Q: My daughter Anna is six years old and I'm getting frustrated with how disrespectfully she can treat me. Last night is a typical example. I was reading "Cinderella," her favourite bedtime story, when the phone rang. It was a call I felt I should take, and within minutes she was poking me with her Cinderella Barbie (she holds her while we read) and being very rude. Then she stormed to her room and put a sign on her door that said "No Dad." I don't want my daughter to grow up disrespectful of others -- what I should I have done?
A: All behaviour serves a purpose. Don't focus on the behaviour. Instead, scratch the surface and you'll discover the belief behind the behaviour. Deal with that belief, and the need for the behaviour disappears -- just like magic! (In other words, understand what your daughter believes to be true in a given situation and help her with her feelings about that situation. When children feel better, they do better.)
My guess is that Anna felt unimportant and disrespected when you took the phone call during her special story time with you. The message she got was that the person on the phone was more important than she was -- not unlike how we'd feel at work if a colleague started taking calls in the middle of an important meeting. As you can see, the pumpkin doesn't fall far from the patch!
When our feelings are hurt, our reflex is to retaliate and get even. When we are "hurting in," we "hurt out" -- it's that simple. So, Anna hurt your feelings by poking you and interrupting. When that didn't work, she did the ultimate revenge number -- she rejected you and withdrew her love with her "No Dad" sign.
Take responsibility for your own behaviour: Whenever our children are behaving disrespectfully to us, it's useful to first think about what might have caused the behaviour. Could we have contributed by treating them disrespectfully? Remember, in this situation it's Anna's perception that rules. If she believed you didn't care or value her time with you, then she feels justified in being hurtful back. Tit for tat.
Set the record straight: Check in with Anna and try to verify how she views what happened. "Could it be, Anna, that I hurt your feelings when I talked on the phone during our story time?" Listen to what she has to say. Show her you now understand the purpose behind her behaviour. "So is that why you poked me and interrupted my call? You wanted to hurt daddy's feelings too?"
Apologize for your behaviour: "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings -- that wasn't at all what I meant to do. I love our story time together. I made a mistake." This is great modelling. You're taking responsibility for your role in the conflict, and this in turn will help Anna feel more comfortable in taking responsibility for her actions.
Show respect: Story time is your special date with Anna, and it's important that she believes you value and respect your time with her: "Anna, let's decide how we're going to handle phone calls during story time from now on." The most obvious solution is to let the answering machine take a message -- after all, that's what it's for! If, though, you're expecting an important call that you must answer, just treat Anna with respect and give her that information ahead of time. Then she'll understand.
Unfortunately, life isn't like the fairytale world of Cinderella -- there's no magic wand for creating instant transformations in children's attitudes. However, there's also no need to panic, because we can teach our children how to have respectful relationships. (Keep in mind that children aren't born knowing how to be respectful; it's something they need to learn.) In order to encourage this teaching and learning, I invite you to embrace an attitude in your relationships that I call "dual faith."
It's a two-way street: Show faith that Anna is very capable of being a respectful and caring child at home and at school. As well, have faith in yourself. You're capable of providing her with respectful, caring guidance. Just as you're doing now, we all need to explore our choices and develop our skills so that we can do our personal best for our children. Happy story time!
Beverley Cathcart-Ross is a certified parent educator, a private counsellor, a mother of four teenagers and founder of The Parenting Network.