"Children are perceptive. Children want your attention. They will quickly figure out what gets the most attention from you and do more of that thing.
Fifty-four years ago, my older sister Becky attended her first day of Kindergarten. At the end of the day, my mother picked her up and started a critical conversation. While she was driving, she asked some questions:
“How was your day?”
“How was your teacher?”
“She is so nice! She is funny too!”
“Did you make any friends?”
“Yes. Linda and Susie are really fun.”
“Did anything interesting happen?”
“Well...Billy Compton pushed me down in the playground.”
Stopping the car, my mom turned to my sister and responded, “He did what?!? I cannot believe that. You poor thing! Are you okay? Did you tell the teacher? I wonder if I should talk to his mom.”
The next day, Mother picked Becky up again. This time, Mother did not even need to ask any questions.
“Mom, you won’t believe what Billy Compton did today! He called me names and pulled my hair!” She then waited for my mother’s reaction.
In that moment, she did something that I personally find extraordinary. She turned to Becky and said, “Oh that Billy Compton is just a silly boy.” Smiling wide and giving her undivided attention, she then added, “Tell me about your teacher. You said she is nice and funny. That sounds like a perfect teacher. You are so lucky. Tell me what makes her nice.”
My sister was a little surprised at first, but she quickly redirected her attention to the topic of her new favorite teacher. After five minutes of excited explanation, Mother shifted to a new topic, “Did you have fun with Linda and Susie today? Tell me everything that you did together.”
For 15 minutes, Mom interviewed Becky about the positive aspects of her day.
She shared this story with me when my wife and I had our first children. She then added an explanation.
“When I reacted so strongly to the story about Billy, I was telling Becky what stories mattered to me. Those stories would become the definition of her experience at school. I glossed over the good aspects of her day and honed onto the 15 seconds that were unpleasant. By the next day, she could not wait to regale me with new tales of Billy. If I wanted her to see kindergarten as positive, I needed to help direct her attention to the positive aspects.”
“But did you worry that she would think you did not care about her troubles? Isn’t it important for your child to know that you are 'there for her’?”
“Of course I was there for her, but I do not have to prove that every moment of every day. By diminishing the importance of Billy, I was helping make Becky stronger. If Billy had been truly cruel, she would not have been so easy to redirect to positive topics. “
Parents deeply want to be available to their children. They worry that their children might not feel listened to or supported. Empathy and support are important parental skills, but so is emotional leadership."