Sunday, July 6, 2014

Kid Considerations: I'm Leaving Without You

Kid Considerations:

“I’m Leaving Without You”: The Four Worst Words an Otherwise Loving Parent Can Use

During a recent vacation, I was at a bucolic tourist destination that experiences heavy family attendance during the summer. Throughout the day, I heard numerous examples of the usual parental commands and pleas that are a natural part of family travel, such as “We’re leaving NOW!”; “Put that down and come here!”; “No, we’re not staying a few more minutes”; “I know I said you could play on that before we leave, but someone else is there and we’re not waiting....”; etc. I also heard more than a couple of times the four most devastating and potentially damaging words a parent (or grandparent) can use: “If you don’t come right now, I’m leaving without you!

As a parent, I have traveled with a young child, and I know how challenging it can be when the day is long, the environment is stimulating, and the temperature is punishing. And I know the feeling of impatience and frustration even in a non-vacation daily routine when I recognized that we had to be somewhere, and needed to leave now to get there on time, but my daughter didn’t share my imperative to get a move on. And I’ve experienced the aggravation of wanting to pick up my child at the end of a long, tiring day (for both of us) and get home, while she was not quite ready to separate from her friends.

No matter how irritated, stressed, or annoyed I became, I never ever ever once threatened to leave her behind. And our program staff know, if they hear a parent make such a statement at pickup time, that they are to immediately intervene, assuring the child that her/his parent is NOT going to leave them behind. Even if doing so makes a parent angry, it is important that the children in our care feel safe, loved, respected, and wanted—four things that parents should be doing in their interactions as well.

There are two main reasons that making this threat is not just poor parenting, but has potentially serious long term consequences as well:

1.  By the time a child is 4 or 5 years old, he/she will have figured out that you are lying. Once that happens, you have, perhaps irrevocably, shattered their trust in you. You have given them every reason to question everything you tell them. And if they can’t trust you to be honest, they will have trouble trusting you to look out for them. They will also have learned that lying is a perfectly acceptable tactic to get what you want.

2. And most importantly of all: Even more than betraying their trust, threatening to leave manipulates one of the most primal fears a child can have—the fear of abandonment. And that’s why parents do it—because it works. If children didn’t harbor a fundamental fear of losing their parents and family, they wouldn’t care. The reason it works is exactly the reason you should never do it. Ever.

So what do you do when you need/want to leave and your child doesn’t? First of all, establish a pattern early on of never making a promise OR propose a consequence unless you can and WILL follow through. If you create a firm foundation of reasonable expectations and mutual trust, then you won’t need to manipulate fears with lies and threats to get a child to behave. Once you have established this pattern, understand that young children simply don’t experience time with the same sense of purpose that adults do, but there are things you can do to help with the process:
  • Make sure you have explained clearly to your child why it is important to leave at a particular time; 
  • Whenever possible, tell your child at least 5 or 10 minutes before it is time to leave that they will need to stop what they are doing, and how long they have left; 
  • Remind your child what the expected behavior will be when it is time to go (e.g., “when it’s time to go, you need to stop what you’re doing and come along without an argument”); 
  • Validate your child’s feelings about leaving while reinforcing the actions that you will take (“I know you are having fun and are disappointed/angry/sad that we have to leave, but that doesn’t change the fact that we will be leaving in five minutes”); 
  • And when it is time to leave, leave, even if it means struggling to stay calm while you pick up your screaming child and carrying her/him out the door. Even if you are in a public place, if you allow your child’s tantrums to delay your departure (in other words, if you give in and stay longer because you are afraid of being embarrassed by her/his behavior), then he/she will learn that tantrums work.

Be firm. Be fair. Be calm. Be loving. Be honest.

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