By Dr. Jane Nelsen, author and co-author of the Positive Discipline Series www.positivediscipline.com
Who hasn’t been shocked by listening to Alec Baldwin berate his 11-year-old daughter on a voice mail message that went on and on and on. Alec screamed insults at his daughter, he called her names, and he threatened her. No need to mention any more details. You’ve probably heard it all by now.
I was on a road trip channel surfing on the radio when I first heard the recording. Of course I didn’t know who it was, but I was shocked as the insults and humiliation went continued for such a long time. I could hardly believe what I was hearing, and was doubly shocked when I learned this tirade was aimed at an 11-year-old child. My trip was a long one, so I kept hearing the taped voice mail over and over—no matter which station I listened to.
This story has since been told over and over on television, radio, and the Internet. It seems as though everyone has an opinion about whether or not Alec deserves compassion or to lose his visitation rights. Alec appeared on The View, and participated in an interview with Barbara Walters where he offered the excuse that he was pushed to his actions by his “deep and endless frustration” over the alienation tactics of his ex-wife. Alec has apologized for what happened, but is equally sorry that a court order was violated when the tape was released to TMZ.com.
One of the arguments presented in discussions about this incident is that every parent loses his or her temper. Others say, “But not that bad.” Such arguments are not helpful. It is very self-righteous to say, “I may be bad, but you are worse.” The focus is placed on judgment, right/wrong, blame, retribution. I would like to take a different route and skip the debates about right and wrong. Instead, let’s focus on what can be learned from this situation.
It is true that every parent loses his or her temper at times. Most of us would be very embarrassed if our tirades were aired for public exposure. In fact, I have found that most parents can’t even role-play using insults and humiliating words to their children when they are asked to act angry in front of others. It is difficult to act like you have lost it when you haven’t.
In our Positive Discipline workshops, we do an activity called “The Competent Giant.” Participants are asked to choose a partner and have one stand on a chair while the other kneels down looking up at the “competent giant.” The “parent” standing on the chair is directed to scold the “child” for some imagined misbehavior while shaking their extended finger at the child and to be as mean as they have “seen their neighbors” be to their children. The partners then get to switch places to experience both roles. We then ask how they felt in the role of the child. We also ask what they were deciding about themselves and what were they deciding to do. As children, they express feeling scared, confused, hurt, or sometimes angry or even powerful. Some were deciding they were bad or worthless. Others were deciding adults were stupid. Some were deciding to withdraw, others to “be good” (budding approval junkies), while others were deciding to rebel or to get even. It is very enlightening for parents to realize that children are always making decisions in response to their experiences, and that they may not be the kind of decisions they wish their children were making.
Parents are amazed when they experience “getting into the child’s world” and feeling how awful it is to be the brunt of lectures, scolding, insults, and labels. They realize that children aren’t motivated to do better when made to feel worse—except for the approval junkies, which is not healthy. Many of them share how difficult it is to “be mean” to their children during a role play because they aren’t angry—a very important insight. It helps them understand how important it is to calm down and wait until they can be respectful before engaging a child in a conversation.
This leads to the first lesson we can learn from observing Alec Baldwin (or anyone else) being disrespectful to a child. We expect children to control their behavior. Doesn’t it make sense that we need to learn to control our own? However, controlling our own behavior only helps us prevent angry outbursts. What do we do after we have already made the mistake? And, we must admit that all of us (except for parents who are saints) have lost it with our children.
One signature story that I share in every lecture is about the time I called my daughter a spoiled brat. Yes, me—the one who advocates discipline that does not involve punishment, blame, shame or pain—the one who advocates maintaining dignity and respect with children. The truth is I am not a saint, and I have lost it. That is why I love what I call the Four Rs of Recovery from Losing It:
- Recognize that you made a mistake
- Take full responsibility (without a sense of guilt and shame)
When it comes to step number three, I love to ask parents how many of them have apologized to their children. It never fails that every hand goes up. I then ask, “What do your children say when you apologize?” The response is Universal. Almost every child says, “That’s okay Mom (or Dad).” When we acknowledge our mistakes, take responsibility, and then apologize, children are so forgiving. And, you have modeled an important life skill.
These three steps create a relationship of closeness and trust so we can then focus on the last step, reconciliation. Reconciliation works best when it involves solutions to prevent future problems. It might go something like this. “Honey, I feel very disappointed and hurt when you don’t keep our appointments. I would like to hear what is going on for you; and then I would like to brainstorm together for solutions that feel good to both of us.”
When a mistake is handled in this way, children can learn some valuable social and life skills. They can learn that making a mistake doesn’t mean you are a bad person. They can learn that acknowledging their mistakes and taking responsibility for them is very empowering when the focus is on learning and then focusing on solutions. Focusing on solutions is the best of all. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in the world would brainstorm for solutions that are respectful to everyone whenever there is a problem?
So let’s stop judging and blaming others who make mistakes. Even if they don’t use their mistakes as an opportunity for learning, we can. What a gift this would be for our children.
To hear this article as a podcast, go to www.positivediscipline.com/podcast