Are You “Should-ing” All Over Your Kids?

by Jennifer Weberman on 05/21/2012

Picture this: You’re driving along the highway when another car cuts into your lane causing you to slam on your brakes. You think to yourself, “What a @#$%!” You honk your horn, make some obscene hand gestures and maybe even tailgate the other car while maniacally flashing your lights. Not your finest moment, but you’ve been there, right? Now, what if I told you that the anger you were expressing in that moment didn’t come from what the other driver did, but rather from the conversation you were having inside your head ABOUT what he did?

 Think about it.

If, instead of criticism and blame, the conversation in your head sounded more like this: “I bet his wife is in labor and he’s on his way to the hospital,” think of how different your reaction would be. Chances are you’d be a lot more understanding of his driving errors. Maybe you’d even go out of your way to make room for that driver, just as you would for an ambulance. But that’s not what we do when we’ve been cut off, because that’s not the conversation we’re having about it. We take offense to the other driver’s behavior, and it makes us angry. Our standards and expectations of safe driving were not met. That driver shouldn’t have cut you off, he shouldn’t even have a license, and people should be more careful! Even if it’s just in our heads, we’re “should-ing” all over the place!

 And that’s exactly what we do to our children. We should all over them.

As a Psychologist and Parent Coach, I’m frequently asked by parents how they can stay calm when disciplining their child, especially when they are feeling deeply frustrated by the child’s behavior. Exasperated parents tell me, “I know I’m supposed to be calm, but I just want to scream, ‘Stop it already! Why won’t you just listen and do as your told?!’” That’s the moment we need to take note, because…

 Frustration is the first sign of a “should” coming on.

My child should listen. My child should respect me. I shouldn’t have to repeat myself. My child should know better! Or maybe you’re should-ing on yourself, too. I should be able to stay calm. I should be able to control my child. All of these “shoulds,” which are nothing more than made up rules and unrealistic expectations, live in the back of your mind waiting to be activated. When your child talks back, or pushes a limit or tests authority, your arbitrary expectations are not met, which causes frustration, resentment and anger. But responding by spouting a bunch of “shoulds” all over your kids won’t accomplish anything.

 So, what if we changed the conversation?

In order to change the conversation, we must first recognize that we invented those “shoulds” in the first place. There is no actual rule that children should listen. In fact, as children explore their world, it is only natural that they test limits and push boundaries. Think of them as little scientists. It’s through exploration and experimentation that they learn where the boundaries are. It’s a child’s job to explore, and it’s a parent’s job to teach. Do you really want a child who always does what he’s told? What will they do when there’s no one there to tell them what to do?

Another point to consider: When we believe our children “should” be a certain way, but they’re not that way, then we leave them with a feeling of being not good enough. The message is “there’s something wrong with you and I disapprove.” This can only serve to frustrate or disempower your child. On the other hand, if you encourage your child to learn through her experiences that choices have consequences, and that she can take responsibility for those choices, and clean up her own mistakes, then she will have gained useful tools and understanding that will serve her well into her future. And these lessons take place only in an environment of love and limits, not arbitrary rules and “shoulds.”

 Are you ready to change your conversation yet?

Before you go thinking, “Darn, I shouldn’t be “should-ing”, let’s stop a moment. Check yourself. Recognize what your autopilot is doing and break the cycle by choosing to give up some of those pesky “shoulds”. Doing so will leave a lot of space for you to fill with new, more positive conversations. So, the next time your child acts up and your reflex is to start “should-ing” on him, try this internal dialogue instead: “Here’s a perfect opportunity to teach my son something of value!”  Or tell yourself, “I can’t wait until my daughter tests limits so I can show her how calm I can stay!” You’ll be amazed at what a difference it can make.

(If you’d like to read more about how to respond to common misbehaviors, stay tuned for future articles from the Parent Coach)

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Erica Lerea May 22, 2012 at 7:57 PM

Love this article!!! It is so true. It’s really important to have conversations with your children that are calm and logical. When I’m at my frustration point the situation with my children just escalate and become unmanageable. Keep them coming!!!!
Thanks,
Erica

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Jennifer Weberman May 23, 2012 at 1:30 PM

Hi Erica,
I’m so glad you liked the article! Yes, our own frustrations certainly add fuel to the fire and further escalate the situation. Yet managing our own frustration is sometimes easier said than done. It takes a great deal of mindfulness and practice.
Thanks for commenting!

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Erin LeRea May 22, 2012 at 8:04 PM

Great article. What a refreshing way to look at things….doesn’t only apply to parenting either.

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Jennifer Weberman May 23, 2012 at 1:45 PM

Hi Erin,
Thanks for your comment! And you’re right, this doesn’t just apply to parents. As human beings, we “should” on everyone, including ourselves. Glad you enjoyed it.

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Liz Hanzi May 22, 2012 at 8:59 PM

Nice article on how easy it is to be on autopilot in our lives, in relationships and especially in heated situations-and most of all with our children when we feel like there’s so much at stake. I’m glad to hear you speak to this and make people more aware of the spoken and unspoken ‘shoulds’ we engage in. It’s a great reminder! Thanks!

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Jennifer Weberman May 23, 2012 at 1:57 PM

Hi Liz,
Yes, when my autopilot is on, my day just doesn’t work! But the days that I actually catch my “shoulds” are the empowering ones!
Thanks for commenting :)

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Marcus Milukas May 23, 2012 at 9:31 AM

The feeling of them “not being good enough” is (sadly) a legacy that often gets silently passed down from generation to generation. Whether it is learned behavior or inherent in our nature it is a great point that you make; as is raising our awareness and making new, conscious choices.

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Jennifer Weberman May 23, 2012 at 2:03 PM

Hi Marcus,
Yes, sadly so, the “not good enough” child grows up to be the “not good enough” parent and so on. Breaking the cycle can be so freeing when we realize that it was never true in the first place. It was only a conversation we made up in our minds based on how we thought things “should” be.
Thanks for commenting!

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Alex Krasovitsky May 24, 2012 at 6:53 PM

Very nice article, I strongly believe that dealing with your own children is not always an easy task.
Thank you Jennifer for all the work that you put into this very informative blog.

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Jennifer Weberman May 24, 2012 at 8:34 PM

Thank you Alex! Its my pleasure!

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Lissy May 29, 2012 at 3:42 PM

We’ve tried a few approaches when disciplining our little one and this one seems to be the best. Thanks for some great insights!

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Jennifer Weberman June 3, 2012 at 6:36 PM

My pleasure, Lissy! I’m glad you found this helpful.

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Yag Patel June 3, 2012 at 5:47 PM

The idea of telling yourself stories is so true and I have heard this concept in the past and it totally works to tell yourself a positive story and that way you can control your anger and frustration.
Great article.

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Jennifer Weberman June 3, 2012 at 8:17 PM

Hi Yag,
Thanks for your comment. Yes, our anger and frustration comes straight from the “story” we invented about something. The freedom comes from realizing that whether the story is negative or positive, we made it up! Once we realize that, we can choose a story that empowers us.
Glad you liked the article.

Reply

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