store one lazy Saturday. The kids were all with Nana and Papa and were hopefully learning something new (I love the idea of a kid learning whilst they are with their Nana and Papa, as it creates such a cute image) and we had the day to ourselves. What better way to have a day date than grocery shopping, right?
We had been running errands all day and had been away from home for about 4 hours at this point. My wife realized we had left our dog for 4 hours and wanted to hurry home.
Even though it was the grocery store, I was having a blast with her and didn’t want the fun to end. I was lobbying to stay out longer. The conversation went a little like this.
Wife: “Oh my gosh! It’s been four hours since we’ve been home. Poor Steve is probably wondering where the heck we are. We can’t leave him home alone that long, honey!”
Me: “It isn’t that long, and besides, he is safe. I locked him in the laundry room before we left.”
Wife: “No. Way too long. We have to get home now. He’s probably starving!”
Me: “We’re fine. I put food and water in there before we left. He has a few toys in there too. He can keep himself busy and out of trouble until we get home.”
It was at this point that my wife’s attention is caught. She is looking at something behind me, so I whip around to see what it is. There standing only a few feet away is an older woman. She is staring at us with her hand to her mouth and a look of utter disbelief on her face.
Wife and I in unison: “Oh no no no! Steve is our dog. He is not our child.”
Yes, this poor woman heard an entire conversation about how we locked “Steve” in our laundry room for four hours but tossed some food, water and toys in there and then went out to have a day date on our own. It took a little explaining but we convinced her we were not the world’s worst parents.
That story got me thinking. Our family loves using human names for our pets, because we treat them like family. In fact, we afford them the same benefits, perks, and luxuries as our own kids. We even talk to our pets like we do our children, but here is the problem…
We also talk to our children like we do our pets. This got me thinking. If our conversation was misconstrued by a stranger because of the human name of our dog, and I am sure countless other situations have been misunderstood because of how we treat our dogs and kids, what does speaking to our children like we do our pets do to them?
I have commanded my sons to “sit”. I have jumped out of the car in the driveway before and barked “stay”. I’ve spoken to them in baby tones the same way I speak to my dog – “Come on wittle buddy, it’s time to go potty”. I have even praised and rewarded my kids in the same exact ways I did my dog – “Come on. You can do it. Atta boy. You got it. Almost there. Good boy! Such a good boy! Here’s your treat.” Lastly, I have definitely disciplined my children in similar fashion as I would a “bad dog” or “kitty”…well, I don’t think I got the spray bottle and squirted it at them when they jumped on the counters, but you get the point.
The language used, the phrases, the tone, the styling of sentences was seamless between my pets and my children. It seemed harmless.
It was so easy to fall into that patronizing, “owner-oriented” language. I was larger than them, I knew more than them, I was in charge of their safety and had an obligation to “train” them. Just as I was “in charge” of our pets, I was “in charge” of my children. It was not difficult to suddenly find myself speaking to them with similar language patterns, words, and tones.
As I dug more into the art of communicating with children and coaching/teaching efficacy factors I realized that this pattern was setting both my children and I up for some setbacks in the future. For my children, speaking to them in this “owner-pet” paradigm was allowing my children to be okay with being dominated by other leaders. Dominated in the sense that they felt they should always obey without question, were beholden to their leaders, and had no rights. No matter what was said or expected of them, they would have no opportunity to debate or negotiate. It is the owner’s way or no way. We know that some of the greatest learning and leading occurs in more democratic structures or Socratic methods where the learner has a voice, is encouraged to seek answers, and is given freedom to choose. My language patterns were shutting down that paradigm.
This also set them up to mentally structure learning and teaching moments as a carrot-stick environment. They do what is told or asked of them and get rewarded or choose not to and get punished. Just as we give our doggie treats/praise for being a “good boy”, constantly intoning in the same way to our children may also make them think that the learning/coaching environment is always a reward/punishment realm with no room for flexibility. They never learn to love learning and growing for its own sake or for an internal satisfaction. They only learn for a treat or fear of punishment. This kind of paradigm burns children out quickly, and is one of the factors in the 70% drop out rate for youth sports by age 14. Kids who are not empowered to play for their own reasons and internal “rewards” soon decide they no longer want to play.
I discovered that using the same “baby talk” tone and inflection with my children as I did my pets also belittled their intelligence and level of maturity. We, as adults, know it is patronizing when someone talks “down” to us and pats us on the head, yet how many times did I speak to my children in that way and pat them on the head for a job well done? It is my obligation to teach them a love of learning and to instill work ethic. It is my job to create resilience and self-confidence. It must be nearly impossible for a child to feel those when he is being patted on the head and spoken to like the house pet.
I was, in reality, restricting the learning environment by creating a communication pattern similar to the one used for pets. I was not allowing my children to problem-solve, to develop intrinsic motivation or internal drive, or to develop self-confidence. I was stealing their own magic because I was setting them up to always feel like underlings who needed to be “trained” than analytical, intelligent, powerful little people who could grow and learn in exponential leaps and who are masters of their own educational fate.
Unlike my pets, my children will some day face the world on their own. They will need to find their own motivation for completing jobs, for doing them well, for making their own decisions. They will need to learn to pick themselves up when they fall and show resilience even if there is no treat at the end of the task. If I continued to communicate with them in similar patterns as I did my pets, they would never learn all those valuable lessons. Like my pets, they would still be living with me, needing me to feed them, and pick up after them. I love my kids, but at some point I want them to fly from the nest with confidence and the skills to survive.
The fix for changing communication patterns with my children was relatively simple once I was able to identify all the situations where I tended to fall into the “owner-pet” paradigm:
- Use a more matter of fact tone. I tended to use a sing-song, “baby talk” tone with my children the same way I did my dog. “Who’s my wittle Cooper who can learn anything? Come on. There he is! Good, Cooper!” That was cute when he was a baby, but speaking to him in that way when he is 8 years old did him no good. Now I speak to him as I would a peer. Matter of fact, clear, direct, and with respect for his level of comprehension. If I treat him like he deserves to be my peer, he will embrace wanting to be my peer.
- Don’t clean up his messes. I used to follow my kids around cleaning their every mess and coddling them as I did the pet. One day I realized those little boogers have opposable thumbs and can clean up their own messes! If only I could teach the dog how to scoop her own…I digress. Constantly fixing my child’s mistakes does not teach him accountability, follow-through, and respect for other’s property. My kids were going to be “that” roommate if I didn’t start making them clean their own messes. (We had a roommate in college who never did dishes. We would pile them in a large box outside his room on Sundays). Now I pause to see if they do it themselves. If they don’t I provide gentle, but firm, reminders to do their share and take responsibility for their own mess. This goes for verbal messes too. Children need to fix the verbal wrongs instead of us always cleaning it up for them. A simple “how do you fix this?” goes a long for social skill development.
- Let them speak. When people ask me about my dog, I have to answer. She isn’t that fluent in Human yet. My children, on the other hand, do not need me to speak on their behalf. No matter how young they are, I want my kids to have a voice. They need to answer questions asked of them by adults. They need to be able to share what is on their mind. They can’t hide behind my leg their entire life. This also goes for asking questions, clarifying details, or owning up to mistakes with other adults. They are required to speak to their teachers, coaches, leaders instead of me doing it for them.
- Use full, coherent, and intelligent sentences. This sounds like a real “uh duh” bullet, but I have seen the videos of how I spoke to my children when they were 6 years old. At that age they were learning to read full sentences. They were learning grammar and vocabulary. I was hitting the reset button on everything they were learning when I was speaking to them like Tarzan all the time. I started using full sentences, forcing them to listen and to translate so they could become better ‘active listeners’ and develop information synthesis. I also used the same words I used with my adult peers. My wife and I are both word geeks. We love finding new ways to express ourselves and new words with which to do it. We realized, and the research shows, that a household with a lot of words, especially a varied vocabulary, is a positive environment for the child’s brain. They learn better self-expression, decoding, language patterns, and grow their vocabulary. The brain is pruning synapses during childhood. If it isn’t used, it is pruned. I figured the more words I used, the better chance I had at saving some of those pathways in the brain!
- Respect Them. We respect our children, but we may not always show it. We should speak to them as we would expect someone to speak to us. We should respect their intelligence and maturity. We should respect their ability to listen, carry out tasks, and respond intelligently. If we speak to them in patterns like we would a friend or colleague we are not only showing that respect, we are demanding they be intelligent listeners who respect others. Ever know someone who speaks terribly to their children and then gets upset when she hears her children disrespect her or other adults? Wonder why…
- Lose the praise. Ding. Ding. Redundancy alert! I think praise comes up in every article I write, but in this case it is worth repeating. When I stopped patting my children on the head and saying “good boy”, I started getting more effort-based responses and also saw more self-confidence in my children. They stopped learning things and accomplishing tasks based on something I would do for them and more for the sheer desire to do it. My son – this happened just this morning – says “I have straight A’s, dad, because I wanted them. Isn’t that cool”. It took all I had not to say “Good boy”. I told him he should be proud of himself.
Try these methods for speaking to your children slightly differently than you would your dog and see if it helps develop a different mindset and interactions with them. I can’t guarantee they’ll suddenly start eating with utensils or stop howling at sirens…I am just a coach, not a miracle worker.