Parenting Thoughts: Watch your “BUT...”

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A dad recently told me, “I’m trying that ‘understanding before limits or correction’ thing, but it just isn’t working. It only seems to make my daughter madder.”

When I asked him to tell me what was happening, he shared an example.

When his daughter wanted a cookie, he told her “You want a cookie, but you can’t have one.”

He applied the principle that when you’re about to correct or limit children (or adults!), it’s helpful to first convey understanding their needs and desires. Conveying that you understand someone else's perspectives helps them feel supported so that they are more ready to receive the next part of your message.

Starting out with a command or correction makes children (or adults!) feel attacked, so they’ll respond defensively with protest or argument rather than listening to what you have to say next.

Starting out with a statement of understanding helps children (I’m not going to say it but you know who else) feel that you’re an ally, so they can stay relaxed and open to your next comments.

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I could see where this dad had gone wrong. He started out great with, “You want a cookie” but before his daughter had even had a chance to process being understood, he took the sympathy away with “but you can’t have one.”

Rather than sounding understanding, it almost felt like teasing or rubbing it in.

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Instead of using the word “but”, which negates what came before, he could have used “and”, “even though”, or just a nod.

“And” conveys that both things are true. She really wants a cookie, and she can’t have one. Both are facts, and the second doesn’t minimize the importance of the first. She really wants a cookie even though she knows the rule is cookies come after dinner. This conveys that you have faith in her grasp of the situation while feeling sympathetic to her frustration.

The same communication is helpful in a variety of situations.

“You really need that truck, and I can’t let you grab it.” “You really want a turn on the swing, even though you know it’s not available.” If it’s appropriate, you can include information about what went into setting the limit. “You don’t like washing your hands, and at school, we wash them to wash off our home germs and home allergens to keep other people safe.” “You really want to throw sand, and our rule is sand stays low so it won’t hurt people’s eyes.”

After you’ve offered to understand and break the bad news, you can continue to convey support and understanding as your child (or you know who) processes the disappointment. You can repeat the statement of understanding and let your tone convey your sincerity: “You really wanted a cookie.” It’s not necessary to repeat the limit. The child knows the limit and it would only be frustrating to hear it again.

You can convey even more understanding by sharing your own experience, or “wishing” things were different. “I hate when that happens! The other day I really wanted coffee, and I didn’t have time to stop, and I had to wait. It was hard!” “Know what I wish? I wish cookies were healthy food, and kids could eat cookies for breakfast, cookies for lunch, cookies for snack, and cookies for dinner!”

So make sure, when you’re trying to convey understanding to help your child accept a disappointment, limit, or correction, that you don’t take away the message of understanding with a “but” when you can add information with an “and.”

Try this technique and let us know how you go! 

By Justine Saffir

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