Dr. Bob Pedrick
"Daddy, where does the light come from?" Billy had just switched on the lamp by his bed. Now he looked at his father with wide, questioning eyes.
The question was a serious one for a seven-year-old. His father answered by describing in simple terms how the bright light of the sun pulls the water from the ocean into the sky. It then falls as rain in the mountains. He went on to describe the giant water wheels that capture the power of rushing water and change it into invisible streams of electric energy.
This energy passes swiftly through miles and miles of wire until it reaches the light bulb, which, almost magically, can turn the invisible power back into light.
After a few more questions, Billy's eyes lit up and his face broke out in an "I see" kind of smile. A choice moment had arrived, more awesome than the miracle of electricity. A portion of knowledge from the father's head had been transferred to Billy's brain.
When we, as parents, send verbal messages that are received and assimilated by our children, it makes each of us glow a little. We could call this happy phenomenon turning on the light bulb inside our child's head.
Unfortunately, the circuits for this kind of communication have a way of getting short-circuited. The father could have heard the question as another attempt by Billy to delay his bedtime. A response such as "No more silly questions. You've been up too long already" would have quickly blanked out the circuit and snipped off a promising tendril of inquiry into the unknown. More important, it would have broken another connection for real communication between child and parent. Of course, the same question in another context might well have been only manipulative on the part of the child, but the difference can be discovered by an alert adult.
One key ingredient in this light bulb dialogue was that Billy wanted to hear what his father had to say. While this is characteristic of early childhood—when parents are the source of most knowledge and children absorb new ideas like a blotter soaks up water—this openness to parental input seems to lessen with each passing year. Instead of our parental wisdom lighting a bulb inside our children's heads, it seems as if their ears are plugged with wool. What we say bounces off, seemingly unheard. We wait in vain for any positive reaction.
Finding a formula for popping the wool out of our children's ears gives promise of appreciably reducing the tension in many households.
The practice of responding to family situations with verbal attacks upon the worth of the other person is an easy trap to fall into.
It is so easy to tell other people how to avoid falling into this adversary message trap. Right now I was brought up short. While writing this, my granddaughter burst into my study. "Gramps," she shouted, "come see the dog jump three feet in the air for a bone."
My first inclination was to snap, "Can't you see I'm busy? Don't bother me now." Then, before the words left my mouth, the subject of this chapter hit me. I thought, If you can't practice it, don't write it. Jeannie and I spent ten happy minutes watching our aged dog act like a puppy again in exuberant response to the loving attention of a six-year-old.
My first inclination to respond by saying, "Can't you see I'm busy?" would have been an adversary message, starting with "you" and implying that if Jeannie were half-bright, she would have had better sense than to interrupt me. This was not at all the message I wanted to send.
In this instance it was possible and productive for me to take a ten-minute break and play with Jeannie and the dog. This is not always the case; sometimes circumstances prevent a positive response to a child's request. In such an instance, I could have said, "Jeannie, I must finish this job right now. We will have to wait until later to put the dog through her paces." Jeannie would have been disappointed, but she probably would have received it as an affirmative message rather than an adversary message. It would not have insulted Jeannie's self-worth at all but, instead, let her know my needs.
Note that this affirmative message began with "I," not with "you." The emphasis is placed upon the sender's situation and needs, not the character or intelligence of the receiver. The needs of parents are important, so affirmative messages are a useful means of popping the wool from children's ears.
In contrast, I remember some years ago when a situation with a far higher emotional threshold occurred at our dinner table. Jeff, like a lot of kids, insisted upon setting his milk on the edge of the table. Repeated warnings that he should move his milk to a safe position failed to do more than cause a temporary correction. We were in a hurry; I had a speaking engagement that evening. Of course, the inevitable happened: Jeff reached for the bread, and milk spilled all over the new carpet.
My roar was probably heard two blocks away. All of the tension from a long, trying day was focused upon Jeff. He left the table in tears. "You clumsy idiot!" I shouted after him. "Why don't you listen when I tell you something?"
A look around the table told me no one else had much appetite for finishing the dinner. In one way I felt better, because the outburst had released the tightness I had unconsciously been building up. Still, I felt guilty.—Guilty for venting my anger by overreacting to Jeff's indiscretion. And guilty for spoiling the family dinner. No amount of self-reassurance that I had been justified in correcting Jeff's carelessness could relieve my depression.
Later, before he went to bed, I put my arm around Jeff and we talked about the episode. Then we were able to give respectful attention to each other's feelings. An exchange of "I'm sorry" and a good hug made the end much better than the beginning.
In the years since Jeff was small enough to disrupt the dinner table, I have become fully convinced that there are inevitably destructive results to be expected from using adversary messages. They tear at a child's dignity. Unquestionably, Jeff needed to be corrected that evening. His thoughtless and disobedient behavior was unacceptable, and I would have done him a disservice by ignoring it. A better response would have been, "I am really furious; milk on the carpet makes an ugly stain and causes us a lot of unnecessary work." Then Jeff should have been given an opportunity to help clean up the mess.
Haim Ginott's remarks on this subject, while they are directed at teachers, are just as applicable to parents:
"An enlightened teacher is not afraid of his anger, because he has learned to express it without doing damage. He has mastered the secret of expressing anger without insult. Even under provocation he does not call children abusive names. He does not attack their character or offend their personality."
An idea internalized by a child when he receives a parental correction is not always the same idea the parent wanted to get across. Often the emotion-packed insult wrapped around a message is received and believed. The child misses the parental intent completely. We, as parents, then say that the child might as well have his ears stuffed with wool for all he hears. This is not precisely true, for the insult ("You are a stupid slob!") is heard, while the message we want delivered ("This behavior is unacceptable.") is sidetracked.
When words fail between parent and child, the youngsters are set adrift in a void with no tools at their disposal to express ideas and needs.
The importance of using and not abusing language was recognized by the Biblical author James. He was deeply concerned about relationships between persons, and he laid great emphasis upon being genuine. For example, his advice was to be "doers of the Word, and not hearers only" (James 1:22). On the subject of communication he said, "Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger" (James 1:19).
In these few words he summed up the whole idea of this chapter. James started by giving a plug for effective listening. Then he cautioned against speech before thought. His proverb was an older, more profound version of the popular quip, "Put your mind in gear before you open your mouth." It is good advice, especially for parents when tension builds and frustrations mount.
Excerpted from the book "The Confident Parent" by Dr. Bob Pedrick.