How to avoid stepping in it

Dog poop on the sidewalk: my 4-year-old spotted it. “Someone left that mess there. That’s not cool!” I said. “That’s not cool!” she agreed.

“It’s our responsibility to clean up our own messes,” I said. “Yeah!” she said.

“I always try to clean up my own messes,” she said.

“That’s wonderful,” I said.

And I had to stop for a second.

Now, you know full well that my daughter does not instantly clean up her messes. But I found this quite interesting: how willing I was to overlook that fact, and to say something encouraging.

She now skips down the sidewalk with the impression that she is someone who cleans up her own messes.

I definitely could have said, “Uh, no you don’t. What about all those papers you cut up that have been strewn about the living-room floor for the past three days?”

Then she might have felt a bit defeated or defensive or distanced from me. If our words about our children become their inner voices, hers would have been, “I don’t try to clean up my messes.” Not what I was going for.

Beliefs we have about ourselves are critical because, as educational psychologist Bobby Hoffman puts it, they are “the instrumental forces that drive and direct our behavior.” This is a key premise of the system I teach, called Language of Listening: “Children act according to who they believe they are.”

This is not a call to pretend to our kids that they have attributes that they don’t. It’s more about giving the positive (those times they did clean up) just as much weight as we give to the negative (those times they didn’t clean up), difficult as that is. After all, that’s how we get more of the positive. One reason I dig Language of Listening is its focus on pointing out strengths. It’s proof to our children — and ourselves –that they do possess those strengths.

But what made me stop for a second was: What if, instead of my daughter saying “I always try to clean up my own messes,” it had been my husband? Which response would I have given then? Probably not “That’s wonderful” (though I’ve greatly improved since these days).

Occasionally I think about the stark difference in the way I greet my daughter and my husband, too.

When my daughter gets home, I give her such grand enthusiasm: a big “Hellooo!” with a full-on hug and swoop up into the air for a snuggly kiss. For my husband, it’s a “Hey! How was work?”

Yes, I know, he’s not 4. He doesn’t have her infectious joy, and neither do I. It’d be kind of weird if we did. Etc.

But I bet these things would not hurt our marriage: more willingness to overlook minor infractions, more encouraging words, more acceptance, more I-really-like-you enthusiasm, more hugs. After all, we’re all human. Not so much changes in our relationship needs.

Think about just one specific scenario where you could give your partner — or yourself — the “I’m 100% on your side” reaction you try to give your child. Practice it this week. Let me know, in the comments below, what you notice.

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

8 thoughts on “How to avoid stepping in it

  1. Posts like this, that jar us out of our usual modes of thinking are so valuable. I would say that I work much harder at practicing patience with my daughter than I do my husband. He is a redonkulously slow typer, and when we’re doing our finances I do a lot of huffing and puffing. I would never do that with my kids – how horrible would it be if I made audibly loud sighs while my daughter is trying to tie her shoes! Oh man, I’ll be working on this…he’s really going to think something’s up next time he walks in the door and I run up hug him and tell him how proud I am of him 🙂 🙂 love it!!

  2. Love your enthusiasm, Nicolette! Your husband’s right, something’s up! 🙂

  3. I keep reminding myself, based on what was said in Jeanne-Marie Paynel’s workshop that my husband didn’t sign up for my parenting class and then I can back off from making another comment.

    1. Ha! Yes. I’ve heard from some mamas that they like how my book lays flat, because they can leave it open to a page they would like a certain someone to read! Funny.

  4. Love this!! I often feel convicted that I’ve practiced observing my children before responding as well as the “say what you see” and so many other efforts to love my children as they learn and grow but not with my husband! But it’s a learning journey with him! It’s a growing in maturity! Thank you for the reminder and encouragement. Husband and wives need love and patience as much as the kids!

    1. Beautiful way to put it, Ruth: a growing in maturity. So true. It’s amazing how much our children grow us up, too.

  5. Thank you for the article!
    What I have noticed personally is that if me and my husband are not as kind to each other then our son, age 2, will copy our behaviour almost straight away. It just shows to say how very important is to be more thoughtful, kind and patient with your partner as well as with your kids as part of their upbringing and happy childhood.

    1. Yes! They’re little mirrors for us, helping us see things we might not otherwise have noticed about ourselves. I find it absolutely fascinating. Your comment about the importance of our marriage or partnership to our kids’ well-being reminds me of a story that John Medina, author of Brain Rules for Baby, likes to tell. When he gives talks, dads ask him how to get their kid into Harvard. His answer: “Go home and love your wife!”

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