I Must Mean What I Say
Thoughts & Reflections
We talk a lot. We say a lot of words, some of them empty and some of them dramatic, some of them casual and some of them heartrending.
As adults, we’ve learned to hear the difference. The sarcasm and the pain, the glee and the anticipation. We know those sayings and euphemisms, what I really mean when I say, “there’s a chair with your name on it.”
A child doesn’t know yet. They’re still figuring out what I’m saying, what those words mean and what they indicate, and navigating the nuances of emotion or sarcasm or joking adds another layer, which is just too much.
I must be clear. I must say what I mean, precisely and clearly. I must mean what I say, and my actions must enforce my words.
When I say, it’s time to go. When I say, I’ll be ready in five minutes. When I say, last book before bed.
Carefully, kindly, with love, I will do what I say.
Let’s take a common scenario — running off.
It’s a really wonderful thing, for a child never to have felt fear, to feel safe and secure and loved and protected. But is there any pain as blinding, any fear as heart-stopping, as a child running off? Maybe they don’t feel fear because we feel all of it — we have the ability to see how their behavior could cascade into something truly catastrophic, gleefully running off becoming running into a busy street.
We don’t want them to learn this lesson. We don’t want them to be afraid. We want them to cooperate, because don’t you know I’m trying to protect you?! No wonder we have grey hair.
It’s not unusual for a child to find mischievous joy in running off, and what’s the natural response? We chase. Chasing sometimes happens when we’re having fun, and it can be hard for a child to identify if we’re playing or if you’re mad. Sometimes we respond with frustration because it’s been a long day and we simply don’t have the energy to chase, or because we see a car coming and that anger is so close to fear for a child’s safety, or because it’s just the ten-thousandth time and it’s the proverbial straw and we’re the camel. It doesn’t ever come because we hate joy.
Sometimes, we cause the exact situation we’re trying to avoid.
We get tense because we’re worried about a child’s actions and our reactions to them. We say something like, “Now, don’t run off today, okay?”
And like clockwork, they run off, and we feel frustrated. No one feels good about this situation. We knew it was going to happen, and it did. How do we break this cycle?
Sometimes it is just that — a cycle. It’s a triggered reaction, you pick me up I run away, as natural as gravity or thunder and lightning. Sometimes it’s the tension and the worry. A self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m anxious about my child running off, they sense the tension and are energized, and running is a natural response. Sometimes it’s the specific words we choose, or how we phrase them.
What’s the goal here? In this specific situation, it’s to keep a child from running away. Broad strokes, it’s keeping a child safe, and part of that is psychological safety, knowing that I’m the adult and I’m in charge, don’t worry, I’ve got you.
So how do we support this goal? It’s a good one, keeping a child safe. It’s The Goal.
We don’t grumble to ourselves and let worry take charge. We notice the pattern and make a plan of how to change this pattern. We check our words.
We try different language. “I know you prefer to walk rather than being carried to the car. I want that, too. We’re going to walk holding hands because I want you to be safe.”
We stay the course. Breathe, perhaps ask for help, taking a lunchbox out to the car first so a child who isn’t thrilled with this new idea of walking can be carried if need be.
We set the conditions for success. “We’re going to practice walking together, and I know I can trust you to stay by me.” If, or perhaps more appropriately when, a child tests the limits, wondering, “Do you always mean what you say?” we are clear and consistent, firm and loving. After all, in this situation, the goal is safety! Though it is a bit unpleasant to carry a tearful child to the car, safety is worth it, and this is one of those times when we’re Following the Child, they’re showing us precisely what they need, which is more support, more external discipline, less freedom.
Of course, it’s natural for us to feel guilt. We’re biologically hard-wired to respond to a child. Our words are value-neutral to a child. I mean what I say when I say, last book before bed, or when I say, I love you and I’ll always keep you safe, or when I say I’m going to carry you to the car. Following-through is an act of love.
Written by:Charlotte Wood