You know that child your mother cursed you with when you were younger?
You know the one I'm talking about; the one God, with shaking head and knowing smile, set aside for you in heaven on the day your finally-ran-out-of-patience mom first spouted the words: "Someday, I hope you have a child who does _________, just like you've done _________to me all these years!"
Yeah. That child. He just turned three.
Until I had this child, I thought the one before him was like me. And he is. Kinda. That little boy has a big personality and has emotions (and an occasional temper) as deep and torrential as oceans, just like his Mama. But this little boy is something else entirely.
My three-year-old son is me in a small male body.
Creative. Musical. Entertaining.
Rarely afraid of conflict, self-assured.
We are strong personalities,
my little clone and I.
A few months ago, this little bundle of personality went through a rough patch with his behavior. Unfortunately for him, after mothering RAD kids, there is virtually nothing he can do that will phase his Mama, even when he really, really wants to. Believe me...he's tried, but I've pretty much seen it all and am alarmed by very few "normal" child behaviors. Sometimes I feel bad for the poor little guy; he gives it his best, but when even the most impressive of toddler tantrums earns a cheerful "Let me know when you're done!" from the one person you're trying to get a rise out of, it puts an oppositional toddler in a tough spot.
So Mr. K started getting naughtier, and naughtier and naughtier.
And I made a big mistake. I started telling him he was naughty.
I may have said:
"Don't be naughty." "You're being naughty."
"That's naughty!" "Don't be a naughty boy!"
But he heard:
"I'm naughty." "I'm naughty." "I'm naughty."
"I'm naughty." "I'm naughty."
It's been my experience that a child will meet your expectations. They internalize the things you say about them, and then rise or fall to that standard. I know this. I've learned this in the past. And yet, I still spent weeks unintentionally programming my little son to think of himself as "naughty." And guess what? He kept getting naughtier.
One day in January, I picked Mr. K up when he was misbehaving, and I said something like "Don't do that, you're a nice boy." He looked me right in the eye and said, "No, I'm not! I'm a naughty boy!" He insisted he was naughty so many times in the following days that I couldn't overlook the fact that he was using my words to describe himself. He was becoming who I told him he was!
I've made a few changes in how I discipline my son. I don't allow his "naughtiness" to go unnoticed (or unpunished, when needed), but I've changed my words and softened them with hugs. For example, when Mr. K grabs his toy out of the baby's hands, making him cry, I don't tell him he's being naughty. Instead, I say something like "Oh! Poor baby, he wants to play with your toys, too! What can you find to share with him? You're a good sharer." Admittedly, my obstinate toddler stared at me peculiarly when I first tried this, but he's starting to internalize that he's a "good sharer", and has started sharing on his own. Now, when he tries to take something from the baby, I just remind him what a good sharer he is, and he usually gives it right back. His behavior has changed by leaps and bounds, and while he's still a handful, it's obvious he feels better about himself because he's learning he's a "nice boy", a "sweet boy", and a "good sharer." He's a different child than he was when he thought he was "naughty."
We have a tough job, us parents. The words we choose are the words that our children will use to define themselves, and when I think of all the words I use with my own kids in an average day, it terrifies me. Who do they believe they are, deep down? Lazy? Unmotivated? Mean? Messy? Argumentative? Irresponsible? What do they hear me saying when I tell them they asked a silly question, or point out that they're being irrational? When I tell them to act their age?
I don't want my thoughtless words to dictate who my children will be; I want my kids to believe that they are capable, fun, helpful, nice, intelligent, motivated, responsible, empowered children of God.
I have some work to do.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. James 3:9-10