Updated: Oct 17, 2018
Last summer I worked with a dad in my office who admitted to me that when he feels disappointed in his teenage son, he calls his kid names. When this kid falters, his dad humiliates him with “You’re such a baby.” Or sometimes the dad berates the kid with “You’re such a moron.” His son is still working on accountability, the act of taking responsibility for things when he should. Many adults have not mastered this skill. Every time the dad witnesses his kid shirk responsibility, the dad is incensed. Why? Probably because this deficit in his son is a painful reminder to the dad of some lapses in his parenting job. The moment we bear witness to one of our kid’s many lagging skills, we feel uncomfortable. We want to eliminate that discomfort so we often move to blaming, humiliating or name calling. This allows us to transfer the uncomfortable feelings to someone else, and it reestablishes us as flawless and in control.
When I remind parents that kindergartners or first graders are the ones who typically call each other names like “baby” or “stupid,” my clients usually laugh out of embarrassment. But it’s true. We tend to drop that silly behavior when we are little kids (if we ever picked it up in the first place), but then something in our own kids elicits this infantile response from us again, the adults who should know better. What’s going on?
Our kids act like mirrors for us. Without meaning to do so, they hold a mirror up to our parenting strengths and weaknesses. And sometimes we don’t like what we see. Unfortunately, instead of reflecting on what we can do better or why we are flailing in certain areas, some of us lash out at our kids by humiliating them or calling them names. When we engage in this impulsive behavior, we’re actually just stooping to their immature level. We are revealing our own inability to stay regulated in the face of an unregulated kid.
Consider their acting out behavior as a barometer or a gauge for how well they have mastered certain skills. When you see them make a poor choice, practice saying this to yourself, “Wow. My son is really acting his age right now. He’s so far from mastering the skill of _________ (fill in the blank with one of hundreds of choices). I guess this is yet another teachable moment.” Is it hard to access this kind of calm, restrained thinking? Yes. Remind yourself that while your child may be taller than you or wear the same shoe size as you already, his brain still resembles unsweetened, unripened fruit, far from maturation. Their outward appearance can trick us into believing they are as sophisticated as we are, but our kids’ brains are still developing and many synapses are still awaiting connections.
Maybe think of this as a slow crawl on the continuum away from humiliating and towards inspiring. How do we do this? Let go of the desire to rub your kid’s nose in his own shortcomings. Call the shortcoming what it is, instead, a skill that hasn’t solidified yet. It’s just lagging. That’s all. No need to ascribe a character flaw to the situation. The most consistent, two flaws I hear parents use in my office are “lazy” and “manipulative.” Instead, break the kid’s lagging skill down into teachable parts. Does this take time and patience? You bet. Does it build the relationship between you and your kid instead of rupturing it further with name calling? Yup. This is fixable, but it requires hard work. Just start by aiming to do this better one out of ten times. Will you still stumble and call your kid names like you’re a five year old on occasion, yes. But will you bring a new awareness to the moment? I think so.
What does it actually look like or sound like to inspire a kid, rather than to humiliate them?
Inspiring sounds like, “I saw you put your dishes in the dishwasher and wipe off the sticky counter yesterday after you ate your cereal. Thank you.” Specific, immediate praise to inspire a kid to repeat a positive behavior.
Inspiring looks like high fiving your son after he helps his sister carry in her lacrosse gear and heavy backpack. No words even need to be exchanged. Your high five says, “I saw you do the right thing and I’m proud of you.”
Inspiring sounds like, “I can see that your extra hours of practicing your serve are beginning to pay off, son.” His serve may still be quite weak and in need of many, many hours of work and repetition, but your comment tells him that you are beginning to see him turn the corner. That’s inspiring and it sounds very different than humiliating him for not having improved more after all the money you’ve spent on his private lessons.
Inspiring looks like shaking your head in disappointment and owning up to misplacing the keys to your car, yourself, rather than trying to blame another family member. Modeling accountability for one’s own mistakes is always inspiring.
Inspiring sounds like, “I forgot to get your mom a birthday gift on her birthday. That’s why she’s mad at me. I’m ordering her flowers right now.” Naming your mistakes and clearly stating how you plan to fix them is also inspiring.
Here’s the sobering truth: inspiring a kid is not immediately gratifying. It’s a subtle, relentless path that requires consistency. Its impact is gradual and often overlooked. You can’t measure the immediate result. Humiliating a kid is immediate and palpable. It feels good to a needy ego. You can see your kid’s face fall as the words hit him. You can watch his sense of self wither before your eyes. Know that each time that you choose to do this (and it is a choice), you chip away at the integrity and durability of your connection with your kid. Try to get into the habit of asking yourself before you speak to your kids, “Will this sentence build my connection with my child or will it rupture my connection a bit?” If the answer is the latter, you may want to hit pause and ask yourself if there’s a better, more constructive way to give this precious person your feedback.