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Emotional Honesty

June 01, 2012

There's one often-effective consequence most parents overlook: emotional honesty.

Consider 10-year-old Jason at the dinner table, fussing and complaining about what's being served. "I hate your dinners," he blurts out to his father, who prepared tonight's meal. "You're a terrible cook!" His feelings hurt, Dad sends Jason to his room — the consequence Dad hopes will teach Jason a lesson.

Consider 15-year-old Ellen, whose mother offers advice about some friendship trouble Ellen is having. Upset, and frustrated with suggestions that she thinks ridiculous, Ellen blurts out, "You're really stupid! I hope I'm never a dumb parent like you!" Mother considers withholding from Ellen key privileges as a consequence for Ellen's tart tongue.

Chances are, in both examples, the parents' feelings were hurt by their children's unkind words. Yet it never occurs to them to say, right at the moment or even later on, "What you said to me was hurtful. It very much hurt my feelings."

Maybe because we shy away from being vulnerable with anyone — spouse, friends, co-workers — that we avoid exposing hurt feelings to our children as well. Many of us think it's not good parenting to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our kids — to let them see that they have the power to hurt us. But they do have that power. Anyone we care about has that power, and to always pretend otherwise does our children a disservice.

It surprises parents to discover that our kids typically feel a sting of guilt when they hear that they've caused us hurt. And it's precisely that sting — the unpleasant guilt — that serves as the consequence, the pinch that will get them thinking about right and wrong behavior. If our children have learned how to make amends, they will want to offer an apology — as they should. (If we say "ouch, that hurts my feelings" and our kids revert to inadequate excuses or point a finger of blame at us, they're simply avoiding what they don't want to hear — the fact that they've injured us — or they don't yet believe that what we're saying is true. So say "ouch" again and then be silent, letting the message sink in. For as long as it takes, stay with your message and don't let them sidestep their inevitable guilt.)

Our emotional honesty with children can be its own effective consequence. All it takes is a willingness to be vulnerable with them — and say "ouch."