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How to Talk to our Kids–Some Important Concepts from Jennifer Lehr’s “Parentspeak”

At, Camp Kupugani, our multicultural overnight summer camp in Leaf River, IL–less than two hours from Chicago, IL and Madison, WI–we believe in helping parents provide their children with the tools to be productive and self-sufficient.  Generally, as proponents of independence and empowerment, children (and adults) should strive for positive behavior not from fear of punishment nor desire for a reward, but because they intrinsically want to do what is right. 

ParentSpeak: What’s Wrong with How We Talk to Our Children–and What to Say Instead, by Jennifer Lehr, provides a provocative guide to the hidden dangers of “parentspeak”—those seemingly innocent phrases parents use when speaking to their young children. Parentspeak by Jennifer Lehr

Below are some bullets summarizing some of the book’s ideas.  Below that are some verbatim quotes. Here’s to more empowered kiddos!

“MISBEHAVIOR” COMES FROM UNDERLYING FEELINGS/NEEDS NOT BEING MET/ACKNOWLEDGED

Actions to take:

  • Help your child to speak about their feelings/needs
  • Provide a space where your child can cool down to process feelings

Reasoning:

  • Children have not had the chance to fully develop an understanding of their feelings and how to deal with them. Our job as parents/ youth professionals is to help them learn what they are feeling by talking with them and giving them strategies to help them next time they feel this way.

“MISBEHAVIOR” IS JUST A LABEL FOR ACTIONS OF WHICH WE DO NOT APPROVE

Actions to take:

  • Decide if the behavior is unsafe or something that you do not like
  • Once you have this answer reflect on the consequence if needed

Reasoning:

  • Rarely does a child want to act “badly”; s/he is instead using the means at their disposal to express a feeling or need.  
  • If your child is acting up because they have a need that is not being met, instead of punishing your child, help them meet that need.

CHILDREN LEARN FROM WHAT WE SAY AND DO

Actions to take:

  • Speak respectfully to your child
  • Help your child to express their feelings
  • If discipline is required, involve them in the process

Reasoning:

  • The saying of “do as I say and not as I do” is not something children comprehend.
  • To learn how to respect others, children need to be spoken to with respect.  
  • If children are always told what to do when they are upset or “misbehaving,” they will not learn how to adapt on their own to those challenging situations.

SOME DIRECT QUOTES FROM THE BOOK

  • Punishing behavior with a time-out or another form of discipline may, at the moment, scare a child into “behaving himself,” but it won’t help address the underlying feelings and needs driving the behavior.  And so the need won’t be met, which means the child will only continue to try to meet it in some other way. Punishing a child only creates more problems without truly solving the original one. (p. 201)
  • The tragedy of it is that once an adult has judged a child’s behavior as “misbehavior,” it gives them license to make a child suffer, doling out consequences and punishment, in other words, suffering.  Which is heartbreaking because what children really need is understanding and help to find more acceptable ways to meet their needs. (p. 206)
  • It is ironic that we say children misbehave when in fact the opposite is actually true.  Children’s behavior that we find disruptive or hurtful isn’t “mis” anything.  We may find it annoying, troubling, or infuriating, but it isn’t intrinsically “bad” or “wrong.”  On the contrary, a child’s behavior is exceedingly accurate.  It is at once a true expression of their need at a particular moment as well as a reflection of their current ability to meet that need.  In other words, their so-called “bad” behavior is actually the best they can do, based on their cognition, temperament and life experience. (p. 206)
  • “The first thing you have to do if you want to raise nice kids, is you have to talk to them like they are people instead of talking to them like they’re property. – Frank Zappa” (p. 209)

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