My friend confesses that she is not sure whether her daughter likes the new winter coat she just bought her, because every time she asks her daughter if she likes it, her daughter responds, "Thank you, it's lovely," just the way she has been taught to do. While my friend normally appreciates her daughter's manners, she is growing frustrated with the way they seem to be preventing honest communication.
Later that day, I witness the other extreme; a child who has been encouraged to express himself so freely, that he has grown accustomed to speaking to his own parents in an entirely inappropriate manner. As a result, when his father disciplines him, this child turns around and says, "I don't like Daddy. He's stupid."
How about a middle ground between absolute honesty, and absolute politeness?As a parent, faced with these two extremes, I definitely know which one I'd choose, and yet, as a professional, I wonder why modern parents still believe these two choices are the only ones that exist. How about a balance? How about a middle ground between absolute honesty, and absolute politeness? How about a response that upholds the Torah commandment to teach your children to honor their parents, while still allowing the parents and children to communicate openly?
How would it be if a child responded, "Thank you. It's a lovely coat, but I had secretly been hoping for a new one just like my friend Tracy's. You know her purple one with butterflies on it? Would it be okay if we exchanged it, and got one more like hers?"
Encouraging such a response would allow for the development of good manners and the requisite "thank you," while also allowing a parent to gain a sense of their child's inner world, and what their child values.
How would it feel as a parent to respond to an insult with, "You don't have to like me, but you can't call me stupid either. It sounds like you are angry at me right now. If you have something to tell me, I'll be happy to listen to you when you figure out how to say it appropriately." This type of response provides a structural framework for a child to communicate with their parent about their feelings while maintaining an appropriate awareness of the boundaries of true Torah-defined parental respect.
Many modern parents have a fear of being the big bad wolf, the scary disciplinarian who drives his or her suppressed children straight into the arms of a therapist. But sometimes, fear causes us to swing to an inappropriate extreme, in which a child's self-expression is allowed to grow unchecked. As a therapist, I frequently see children who have not been taught to respect authority, and as a result, they cannot function in a school setting where good behavior is a requirement rather than an option, as it is at home.
As a parent, take yourself seriously. You are are a model for the future relationship your child will build with G‑d and with the world. Insist upon a basic level of decency and respectful communication. Yet leave the door open for authenticity, for a child who doesn't like their new winter coat and had been hoping for something else instead. For a child who is acting out because you forgot to send sweets to school for their class party.
If you teach and encourage your children to give voice to their real experience of the world, you will give them a tool for life which will allow them to build meaningful and satisfying relationships that feel as real as they sound.