A student once asked me what my favorite part of the school day was. With no hesitation, I answered, “Recess, of course!” The boy chuckled. “That’s just because rebbe likes to play soccer, right?” At this point his smile was ear-to-ear and his face was beaming with delight. I didn’t answer him immediately, but rather smiled, as if to say, “I am cherishing this moment of joking around with you.” His face shone brighter as he noticed my smile. I grabbed his little chin and said, “My favorite part of the day is recess because of the spectacular smile on your face right now! Now get out of here and go run around with your friends!” At this point his shining face broke out into full-on laughter of happiness - a laughter that only children seem to possess.
This child does not have an easy life. He is the problem-child in his house. The one that sucks the energy out of every adult in his life - parent and teacher alike. He’s also brilliant, adorable, funny, quick-witted, and tries so very hard not to get in trouble, though sometimes he makes you wonder if he’s trying at all.
Unfortunately, these traits are commonly mispronounced. Instead of “brilliant,” we pronounce it “know-it-all.” Instead of adorable, we say babyish. Funny becomes disrespectful, quick-witted turns into chutzpah, and rather than notice his effort, we complain, “Why can’t you follow the rules like everybody else?!”
Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and political philosopher, argues that it is our job as parents to try, to the best of our ability, to train our children to be “socialized by age 4.” We must teach them not to bite, not to hit, not to talk back to adults, and an array of other behavioral don’ts to make their presence pleasant to those around them. He argues that this is of utmost importance to ensure that our children aren’t plagued by nasty, unapproving looks from adults and peers as they walk about their lives.
Agree or disagree with Professor Peterson’s opinion, his concern is one we should all share. As children navigate the anxieties, stresses, transitions, and agonies of life, they often do so alone. We may believe they have our support, but do they? Do they really have our fanhood, unconditional love, and positive valuation? Sometimes it takes a hard look in the mirror to notice the ratio of positive to negative energy that our children receive at home or in our classrooms.
It’s easy to rationalize. They truly are difficult, infuriating, and incessant. They don’t know when to stop, how to take no for an answer, or what it means to be quiet. They disturb the class, bother their siblings, and disrupt the peace. They ruin day trips, spoil family pictures, and commandeer the majority of our energy.
Nevertheless, we must not make the mistake of blaming the child. The child should never be seen as the problem. He is struggling, calling for help, and doesn’t know how to ask vulnerably. He doesn’t yet know how to express his shrinking self-esteem, negative self-view, and hopelessness for the future. Even as adults we struggle with this. Couple after couple enter my office presenting with the same problem. He doesn’t feel she thinks highly of him, she doesn’t feel validated, seen, understood, supported, safe. Rather than share these feelings, these fears, we flail. We shout, disparage, withdraw, pursue, curse, and say nasty things that cut deep. All of these maladaptive behaviors could have been avoided with some open vulnerable communication, but alas, I have a job because people do not know how to communicate vulnerably.
We can’t expect more from our struggling children. The negativity that poisons a marriage usually only has one source: our spouse. For the problem-child, the poisonous negativity comes from all angles: authorities, peers, strangers, and family members.
When children misbehave, they often receive the highest level of connection that exists in their relationship with us. We lean in, give time and attention, correct, insist, direct, shout, berate, etc. This dynamic is never created intentionally, but children get paid handsomely for their negative behavior with the currency of connection - albeit negative, unenjoyable connection. But connection nonetheless.
In contrast, after behaving according to expectations, a simple “good job,” or maybe a “thank you,” deficient of emotional investment, is what they receive in return. An incidental, “in passing” expression of appreciation. Our lives are busy. We don’t have time to convey to the child the greatness they are displaying with their behavior, yet we’re never too busy for a problem. We really show up and have so much to say when things are going wrong.
Howard Glasser is a family therapist who was particularly bothered by the tendency toward negativity, the lack of payout a child receives from positive behavior, and the havoc this contrast wreaks on children. Glasser is the founder of the Nurtured Heart Approach to parenting and education. This approach turns the negative-positive ratio inside out.
Nurtured Heart Approach asks that parents and educators offer profound, invested appreciation for positive displays of behavior. Behaviors such as: using words to problem solve, showing respect, being kind, thinking of others, sharing, following directions, regulating from a difficult mood. No matter the child or their struggle, there are always times we can catch them acting appropriately. If in those moments we choose to connect, jump in with both feet, and sit together with the child, witnessing their moment of greatness, we can set a paradigm shift in motion. We can adjust which behaviors receive the currency of connection. We can flip the script entirely. In response to positive behaviors, we have the opportunity to show real care, investment, and respect for their actions. In response to negative behaviors, we can provide matter of fact interventions that explain that a behavior was problematic without much care or emotional charge.
This approach takes much effort. It is an approach that requires conquering of our anger, hurt, and burnout the child has left us with. We must use the power of perspective to conceptualize their behavior as a cry for help. We must be strong adults and show them the positivity they need, despite our petty frustration from their behavior.
We must trust our gut. Deep down we know that an abundance of positive energy would overhaul our children’s behavior for the better. But then we get nervous. We see a behavior that needs adjusting and jump on it. We become minute-by-minute educators, enforcers, and analysts. We need to stop this. We must trust what we know to be true in our hearts. More than any of the advice we have for our children, they need to feel good about themselves. They need to feel that we hold them in high esteem. They need to know we believe in them.
This is not accomplished by our words. We cannot tell a child we believe in them and look down on them in disgust after they hit their little sister. We cannot tell a child how special they are and then call them intolerable. We know that actions speak louder than words, but so do feelings. Our positive words will become irrelevant if we feel negatively towards our children. So next time they drive you to distraction and test your patience, remember this message. Imagine your child’s heart begging you to see past their misbehavior and answer their call for help. Imagine them pleading, “Please, just nurture my heart. That’s all I need.”