Understanding Your Child's (and Your) Emotions
The book Liberated Parents, Liberated Children by
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is a fantastic book and a must-read for parents.
It profoundly changed the way I view dealing with my son. If I had to describe
the book in one phrase, it would be "emotional health." The following
article is meant to give the main highlights of the book, stated in a very
simple, conceptually lucid way as to act as a powerful study guide—and also to
give a slight criticism of the book.
The issue I take exception to is that they say they reject
the "logic" (also stated as "rational") model of parenting
in favor of the "validating feelings" model. I have no issue with
validating feelings, but I do take issue with the idea that what they reject is
I do not think this is a matter of semantics. By rejecting
"logic," the message they are trying to convey becomes muddled and
confusing. The authors themselves describe how they had great difficulty
implementing the advice given from their mentor, Dr. Ham Ginott, even years
after taking parenting courses. They describe how it is like learning a new
language and they had to carefully think over every word before saying it. I
contend this is because when a person is told they should not use logic, and
instead should use the magic formula offered, they will find themselves second
guessing everything they do, always having to reference a guide to determine
how to act. Logic is what integrates knowledge into a unified whole, and so,
without it, everything seems like a disjointed heap of advice, which is how I
sometimes felt when reading through their books. There is a powerful clarity of
knowledge that only a philosophy that stems from logic and reason can provide.
Further, the approach advocates by them is rational
as it advocates highly sophisticated observations of the child. When working
with a correct definition of "rational," it is easy to see how the
very excellent advice of observing your child's and your own emotions, i.e.,
empathy, fits into a philosophy of rational parenting.
To be sure, the authors are not the first proponents of this
dichotomy between empathy and reason. There are few thinkers who advocate
"rationality," who don't in some way discard emotions. And, there are
few advocates of empathy who fully embrace anything labeled as
"rational." My goal is to show that the two should be flawlessly
This article is meant to, first, be a thorough review of
their work such as to act as a study aid. And, second, to prove that the advice
offered in these books is based on logic—logic as applied to emotions
and parenting—and that what they describe as "logic," in fact is not.
In writing this article, I intend to cover all major aspects of the Faber/Mazlish
approach, integrating all of them into a more unified message, and to show that
these principles can be integrated even further into a philosophy of rational
parenting, which means observant parenting.
First, a brief over view of logic and reason. Reason is the
process of identifying reality. It requires a human consciousness to do this.
There is existence, which is absolute and unchanging in nature, i.e., has an
identity. Human consciousness comes to an understanding about what it sees, which
is a process and as such, is not automatic, perfect, or guaranteed. Logic is
the art of non-contradictory identification. In other words, that A = A.
What is described as "logic," by the authors is
when a child is not willing to cooperate with a parent and the parent tries to
explain to a child why their (the parent's) way of doing something is
"right." The authors describing the lectures they received from Dr.
In the beginning the meetings took the form of lectures, and
each lecture taught us new skills. We learned about the limits of logic in
dealing with a child, and about the power of speaking to his emotions. We saw
how it was possible to give a child in fantasy what we could not give him in
For me, who had been so dedicated to the rational approach,
this insight came as a gift. I can still hear the sound of my own voice as I
sat in the car, patiently explaining to a grumpy David that we were all
thirsty, that we couldn't help being stuck in traffic, that there was no way
for us to stop and get a drink, that complaining wouldn't make the car go any
I do not think this is logic or a rational way of
communicating with another human being. Imagine if, instead of being parent and
child, the two people involved were two adults. What if one adult tried to
argue with another person about the rightness of their idea, without listening
to the other person, explaining why their way was right? You could pick
a lot of words to describe this—bossy, preachy, lecturing, manipulative,
insensitive—but logical is not one of them. In fact, the word
"unreasonable" comes to mind.
The phrases, "listen to the child," or
also, "observe the child," can describe, simply and
eloquently, much of what is said by Faber and Mazlish. And this is perfectly in
line with reason, as reason is the process of observing reality. A
"rational" parent does not mean to be lecturing in nature but observant.
A rational chemist observes chemical; a rational doctor observes his patient; a
rational parent observes their child. Being observant is, from the day they are
born, the most important skill a parent can possess. And, if you accept this,
almost all of their advice becomes integrated and much easier to understand and
Now, for all of the specifics in how this applies.
The most common, powerful, and intellectually riveting theme
throughout all books is to validate a child's feelings.
I'll give a simple example of how not to validate a
child's feelings: a child says "I'm cold," and the parent says,
"Don't be silly it's warm in here."
Here it is easy to see how the validating feelings approach
is in line with logic and reason. Logic, because, if you don't, you are asking
a child to accept that they are warm—a non-A—when they say they are cold—an A. Validating
feelings is in line with reason, because reason is the process of observing
reality correctly. The child's feelings are real. Their perception of a
situation is different than yours. You may be warm, but the child is cold.
Looking back on my youth, it seems like there were two types
of adults: the kind that denied feelings, often telling you to "suck it
up" or "stop whining," and another kind that looked at you as if
you were a poor, helpless wounded bird as they tried to "sympathize"
with you. This latter kind would often guess as to what a problem you might
have is, when sometimes there wasn't one. They may say, "It can be hard to
start a new school," when in fact you weren't thinking that at all. This
is also a non-logical approach, because they are making up a feeling (A) when
none exist (0). Further, they tend to look at you as a creature incapable of
solving your own problem, a truly infuriating and condescending approach. Empathy
(validating feelings) is not the same thing as pity.
The approach truly grounded in reason is to listen to what a
child actually says and feels, then accurately reflect it back to them,
preferably in a simple, short way.
Reading about validating feelings came just at the right
time for me, when my son was 2 years and 2 months. At this age, I found, emotions
as verbally stated started to surface. My first experience was during the
summer in FL, when it thunderstorms a lot. One day, thunder cracked. My son
became visibly scared and even said, "John scared." I told him
"It's thunder; it's nothing to be scared of." As I was saying it, I
regretted the words coming out of my mouth and wanted to kick myself. Here I was
reading all about validating children's feelings, meditating on the nuances of
how this applies, and for this very simple emotion, I was telling him not
to feel it, that he should feel what I wanted him to feel, i.e., I was
externally manipulating him.
A few days later, suddenly and unexpectedly, thunder
cracked. He became visibly scared again, and again said, "John
scared!" This time, prepared, I used descriptive language. I told him,
"It's thunder," and then I validated his feelings the best way I know
how: I put my hand on his knee and said, "It's OK to be scared." For
the next crack of thunder, he said, without even a hint of fear and with much
enthusiasm, "Thunder! John is scared of thunder!" He said this in the
same way he might have said, "John is going to ride a train!!"
I was truly stunned by this. He seemed as excited about identifying
his emotion as he was when he first learned what a "ball" or the
"moon" was. For the next several days, when thunder cracked, he
simply said, "John is scared of thunder," and kept doing what he was
doing. Validating his feelings did not cause him to curl up into a ball; it
From then on, he always informed me of his feeling of being
scared of thunder. Had I kept telling him, "Don't be scared!" how
long would it take before he started to hide his feelings from me?
On this topic, let's also ask why a child may be afraid of
thunder: it's because thunder is scary and there is legitimate reason to
be afraid. If a person did not live in a house, thunder would be the first
warning to go seek shelter from dangerous lightning, wind, and rain. Let's
assume we did not live in houses. If thunder cracked and an adult told a child
to not be scared, the child's emotions would be scrambled in such a way to work
against his own survival.
What a gift it is to identify, validate, and help your child
understand his own emotions. How comfortable a child will become when they
learn that their emotions are allowed to be felt; that what they are feeling is
actually real. A young child is not lying when they say they are scared, upset,
cold, etc. I have found in my adult life that, assuming you are a semi-rational
person, trusting your emotions is an invaluable skill and almost leads you in
the right direction. If something just doesn't feel right, it is because
something probably isn't—and, when an adult, it is your job to investigate
One feeling that should always be respected is a child's
right to their own body. They should never be forced to kiss an older relative
out of "respect." Think of the contradictory message it sends when
you tell them, "No one should touch you in a way you don't like," and
then you force them to be touched in a way they don't like. The group RadKids
teaches children self-defense, and one of their main teachings is to trust your
instincts. This gift of trusting your emotions as true and valid could very
well save your child's life.
One thing that greatly confused me about the authors' work
is that they advocate that validating feelings come before any other
conversation, such as asking any who-what-when-where-why questions. This
confusion was cleared up when I saw it in action with my own son.
My son, who was only 2, was on a playdate with another boy,
also 2. At the end of the playdate, the boy's mother wanted to help clean up
the play dough we had been playing with. I normally ask my son to help clean it
up, and he usually does, at his own pace, when he is ready, and after he is
done. The mother swooped in and cleaned it up without any of these
considerations. My son was very, very upset and crying. The mother completely
ignored his feelings. He hit her. She snapped at my son, "No
hitting!" (This all happened in a matter of 30 seconds and I was in
another room only watching out of the side of my eye.)
I was furious that she would yell at my son. While she was
cleaning up the dough, he was visibly upset that she was doing it, and she
completely ignored this feeling of his. Instead, while he was upset, she
lectured at him that the play dough needed cleaned up. Then after escalating
his emotions to the point of hitting, she yelled at him. I have read many
experts say that crying is the last sign that an infant is hungry—that they
made many other signs before crying to indicate they were hungry. In the same
way, I see hitting as the very last sign that a child's emotional needs
have been ignored. If you want to minimize hitting, start listening to your
children—to their feelings.
Or, as another example, my son once threw all the magnets
off of our refrigerator. We asked him to clean them up. He didn't. Instead, he
got upset, started crying, and asked for a bagel. I think most people would
have seen giving him the bagel as "rewarding bad behavior." I told my
husband I'd like to try something. I gave him a small part of the bagel. He
instantly calmed down. Immediately after eating the bagel, he cleaned up the
magnets! Both my husband and I were stunned.
The lesson I got from this is that the emotions need to
be handled first. There can be no reasoning, lecturing, lessons given, or
orders followed while a child is upset. One mantra of Dr. Ginott is "only
after a child feels right can he think right." This can also be thought of
to mean that if a child feels bad, he cannot think straight or use reason. He
also says, "for good emotions to come in, bad emotions have to come
out." Practically what this means is to never, ever try to give a lesson,
lecture, or otherwise do anything with a child while they are in pain—either
physically because they hurt themselves or emotionally due to being upset.
As an example of how not to implement this, if for
instance, a child takes a tumble down the stairs, while they are crying, the
parent may lecture, "That's what you get when you play on the
stairs!" Or, after suffering some mean taunts at the hands of a friend, a
child may be in tears and the parent starts to lecture, "Sticks and stones
may break your bones … " These life lessons while a child is in pain will
go unheard. Imagine the last time you were in pain, or simply frustrated. Let's
say you burned dinner. If your spouse said to you, "That's what you get
when you take your eye off of the frying pan!", how would you react? You
would be hurt and defensive. Or, simply, if you just had a heart attack, would
the time you were in pain be a time to be lectured about your diet? The worst
case I ever heard of is when a teenage girl got pregnant. During delivery, her
mother refused to let her have any pain relief and screamed at her that is what
she got for having premarital sex. Whatever degree it is in, giving a lesson
while a child is in pain is as cruel and ineffective as this extremely mean
Instead, empathize when the child is in pain. After
they are done with the pain, then re-evaluate the situation to see what
could have been done better or talk over solutions or whatever it is you want
to do. They have to be in a calm state of mind to do post-analysis.
I have found, as is advocated by the authors, that
identifying your own emotions is also incalculably valuable. What I
found is that by identifying my emotion—verbally—I am liberated to clear out
any bad emotions and deal with situations more calmly and rationally. The
authors go so far as to say something as extreme as, "I am so angry right
now I could throw all of your toys out of the window!" All feelings are
valid—you can verbally say (almost) whatever you want—but all actions are
limited. Verbally, the only imitation is that insults should never be used (see
If, when your child is upset, they insult themselves,
validate the feeling but never the insult. They may say, "I am so stupid;
I can't pass a spelling test." The response is easy, "You are
frustrated that you didn't do well on the spelling test."
What is being described here is empathy. There is much
confusion about empathy. Empathy does not mean "help others." It also
does not mean "agree with others." It simply means to turn a
listening ear to a person. Dr. Ginott says this should be done in a short way,
"turn a paragraph into a sentence; a sentence into a word; a word into a
gesture." It need not be a one-hour emotion-fest as would be seen on
Oprah. It also has its limits. If a person is falling into a "woe is me"
state of mind, they need a pep talk, not empathy.
Although the authors' say they are opposed to models of
parenting based on "rationality," this approach can be and should be
part of a model of parenting based on reason. Validating feelings is part of
rational parenting—of the constant observations and running narrative that an
observant parent does. Observation, I argue in my e-book series entitled The
Observant Mom, is the most important, primary characteristic of good
parenting. It includes observing your child's physical signs, what they say,
what they feel; and what you feel. It starts when they are infants: you observe
their physical signs for hunger and sleep, and, if rational, deliver it to
them. It continues as they get older and you start narrating all of life for
them, as to raise their awareness of reality. For instance, when you turn a
light on, say "On!" so they make the connection between the word
"on" and what is happening.
It is good however to isolate out feelings as something to
observe and accept as immutable parts of reality. A child's emotions should be
as glaringly obvious to a parent as a bruise on their arm or the words coming
out of their mouth, and should be taken into account as they make parenting
decisions. The authors even describe this, in a section called "feelings
are fact," using what is dangerously close to a language of reason:
My children's feelings had become as real to me as apples,
pears, chairs, or any other physical object. I could no more ignore what the
children felt than I could ignore a barricade in the middle of the road. It is
true that their feelings could change—sometimes very quickly—but while these
feelings were being felt there was no greater reality.
Use Descriptive Language
Another powerful message from the authors is to use
"descriptive language" instead of "value judgments," i.e.,
insults or praise.
When you first read this advice, you may think it means to
never coach, explain, or comment on a child's work at all—just being completely
silent or at the very least, completely impartial. But that is not what the
authors mean. And, again, by framing this issue as one of being rooted in
reason makes the issue, which they directly say can be hard to understand,
crystal clear to understand.
Let's start with praise—it's a lot more fun. Instead of
being generic or over-the-top with praise, they instead advocate to be very
specific and descriptive in how you praise.
The classic example is when a child brings you a drawing.
Some typical reactions are to give generic praise, such as "what a nice
painting!" or to give global praise, such as "You are the best artist
ever!" Instead, take an interest in the work and describe it,
"I see a horse with a beautiful long mane and I love how you coordinated
all of the colors." Certainly, this approach is better. Saying "Great
job, kid!", perhaps even throwing the work back to them with hardly a
glance, is an uncaring, uninterested response—and the child will notice. If you
give a description of the work, you are taking an interest in what they did, and
taking an interest in one's work is what every creator of any age wants.
Note that by describing the work, you can and will likely
make value judgments, such as "how pleasant!" or "how
thoughtful!" The authors' language, in my opinion, is a bit sloppy in how
they present this idea, saying that there are no value judgments. They
even say praise is fine; it just needs to be done better. The authors, quoting
Dr. Ginott, their mentor, "[… ]telling a child he's 'good' is [not]
necessarily bad; it's just not good enough."
This approach to praise is powerful. It infuses the child
with actual self-confidence. They aren't just told they are good, but why
they are good. They are not just a "good boy," they are a boy capable
of making a good drawing or fixing the sink or telling the truth or any number
of things. You are helping raise the child's awareness of reality—the reality
of who he as an individual is. You are helping him to see what his strengths
are. This can go a long way towards a number of things, not the least of which
is choosing a future career path. And there is nothing quite like observing,
for yourself, your own strengths that gives a person actual self-confidence.
When I was younger, I kept a journal of my own notes,
specifically so that "when I was older I would remember what it was like
to be a child." One of the things I wrote, or at least remember thinking,
was that I would tell my daughter, should I have one, not just that she was
pretty but why she was pretty. I would describe that she had beautiful
eye lashes, beautiful hair, or great skin. I knew had someone done this for me,
I would bat my eye lashes when I could; be proud to let my hair down; and be
comfortable in my own skin. This approach, I think, would evaporate the severe
self-esteem problem so many teenage girls have, especially when it comes to
what they look like. To think I wrote this exact thing about descriptive praise
as a teenager! To know I craved it when I was young makes me that much more
confident in this approach.
Let me point out that this approach of using descriptive
language is completely, utterly, and perfectly in line with reason. Reason is
description. That's what reason is: a total commitment to observing, understanding,
and acting in accordance with the facts of reality. An Ayn Rand quote that
struck me the day I read it and has stuck with me ever since is, " A
physical science would not permit itself (not yet, at least) to ignore or
bypass the nature of its subject. Such an attempt would mean: a science of
astronomy that gazed at the sky, but refused to study individual stars,
planets, and satellites." By nature, reason is not generic but very
specific and detailed.
Now let's move on to insults. They should never, ever, be
used. I will make a case that insults are counterproductive in all areas of
life, with children and with other adults you would like to see change.
It is simple: insults are not motivators. You cannot change
someone by making them feel bad about themselves. It is not helpful; it is
demoralizing. This approach of not insulting a child is advocated in the books
entitled "Positive Discipline." The authors argue that you cannot
change a person by making them feel bad about themselves, such as with
"blame, pain, or shame." This is why they are opposed to spankings or
timeouts (punitive discipline) as a method of behavior modification. Let's also
add insults, labels, and physical or emotional pain to the list of things that
do not improve a person.
This again does not mean to turn a blind eye to problems. But
instead of insults, weakness in the child should be seen as a need for
training, coaching, teaching, and encouragement.
This extends to all areas of the child's life. What good
does it to, if a child is struggling with penmanship, to tell them, "You
have terrible penmanship!"? Instead, after observing that they need work
in this area, start to work with them, building on their strengths. Or, if they
are socially awkward around peers, what good does it do to say to a child,
"God, you are such a DORK!" Or even worse is making fun of an
overweight child as being "fat" or "chubby." Instead, give
them the tools they need for improvement.
The insulting approach is one based on mysticism. Logic
is a process and is not automatic. To acquire any skill whatsoever, the
child must learn it. To not equip the child, expecting them to have his
mysterious skill automatically, is mysticism. There is some knowledge or skill
that the child is expected to have, but doesn't, and gets insulted over it. The
child can only end up feeling like it is a skill outside of his reach. An
approach grounded in logic and reason naturally seeks to train, equip, and
explain the child what is needed—breaking up a skill into component skills and
building on each. Logic dictates that everything be taught and explained; it is
intrincism that gives rise to blanket insults.
Another closely related evil to insults is
"roles." A role is an insult but worse because it has the implicit
phrase, "and you'll always be that way" attached at the end. An
insult may be "you were clumsy," a role may be, "Here is Susie,
who we have nicknamed Butterfingers." What can this do except lock a child
into thinking they will be or do this undesirable thing for the rest of their
life? Instead, you as a parent may say, "I have confidence that in the
future you can be careful when doing the dishes."
With all of this talk about describing and taking things at
face value, it may be weird to find out that the authors advocate encouraging
what might be in the child—a future desirable state that is not the
current state, to not lock a child into a "role." But that is what
maturation is: going from an immature to a mature state. This is what could be
called romantic realism: encouraging children to a perfectly attainable goal.
And I may add, through rational, encouraging means.
I adopt this view of not insulting people not just with my
children, but with every adult I encounter in life, including coworkers,
friends, family, and, of course, my husband. The results of using this method
are truly jaw dropping. With my husband, whenever small issues come up (like
"did you thaw the meat?"), I always try to ask him in a way and tone
that never blames him should something go wrong. If something does go wrong, I
immediately look for a solution. It not only creates for a better marriage, but
it makes me a calmer and happier person. There is an inner peace I have
that strives to never, ever hurt a person with words—in the same way that I
don't hurt a person with fists. This does not mean I keep quiet over
issues. I simply bring things back to the issue without any insults.
At work (when I used to work), the results were even more
dramatic. I used to be very in the weeds with new engineers, showing them how
they did things right or wrong. I would get upset when they wouldn't do what I
asked. I will be the first to tell you that it caused resentment. I completely
backed off. I at first backed off simply because I was exhausted, but backing
off happened to coincide with my reading about positive discipline. I made an
effort to never, ever insult them. Instead, I would give them advice on what or
how to do something, then let them go off and work on it on their own. I did
give feedback, but only either when asked or expected, such as during a formal
peer review. This greatly improved relationships, and the work they did was so
good as to sometimes be jaw dropping!
What I had to learn was that I could not expect them—new
engineers—to absorb everything I said immediately or perform at the level I was
at, given I had been doing what I had been doing for 10 years. I could not demand
their performance; their growth had to be done by them. And it is and
was a process that had many mistakes along the way. This is natural and to be
expected. Parents take notice. Your children will make mistakes along the way.
Mistakes are valuable. They learn and grow from them. Don't step in and try to
do things for them, otherwise you are taking this valuable learning experience
away from them. And, again, don't insult them as they put one timid but
confident foot in front of the other, either.
Let Them Solve their own problems
It may seem strange that in these books is a very hard
message about not hovering over a child, letting them solve their own problems on
their own. What does this have to do with validating feelings or descriptive
language? It however has everything to do with descriptive language. Using
descriptive language is the very key to guiding a child towards solving
their own problems.
Currently, there are two and only two loud, noisy fields of
thought on how much guidance one should give a child. On one side are
helicopter parents. These people don't have any experts or even bloggers in
their corner, but this style of parenting is ubiquitous. Helicopter parents do
not let a child solve problems on their own. They are there every step of the
way, micromanaging their child's life. They check up on if they did their
homework; groom them; drag them to piano lessons. Having a totalitarian
mindset, if children are in a conflict, the parent will decide a proper
negotiation between the children, such as "each of you share the toy for
15 minutes at a time," which at no point solicited the children's input.
They treat the child as if the child is a puppet, and they are the puppeteers.
On the other side are parents who, in response to helicopter
parenting, say children need no supervision whatsoever. A popular article from
the Atlantic called "The Over-Protected Kid", proudly says to let
children play in junkyards with no adult supervision, epitomizes this. Parents
give no coaching, training, or guidance to the child—they turn a blind eye to
even the worst of dangers, including bullies, predators, and physical dangers.
Children, who by nature are in an immature state, are turned loose on the
world, told to figure things out on their own. The children, being children,
can only tend to act like mindless, usually cruel zombies, and tend to get hurt
a lot (and sick) along the way.
Using descriptive language resolves the issue completely.
This approach does not turn a total blind eye to the children but also does not
physically solve problems for them.
As an example, when my son was 2, he tried diligently to put
a train track set together. He consistently put a long piece where a short
piece should be and a short piece where a long piece should be. He would ask us
to help him fix it regularly. These would be the responses of each parenting
helicopter parent would do it for him, with no explanation.
blind eye parents would tell them to figure it out on their own, with no
parent who used descriptive language would describe the problem to him: how the
long and short pieces need switched.
I did exactly this, described the problem to him, and, at
just 2 years and 3 months, after I left the room and came back, my son had
assembled the train track on his own, correctly!
This approach is like breathing a soul into the child. You
are raising their powers of observation, i.e., their reasoning
capability. They become the maestros of their own life. It is also part
of a bigger parenting philosophy which I call a "Hands Off!"
philosophy. It means that verbal coaching is acceptable but actually solving
problems is not. If you are worried about raising a "spoiled" child
by using any of the approaches in this article, let me ask you: If you let
children solve most of their problems on their own, do you think they will
In reading through Liberated Parents, Liberated Children,
some parents said they genuinely never had the opportunity to praise their
children, or even build on their weaknesses, as the child did not do anything
remarkable in the weeks that passed. It struck me that the only way this could
happen is if the parent was not letting the child do things on their own. If
they are doing things on their own, there should be lots of room for either
sophisticated, descriptive praise, or constructive suggestions of improvement.
If you find yourself in this situation, think of things the child can do
It is important also, I have found, to not only use
descriptive language, but to listen to the child's emotions while getting them
to learn new skills or solve problems on their own.
I observed some "tiger moms" while my son was
taking swim lessons. It was a "Mommy and Me" course designed for
toddlers, where the parent is in the water with the child. During the class,
the children of the tiger moms were miserable, upset, and crying at what the
moms were trying to get the children to do. One child was 14 months old and the
mother, at the prompt of the instructor, kept trying to get the child to jump
into the water. The girl's face scrunched up and she let out a painful high
pitched cry, which if I could put into words sounded like, "I've done this
before and I don't want to do it and no one will listen to me so I can do
nothing but cry this sorrowful cry." The other mom would push her
daughter, who was 2 years and 2 months, under water, toward the wall or another
adult to show how the child could "swim." The child cried
hysterically and frantically. When the child would show she was scared of
something, the mother would say, "She's fine! She's fine!" and not a
second later, the child would burst into tears.
These moms ignored, purposefully and willfully, the
emotional cries of their children. I was able to notice well before the
children started crying that they were upset—these pre-signs were also ignored.
The children's emotional health took a back seat to performance.
Further, as the children were being submerged in the water,
they had a look of total confusion on their face. As an advocate of
rationality, I am aghast that parents would cause such a disoriented state in
their children. Is it any wonder that so many people see the world as an
irrational, dizzying place?
While this approach sometimes makes short term gains, such
as the 2 year 2 month year old girl who could "swim," frantically, to
the wall after her mother pushed her, in the long run, this approach is self-defeating.
These moms externally forced achievement onto their children. Whatever success
the children had was reactionary, forced, and desperate. When the mothers are
removed from the situation, what is the likelihood the children will continue
to swim on their own, as a happy, internal pursuit?
Worst of all: at what expense is this approach? The
consistent message these children got is that their emotions were to be
ignored. What is at stake is their emotional health. I had epiphany
while watching all of this: Ultimately, these children's ability to achieve
happiness—arguably the highest emotion to achieve— either in the specific case
of swimming or broadly in their entire life, is greatly compromised if not
There are much better healthier ways to build skills in
children. Borrowing from Montessori, a key strategy is to break up complex
skills into smaller, enjoyable skills, practiced in a stress-free
environment until mastered and then combined. However, the book actually does
not mention this as a strategy and so I will not elaborate on it. I actually
take issue with this too, because I think the end result is more than a simple
sin of omission, but this is for another article.
What I would like to point out, however, and in line with
the message from the authors, is that no genuine learning can come about when a
child is in emotional distress. To truly master something, a clear, happy state
of mind is required. In this way, notice a certain irony: most see pushing a
child as the path to achievement and that empathy will create a very timid
child but in fact empathy empowers the child.
Accept Your Feelings
To fully execute this approach, it is important for a parent
to get control of their own emotions. A study
came out that showed that, of the parents who do spank their children, they spank
their children much more often than they admit. They spank not because they
think it is a principled approach to discipline but because they are
frustrated. (I am sure you can guess I am opposed to spanking, as is Dr. Ginott).
To encourage you to become a patient parent, I do not think
it comes down to having enough grit to muscle through all potentially
frustrating episodes. It is not a matter of putting more pennies in your
patience meter, but rather having some skills to cope with your emotions. Said
another way: it is not a matter of willpower but strategy. Said yet another
way: work smart, not hard.
To master your own feelings, as noted previously, verbally
stating your emotions, I have found, is extremely helpful. Simply state,
"It makes me angry when you keep climbing on the couch." It is
healthy for your children to be told of your emotions. It also helps, as
previously noted, to "clear out" your bad emotions such that you can
calmly deal with the situation.
Many other strategies, such as a "positive
timeout," may work for you and your family. I encourage you to find as
many strategies as possible.
Ultimately, the messages contained in this book, and in this
article, is that the tender creature that is your child, who is to become a
man, must be built with the utmost respect for who he is, genuine love,
support and encouragement. Sounds so simple right? Then why don't people do it?
When I look at my son's face, and think of this approach, I
think of it as ultimate love. This approach completely rejects any insults or
pain as supposed growth measures. These ills, if we are patient enough as
parents, will never befall my children. Yet at the same time, his actual spirit
is developed, piece by piece, through challenges that he works through on his
own, with but a little gentle guidance. I easily look at my child as compared
to other children and see how content, well-behaved, and joyful he is. There is
a reason for that.
Note however that when under the care of other parents, my
son can be aggressive; such as previously described where he hit another
mother. That my son's behavior changes while under the care of other adults
makes it glaringly obvious that adults greatly escalate situations and
cause children to be "naughty." How great it would be if, instead of
punishing children, adults made a more comprehensive analysis of the entire
situation, including their behaviors, to see what may have caused the aggressive
Being observant of both your child and your own feelings fits
in perfectly with an observant, rational approach to parenting. You simply take
their emotional state into consideration when making decisions, as you would
the words coming out of their mouth or physical signs of health. It is easy
enough and simple enough to notice and say, "I see you are sad," or
even, "I see this makes you happy!" Ignoring or denying these
emotions can only result in a child who doesn't understand their own emotions,
doesn't trust them, and becomes calloused.
It could be said that many people are naïve and don't have
the skills to pay attention to their children's emotional health. I don't
entirely believe that. It comes down to, if, as a parent, you want to build
your child up or tear them down. It is true if you want to build them up, you
still need to learn specific skills, but I can't accept that a person with this
goal wouldn't have a negative sense of life reaction to certain parenting
styles. Laughing at a child in pain; telling a young child just hit by another
child to "stop whining"; hitting your own child—do these sound like
the innocent mistakes of a naïve parent? It amazes me how many people were
mistreated as children and then turn right around and do it to their children.
Perhaps some of what they do is out of frustration. Another part of it is the
sense of power they get out of it. After being a victim for so long, they dish
out abuse with glee. It helps to understand the world when you realize that
some people are just asses.
I am amazed when I read through the very good work of some
psychologists who say they are opposed to "reason" and also
"selfishness," and then every part of their message is in alignment
with reason and rational self-interest. Their message would be much more
powerful, natural, and empowering, if they would embrace this, for man is
a creature of reason and must necessarily act in his self-interest. They
lose fluidity when they do this. Why not work with man's nature instead
of against it?
On the flip side, however, many rational thinkers dismiss feelings
entirely. "If something is true, who cares about feelings!" is their
usual motto. What is being asked is not to pander to feelings,
automatically agree with the feeling, or use feelings as tools of cognition—but
to simply acknowledge them. Like all areas of life, if these are acknowledged,
managed, and thus, mastered, the results are much more desirable.
Reason and empathy should not be seen as enemies but as
entirely compatible and desirable virtues.
July 16, 2014