by Scott Swain
I think most of us can agree that forcing another person to do something against their will rarely works out as we'd like to see.
Yet we do this with children all the time. When they are babies and infants, we have the most legitimate excuses. In that first year we build up a habit of feeding, cleaning, moving, etc., because they are so dependent on us. As their brains and bodies grow, it can be difficult to know when and how to allow them more autonomy.
They are smaller than us, cannot speak, understand a limited number of words, if any, and do not have the benefit of our years of life experience. So obviously, there are limitations as to what we can do at that pre-toddler stage. Let's talk about what can be done:
Even though their language processing capability is just developing, their senses are working. They hear and feel the tone of your voice. They see your eyes and feel your gentle hands. We can begin by showing empathy for their powerless plight as soon as they are born. This is where I recommend a combination of touch, gaze, hum, and words. One method I've found to be effective: Make up little songs for the baby to let them know you are about to pick them up, feed them, change their diaper, etc.
"Hey hey, little Emily, I'm about to change your diaper to get you clean. In some ways, hey hey, it's like I'm up in your space without asking, putting aside your choice and autonomy in order to get you clean. You may not know my words now and that is okay, hey hey, because you hear my tone and you know that some day, hey hey, your subconscious mind will find these words and know, oh oh, that from day one your mommy showed, ho ho, empathy for your unique be-ee-ing, dependent on others to clean your poo and pee-ee-ee..."
Let's show children awareness of the price we all pay when choice is not present. I'd love to see a reduction in exceptions to "you don't force people to do stuff" across the board. I'm thinking about kids but it happens to all ages. We TELL kids it is wrong to initiate force, yet we control every detail of their lives. I see a thousand ways parents can reduce this hypocrisy by picking less battles, offering more choices, encouraging kids to do more on their own, and allowing NATURAL CONSEQUENCES to teach them their lessons. For those times when you see no way other than force, at least let them know you would prefer another way and empathize with how frustrating it must feel to be controlled so often.
Most people skip empathy, jumping straight to evaluation, fixing, assisting, distraction, reward, and punishment. To be clear: when I say empathy, I mean responses like, "Wow you did it!" and "Hmmm seems like you are having difficulty with that." and "Seems like you are really disappointed." and "Ouch I bet that hurts." and "Did you want more consideration?" and "Sounds like you wish someone would do that for you?" and "Is it a little scary when you think about doing that thing all by yourself?" and "When you hear it is time to go, are you frustrated because you would love to keep playing?"
Important note: empathizing out loud does not mean we give in. It merely shows them we GET them, their perspective is valid, and we respect them.
To zoom in on one thing I said above: REWARDS. Yeah, duh "positive reinforcement" is a thing. But maybe that is for animal training. Guess what? Do you want your kid to grow up to be a people-pleaser, motivated and controlled by other people and desire for material acquisition, i.e., external factors? That is what you are asking for when you rely on use of the reward/punishment paradigm.
What is the alternative? How about a person who grows up confident in their internal compass, caring about others for deeper reasons than wanting to impress them and/or to get something from them (because THEY were treated with empathy while growing up)? How about a person who is motivated to succeed and be powerful because it feels good inside?
"You did it, lil Susie! How does that feel? Why? How do you think this new skill will help you in the future?" vs "You did it, Susie! I'm so proud of you! Here is a reward." Save that for dogs.