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Letters to Nowhere

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Mixed Signals

Listening to a woman at work talk about an episode she had with her 3 year old daughter made me wonder just how many times I’d unknowingly put my son in the same spot.

Her daughter had done something that was against the rules. She was tearing up a houseplant in that curious kid way.

She had repeatedly told the child that she was not allowed to touch the plants. She popped her daughter’s hand and told her “NO”. She started vaccuming again a few minutes later to see her daughter, again, tearing up the plant.

She admits she was quite angry. She raised her voice “Didn’t I just tell you not to mess with that plant?”
Yes, says the child.
“Why are you doing it again?”
I don’t know, says the child.
“Go stand in the corner” says mom.

Twenty minutes later, you guessed it, pulling leaves off the plant. Mom’s really angry now. She spanks the kid on the spot, and then says “Just let me see you touch that plant again!”

The kid is now afraid; she’s gotten a spanking for touching the plant. She wants to make mom not angry, but when mom says “let me see you touch that plant again” she is getting mixed signals.

We, as adults, know that really means, If I see you touching it you are in even bigger trouble than now. To a kid it says “touch the plant”. In fear, and desire to please, and stop mom from being angry they will probably, hesitantly and slowly reach out to do just that. They are confused by the fact that you just gave them a spanking for doing the very thing you are now commanding (in their mind) them to do.

I read an article a few years ago that dealt with sarcasm and children. The article was based on a study done to see when children are capable of understanding sarcasm. The study found that most kids don’t understand that you can say one thing and mean the opposite until they are 8 or 9. Until then they think the words are literal. If you pass a yard of weeds and say “wow, what beautiful grass” young kids usually think you actually find the ‘grass’ beautiful.

Now, I understand the ramifications of that study. I wished I’d figured it out when my son was younger.


  • We SO have to be careful with what we say to kids. We give them adult-speak too often and too carelessly. I think we seldom realize the harm we do.


    By Blogger Garrison Steelle, at 12:32 PM  

  • Well said.

    I have found it is often easier to tell a child (or anybody, really) what it is you WANT them to do, instead of what you DON'T want them to do.

    Instead of "stop that" you say "please go sit on the couch" or whatever. If you just say "stop that" you are leaving it WIDE OPEN for them to interpret what you are saying and choose just about anything else do do, and chances are it won't be something you like.

    By Blogger Silly Old Bear, at 2:40 PM  

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