Telling Kids What to Do

Are parents afraid to teach their young kids values and proper behavior in a clear, unambiguous manner?

In “The Wrong Way to Speak to Children” (WSJ), Jennifer Lehr suggests that the way most of us address our young children is, for lack of a better word, wrong. Her theory is that most of our conversation is about control – “We use it to tell our kids what we want them say (“Say sorry!”); how we want them to feel (“You’re okay!”); what we want them to do (Behave yourself!”); and what will happen if they don’t (“Do you want a timeout?”) – and compliance.

Just as an aside, she seems to allege that most of speak with a lot of vehemence and emotion; hence her constant use of exclamation marks!!

She then cites what was in her mind a painful story that led to her epiphany in parenting theory – and, of course, a new book.

It was at the end of a play date and she asked her for-year-old daughter, Jules, to thank the other mom for having her over. After a little prodding and encouragement Jules mumbled a thank you. I’m sure we are all familiar with such a situation and response. What is new is Ms Lehr’s reaction: “My heart sank. My sparkling daughter seemed so kowtowed. It was like I was a ventriloquist and Jules, my dummy.” (I don’t mean to seem judgmental but the author seems prone to extreme emotional reactions to fairly mild situations!)

If Jennifer Lehr was dealing with teenagers then I would probably agree with her that control and compliance are not the best strategies or goals.

But she’s talking about four year olds. Four year olds are not just short adults. They’re children! (My turn to use exclamation marks!) They aren’t mature enough to deduce solely from our behavior how to act. And they aren’t disciplined enough or motivated enough to act on this information even if they have superior powers of deduction. Four year olds need their parents to tell them what to do and when to do it. And to ensure that they follow through.

This is the job of parents of four year olds, a job we can’t abdicate despite Ms. Lehr’s innovative theory and writings. I confess that I don’t really understand why Ms. Lehr’s “sparkling daughter seemed so kowtowed” by the simple request to say thank you. It doesn’t seem that onerous or demanding. Is Ms. Lehr just seeing what she wants to see? Is she projecting? Is she making a mountain out of a molehill?

Hard to say but even if the author is correct and her daughter was subdued by the admonition to express gratitude, so what? Maybe she didn’t like being told what to do. Maybe she was resentful. Maybe she didn’t want to do it. But expressing gratitude and appreciation is a basic positive character trait that parents need to instill in their children, whether they resist it or not, whether they sparkle with excitement at the discovery or not.

It is our responsibility to teach the lesson of gratitude in a clear and unambiguous way. A four year old may not be thrilled in the moment but she’s being shaped into a polite, appreciative adult. Parents need to look to the future and not get too caught up in a child’s fleeting reaction.

Ms. Lehr rails against the idea of this “parentspeak” but none of us would probably be who we are today without it. And I venture to say that the world would be full of a lot more spoiled brats.

I think the world needs a lot more expressions of gratitude, not less, from people of all ages – even if it’s not always expressed with superlatives and enthusiasm.

About the Author: Emuna Braverman

Please check out Emuna’s new book A Diamond for Your Daughter – A Parent’s Guide to Navigating Shidduchim Effectively, available through Judaica Press

Emuna Braverman has a law degree from the University of Toronto and a Masters in in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy from Pepperdine University. She lives with her husband and nine children in Los Angeles where they both work for Aish HaTorah. When she isn”t writing for the Internet or taking care of her family, Emuna teaches classes on Judaism, organizes gourmet kosher cooking groups and hosts many Shabbos guests.

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