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On the Value of Speaking Respectfully

Mom-person bolted across the street for the train.  If she got her foot in the door, we'd all get in.  If not, we'd stand out in the cold for another 20 minutes or so. 

 No. 1, our five year old, bolted with her.  She's big enough to keep up now, and did so admirably.  Her more frequent strides matched her mom's; she stayed right beside her; she was safe.  I'd picked up No.3, our youngest.  She was OK with the development, more bemused than anything else, but also safe.  Then, there was No. 2.  At three years old, he couldn't quite keep up with Mom-person.  She was three quarters of the way across the street before he thought to move.  I cringed.  We'd done this before.  I knew from experience that a few seconds delay could radically change the traffic situation.

Whereas there were no cars when mom-person leaped, there very well might be now.  For slow-twitch participants, like No. 2 and myself, the whole transaction required another scan of oncoming cars.  The issue was No. 2 didn't know that.  He crouched to leap, exactly as I knew he would.  I inhaled a fresh lungful of air preparing to resort to the technique I'd used every time before.  His legs began to uncoil into a powerful jump, I yelled in a forceful, determined voice, "Stop!"

Then, No. 2 and I played out a familiar routine exactly as we had dozens of times before.  He stopped.  He was safe.  As I scanned for cars, No. 2 screamed, and started to cry.  It's what I'd known would happen the instant I saw Mom-person leap for the train.  I'd cringed, accepted my fate, and kept everyone safe.

Later that night, lying in No. 2's bed for our good night snuggles, I asked him if he'd had a good day.  His response was characteristically honest, "No."  I asked why not, and No. 2 replied, "Dad, you made me cry."

"When I yelled at you at the train stop?" I asked.


"Do you know why I did it?" I asked.

"No," 2's plaintive voice came out of the darkness..

"I was worried you were going to get hit by a car I didn't know about.  I had to make sure you were safe.  I needed you to stop right away, so I yelled.  I'm sorry buddy."

I heard a small sniffle followed by "I don't like it when you yell.  It makes me sad."

"OK," I said, "let's work on a plan.  When Mom runs for buses or trains, you stay right with me.  I'll try to warn you before she's going to do it, but no matter what, you stay with me.  Then, next time, I won't have to yell.  Sound good?  Can you do that?"

"I can."

A few days later, standing across the street from our train, I could see what was likely to happen, and I calmly got No. 2's attention, "Mom's going to bolt.  You're going to hang with me right?  Then we'll catch her when I say it's safe, OK?"

"OK Dad."

Annnnnd, we haven't had a problem since, well, you know, not with that anyway.

I was inspired to share by the WSJ article by Jennifer Lehr, "The Wrong Way to Speak to Children".  Ms. Lehr suggests that parents speak respectfully to kids as if they were adults.  She has written an entire book on related subjects called Parentspeak.  It's due out in three days on January tenth.

The comments on Ms. Lehr's article are intense, and in both directions; a lot of parents love their children intensely.  I think that's good.  As for me, when I can remember to do it, and when the situation allows it, (obviously I don't always remember, and when I don't, the timing's not usually right either), talking with the kids in the way Ms. Lehr suggests opens up a new world, and makes life easier for all of us.  I get a window into what and how the kids think, and they get to see my perspective on why we do the things we do.  It's good; we're building a relationship... you know, just like grown-ups.


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