by Cady Andersson
The most important part of our lives is the relationships we have with a loving partner, friend, family member, and child – even ourselves! A job, status, and perhaps volunteer work all make our life worthwhile, but nothing can make us as happy or as sad as the quality of our relationships with our spouse, children, family, friends, and co-workers.
Relationships are delicate, though, and when we have unexpressed expectations in our relationships, we can carry around with us a quiet “should” that we silently and (sometimes) resentfully impose on others. It’s an unhelpful yet extremely common habit. While “should” is a fairly common and widely used word in our vocabularies, it is also quite violent (for more on this topic, please read Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg – it will totally change your life).
For example, let’s look at the people we throw our “should” at during the process of caring for little ones and explore less aggressive ways of expressing what we need to build stronger, better relationships as caregivers.
The first receiver of this violent “should” language is, of course, you. Have you ever noticed how often we “should” ourselves? Here are just a few examples:
- I should have put more fruit in Shivam’s lunch.
- I should go to the gym.
- I shouldn’t have used such a harsh tone with Niva before she left for school.
- I should have only had one cup of coffee.
- I should call Emma today.
By using “should” thoughts and/or statements, shame and condemnation judgments of ours or others’ behaviors are used in an attempt to force changes in behavior and act “better.” The result, however, is that no one – child nor adult – has ever been able to become better through shaming. Thus we will not teach ourselves, our partners, or the children in our care the value of being kind and generous using shame. We will only teach that shame is a mechanism of control.
Bad news: We can never control anyone other than ourselves (and even sometimes that is a challenge). Not even children can be controlled. We, as adults, have the illusion of control, and that is where we get into trouble. With the illusion of control brings a battle for control – also known as the dreaded power struggle. Let’s not waste our valuable time and energy struggling with the little ones we are trying to educate and guide through life. We have only a short time with them, so let’s use it to inspire them through our actions.
Good news: We can control ourselves. While feelings are neither right nor wrong (they just are), we can respond to our feelings instead of react to them. We all have habitual reactive patterns, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and all that jazz. Let’s choose the response patterns that make us richer, better, healthier, and jazzier! But how does that work?
For starters, did you notice the use of the words react and respond?
Reactions are knee-jerk. They are automated. They have no space for thought between feeling and action.
Responses push the pause button. Pushing the pause button – sometimes even for a mere 10 seconds – gives us the space we need to think.
Space to think is vital if we are going to reprogram ourselves to respond with compassion (to ourselves, to children, and to other adults, like a mother-in-law who critiques you again about wearing the color orange).
For example, instead of reacting immediately to a mother-in-law with this knee-jerk – “You know what, Annette? I like orange. Orange is beautiful. I bet you want me to always wear purple like you, huh? Is that what you want?” – just push pause, process for a few moments (our brains are faster than we think), and say something like “You know, Annette, I’ve noticed that you often mention how unflattering orange is on me. You’re so fashionable and I really appreciate your advice. I’d love to hear style tips you have for me, and I’m also going to keep wearing orange. It makes me really happy to wear orange. It’s my favorite color and it brings me joy. Maybe you could help me find ways to incorporate it and balance it with other colors. Would you be willing to help me find some ways to do that?”
Can you already feel the difference in how this mother-in-law (and a spouse) is going to react?
The first comment above is certain to begin an instant fight. The second comment, however, invites thoughtfulness and connection. It maintains boundaries (we are each allowed to choose what we wear) and meets the needs of the mother-in-law (to still feel important and valuable when she isn’t sure of her worth or place in her in-law child’s life). The second comment redirects her unmet need to a healthy and appropriate outlet. That is exactly what we should do with children, too!
Listen to the child. Pause. Listen to our own feelings. Pause. Process. Respond (with loving curiosity and firmness). What we are trying to do here is to stop reacting and start responding. (To respond rather than react, a helpful technique is to place one finger or a hand over our mouth while the other person is speaking or immediately after they finish speaking. Sounds silly, but it works every time!)
Sometimes it is as simple as changing the language we use when talking to or about ourselves. There’s an annoying inner monologue that is always telling us that we’re a terrible parent or caregiver because we didn’t make a hedgehog-shaped sandwich for a child’s lunch this morning, or because we have a different policy on screen time than the neighbors, or because we also like (and I would add the word “need”) spending time alone? That voice is a bully. And it is unkind. We deserve kindness from others and (most importantly) from ourselves. So let’s train our internal language to reflect kindness, compassion, and courage.
Fact checking: Fact check whatever you are currently harassing yourself about and then dismiss the disrespect. Just like harassment in the workplace, verbal abuse of ourselves won’t be tolerated. Examples: “Does Maksim’s regular, bread-shaped sandwich make his lunch any less delicious or nutritious? No. Does the lack of woodland creature related food items mean he is neglected or his childhood is any less magical? No and no. I made him his favorite sandwich today for lunch and managed to include a fruit and a vegetable that he liked. Good for me! I am a hero.”
When I was marathon training, it was easy (very, very easy) to look at others who were training for or running the same race. It was easy to look to the left and the right in comparison. It was easy (and indeed habitual) to worry about if I was doing too much or too little with my training based on what I saw others were doing. Was I going to make it? Was I training enough? My plan doesn’t involve cross-training. Should I be cross-training? They are eating sports gels and I hate sports gels – am I going to pass out and die from lack of proper sports-gel-delivered calorie intake? Am I taking in too many calories? Too much water? Not enough?
Once I recognized the pressure I was putting on myself with this type of thinking, I was able to embrace this valuable motivator to be successful – Run. Your Own. Race.
Run your own race. It is that simple. Other people have different plans, different speeds, different nutrition, different muscle mass, different shoes, different you name it. I am me and I can only run the race as me. Don’t look to the left or the right. Keep on running my own race.
The same is true of parenting. We are running our own race – or sometimes a three-legged race if we are parenting with a partner – and we have to be on our own team. We have to focus on ourselves and what is in front of us – the challenges, the successes, the desires for growth, the courage, and the single step that we are about to take.
So please let’s not beat ourselves down with “should.” Instead, let’s say “I want” in place of “I should”:
- I want to put more fruit in Shivam’s lunch.
- I want to go to the gym.
- I want to send Niva to school with a kind and encouraging word.
- I want to only have one cup of coffee in the morning (Okay, maybe two or three… No, no wait. I only want to have one).
- I want to call Emma today.
“I want” puts the power back in our own hands and allows us to have these desires without the self-shaming of “should.”
The next receiver of our should is any potential parent, co-parent, grandparent, spouse, or additional child care provider (a nanny, teacher, or other prominent figure in the child’s life).
- Can we control another person’s behavior? No.
- Can we express kindly what we would like in regard to the treatment of the child? Yes.
- Will we always get it? No.
The key to this part of the process is vulnerability and not directing blame. We can tell the other person what we want and need and ask for participation in a specific action. It will look something like this:
“Anu, I have a need for unity. When we disagree in front of the kids about our parenting, I feel sad and unsure of myself. If you are willing, next time you want to talk to me about a question or concern about my parenting style, could we please talk in private first and then we can address the children together as a team?”
This is the basic format of a request using nonviolent communication (as you will discover when you read the book Nonviolent Communication).
- Explain your need.
- Explain how you feel (without using blaming words like “betrayed,” “lied to,” or “ambushed”).
- Ask for a specific, concrete action.
Will this feel weird the first time we use this? Absolutely. Will our partner (or child, or coworker, or mom) look at us like we have three heads the first time we use this structure to ask for a behavior change? Quite possibly. Are we more likely to get the response we have requested? Almost certainly.
We may also hear a “no” or a suggestion for a variation of the behavior we have requested. When we ask with kindness, we are far more likely to receive. People are so often assaulted (and yes, I truly mean assaulted) by requests for changed behavior that we are too busy trying to protect ourselves, thus we can’t be emotionally available to hear we are actually being asked.
Think about our own willingness to listen to someone who is yelling at us versus someone who is speaking to us calmly. Imagine them saying the exact same words. One tone is harsh and angry, the other is kind and firm – which one are we more likely to listen to without feeling the need to protect or defend ourselves?
This holds true also for our children or spouse. Maybe our spouse speaks harshly to us and we’re thinking “I don’t need this stuff! My partner does!” Guess what? The request steps work just as well when asking for nonviolent communication behavior from someone else – and again there is the extra bonus of modeling for children and our partner.
“Sarah, I have a need to feel safe. When voices are loud, I feel afraid and have a hard time listening to your words. If you are willing, could we try to talk in quieter voices when we are having a disagreement? It would really help me listen better and hear what you are actually asking me.”
Another “should” receptacle is the tender little heart and mind of a child. The work of children is real and dignified. They must learn all the rules of society. But children often do not know what they are supposed to do, even if we have told them repeatedly. Their brains are just learning to fetch and retrieve important data like “Am I allowed to throw the ball in the house?” And once they can fetch and retrieve that data, then the real work begins – impulse control.
Sometimes we ask children to do things they have never done before and then shame or punish them for doing the task incorrectly. I remember many times in my nanny career when I asked a child to do something, then realized the child was trying to do the task in a way that was creating a tiny disaster. Rather than reacting in a panic at the mess, we can instead calmly say “I realize you may have never done this before. Let me show you a few ways I might do it, and if you can find a different way that works for you, that’s great too.”
Making this one change – from using the shame invoked in the word “should” in our communication with others – can dramatically change our lives, our parenting, our classroom management, and our relationships with every person with whom we interact both now and going forward. And, in turn, we can invoke positive change in all of their relationships as well!
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels