Have you ever contemplated the word “but” and why it exists in the English language? It’s a contradiction, a counterargument, and syntactically discounts everything preceding it. In a debate, it is a shorthand way of saying, “Everything you just said is wrong. Now listen to me.” Now try saying that to a toddler, and see what happens. Chances are, you just got pinched, shouted at or bitten.
So why are we throwing gasoline on their already burning fires?
Picture this: It’s bedtime. My 4-year-old daughter is tucked in tight under her covers, the string of fairy lights over her bed glows pink against her cheeks, and her favorite doll is cuddled up beside her. Everything is perfect. And she is throwing the biggest tantrum I’ve ever seen. She’s never had a traumatic bed-related experience, rarely has nightmares and has always been completely content to go to bed without fuss.
Until tonight, apparently.
Suddenly her room has become the scariest place she can imagine. Shadows move on the walls as she thrashes under her covers. As a parent, there are few things in life more painful than watching your child suffer. I want to make it stop, so I try to talk her out of it.
“I know you’re scared, BUT there’s nothing wrong with your bed.”
“I know you don’t like it right now, BUT you have to sleep in your room.”
“I hear that you’re mad, BUT you need to stop yelling at me.”
It doesn’t work. Now she feels the need to defend her fears. She argues, cries harder, wakes up her brothers and ends up sleeping with her leg wrapped around me and sucking her thumb so loudly in my ear that I can’t even concentrate on wondering where my life went so wrong.
Clearly there is room for improvement.
Now, stop to consider that perhaps by replacing a single word of the discourse with my daughter, I could have diffused the situation rather than fueling her frustration. Chances are, nothing I could have said was going to change the way she felt, and still I could have validated her feelings instead of pushing them away. I could have made her feel safe in that one way.
“I know you’re scared AND you’re completely safe.”
“I know you don’t like your bed right now AND it’s still where you sleep.”
“I hear that you’re mad AND you need to stop yelling at me.”
By simply substituting the word “but” with the word “and,” I could have allowed for her feelings to be true even if the basis for them was factually incorrect. I could have allowed those two seemingly contradictory things to be simultaneously true. This is an example of the basic behavioral theory of “dialectics,” a philosophy built around resolving opposing facts by accepting the validity of both. Dialectics has been around since the ancient Greeks, but in the 1980s, it took off as dialectical behavior therapy, developed by a psychologist named Marsha Linehan. In addition to studying DBT, I’ve been through it as a participant and have recently started introducing the concepts to my own family.
Children are not known for embracing ambiguity. They like the world to exist in black and white. Except things frequently turn inside-out without warning, and their favorite foods become the work of the devil, and songs they used to love now make them scream just to drown out the torment, and yes, the cozy bedroom is suddenly scary.
Mine. Not theirs.
“But yesterday, you said (insert whatever thing your child has decided to boycott here) was your favorite!”
Do you know how often I’ve won that argument?
Never. I’ve never won that fight. Not once.
The worst part of the whole thing is that they were right all along.
And so was I.
Dialectical approaches to parenting help us teach our children to accept that there are truths in the world they aren’t going to like and are still going to exist, that they can move on from difficult experiences without submitting to them, and that they can still enjoy the moment even if it’s not their ideal situation. They can hate their bed AND accept that they have to sleep in it, so maybe if they turn it into a tent, it won’t be so bad.
And dialectical reasoning doesn’t just inform how we talk to our kids when they’re young. It’s about how we hear their words to us as they grow: “I love you AND I need space.” And how we respond: “I want you to stay my baby forever AND you need to start taking responsibility for yourself.” Dialectics would propose that both of these feelings need to exist at the same time and will necessarily ebb and flow as the child grows and develops.
Of course, simply replacing a single word in your vocabulary won’t eliminate tantrums or rid the world of parental guilt. Nothing is that easy. And still it’s remarkable what a difference it makes to compassion and understanding. I can believe that the smell of pasta makes my middle child want to vomit AND that he can simply choose to move to a different room. That way, he feels completely valid in his experience of the unbearably foul odor of boiling water and remains in charge of dealing with his own sensitivities. He’s not wrong AND it’s not my responsibility to solve the problem for him.
It’s a small shift. A tiny, almost imperceptible change. And what do you really have to lose? If nothing else, there’s enormous benefit to paying attention to how frequently you are tempted to discount the feelings and experiences of others.
Perhaps someday I’ll get it all right. I’ll know all the answers, the right things to say, and present a consistent and stable example for my children at all times. Perhaps I’ll be the perfect parent …
BUT not today.
AND this is a start.
Widdicks is a former cognitive psychologist, freelance writer and novelist. Her debut novel, “A Mutual Addiction,” will be released in January. Read more at marywiddicks.com. You can find her on Twitter @MaryWiddicks.