Feel Good, Do Good;
Feel Bad, Do Bad
We sometimes hear about people doing “random acts of kindness.” Like holding the door for strangers, plugging a stranger’s parking meter, etc. What motivates random acts of kindness?
On one hand, it might be a thought, such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” On the other hand, it might be that at the moment the person is just feeling good. Or it might be both. It could also be pre-meditated, or simply spontaneous, reflecting the person’s internal disposition or state of mind at the moment.
By the same token, if a person if feeling grumpy, or full of anger or self-pity, they are much less likely to do the random act of kindness. When we feel bad–impatient, angry, depressed, and the like–we are not only less inclined to do the good thing, but we are more inclined to do the bad thing, like barking at someone, criticizing someone, or ignoring an attention-getter.
This applies to children, too, of course, and perhaps even more so. They are so much more likely than we adults to spontaneously act their feeling state out and express their feeling verbally or non-verbally. Children are much less likely to be “reserved” or “controlled” in how they express their feeling of the moment. They are more primitive than adults in that way, but also genuine or authentic than a more self-conscious adult is likely to be.
So it is critically important for us as adults, and as parents, to be able and willing to quickly size up a situation in which our child is “acting out” (expressing) some negative feeling they might be having at the moment. When the four-year-old hits his little brother, or the ten-year-old steals $20 from his mother’s purse, or the teenager threatens to (or actually does) run away, it is important for the parent to assess and respond to what is motivating the behavior, and not just fly off the handle in reaction to the behavior itself. A knee-jerk reaction to bad behavior by a parent is not just missing the mark, it is also (and much worse) an invitation to the child to do more bad behavior. Why? Because the parent is ignoring or blowing off the pain and frustration the child is experiencing. Ironically, the parent now creates another problem, and more bad feelings, for the child by criticizing or attacking. In this way, showing the child a lack of empathy (i.e., not communicating some understanding of the child’s feeling or thinking state) is in a sense a rejection of the child. It’s not just the bad behavior the parent is rejecting (which is to be expected), but it’s also a rejection of the deeper, more important aspect of what makes us persons: the thoughts and feelings that motivate our behavior.
When children feel good, they are likely to do good. When they feel bad, they are more likely to do bad things. Conversely, when we see them doing something good, we can surmise that they may be feeling good, and when they do something bad, we can surmise that they may be feeling bad.
Understanding another person’s plight is called empathy. A loving, empathic response by the parent that expresses that understanding can make all the difference. For example, “Okay, honey, you must be feeling bad–angry, sad, afraid, jealous, etc.–right now. Is that right?” It communicates that the parent accepts the child’s internal distress. It invites the child to talk about what made them act badly. It’s the perfect way to start a dialogue that leads to a common understanding (and maybe even the child’s agreement) about how to handle those thoughts and feelings next time. It communicates respect and love, without approving unacceptable behavior. It shows the child that the parent cares and is willing to listen, and this strengthens the parent-child relationship.
3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model. Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.