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Expressing Fears vs. Giving Commands

Example of Bouncing Ball in the House

In a video about parenting (at around the 7 minute spot), Dayna Martin gives an example of what she says is better than threatening her son when he is bouncing a basketball in the house. (I plan to post a clip from the vid later) She says you try to respect your child's needs. She says a common thing to say would be something like "You know there is a rule against bouncing balls in the house. Because you broke the rule you won't get to play ball with your friends"

Dayna recommends, however, that parent say something like this:

"You are going to break something, but let's go find some place where you can bounce the ball."

I agree this is a big improvement over rules, threats, and punishment. But this is still a prediction. (See my first article about expressing fears rather than giving commands) So here is what I would suggest:

"I am afraid you are going to break something."

If you say "You are going to break something." A child or teen might feel challenged to prove that they won't break anything and you are wrong. They might feel underestimated, untrusted and rebellious or defiant. When you express your fears, in an emotionally honest and emotionally literate way, it is less likely any of these unwanted negative feelings will be created or reinforced.

There is also less of a power struggle. You are not being an authority figure when you express your fears. You are being a real person. You are conveying your values. You communicate what is important to you. In this case, not having anything broken. An obvious possible consequence of such emotional honesty, of course, is that your child or teen might feel less important than the flower pot or the lamp.

I laughed to myself when I wrote that last sentence. But now I realize, maybe it is not actually a laughing matter. Maybe it is very serious. Maybe it helps us see that we live in a world where we place an unhealthy value and priority on material things. Maybe being more worried about flower pots and lamps than our children's feeling of importance to us is contributing to the problems we are surrounded by.

In any case, being emotionally and factually honest seems to useful to us to help us become more aware of our actual feelings and values.

In this case, a child or teen would probably feel bad if they broke the flower pot or lamp, so not much more is probably going to be needed than to gently communicate your fear. I don't really think in a case like this it will hurt your child - by making them feel relatively unimportant - to express your honest fear. Sometimes though, a child or teen might feel unimportant, so it is wise to stay open and aware of how they really do feel, either by asking them directly or by looking for signs and clues.

In the case of the bouncing ball, a parent might say, "I am afraid you will break something. What about you?" A child or teen might then say, "No I am not afraid at all because I am just going to bounce it once or twice and I feel very much in control of it." Or they might say, "Well, yeah I guess I am a little worried about that too."

If they are worried about breaking something they will probably stop bouncing the ball. And this is exactly what I believe is the best outcome in this situation. In other words, they are motivated to change their behavior by the fear of breaking something. Not by the fear of your punishment or even the fear of your disapproval.

This is similar to wanting your child or teen to one day stop at red lights to avoid accidents, not out of fear of being punished if they don't stop. And it is similar to wanting them to wear a seat belt or a bicycle or motorcycle helmet because they are afraid of getting injured, not because they are afraid of punishment for not obeying a law.

Our society is simply too focused on or even obsessed with laws, rules and punishment. This adds enormously to the task of managing, controlling, arresting, punishing, trying, jailing, fining people etc.

Imagine a society where everyone is punishing each other. How much productive work would get done? That is the direction some countries are going. I believe that the cost of a punishment based society is simply not economically sustainable.

But in any case, I am 100% convinced that your role as a parent will be greatly simplified in the long run if you express your fears rather than issue either commands or predictions.

I forgot to add that when you express your fears, you are giving information. You are giving emotional data. And you are trusting your child or perhaps your partner or colleague, to use that information intelligently and caringly to make their own decision.

Another factor which I didn't address is *how* afraid you are that something will get broken. You could either say this immediately, such as "I am afraid 9 that something will get broken" or you could wait to see what happens. Maybe the behavior you want to change will stop, or maybe your child or teen will say, "How afraid are you?" In other words, maybe they want more information before they make their decision. Or they might say, "What are you afraid I will break, for example?"

Maybe there is only one thing you are really worried about and that one thing can easily be moved. This is the kind of communication which earns mutual respect.

Now let me address the topic of cooperation. If you want your son to stop bouncing a ball and he wants to keep bouncing it, you don't have the same goal, so there can be no cooperation since cooperation means working towards a mutual goal. But maybe you can agree on a common goal.

You might want your son to feel free, trusted, cared about, respected and important. Your son might agree that part of his goal is not breaking anything. In this way you can set a mutually agreed upon goal.

Another important issue here is control. We all have a need to feel sufficiently in control of our lives. It is a fact of human nature. This applies to parents, children and teenagers. In this case when you see your son bouncing a basketball you probably feel a bit out of control. You literally cannot control where the ball goes on the next bounce, and that is understandably scary.

But if you shout "Stop bouncing that ball in the house right now!", your son or daughter probably will feel more controlled than cared about.

If you express your feelings, and let your son or daughter express theirs, you have a chance to balance the control over the situation.

I believe most small conflicts like this can easily and quickly be worked out. At the beginning it may take more time than just issuing a command or a threat or imposing a punishment or coming up with a "choice" and a "consequence", but over time, they will work themselves out faster and faster. There will be fewer conflicts and less negative feelings by everyone involved.

They will work themselves out faster because over time you and your son or daughter are learning a lot from the important information being shared. You communicate what is important to you, such as that a particular lamp with sentimental value not get broken, and also that your child's feelings are equally or even more important. Your son or daughter communicates to you that it is important, for example, that they not feel underestimated or untrusted. They may also communicate through many small conflicts that it is important to them that their freedom and their feelings are important to you.

Over time they will also learn how realistic your fears are. If you say for example, "I am afraid if you go outside without a coat, you will be cold" and they *do* go out without a coat and they *are* afraid, then they will see that you often know what you are talking about. On the other hand, it could work in the opposite direction.

I suspect, in fact, a lot of parents are worried about losing their "authority" or their power over their children and teens. Or maybe I should say that a lot of insecure parents are worried about this. And a lot of parents, indeed, are quite insecure in their roles as parents and insecure in general, in my experience.

By being emotionally honest, you will definitely get to know yourself better. This may or may not be a good thing in the short term. It may become somewhat or even very painful or even confusing. But I truly believe that in the long run it is better for your children, your teenagers and for the world if you express your honest feelings, at least most of the time, in the ways I am recommending.

S. Hein

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Another possible problem with the idea of the parent saying "Let's find somewhere you can bounce the basketball" is that it gets the parent too involved in finding a solution and doesn't assume the child or teen can figure one out for him or herself. In the terms used by Thomas Gordon, this would probably be similar to "sending a solution."
See Also

Caring vs Control

Caring and Cooperation

Emotional Needs

Emotional Literacy

Emotional Honesty