If you’re a parent, you know full-well how much airtime is spent on the topic of child raising, and especially on the subject of discipline. We all want to constructively teach our children to be kind and to pay attention at all the right moments.
But let’s be honest: much of parenthood is spent keeping small, belligerent humans from self-destructing and the rest can be an endless attempt to keep ourselves sane.
In 15 years of working with children in my former career as a nanny, I’ve noticed one important thing: our attempts to discipline can often impair emotional connection.
Discipline as we know it is fairly easy; it's connection that's hard.
Most parents are pretty good at drawing a line and meting out punishment when that line is crossed. Discipline, however, doesn't usually give us the result we're after.
There are few things more frustrating than watching well-intended words and actions spark negative reactions. We long for our spouses, our kids and friends to hear what we’re trying to say without reacting to us, but often have no idea how to accomplish this.
All we tend to see are the actions we don’t like, the things we wish people would stop doing.
When I’m in crisis or feeling desperate, it can feel like the people around me are only focusing on behavior of mine that they don't like, whether it be escalation, a raised voice or intensity of some kind. I’ve struggled with this since childhood.
I could never understand how to get the help I needed. And even though I hate being judged first on my behavior in those moments, I would find myself doing this to my husband and to the kids in my care: “Calm down first, and then we'll talk;” “Stop yelling at me, you are being selfish;” “I can't handle your stress level right now.”
In a season of very low morale, my husband and I ended up seeing a couples’ therapist who introduced us to the concept of Nonviolent Communication, a method of interaction outlined in psychologist Marshall Rosenberg’s book of the same name. Our therapist was so generous toward both of us emotionally, so non-judgmental and affirming, I figured he must be on to something.
As I have pondered this very different way of communicating, and have begun to put it into practice, it’s shown me how to connect with others in a way that can replace discipline or arguing. Especially in our interactions with children.
At its core, Nonviolent Communication is about meeting our needs and avoiding judgment.
It is easy to tell a child, "You're being annoying." It takes more insight to say, "You need a physical outlet, right now," or, “You’re frustrated and don’t know how to express it. Can you take a minute to think about what you might be needing?”
For so many parents, helping everyone get what they need can feel impossible. Promoting constructive communication can seem like a task of mythical proportion. It's not — it just takes some learning.
According to Rosenberg, here are the four steps involved in non-judgmental communication:
Observe what’s happening. “What do we notice others saying or doing,” asks Rosenberg, “that is either enriching or not enriching our lives?” The catch: expressing it without judgment or evaluation.
So often we say things like, "John is a good man," or "He is not very nice," instead of straight observations such as, "John gave 25 percent of his salary to a non-profit he is passionate about," or "He pounded his fist on the table."
One is an evaluation, the other is an observation. We can be more present for others by creating space for observations that don’t include judgment.
After observing a behavior or action, we name our feelings: Are we concerned? Hurt? Annoyed? Maybe we don't know, and need to think about it for a minute?
We’re not usually taught how to identify our feelings, beyond happy, sad or mad. (There are feeling charts online that can help you sort them out.)
Next, we verbalize the need connected to the feelings.
This is tough for most people, because we’re usually not taught how to identify and name needs. It’s important to note that a need is not a request for an action, nor is it a “want.”
While we may want chocolate or a new shirt, we may need joy or spontaneity. Learning to differentiate between wants and needs allows us to see that when we have a need, we always have choices and options for how to meet it.
This is a concrete action we request, but shouldn’t be framed as a judgment or demands. This can be tricky, since, according to Rosenberg, “most of us grew up speaking a language that encourages us to label, compare, demand and judge rather than to be aware of what we are feeling and needing.”
How then, do we put these steps together into an easy-to-use format that we can remember when find ourselves at verbal or emotional impasses? NVC recommends using a fill-in-the-blank sentence template for communicating fully:
“When I (see, hear, notice or think about)___, I feel _, because I need _. Would you be willing to __?”
Notice what it excludes. It doesn’t evaluate the person doing the behavior as wrong or bad. It doesn’t include the words “should” or “must”.
Even compassionate parents I know often impute responsibility for other people's’ feelings onto their children, such as, “When you hit your sister that makes her feel sad.” We don't have to blame, evaluate or control anyone else in order to move forward.
Here are a few recommendations for how to implement NVC on a practical parenting level.
Kids need to know that their worth does not come from their behavior.
Learn to notice specific things you admire about your children and use those as opportunities to communicate enrichment and to find out what they might want to express: “I really like the tower you built. It looks like you put a lot of work into it. What was the most important part of that project for you?”
Rather than ingraining binary thinking into our children, even when we are praising them or being encouraging: “You are so good at that! What a good kid! You are smart!” we can learn to be more effective by giving our kids a non-judgmental place in which to share their lives.
You’ll encounter times when your children will be unwilling to do what you request.
The great thing in those moments? They’re opportunities to meet your own needs. Imagine a scenario where your family is at the dinner table and your child is antsy and not eating.
Rather than scolding, bribing or coercion, you might try saying something like, “When I see you bouncing in your chair I feel frustrated because I need peace and cooperation at the table. Would you be willing to take three bites without bouncing and then get down?” If you are met with a “no,” then meet your own needs.
Do you need to go have 5 minutes of peace? Do you need to take your plate into your bedroom? Resist the urge to shame and later, outside of the heated moment, find out what they needed. Did she need to move around? Did he need a break from people talking to him?
Teach them to look back and think about what they might have needed. Then share what you needed and how you felt without inserting any judgment or evaluation of them or yourself.
Laminate a needs and feelings chart.
Bring out the chart during down times and familiarize yourselves and your children with the difference between the two. Make sure your kids know you are not expecting things of them that you are not, yourself, willing to provide.
Ask them how you can help them when they are having a hard time. As kids start feeling heard and helped, and realize that they won’t be punished for expressing their feelings, they will naturally want to participate in making life wonderful for everyone.
It’s human nature to give out to others what is given to us.
While it is not immediate or magic, the NVC approach provides a feeling of being able to breathe, to commiserate, to be heard and accepted. Remember, any life-altering change takes time. The kinder to yourself you are, the kinder you will be to others who are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. Give yourself and your kids permission to try and fail and try again.
Along the way, you might end up having some of the most remarkable conversations of your life.
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