MANHATTAN, Kan. – Nearly every person can recall a time when he or she has witnessed a parent using name-calling, ridiculing or shaming to punish a child in public. While this can be upsetting to witness, imagine the damage this behavior, which might also be occurring at home, has on the child.
K-State Research and Extension early child development specialist Bradford Wiles said parents could avoid this damaging behavior by being mindful about how they communicate with their children. A positive relationship between parent and child starts with the parent in most cases, but there are other caregivers, such as grandparents, uncles, aunts and friends of the family, who also can strive to maintain a positive relationship with the children who look up to them and see them as models.
Some parents, Wiles said, aren’t aware of the consequences their language has with young children. Language can affect children’s self-esteem and how they view the world now and in the future.
“What we know about language and child development is the language that children hear outside becomes the language they use internally,” he said. “If they hear language such as, ‘you’re making mistakes; you’re stupid; no, you can’t do that,’ those things begin to be incorporated into their own thoughts.”
The developing child
Understanding the developing child can help turn negative parenting behaviors into positive ones and enhance the parent-child relationship, Wiles said.
“Be mindful of (children) developing their brains,” he said. “They’re trying to figure out things that we already know as adults. If we’re receptive to that and more thoughtful and mindful of what they’re going through, then we can try to respond a little better. Sometimes in the heat of the moment it’s difficult, but that is when it’s most effective.”
People are sometimes pet owners before they are parents, Wiles said, which is his personal situation. So he can understand the reason some parents feel the need to say, “come here, sit there and stay,” to a child in the same way they would a pet, but this also is not effective parenting.
“The reason we talk to dogs and cats like that is we know they will never advance beyond a certain cognitive level,” Wiles said. “Children, however, get to that cognitive level, and we hope, surpass it. We use our authority, because with pets that’s what they need. They’re not trying to explore their world and make sense of it in a social way.”
Parents should consider human development as necessarily a social endeavor, he said, and then they will realize mentoring a child is important. The parent should try to teach the child how to behave properly in the world and what the world looks like. Then it becomes clearer to children how to respond to world situations in appropriate ways.
Watching word use
“Children are always trying to figure out what adults already know,” Wiles said. “So, if adults can explain using the word ‘because,’ that is a powerful way for children to understand not only why things happened, but also understand for the next time decisions are the way they are.”
Using the word “because” in parenting is important, but parents can benefit by monitoring and restricting the use of the word “no,” he said. Some research indicates that a young child will hear “no” anywhere between 250 and 400 times or more a day, primarily in regard to not doing something or not touching something.
“As part of our culture, ‘no’ is common for adults, because we understand it and understand the gravity of it,” Wiles said. “However, with developing children, we can wear out that word. What we’re encouraging parents to do now, based on a large body of literature, is to reserve ‘no’ for those immediate safety-related situations.”
For example, if a child is going to be burned by reaching up on the stove and grabbing a pot of boiling water, that is when a parent should say “no” to the child, he said. If a child is picking out a toy at the store that the parent doesn’t want the child to have, there are multiple other ways the parent can handle it, other than just saying “no.” Using the word “because” so the child understands why not, offering other choices or even redirecting their attention can be effective.
“We all need to make decisions as adults that affect our children, and sometimes they will have no say in them,” Wiles said. “However, we need to make sure that we don’t prevent them from having any understanding regardless of their say.”
Ridiculing and shaming behaviors are not effective, he said, whether they are used with adults or children. These practices tend to work “in the moment,” but over time, they can be detrimental to mental health.
“Shame is one of the least long-term effective practices,” Wiles said. “In the short term it might work, but in the long term it erodes so many other things to the point where the individual being shamed is not functioning well.”
Parents should avoid these behaviors with their children, even when they’re not being serious, he said. This ties back to understanding the developing child.
“One thing children don’t get very well is sarcasm, something that occurs in the brain much later when we start to understand the tone, pitch and double meanings of things,” Wiles said. “All of that happens much later in childhood.”
Even if adults sarcastically use shaming on themselves, he said, all that does is diminish the adult—the authority figure and model—in the child’s eyes and could make the child afraid he or she will do something shameful as well.
Often times when parents are upset with their children, taking their own mini-timeout might be as effective, if not more effective, than putting children in a long timeout, Wiles said. Parents might especially feel they are being triggered by their children’s bad behavior at inopportune moments and moments of high stress.
“Because we’re adults, because we can self-regulate, because we are able to look at our own thought processes, we can calm down much more rapidly than a child can,” he said. “By taking that deep breath, by realizing you’re dealing with a child and that requires special approaches that you wouldn’t use with other people, you can stop and be thoughtful about your next step.”
Being mindful, understanding what’s happening with the child and thinking about what the child is doing helps handle the situation properly, Wiles said. Not reacting immediately can be difficult but rewarding for the adult and child, because they won’t have to go through repair stages when either the adult or child behaves irrationally to the other and has to regain trust in that relationship.
Many parents follow the same parenting techniques their parents used on them, he said, which is natural. But, in the area of family studies and human services, experts like to talk about the various ways to reach the same end.
“Yes, you are a fine upstanding adult. You turned out fine, and your parents did just fine with you,” Wiles said. “However, you can turn out a fine, upstanding young child who develops those upper-level skills to help in problem-solving, critical-thinking, getting along with others, and taking care of his or her own needs, and still didn’t have to undergo the same processes that you did.”
Also, parents should take into account that different children have different personalities, he said. Parents often times want to be fair and treat their children the same, but should also consider how that interpersonal connection with each child is important.
More information about family relationships is available on the K-State Research and Extension website and local extension offices throughout Kansas.
K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.
Story by: Katie Allen