What's Wrong with How We Talk to
Our Children — and What to Say Instead
"A substantive and subversive message of respect. The chapter about time-outs is worth the price by itself, but I highly recommend you read the whole thing.”
— Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting
"I love Lehr’s clarity, her respect for children, and her ability to make
it fun for readers as they have their worldview dismantled and renovated." — Dr. Laura Markham, Aha Parenting
"Lehr deeply understands kids, and her book is a lifesaver."
—Heather Shumaker, author of It's Okay Not to Share
"Smart, audacious, and often hilarious. Takes everything you thought you knew about parenting and turns it on its ear.”
—Jennifer Jason Leigh, actor/writer/producer
PARENTSPEAK is a provocative guide to what Jennifer Lehr calls "parentspeak" — the all-too-common phrases parents use when talking to their kids that may seem harmless and even helpful, but are, in fact, neither. With humor, candor and depth, Lehr draws on personal experiences and relevant research to clearly show how these go-to phrases can inadvertently manipulate, invalidate, objectify, micromanage, threaten and distress children and why they can lead to a host of unwanted outcomes and forms of trauma including: 1) fear of abandonment, 2) an insecure attachment style, 3) low self-esteem, 4) learned helplessness, 5) trust issues, 6) burnout, 7) anxiety, 8) depression and 9) people pleasing. Alas, Lehr warns that parentspeak distances us from our children instead of connecting us to them—the real them.
KIDS ARE PEOPLE TOO!
Lehr offers alternatives to parentspeak that are rooted in the fundamental truth that children are equal to adults and deserve to be treated with the same respect, consideration and compassion—a notion that flies in the face of the fact that, all too often, children are treated like second class citizens who are denied their autonomy and whose feelings are so often trivialized and dismissed. While Lehr acknowledges that children are not equal to adults in maturity, however, she explains, they are in dignity and value and have the same fundamental needs as all humans. In fact, she argues, that it is precisely because children are so vulnerable and dependent upon their parents, and, depending on their age, literally can't advocate for themselves the way older people can, that it is incumbent upon us adults to examine our own privileged positions of power and the ways in which we wield it.
NO CARROTS AND STICKS. NO REWARDS OR PUNISHMENTS.
Throughout ParentSpeak, Lehr makes crystal clear why using any type of manipulation or coercion to control children's behavior will eventually backfire. She argues that it is only when children truly feel unconditionally loved and know they have real agency, that challenging behavior subsides considerably and solving problems with them becomes very doable. However, she reminds parents, that setting boundaries with their children is as important is it is with other adults.
Synthesizing the work of many experts in the fields of psychology, medicine, education, human behavior and early childhood development—including Dr. Emmi Pikler, Magda Gerber, Dr. Thomas Gordon and Alfie Kohn, all who eschew the use of rewards and punishments—Lehr shares specific things parents can say and do to ensure that their kids feel seen, heard, felt, understood, considered, celebrated, enjoyed and ultimately accepted for who they are (not who their parents want or hope them to be).
That said, change doesn't happen overnight.
"It can sometimes feel like a both a blessing and a curse to have to break generational cycles, heal old wounds and learn new skills in order to become the parents we want to be and that our children deserve," acknowledges Lehr. This is because most of us default to parenting the way our parents did—even when we promise ourselves we never will—because the way we were treated when we were young gets deeply wired into our brains. It takes commitment and conscious effort over time—with experimentation and inevitable setbacks—to make real change. For Lehr, it was seeing the positive impact on her kids that gave her all the encouragement she needed to stay the course. Lehr explains:
"We can make little changes every day that cumulatively send the message to our children that we value them highly. That their point of view is important. Change comes in the details. It’s telling a baby you are going to pick her up and showing her your outstretched arms before you lift her so she knows what to expect. It’s taking the extra time to explain why something is important, instead of just making them do it because 'I said so.' It’s waiting to let your child have their own reaction to something they’ve done before we rush in with a 'Good job!' or a 'Keep at it!' It’s letting kids play in the way they want to without trying to direct their activity or the outcome. It’s honoring your child’s 'no,' whether it’s a hug they don’t want or tickling they’re done with. It’s letting your child be angry when you think they are overreacting. It’s not making them say 'hello,' or 'good-bye,' or 'thank you,' or 'sorry' in the moment, but being their wingman and trusting they’ll get there. It’s taking the time to figure out why they don’t want to do something, not just figuring out what you can do to get them to do it. It’s not screaming at them when you’re dying to unleash. It’s letting them know you get what they’re saying.
Certainly we’ll all mess up. We’ll be frazzled and snap and we’ll fall back into old patterns. We’re human! What’s important is that we make amends when we mess up so that our children don’t think our mistakes are their fault. The good news is that every mistake is a chance to model empathy for ourselves so that our children learn mistakes are normal and don’t diminish us."
Lehr's conclusion? By ditching parentspeak—and the control and condescension inherent in it—and replacing it with a respectful and compassionate approach to parenting, not only will our children thrive , but our relationships with them will as well.