This actually isn’t a post about child rearing or dolphin training. It’s not even a post about parenting philosophies, whether or not to spank your child, or if you should exercise a time-out in an attempt to help your child learn right from wrong (I’d do it if only to call it “The Naughty Spot”). It’s a long post about communication, complaints, and criticism. It’s a post about my marriage.
I’m a big proponent of positive communication and reinforcement. If I could, I’d always be equipped with gold stars and exclamation points! I loved, almost as much as Cheez Doodles, when my parents drew a graph on a large piece of white tag paper, affixing it to our refrigerator door. A certain number of stars beside my name awarded me a trip to Toys ‘R’ Us. Stars were earned for helping around the house, for getting 100% on spelling tests, and for being nice to my sister. These were things my parents expected me to do, and I didn’t feel they were bribing me to do them. I felt as if they were honoring and acknowledging that I was doing them consistently. I cared more about the stars than I did about the trip down the Barbie aisle. The stars weren’t the easiest to come by, but when I did receive one, I’d sometimes walk down to the kitchen in my slippers and flip on the lights just to look at them lined up in their little boxes beside my name. I felt so proud, and I couldn’t wait to wake up and make my bed. It wasn’t just so I’d earn a star. I liked and became greedy for that feeling. I loved feeling proud and seeing my accomplishments. Escalating up from the bottom.
MY PARENTING PHILOSOPHY ON DEALING WITH FEUDING SIBLINGS
So when Phil and I got into a discussion about how to handle toy spats between Lucas and Abigail, I explained that praising either of them when we saw they were sharing was the way I’d hope to handle it. Sure, if Abigail yanks something out of his sweet little paws, I’ll frown or pout, maybe say, “That wasn’t nice, Abigail. I don’t blame you for feeling angry, Lucas!” but that’s the extent of it. Unless she’s ready to bite him, I try not to get involved, especially since I’m their parent, and I don’t want either to think I pick sides or always come to the rescue of one over the other. They’re kids. They’ll work it out. And when either of them shares with me or with the other, I make a point of praising and applauding them. “What a great job you just did sharing. How polite of you.” Then I try to show them the behavior I hope they’ll repeat; I lead by example. “I’d like to share something with you now.” Then I waft it toward them.
BRACING MYSELF FOR PHIL’S RESPONSE
“But it’s not fair!” Phil argued, citing examples of bullies. He wanted to chase after Abigail and rip the toy from her hands, returning it to Lucas. I disagreed, and I couldn’t help but worry what was coming next. The same way that Abigail has learned to cover her head when it looks as if Lucas is about to throw his sippy cup, I’ve learned to brace myself for disagreements that begin casually enough but escalate into rants about how indicative this one instance is, how it stands for so much more than just this one time, how it’s a pattern, how much I do wrong.
And then it came. “Stephanie, you’re a smart person, but the things you say are just so… I know you don’t want to hear this, but I just can’t help it.. so stupid!!! Well, they are! You haven’t said one thing that makes sense! Do you realize how stupid you sound? If Abigail yanked a toy out of the hands of a stranger, you’d return it wouldn’t you? Of course you would! Not only would you return it, but you’d apologize! It’s not fair to Lucas, and you’re really punishing him by letting her get away with that. I’ve never heard anything so dumb!”
MY RESPONSE TO HIS RESPONSE
I refused to talk to him, even though I wanted to say there’s a difference between taking what doesn’t belong to you from a stranger and playing with your sibling. I also wanted to slip in that just because I wouldn’t punish Abigail didn’t mean that if Lucas were upset (which he wasn’t in this particular case) I wouldn’t acknowledge his feelings. But I didn’t say this. I shut down. Then I powered up my computer and Googled. I emailed Phil advice from parenting web sites. Then I got to hear how opinions are like assholes.
WHAT DO I DO?
Our disagreeing isn’t what bothers me–though life would be a lot easier, not necessarily interesting, but easier if we agreed–it’s that he’s setting an example. Not only is he setting an example for our children of how women should be treated, but he’s setting me up to set my own example for them, and I have no idea how I’m supposed to react. We’re sitting in front of them, and we’re arguing. And I want it to stop, so I stop talking. Is that the message I should send to my kids? Or should I stand up for myself? I don’t know what to do. When he says things like that, I don’t feel a sense of pride or confidence, and I realize that complaining about what I think he’s doing wrong will only put him on the defensive. It’s doing exactly what I don’t want him to do. Asking, “Why can’t he instead of criticizing me just focus on what I do right? Why can’t he set an example for our children by behaving the way he hopes they’ll one day behave? Why can’t he praise the good and ignore the bad, at least most of the time, or even some of the time?” only serves to highlight that even I’m incapable of doing the very thing I’m asking him to do.
MODERN LOVERS TAKE POINTERS FROM SHAMU
I know that people do it, though, that they can live in a world of claps and rewards, where grievances are brushed aside and triumphs are celebrated. I remember reading the Modern Love column back in 2006 about the woman who learned how to deal with her husband by applying what she’d learned about training animals.
“The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t. After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.” –Excerpted from NYTimes, Modern Love, June 25, 2006
MY PHILOSOPHY ON CRITICISM AND WHAT I HOPE TO TEACH MY CHILDREN
Great. Sounds like a plan since I strongly believe that criticism, when it’s not constructive or said in the spirit of genuinely hoping to encourage and invigorate, doesn’t inspire greatness. It’s why I never want to be that mother. I want to embolden my children to speak up for themselves, for them to know there are consequences to their behavior, but most importantly, to know that they’re capable. I want to raise children who believe in their abilities to problem-solve, who are confident enough to trust themselves and who recognize that they have the skills to accomplish things on their own. I want them to know it’s okay to ask for help and advice and opinions, and it’s up to them to make decisions. And if they don’t make the right ones, they’ll learn something anyway. That it’s far more impressive, and really speaks about our own confidence, when we’re able to compliment and praise, rather than criticize and condemn.
PHIL’S RESPONSE TO MY REQUEST
“Well, I never want to have to lie,” he said in response to my requesting that he be a bit gentler. “And what you’re asking, really, is for me to sugarcoat things. I’m not going to get into a cheering session so you can feel good about things that don’t matter. If I think something sucks, I’m going to tell you. And if you say stupid idiotic things, I’m going to tell you that they’re stupid. I can’t just sit here and not say it, or pander to you, telling you how it’s a start, but have you thought about it this way? Or when you write something that sucks and you ask for my opinion tell you, ‘wow, I totally get where you’re going with that, but were you also planning on writing about this? Or have you considered that?’ Don’t you realize that when people talk that way, starting with some positive just so they can really get to the negative, they’re treating you like an imbecile? What they wish they could do is skip all the filler positive and tell you the truth: ‘that’s dumb and this sucks.’ And I refuse to talk to you like you’re a three-year-old.”
MY RESPONSE TO HIS RESPONSE: HOW TO DISENGAGE
Once he says it, I can’t help it; I want to grab his mouth and twist it shut, like a little white button shoved into a very small opening. Then I want to scream, then cry, then highlight passages from How To Win Friends And Influence People. I feel angry and depressed and want to point to evidence. I want to show him that he’s wrong, that you don’t have to talk to people like that for them to hear you. And I know when I say it, he’ll say that I won’t listen to him any other way. He’s tried that, he’ll argue. I tell him that he’s too hard on me, that when he says these things to me, I don’t feel encouraged. It makes me want to shut down. “Again, I’m not your cheering section,” he says. And the irony of course is that I’ve never known anyone who’s given me more support. And I tell him as much.
WHEN IT’S SAID TO EVERYONE BUT THE PERSON WHO NEEDS TO HEAR IT MOST
“Phil, I know you rave to other people about me, that you go on and on with how proud you are of me, how talented you think I am, but when it’s just us, you don’t say those things. Maybe it’s because you think I know it, think I can take it, think I don’t need the encouragement, but I do. Telling me, ‘this writing is just terrible writing and seriously, I can’t say it any nicer… it just sucks’ doesn’t exactly energize me. It makes me want to quit, not to do it better. And I value what you have to say. I don’t always agree with you, but when you point things out I at least think about them. I just wish you could still bring these things up but without raging and yelling and putting me down.”
YOU DON’T WANT TO FIX THIS. YOU WANT TO BE RIGHT.
And again, he says, “You’re just so infuriating! And you don’t even get how what you’re saying makes no sense at all. I’m not going to lie. And don’t lie to me. You really don’t want to hear the truth.” Then I do, in fact, go highlight Dale Carnegie passages, right there on my little white computer screen, in my little world of pity. I don’t know what to do next.
“… that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, people don’t criticize themselves for anything, no matter how wrong it may be. Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.”
“B.F. Skinner, the world-famous psychologist, proved through his experiments that an animal rewarded for good behavior will learn much more rapidly and retain what it learns far more effectively than an animal punished for bad behavior. Later studies have shown that the same applies to humans. By criticizing, we do not make lasting changes and often incur resentment.”
“…The resentment that criticism engenders can demoralize employees, family members and friends, and still not correct the situation that has been condemned.”
“… Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do. That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance and kindness. …”
“… Honest appreciation got results where criticism and ridicule failed. Hurting people not only does not change them, it is never called for. …”
“… Abilities wither under criticism; they blossom under encouragement. …”
In all my “why”s, in my implied use of “always,” even including any of this here without giving him a chance to defend himself, that can’t inspire improvement. And I’m not really trying to understand why he talks to me that way because I don’t want to understand it. I don’t want to hear that he’s frustrated, so he’s allowed. I want it to stop, and praising and thanking and appreciating all the times he’s patient doesn’t prevent him from lashing out. Man, I have no idea how Dale Carnegie went about breaking up with his gardener, never mind communicating with a spouse.
IT’S NOT GOING TO CLEAN ITSELF. SOMETIMES YOU CAN’T IGNORE A MOLD.
Ignoring the negatives and focusing more on positive reinforcement isn’t going to hurt when it comes to dealing with unwashed dishes, but I believe it’s less about ignoring and more about addressing grievances in a constructive way (voicing complaints about a specific behavior) rather than behaving destructively (criticizing, judging, attacking). In other words, “name it, don’t blame it.” Point out the specific behavior. Don’t assign blame and make a blanket statement. I’ve also heard this referred to as “labeling is disabling.” Label the behavior, not the person.
WRONG: You’re so lazy.
RIGHT: Instead of sitting on the couch, can you please get up and help me?
WRONG: You’re so irresponsible. You’re always late.
RIGHT: When you show up late, it’s irresponsible and it makes me feel disrespected.
WRONG: Stop acting like such a fucking baby.
RIGHT: When you whine, you make it hard for me to listen to you.
a statement that a situation is unsatisfactory or unacceptable : I intend to make an official complaint | there were complaints that the building was an eyesore.
• a reason for dissatisfaction : I have no complaints about the hotel.
• the expression of dissatisfaction : a letter of complaint | he hasn’t any cause for complaint.
• Law: the plaintiff’s reasons for proceeding in a civil action.
the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes : he received a lot of criticism | he ignored the criticisms of his friends.
HOW TO FIGHT FAIR-ISH: AN ARGUMENT FROM LAST NIGHT
“I don’t like that you said you were going to be five minutes, Stephanie, that you just had to take some notes from your meeting, but then you took longer than that. And you went from taking notes to actually writing! Actually working on a sentence! A sentence that you had the nerve to ask my opinion about! I was left to do all the heavy lifting around here, from feeding the kids to getting them ready for bed, to then putting away the food. And I had an email to send out, too, and you knew that, and you interrupted me asking about my doctor’s appointment! All you think about is yourself! You are so selfish!”
IT BEGAN IN COMPLAINTS
These started out as fair complaints, even if they did, indeed, put me in a position of wanting to defend myself. “Yes, it took longer than I’d thought, but I actually did help you put them to bed, remember? And when we were upstairs I made a point of thanking you for helping out. The only reason I didn’t put away the food is because I didn’t know if you’d even eaten. I feel if I had put the food away, I’d end up hearing, ‘You’re so selfish! Just because you’ve eaten doesn’t mean that I have!” I can’t win no matter what I do. I mean, I ask you about your doctor’s appointment, and you tell me I’m selfish. How can I–” and then I think the word “win” but I don’t say it, knowing this isn’t supposed to be a game of right and wrong. And yet I can’t help but defending myself.
PREDICTING THE FUTURE
It’s hard not to jump to that place of “knowing” what would have happened had you said or done something else when you know the other person and your habits of communicating so well. You can have an entire argument, playing both sides of it, with yourself. I can do this. I do this. This is the role I play, the defensive defeated voice that has begun to see everything as an attack, and I’m tired of feeling like shit about myself because of it. I’m tired of feeling like anything I do is wrong, and that feeling spills over into our conversations when he does, in fact, have a legitimate complaint. It’s not fair. At least I’m willing to admit that I’m not perfect, that I fuck up, that I have things to work on. That I should stop assuming that anything I do will be wrong. It’s just soooo hard to feel otherwise when that’s consistently the case. It’s as if he brings things up not because he wants them resolved but because he needs something else. He needs validation or more praise. I feel alone in admitting this, and what’s worse, I’ll prove my point by jumping to conclusions again: he’ll respond by telling me, “they’re just words.”
AND IT ENDED IN SARCASM AND PERSONAL ATTACKS
When things elevated to, “You’re a selfish person because you always think about yourself first. Want a list of all the ways you think about you? We’ll be here all night” it was no longer constructive. It became a personal attack and a judgment. I was left feeling like I’d never do anything right. I never want to be that mother, that partner, that wife. I want to be the person who focuses on the good or can at least stick to complaints without escalating them to criticisms. Given the fact that I penned a memoir titled Moose, I can’t believe I’m about to write this, but I wish Phil would just treat me like Shamu.