Self-Awareness: One of the Most Important Skills You Can Teach Your Kids
I overheard a fascinating conversation between a mother and her little girl.
The mother looked at her watch. “Are you sure?”
Her daughter nodded her head.
“Maybe you’re thirsty?” the mom suggested. “Sometimes we think we’re hungry when we’re really thirsty.”
The little girl shook her head no.
The mom paused for a moment to gaze at her daughter, then looked at her watch for a third time.
Maybe her daughter was indeed thirsty. Maybe she was just angling for a treat. Or maybe her hunger wasn’t satisfied from eating a handful of cute little animal-shaped crackers that are far less healthy than advertised.
I don’t know, the mother didn’t know, and the little girl may not have known herself.
The way to find out wasn’t by repeatedly looking at her wrist.
Even the smartest smartwatch in the world can’t tell you whether you feel hungry, and it certainly can’t tell you that about someone else.
Teaching Kids Awareness of How They Feel
The mother was clearly well-intentioned. But instead of teaching her daughter healthy eating habits, she was actually teaching her to be compliant and ignore the signals from her own body.
It would have been far more helpful to say something like this:
“What does ‘hungry’ feel like in your body? When I’m hungry, I get an empty feeling in my stomach, I feel weak and shaky, and I get a headache.”
Here’s a real-life example of helping a kid figure out how he was feeling: My friend’s son refused to eat lunch because they’d had to cancel an outing at the last minute. This could have been a power tussle. Instead, my friend said,
“It sounds like you’re feeling disappointed. I feel disappointed, too, because I really wanted to go out to lunch with you today. I’ve been looking forward to that all week.
I promise we’ll go out together on a different day. Right now, I’m feeling hungry so I’m going to make myself a sandwich. I’ll make one for you, too, and you can eat it now or we can save it for later.”
In this situation, the parent 1) gave the boy the words to describe how he was feeling; and 2) modeled a way to calmly respond to that feeling.
This isn’t just important for younger kids. As Sara Nović writes in her novel True Biz,
“Teenagers got a bad rap because people didn’t understand why they were so volatile. The problem was a simple lack of language. The vocabulary and logic that had served them in childhood were inadequate in the face of new and much more complex challenges and emotions. The teen years were, in effect, a second-wave terrible twos.”
Helping Kids See the Impact of Their Behavior
Rather than punishing them when they act out, family therapist Mary Pipher recommends disciplining adolescents through “relationship-oriented reparations.” For example, “When a teenager ruins a family dinner with a tantrum, he/she can be asked to serve a candlelit dinner to the family on another night.”
“Reparations have the teenager working with an adult on useful projects that teach skills. A good reparation could involve helping a parent paint the house, do the taxes [… or help with] the care of an elderly relative.”
(The Shelter of Each Other, p. 146)
This is what happened when a youth named Carl knocked over a neighbor’s mailbox on a dare. His father calmly and sternly led Carl to the neighbor’s house to apologize, then helped him to repair the mailbox. Carl felt ashamed of his own behavior at the same time he felt loved and supported by his dad.
“When they were finished, Dad asked, ‘Does this make it right?’ Carl reflected for a moment, then went to the house alone, and offered an afternoon of his time to help the neighbor with yard work or any project he needed help with.”
That evening, Carl’s dad confided that he’d smashed up a kid’s snow fort when he was a teen. It was fun at the time but he felt terrible about it afterwards, especially when he saw the boy crying.
A day that started with a thoughtless act of damage ended with a lesson learned and a closer relationship between father and son. (Shapiro and White, Mindful Discipline)
When one of my friends was a teen, he had a very different experience from Carl’s. After he was caught damaging property, his dad beat him, then dragged him to the neighbors’ house to apologize, then dragged him back home to yell at him, then refused to speak with him for the rest of the night.
At the time, my friend didn’t feel any remorse about his own behavior. Instead, he felt furious at his dad for shaming him twice (first in front of the neighbor and then in front of his siblings), and for punishing him four times for the same offense. Looking back on the situation now, he can see that his dad was reacting out of shame, assuming that people would think he was a bad father for not controlling his kids.
It’s normal for parents to feel confused or frustrated or angry with their kids. As often as you can, look at the situation as a learning opportunity, a chance teach them 1) how to recognize and respond to their own internal experience; and 2) how their behavior impacts other people. This can be challenging, but it’s worth the effort. Developing these types of self-awareness will help them grow into well-balanced adults.
If you’re located in California and need help determining if your child and/or family need professional help, contact Family Spring by submitting an inquiry at this link.