Sandy Blackard helps “parents who want more than just well-behaved kids.” She has taught parents and teachers the Language of Listening®for over 15 years and her book is a 2012 National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) gold winner. Read part 1 of my interview with Sandy for an introduction to Say What You See or continue with part 2 below to learn more.
What does it mean that “Children act according to who they believe they are”? Does this mean that if they’re misbehaving, they think they’re bad?
You are referring to our second premise: “All children have every possible inner strength; and children act according to who they believe they are.” To answer your question about whether a child who is misbehaving thinks she is bad, it depends on whether or not the child considers what she is doing to be misbehaving. Most children do not.
If you listen and take children at their word (which I highly recommend), you will hear a different point of view which is almost never, “I wanted to be bad!” Instead what you hear is, “I hit him because he took the ball, and I wanted it,” or the famous line after wrestling around and breaking a vase, “We were just playing!” Those things are the pure truth. The problem comes when we assign “bad” motives to children based on the outcome, as though they were trying to hurt someone or break our things. If a child hears, “You are a bad girl,” often enough, she will believe it and then act out of it, but usually with resignment. We can all understand the thought process of, “What difference does it make? They’re just going to yell at me and say I’m bad anyway. I might as well just do what I want.”
The good news is that given the buoyant nature of the human spirit and our innate drive toward healthy growth, it takes a pretty traumatic experience for a child to fully believe he or she is a bad person. While on the other hand, it takes very little for a child to believe he or she is a good person, because kids already do. You can see how quickly a strength takes hold when you point one out and the next day you hear your child repeat it herself like, “I put my books away. I’m tidy.”
I remember the day I pointed out my older daughter Colleen’s strength, “determined.” She was five and working on a Tinker Toy® construction that kept falling apart, but she didn’t give up. In high school after finishing the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, she commented, “The reason I made it through IB was because I was determined.” She’s off in New York City now, determined to become an artist, and she’s succeeding! Her work has been in shows every month for over a year!
You say that children need three things: experience, connection, and power. Can you elaborate on this? What kind of experience? What qualifies as connection?
Our third premise is: “All behaviors are driven by healthy needs; and children need three things: experience, connection and power.” There are a vast array of human needs, but for practical purposes, I boil them down to three. The Three Basic Needs is actually our second simple parenting tool:
- Experience — This is the, “I’ve got this body, now what can I do with it,” need. It’s the need to explore; to touch, taste, feel, see and hear things; to move, run, jump, climb and wrestle; to experience a wide range of emotions. You can think of it as the need for any kind of physical and emotional experience just because the child can. Can do’s are perfect for meeting this need.
- Connection — This is the need to belong and to feel noticed, understood, validated, and loved. It shows up in cries for such things as attention, physical contact, recognition and acknowledgment; wanting help even with easy tasks; and needing to feel special. saying what you see brings connection to every moment, which why that’s where we always start.
- Power — This is the need to feel confident, in control of self, and able to make an impact on the world. It shows up as whining; frustration, demands; control battles; throwing, breaking or hurting things; tantrums; wild actions; refusals to cooperate, etc. If left unmet it can go toward resignment and giving up. Can do’s work here by helping kids see their strengths. Strengths are the real goal because they are the most fulfilling and long-lasting way to meet this need. The more powerful you know you are, the less you need to prove it to yourself and others by controlling the world around you.
Does having power mean they are in charge and parents can’t or shouldn’t tell them what to do?
The answer is a clear cut NO! That would be disastrous for the child and the parents.When children are given control of things that they are equipped to handle, like setting boundaries adults should be setting or making family decisions, they actually find it scary. Kids in that situation often decide they have to be right and then find it increasingly hard to accept adult guidance. Of course they would — they feel like they are on their own and can’t afford to be wrong, so they block it out. Rather than feeling powerful, kids put in charge of adult boundaries continue to need more and more external control because at the core, they know they are in over their heads. This creates a huge, constant power deficit. They basically feel powerless on the level of identity and have to keep proving they are not.
What works is parents setting boundaries for themselves and their children that model self-respect. We call it setting boundaries like walls. Can do’s provide the opportunity for children to fill their need for power by controlling their choices inside our boundaries. As they learn more about the world and gain awareness of their strengths, kids become ready and able to set boundaries for themselves with confidence.
To demonstrate how to use the Three Basic Needs, I’ll use the example of taking care of another child. Let’s say you need to change your baby’s diaper and your five-year old wants you to play a game, gets upset and starts pulling diapers from the diaper bag and throws them around.
Saying what you see helps you see what the child wants, which in turn reveals the need:
SWYS: “You are throwing diapers around! You want me to stop and play with you instead of changing the baby’s diaper.”
Your child’s wants and actions tell you that the needs are connection (your full attention) and power (control of you and where the diapers go). Making the child leave or put the diapers back would increase both needs and cause an escalation. Instead, name a strength to fill the need for power and, since throwing diapers is not hurting anything or anyone, make diaper throwing into a game to build connection and power:
STRENGTH: “You really can throw hard and make those go right where you want them to!”
CAN DO: “Hmmm. I need to change a dirty diaper and you want to play a game. Must be something we can do to get to your game really fast!”
Child: “You can stop changing the diaper.”
CAN DO: “Hmmm. Nope. That won’t work; the baby needs a clean diaper. Must be something else we can do. Hmmm. How about you run really fast and get that diaper in the corner, and see if you can throw it to me? That way we can get done really fast and get back to your game!”
STRENGTH: “Look at you running really fast. You threw that one right to me! Now another and another.”
SWYS: “Look at that, clean diaper and fun, too!”
STRENGTH: “You can make anything into a game!”
After keeping your word and playing the game the child originally wanted to play, you can continue to build connection and the child’s strengths by returning to the diapers and playing one last game of ” throw the next diaper to me before I put mine back,” or let the child make up one. Not only does this get the diapers back where you want them, it builds happy associations with the changing room.
The more you say what you see the more strengths you will start to notice. One that stands out to me is the child’s choice of what to throw — diapers. Almost always, children make good choices like this and don’t even know it. Look around next time your child throws something in anger. Could it have been something more precious or breakable? Name that as a strength later in a do-over when everyone has cooled down as in:
STRENGTH: “When you were mad at me at the baby’s changing table today, you wanted to throw something, and you chose something that wouldn’t break or make a big mess — diapers. That shows you are careful (or thinking) even when you are mad!”
Part 3 of my interview with Sandy will be up next week and focus on what I call Tornado Parenting: when you’re not just having a bad day, but feel like you’re parenting in a tornado and don’t want to lose the attachment to your kids or yourself just to get through the storm. For more of Sandy’s great tools, sign up for her free monthly newsletter.