Have your kids ever said something so unexpectedly mean that it made you recoil with horror?
When our second daughter, Claire, was born, it was immediately clear that Sarah, our first born, was not a fan.
She put on a good show initially – at least as a good a show as you can when you’re 2-1/2 and your world has been turned upside down. She claimed to love the baby; she would pat Claire’s head, try to feed her Cheerios and read her board books in a high-pitched, sing-songy voice.
Soon these charitable acts were interspersed with minor acts of terrorism. Pinching. Yelling. Failed attempts to tip over Claire in her baby bouncer.
I couldn’t leave the two of them alone in a room. All of my pleas to Sarah to love her sister fell on deaf ears. I envisioned a future where my home looked more like a war zone filled with mean kids than the peaceful, compassionate haven of my dreams.
The low moment came one day when Claire was napping.
Sarah was keeping me company in the kitchen while I cleaned up from lunch. As I wiped down the highchair tray, Sarah wrinkled her nose and suggested that the baby was way too messy. In the broken English employed by three-year-olds, she confided in me that the solution was to take that baby, dump her in the garbage and watch her “head crack open like an egg.”
This was the solution my three-year-old offered me to put an end to messy highchair trays, forever!
I don’t think I can fully capture the horror of the moment.
How could my sweet little angel say such a thing?
How could she be – I could barely summon the word – so MEAN?
The Words that Make Us Recoil in Horror
Have you been there? It takes you completely by surprise doesn’t it?
From the ubiquitous “I hate you, mama” to “I don’t like her skin, it’s so brown,” there are the words that pour out of our kids’ beautiful mouths, turn our stomachs and rip our hearts right out of our chest.
If you’re a reader of A Fine Parent, then you’re a caring person. I know that, without ever having met you. You want to be the best possible parent you can. You want to raise kind and compassionate kids in this narcissistic, self-absorbed world.
So when we hear this kind of language from our kids, when our little angels behave like such mean kids, we can’t help but feel deeply shaken up. We’re convinced we’ve failed.
And our instinctive response is to strike right back, to scold and punish, to make sure we never hear that kind of talk from them again.
But that’s absolutely the worst thing to do. Because it’s at moments like these that our kids need us to be at our best, at our kindest and most loving.
These are the moments when our kids need us the most.
Setting aside our inner shame (because we are ashamed, aren’t we?) and finding a way to show loving-kindness to our kids at their worst is one of the best methods I know for rearing caring, compassionate adults.
Because it’s at these ugly moments that we must remember a vital life lesson: It’s not about us. It’s about them. And how we help them recover their sense of innate goodness.
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Love Gets the Message Across
So here we are, back in my kitchen years ago, where I held a damp washcloth in my hand and gaped in bewilderment at my daughter.
Now that she’d turned my world upside down, Sarah waited for my response.
As I looked down at her and saw her little brow furrow with concern and her eyelids tremble with tears, even as she chuckled anxiously at her “joke,” I had a breakthrough.
I realized she had just confessed her very deepest, darkest secret to me: she wanted Claire to go away because she was no longer confident of her own place in the family.
And who could blame her? From Sarah’s perspective, I was giving all my love and attention to the baby. Overnight my expectations of her had changed. (After all, she was the big kid now!) I was short-tempered and sharp of voice where once I had been patience itself.
And as I remembered all the times I had felt unloved and unwanted myself, my heart broke, just a little.
I finally knew what to do.
I sat down on the floor and pulled Sarah into my lap. I kissed her cheek and smoothed her hair; I said gently, “So you want to put the baby in the garbage and watch her head crack open like an egg.”
Yes, Sarah confirmed. That was exactly right. Then she relaxed against my chest and asked if I would read her a book.
For a moment I’d walked in the tiny shoes of my beloved first born and realized how much of her acting out came from a place of pain and confusion.
I began spending more time with Sarah when Claire took naps or when her dad came home in the evening. I stopped telling her how she was supposed to feel and eventually love grew in Sarah’s little heart all on its own. Being compassionate toward this itty-bitty person — who occupied such major real estate in my heart – definitely moved the process along.
It was only a few months later that I started to find Sarah in Claire’s crib in the morning, the two nestled in a heap like puppies, and felt joy like no other instead of terror. As the years passed I’d listen to them giggle after bedtime in the room they shared, chattering in a language that I barely understood but was perfectly clear to them. They walked to school together, defended each other during dustups at recess, toiled through homework side-by-side at the kitchen table.
No, they don’t always get along. But they do know how to love each other.
5 Preventative Tips to Ensure You are Not Raising Mean Kids
1. Unconditional love is the greatest teacher
Be sure your child feels loved and accepted — it’s the best way for them to learn how to show kindness and compassion to others.
Sounds easy? Good grief; no. It’s the most difficult challenge every parent has to face.
Being attentive to their cues makes your love feel concrete and gives them the emotional elbowroom they need to flourish. I could not have raised our daughters without these books piled up on my nightstand. No kidding.
Best of all, the author is also exceedingly compassionate towards parents. Dr. Chapman pretty much raised me too.
- The 5 Love Languages of Children
- The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers
- The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts(for adults in a relationship)
Sometimes giving that lavish love is hard, if there’s a temperamental difference between you and your child or your child just has a more complex, intense personality (e.g., highly sensitive, given a diagnosis of ADHD or appears to thrive on being contrary). If that is the case, check out some of these books as well.
2. Walk the walk and talk the talk
Kids are like sponges; they soak up what’s around them, without a filter, and that means they’re getting the bad as well as the good. So what are you modeling, exactly? What’s coming out of your mouth, and are you happy about it?
The gold standard for respectful conversation between children and parents is Faber and Mazlish’s How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk
But a lesser-known series is also indispensible for learning to talk in ways that brings people together instead of drawing lines in the sand.
- Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High
- Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
3. Protect your children from burnout and desensitization
One of the most unexpected lessons about raising nice kids is that self-care is an important component. Think about how we feel when we’ve been stretched to the limit. It’s pretty easy to snap, isn’t it? Kids are no different.
Part of that is giving your children a safe place to grow up, a refuge from all the nastiness that’s rampant in our larger culture.
Let your kids be kids.
Allow them to grow into compassion and kindness at a developmentally appropriate rate. Protect them from as much ugliness as possible.
Start with small steps; there’s no way they can process global disease and poverty without being scared or traumatized. Have them practice by loving you, Grandma and the gray tabby cat next door.
An important factor to avoid burnout while they learn to be compassionate is to understand the difference between empathy and compassion. I liked this article from the Greater Good that lays out the difference so much that I’ve dropped the “e” word from my vocabulary entirely:
When we witness suffering and distress in others, our natural tendency to empathize can bring us vicarious pain. Is there a better way of approaching distress in other people? A recent study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, suggests that we can better cope with others’ negative emotions by strengthening our own compassion skills, which the researchers define as “feeling concern for another’s suffering and desiring to enhance that individual’s welfare.”
Compassion allows you to care for the wellbeing of others without forsaking your own mental well being in the process, which is critical to avoid desensitization.
4. Get a pet
Before you panic, I don’t mean taking on a responsibility that feels overwhelming to YOU. I’m someone who, in the words of my doctor, is allergic to “all living things.” So we relied on small birds and dozens of adorable rodents (mice, gerbils, hamsters, etc.) whose dander could be contained in a cage, much to the gratitude of my lungs and sinuses.
But even these tiny family members gave our daughters valuable experience in tending for other living beings — especially learning patience in light of the demands of critters that don’t necessarily express much gratitude in return. We have a veritable pet cemetery in our backyard, and genuine tears were shed at the service performed over each shoebox. (This article from Parents talks about the other benefits of pets beyond growing soft hearts.)
5. Be very selective about media
This is really dangerous territory, I think. Even shows and movies advertised as “kid-friendly” can offer pretty shocking models for behavior. We had to ban the seemingly innocuous TV sitcom “Full House” because the girls began to call each other names, inspired by the way the Tanner girls talked. There was no laugh track at our house when the word “stupid” was thrown around with way too much abandon.
You’ll also want to be cautious about what you watch and listen to while your children are within earshot. And the evening news isn’t good for anyone, frankly, given how it typically distorts actual events in favor of the sensational and the salacious.
There are several sites available to help you make thoughtful choices about family movies:
The Movie Mom (aka Nell Minow) also has a fabulous book by the same name that I highly recommend. My copy is full of dog-eared pages and copious notes; you’d have to pry it out of my fingers before I ever gave it up. It’s a great resource on classic movies that should be part of every childhood and helps kids become discerning consumers of media at the same time.
- Common Sense Media also rates apps and games in addition to movies.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
This is an eye-opening topic for many of us, because coming to grips with how we talk and behave can be devastating. It’s tough to look at yourself in the mirror and figure out those moments when you weren’t even in the same room as nice. You were just plain mean.
You can’t do a total overhaul right now, but you can pinpoint some small changes to implement immediately.
Do a debriefing on what compassion looks like in your family. What do you think you’re doing right? What could you do better? And what would you like to change?
If you’re struggling to see where you are in this journey, try to paint a word picture. What do you think compassion looks like? Feels like? What’s easiest for you to do to be compassionate? Hardest? Where do you need support? What do you want to start doing right now? What do you want to stop doing?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Make a pact to be intentional about how you model compassion for your children and what you expose them to along the way. If your family had a mission statement, what would it be? And how will your decision-making process (purchases, events, etc.) support that desire to be a family that puts compassion first? A united front is important, as is a spirit of forgiveness and flexibility.
Mistakes will be made; that’s a guarantee. Compassionate people know to dust themselves off and try again.