How do we explain our kids’ most difficult behaviors, to ourselves and to them?

A few months ago (when we were all going outside to public places!), a mother shared this story: she and her husband were planning to take their older son out to lunch, solo, for his birthday and then delivered the news to their younger son.

Mom: “I wanted to let you know about tomorrow’s plan.  Daddy and I taking Nico out to lunch for his birthday.  Grandma will be with you and then we will all celebrate together that night.”

Younger son: “You AND Daddy are going?”

Mom: “Yes.  We will be out for an hour or two.”

Younger son: Quiet for a moment, then lifts his eyes from the ground.  “I HATE YOU!! YOU’RE THE WORST MOM IN THE WHOLE WORLD!! LEAVE ME ALONE!!”

Wow, what just happened? We just went from calm to dysregulated in rapid time.  And now, as a parent, you have to figure out how to respond.

Here’s a menu of response options:

  1. “The worst mom? I just bought you a new game! You’re so ungrateful!”

  2. “When you say that, it makes mommy sad.”

  3. Ignore. Walk away.

  4. “I hear how upset you are.  I get it.”

Here’s why I like #4.  It is the Most Generous Interpretation of your child’s behavior.  My most generous self might think, “Hm.  My son really wishes he was included.  I can understand that. He’s sad. And jealous.  And those feelings are so big in his small body that they explode out of him in the form of these big hurtful words.  But what’s underneath is that raw painful set of feelings.”

As often as we can, we should call on our Most Generous Interpretation when interacting with our children.  Why? A few reasons.

First of all, it’s good practice to speak to what is going on inside your child rather than what is going on outside your child.  When we do this, we orient our children to their internal experience, which includes someone’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges, memories, and images.  Self-regulation skills rely on the ability to recognize and label one’s internal experiences, so the more parents focus on what’s inside rather than what’s outside, we are building the foundation of healthy coping. What do I mean about inside versus outside? Outside a child are big words.  Inside are big feelings.  In difficult moments, we need to speak to the inside: the feelings.  By operating based on the Most Generous Interpretation of your child’s behavior, you are more likely to connect to him and help him build self-regulation skills.

Second reason: at all times, but especially when our kids are dysregulated, they look to their parents asking, “Who am I right now? Am I out of control or just having a hard time? Am I crazy or understandable? Am I a bad kid or a good kid?” In these moments, our kids are forming their own self-view by taking in their parents’ answers to these questions.  If we want our kids to have true self-confidence and to feel good about themselves, we need to reflect back to our kids that they are good.  So much of feeling “good” is feeling like you can be understood.  And understanding comes from connecting to what is going on inside someone, not taking the bait of what they say or do on the outside. Use the Most Generous Interpretation of your child’s behavior to help him feel good about himself in the long-run.

Third, kids respond to the version of themselves we reflect back and act accordingly! When we tell our kids that they are selfish, they act in their own interest.  When we tell our kids that their sister has much better manners than they do, guess what? The rudeness continues.  Luckily the opposite is true as well.  When we tell our kids, “You make really good decisions,” they are more likely to.  I remember watching my older son wrestle with whether he would share his snack with his sister. I felt myself wanting to say, “Your sister would share with you! Come on, do one nice thing!” but somehow I heard another voice saying, “Most Generous! Most Generous!” and I said to him instead, “I know that you have just as much sharing capacity and generosity as anyone else in this family.  I’m going to leave the room; you and your sister can work this out.”  I heard him tell his sister that she couldn’t have the cracker she asked for but could have a few of his pretzels.  Perfect outcome? No, but if I look for perfect, I’ll miss growth… and I’m a pretty big fan of growth.  My son chose to make a small sacrifice. I’ll take it.

When we are generous with our kids, they feel more understood, more loved, more accepted – safer.  And all good decisions come from feeling secure in ourselves and in our environment.  So, use the Most Generous Interpretation of your child’s behavior and reflect a generous version of who they are.  Watch what happens.

Try This at Home:

  • Find a time to use your Most Generous Interpretation after the fact rather than live. “Going back” is one of my favorite parenting hacks.  We can’t expect ourselves to always stay calm and even-tempered in the heat of the moment.  But we can reflect later and then return to our children to share a new, more generous interpretation. 

  • Here’s an example of “going back” and giving a Most Generous Interpretation:

    • The other day, my son was trying to get my attention, screaming my name over and over again from his room.

    • I stomped over and said in a nasty voice, “Come on, how old are you? Have you ever heard of walking to another room to find me?”

    • It wasn’t my finest moment, but after some time passed, my body cooled down, I thought about it, and I returned to give him a more generous interpretation: “Hey, I got a bit worked up; I’m sorry for my tone.  I imagine you forgot that if I don’t respond to my name, it’s best to walk and find me. I know you’re working on this.  Everybody slips up!”

    • I am giving my son the message that he is capable of change.

  • Think to yourself, “What is my most generous interpretation of my child’s behavior?” Reflect on one moment in the past week when your child was having a hard time.  What is the most generous interpretation of his behavior? If you were using this interpretation, what would be the first thing you’d say or do in response?

  • Go back to your child and tell him that you’ve been thinking about this moment.  Then provide the generous interpretation. Some examples:

    • I think you really wanted another cookie and felt so upset when I said no.”

    • “I think you had a hard time when I said goodbye because I’ve been working so much and haven’t been around at night.”

    • “I think it’s hard for you that I spend so much time feeding your baby brother and this was your way of showing me that.”

What happens when you go back to your child to offer such generosity? How does your child respond? What happens next?