Those were the words spoken to me by my four year old daughter the other day as I ordered her to “be a good girl” for what seemed like the millionth time. This honest response, spoken in a most frustrated tone, really took me by surprise and for a moment allowed me to actually hear what emotions were going on inside that stubborn little head of hers. Her confession was stated in the context of following our household rules, not with regard to treating someone with respect, although we have our challenges with that at times too. With many of the things she says, I will think about it for a second and then move on, but she keeps repeating this phrase to us as justification for every one of her actions that are met with our criticism. I was worried I made her feel like she was not a good person or that she should feel bad about herself if she did something wrong. This just stirs up so many questions in my head like: How do I expect her to follow the rules, when I am just making up them up as we go along?; Am doing a terrible job trying to raise a loving and compassionate person?; Will she have a tough time at school following the rules?; Do I really want her to be one to follow the rules all the time instead of pursuing her individuality?; Do I just plain suck at disciplining my child?; What does “good” really mean anyway?
This girl has always been a free-spirit, possessing a determination and independence that I truly admire. But I need to fully embrace the fact that as a developing preschooler, she may be aware of the rules but does not have the impulse control to stop herself from following her emotions, whether that means breaking the rules or not. That is just the way toddlers are built. And that is why it is so hard to be good. Yet, at times when we’re in public, I find myself apologizing or explaining away my daughter’s “free-spirited” behavior by saying things like, “Someone hasn’t had a nap” or “She hasn’t eaten yet.” Granted, when she hasn’t done either of those two things she becomes a character right out of The Exorcist, but from now on I will just let her be and try not to rationalize or explain away her actions and behavior to someone else. And when I really think about it, half the time I am saying it to remind myself that I am a good parent, that there has to be a reason why my child is acting out.
I guess the biggest insight to be gained from what my daughter said is that “being good” and “following the rules” are not synonymous. I now make a conscious effort to choose my words a little more wisely and not give out a general order to “Be good!” because that resonates with her about as well as “Because I said so!” I also want her to know that she is a fundamentally good person, inside and out, and that I love her unconditionally.
I now try to say things like this:
“I love you and you are a good girl, but please do not lick your brother’s face.”
“Thanks for cleaning up your toys, BUT let’s not forget to pick up your clothes and put them in the hamper.”
It is also a reminder that I need to speak more diplomatically to my kids and be sensitive to how our words can affect them.