I have heard the saying “children don’t come with instruction manuals” hundreds of times. The saying has always annoyed me; I don’t believe it.
Children do come with manuals. They are the manuals! In everything they say and do they are giving us instructions. The problem is that we don’t use the manuals they give us. We don’t understand their instructions, or we don’t take them seriously. But the instructions are there. Clear as day. If we read them.
An amazingly sensitive and insightful mama called me this week. She told me about her son in kindergarten who has started misbehaving. Rather than his usual happy and docile self, he has been angry and contrary. He has picked on his sister and has rebelled against his mother’s influence. None of the usual family systems are working for him. He seems to have become a rebel.
The natural response is to punish the child into submission. “You will not act that way in this family.” There is an enticing logic to such a response. We love to set limits and ladle out consequences. And we try to convince ourselves that they are necessary for children. Yet unwisely done, our usual punishments are like pouring gasoline on a fire. They make things worse. They make life more confusing and lonely for children without teaching them how to manage themselves. And they damage the relationship of trust that should exist between parent and child.
I don’t believe that the rebel boy was just letting his badness take over. I think he was trying to tell his mother something important.
So that sweet mom and I talked. I asked her what was different in her son’s life. What was he trying to tell her about his experience? Could kindergarten be upsetting to him? Could the addition of the baby to the family make him feel less noticed and appreciated? Had a friend moved away or turned against him?
Mom thought. “Actually his just-younger sister has recently become the star of the family. She has been cheerful and loving and may have crowded him out of his starring role in the family.” Mom thought some more. “And his dad uses too much sarcasm with him. I’m sure it feels like criticism and maybe even mocking to our son.”
There it is! Mom is reading her son’s manual! Using her natural compassion and great insight, she is getting vital instructions for helping him.
I suggested that she take one-on-ones with her son and ask him what he is loving about his life and what is bothering him. There is nothing quite like listening attentively and lovingly to learn what’s happening in a child’s life. She reported later that she spent a day with her dear boy and learned many things about his life, worries, and joys.
A great deal of misbehavior in normally-pleasant children is a plea for help. “I feel lost! I feel unimportant and worthless! Do I have a place in this world?” I suggested that her dear boy might need more mama time and more opportunities to work through his worries and burdens.
Will extra love teach him to misbehave in order to get extra attention? It can. But usually only when children think that is the only way to get some attention. When their misbehavior gets them needed help, they learn that their world is a safe place.
The child’s manual will also help a parent know when a child needs firm limits and appropriate consequences. I definitely don’t believe in smiling benignly while children destroy the world around them. But our actions should match their needs rather than our mood. Sometimes they need someone to clearly state that certain words and actions are not acceptable in our families. They often need teaching. There is a place for consequences. Yet, more than anything else, they will need parents to reassure them that we will help make the world a safe place for them.
Haim Ginott tells of a boy who visited his prospective kindergarten with his mother. As the teacher provided a tour, the boy gruffly asked, “Who made the ugly pictures on the wall?” Mom was embarrassed: “Those are lovely pictures.” But the teacher recognized what was written in that boy’s manual. He wondered if only children who were good artists would be appreciated in this classroom. The teacher wisely responded: “We are glad for all kinds of pictures in this class.” The boy was pleased.
Of course new chapters are always being added to each child’s instruction manual; we must keep reading carefully. And mastery of one child’s manual does not make us masters of another child’s; we must study each child as a unique creation.
It’s not true that children don’t come with instruction manuals. I hope we will all become fluent in reading the manuals we have been given: Our children, their moods, their words, and their actions.
Invitation: Do you have a child who is particularly hard to understand? Pay close attention. Can you find sensible, adaptive reasons why the child does what he/she does? How can you read that child’s manual?
Recommendation: John Gottman, the world’s leading relationship scholar, recommended Ginott’s Between Parent and Child in strong terms: “This is the most important book ever written on parenting and the emotional world of children. It is a must that every parent and teacher master the skills taught in these pages. Written by Dr. Haim Ginott, renowned child psychologist—and in my opinion, a true genius—Between Parent and Child goes far beyond telling us how to discipline and control our kids, and explains how to raise children who are not only well behaved, but are also emotionally strong, independent thinkers, and compassionate toward others. This newly revised edition is better than ever. Take my advice—buy this book! Read this book! You and your children will be forever grateful.”—Dr. John M. Gottman, author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child