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There’s a wonderful essay by Jeff Atwood on what it means to be a parent. After two years of parenting, I’ve come around to his view of things. Parenting, much of the time, is about coaching kids as they learn to deal with their emotions. When a toddler has a tantrum, she is overcome with anger and frustration, and just doesn’t know how to respond. The job of the parent is to teach the child how to deal with it.
Bad parenting is the opposite. Instead of accepting kids’ feelings, you reject them, and teach your kids to reject their feelings, too. “You’re too old for that!” or “you don’t actually feel that way.” Or, “stop crying!”
Atwood quotes AJ Jacobs, who has a great way of summarizing this point.
The best marriage advice book I’ve read is a paperback called How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. As you might deduce from the title, it wasn’t meant as a marriage advice book. But the techniques in this book are so brilliant, I use them in every human interaction I can…
The book was written by a pair of former New York City teachers, and their thesis is that we talk to kids all wrong. You can’t argue with kids, and you shouldn’t dismiss their complaints. The magic formula includes: listen, repeat what they say, label their emotions. The kids will figure out the solution themselves.
I started using it on Jasper, who would throw a tantrum about his brothers monopolizing the pieces to Mouse Trap. I listened, repeated what he said, and watched the screaming and tears magically subside. It worked so well, I decided, why limit it to kids? My first time trying it on a grown-up was one morning at the deli. I was standing behind a guy who was trying unsuccessfully to make a call on his cell.
“Oh come on! I can’t get a signal here? Dammit. This is New York.”
He looked at me.
“No signal?” I say. “Here in New York?” (Repeat what they say.)
“It’s not like we’re in goddamn Wisconsin.”
“Mmmm.” (Listen. Make soothing noises.)
“We’re not on a farm. It’s New York, for God’s sake,” he said.
“That’s frustrating,” I say. (Label their emotions.)
He calmed down.
What I like most about Atwood’s essay is that he concludes that adults are on the same learning curve as children. In the end, becoming a better adult is often about dealing with your own inner tantrums. It’s about accepting feelings and thoughts that you wish would go away.
And that leads me to my favorite book on how to parent yourself. The book The Happiness Trap summarizes a branch of clinical psychology called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
ACT’s basic premise is this. The laws of physics work differently inside your head than they do outside of your head. Outside of your head, if you push something away, it moves away. Taking out the garbage leads to the desired result: your garbage is on the curb, and not in your house. But, inside your head, pushing things away makes them stick around longer. I’ve written about this before: what we resist, persists. Pushing away anger, sadness, and frustration only makes the problem worse. It’s as if every time you took the trash to the curb, you came back home to find it strewn across your living room.
And so ACT is about avoiding the “happiness trap,” in which we desperately try to get happy by pushing away negativity. Instead, ACT encourages people to accept unwanted thoughts and feelings. You label those emotions and feelings, saying to yourself “hey, there’s that old angry feeling again.” And then you move on with your life, letting all of that bad stuff stick along for the ride. In other words, you do with yourself what AJ Jacobs did at the deli.
What’s interesting to me is that both ACT and the parenting book that Atwood recommends counsel the same approach. To be human is to be beset by unpleasant feelings. When a toddler has those feelings, the job of a parent is to help the child grapple with them. When we have those feelings, we ought to do the same.