Few parents are emotionally honest with kids when they speak unkindly. “You’re such a miserable mother,” snaps a teenage daughter, and we sharply retort with “Don’t talk to me that way!” Or a pre-school age son shouts, “You’re stupid!” and we say, “What did I tell you about language like that?” The story we tell ourselves may be that our son is overtired from a very long day, or our daughter is stressed out with too much homework. Essentially, we give their misbehavior a pass.
Rarely do we pause long enough to let ourselves feel our emotions in the face of our children’s put-downs. If we did, we’d notice hurt or upset or disappointment. Maybe we’d say, “That hurts my feelings.” (See Emotional Honesty).
Moments like these are rich opportunities to teach kids that their words have the power to injure, and that injuries require repair. Here’s one way to teach this lesson:
Mother: I asked you twice to put away your iPad and go to sleep.
Daughter, age 13: I said I would! Stop bothering me, you’re such a miserable mother.
Mother: (pauses to take a breath and steady herself) That really hurts my feelings.
Daughter: (silently shrugs and turns away while mother glares at her daughter, hoping for some response, then exits when she gets none).
Daughter: Mom, can you give me a ride later to the crafts store. I need some stuff for my science project.
Mother: Ordinarily, I’d be happy to give you a ride, but I’m not in a generous mood toward you. I’m still feeling hurt from how you spoke to me last night. When you hurt me like that, it’s a kind of injury. And you’ve made no effort to repair the injury.
Daughter: (stares at mother with annoyance).
Mother: An apology might help.
Daughter: I’m sorry I called you a miserable mother.
Mother: I accept your apology, thank you.
If the apology sounds sincere, it makes sense to accept it. If it seems less than sincere, we might gently say: That doesn’t sound like you mean it. Maybe you can try again later after you’ve had some time to think about how you spoke to me.
Repair works both ways. We need to repair the injuries we’ve caused our children just as much as they need to repair the injuries they caused us.1 Knowing how to repair is a skill that lasts a lifetime.
1 When We Apologize. February 2013 Family Tip of the Month.