Parents are expressing how their kids have been mean lately.
As a parent, we want our kids to be kind. We want them to be loved by everyone around them, and we know that being kind, friendly, and considerate are traits others gravitate towards.
What is kindness? What is meanness?
How can we helo our children to be kinder without lecturing them about playing nice?
The dictionary definition of kindness is being friendly, generous, and considerate. In other words giving of your mental energy.
We’ve talked in the past about how stress is anything that takes energy, and when our energy is depleted our capacity to do even mundane tasks is depleted or eliminated. When you’ve had an exceptionally stressful day and you stop at your local grocery store or coffee shop, somewhere you know people and they greet you all cheerfully and you’re like “yeah, hey” and try to avoid interacting with them. When on other days you’re likely chatty, remembering their kids’ birthday or that their Mom was sick last week, wishing them good luck with some endeavour they’re engaged in.
This is because being kind takes energy!
When we’re depleted, that ability to engage in what’s known as prosocial behaviours, behaviour that’s positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship suffers.
In fact, I’d say of all the stressors prosocial ones are the ones that tend to be the first to hit because prosocial behaviour is exclusively for the benefit of others and when we’re stressed, our main objective is to preserve energy.
Why? Because that’s how we keep ourselves physically and psychologically safe.
If we’re running low on energy, our brain will eliminate anything that may cause us to become vulnerable to outside threats and prosocial behaviours. In other words, behaviours that don’t really benefit US, they benefit others- are directly in opposition to that goal.
The more stressed we become, the more selfish we become. The meaner we become.
What does “being mean” really mean?
It means prioritising ourselves, doesn’t it?
To be unkind is literally the dictionary definition that means we’re being unfriendly, we’re not being considerate of other’s feelings or needs, and we’re not being generous with our time, energy, or resources. We’re hoarding. We’re trying to keep everything we’ve got to ourselves, for our own benefit. In other words- we’re dysregulated. We’re in defence mode. We don’t feel safe, and we’re not thinking. We’re unable to reason. We’re just feeling. We’re leading with our emotions, and we aren’t rational.
In other words: being kind is a privilege.
We can only be kind when we’re feeling safe, secure, and have more energy than we personally require. When we’re regulated; calm, alert, and engaged.
But how do parents generally try to teach their children to be kind? By shaming them, right?
We lecture them about sharing, we say “be nice”, we expect them to exert willpower to wait their turn, to suppress their emotions- don’t cry, be quiet, ask nicely, etc.
In other words, we’re teaching them to ignore the signals their body is giving them that they’re dysregulated and need to calm down which is completely counterproductive to our goal of teaching them to be kind.
What if, when we notice our children being mean rather than morally pontificate at them and attempt to shame them- we recognized it as a sign that they need to regulate?
That we took meanness as a red flag for being depleted, and instead of clicking our tongues at them and reminding them to be nice, or even modelling being nice, we focused on refilling their tank?
On drawing their attention to the fact that their inability to be kind is an indicator that they need to step back and take a break?
What if we taught them to say “you know what? I need a minute” and to take the space to calm themselves down and not only take the space- but what to do with the space they’ve just created? How to actively calm themselves down?
Unfortunately there’s no one universal way to do that- how each person finds their calm is completely unique to them…and it takes some exploration. Which is why in ParentAbility we focus your entire first few months on figuring it out for you and your kids.
How would that change the landscape in daycares? Preschools? Kindergartens? Society as a whole eventually?
How would that change how we deal with bullies? With the “difficult” kids? With the mean girls at school?
If we had a generation of children that were taught that their mean-ness wasn’t a character flaw- but a signal that can be acted on? Could we prevent these kids from turning their dysregulation into their whole personality if we saw them, and therefore treated them, as children who needed to learn to calm themselves? I think so.
We could eliminate those terms from our vocabulary entirely.
We’ve talked about the pygmalion effect and how our expectations shape behaviour. This is a beautiful example of that! If we expect that children who aren’t displaying kindness are dysregulated, we will teach them to take space to calm down, and therefore create the conditions for kindness. If we expect that our children are morally deficient, they will continue to behave in a way that we consider a-moral.
What do you think?
Do you think this is something you can keep in the back of your mind and try next time you see your child being mean and instead of pushing them to share or shaming them with your disappointment- give them a break?
Pull them aside and empathise with that?
Hey, I can see you’re having a really hard time playing nicely with your friend, why don’t we take a wee break and read a book or go for a walk or sing a song together? Take some deep breaths? And then you can go back to playing.
No, our kids aren’t going to like this.
I always find it kind of funny when parents are like “but they don’t want to take a break!” Well of course they don’t- they’ve never been told that taking a break was an acceptable response.
They’ve never been given that space or seen anyone else take that space so at first, it feels like a punishment. Like a moral failing because that’s what they’ve been told it is until now.
No, this isn’t going to go smoothly at first. But if you continue to shift your response that way- not only will they stop resisting it, they will eventually begin to initiate it themselves.
If you want support with this- with figuring out how to teach your child to actively calm down, how to recognize the signals their body is giving them that they’re dysregulated, how to keep them regulated throughout the day, and then build up the skills that are causing the dysregulation so they aren’t so draining anymore- that’s exactly what we teach in ParentAbility. I’d encourage you to go to allanarobinson.com go find our free class. In that class, I explain how all these things; regulation, skills, and critical thinking work together to create good behaviour. If after that class you still need more support we’re here to offer it in ParentAbility.