SingaporeMotherhood | Parenting

October 2013

Words! Words! Words!

“Go and study,” says Mommy as she is clearing the dishes.

Little X is still watching a Youtube video on the Tablet.

“Go and study!” says Mommy again while clearing the cups, her voice now a little louder.

Little X still has her eyes glued to the tablet. Mommy goes off to take a bath. When Mommy returns after 15 minutes, Little X is still engrossed in Youtube.
“Go and study! How many times do I have to tell you to go and study? Why don’t you ever listen to me? Do you even understand English? You must be really dumb if you cannot even understand a simple instruction in English!”

This same scenario plays out in homes all over Singapore because parents seem to think that their words alone should be enough to compel action. Children, of course, know otherwise.

Even an averagely intelligent child is an expert at reading his own Mommy. If he’s onto something really fun compared to studying, he’ll know how to stop at that precise moment before his Mommy will move to action (for example, to take away his plaything or to pinch him or spank him).

He’ll be able to tell from the decibels pouring out of his Mother’s mouth. He’ll wait for that screech, and that pitch, and that vibralto in her voice before he puts his plaything away and drags himself towards whatever Mommy has asked him – nicely first, and then not so nicely – to do.

By that time, Mommy is wrestling with an enormous ball of frustration and irritation. If the child has misjudged his Mommy’s emotional state, the Mommy might have picked up the cane and given him a few lashes. Like it or not, such things (caning or whipping) do happen. Hence, let’s talk openly about how to avoid such situations. Even if Mommy is not the sort to turn violent, the screeching and yelling is unpleasant for all involved.

Most Mommies have a line of action. When angered enough, Mommies always pass to action. These actions can be to angrily take away the plaything and lock it away out of reach of the child… or it could be to wield a cane.

When one allows a ball of anger to push one to action, the action is often disproportionately hurtful. Layer upon this hurtful action a stream of hurtful invective and soon, the child begins to feel angry and hurt.

This produces rebellion in the child. As time goes on, it takes more yelling and harsher punishment to get the child to obey. Finally, even caning and whipping no longer work to motivate a child to obey.

Bring The Line of Action Forward

The trick therefore is to bring the Line of Action forward. Act before you become angry. This takes advanced planning. Before I tell my children to clean out their rooms, I know that after saying it nicely twice, I myself will clean out their rooms. I also know that when I clean out their rooms, I will throw stuff away that might be dear to them, but which I consider junk. After one experience of having Mommy do their spring cleaning, both my kids hop to clean out their rooms when I ask them to once a year.

It is the same with putting toys away. Before I tell my kids to keep their toys, I know that after saying it nicely twice, I myself will put away their toys. I also know that in the process, I will hide a well-loved toy somewhere. The children risk losing this or that loved toy whenever I clean up after them. Naturally, they don’t trust me to keep their toys. They don’t know what else they could lose. Hence, when I ask them to keep their toys nicely, they do.

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Use The Line of Natural Action

The other trick is to step away calmly and allow the situation to BE the Line of Action for your child. I call this the Line of Natural Action.

Parents often protect their children from every consequence. “Don’t climb that or you’ll fall,” and we rush forward to restrain the child. “Wake up now or you’ll be late for the schoolbus,” and we start to yell and scream. “Finish your food or you’ll be hungry before the next meal comes,” and we begin to beg and cajole. “Don’t touch that! You’ll get burnt!” we screech and rush to push the child away. “Focus in class or your results will suffer,” we warn, wheedle, plead and sulk to no avail.

The Daughter was a mini monkey in toddlerhood. She climbed everything. I removed one piece of furniture that was too high and said, “Don’t climb up and down. You’ll fall and it’ll hurt.”

Of course she didn’t listen to me. Words don’t hurt. She fell down twice. Thereafter, she never fell again. She learnt to judge distances and gauge her own ability. Years later, she became a champion gymnast.

We nag and yell at our children to protect them from the hurtful consequences of Real Life. I decided to allow my kids to experience small doses of Real Life for themselves. In this way, they learnt to take what I said seriously. My words were followed by action, even though the action wasn’t taken by me.

Here is another example. When the Little Boy was in Primary 2 I told him that he needed to wake up on time or his school bus would leave without him. Of course, he didn’t heed my words. Words don’t hurt.

On two mornings he didn’t wake to the alarm that I had set for him. On those two days, he missed school. I refused to write an excuse for him. He had to explain to his teachers why he had missed school. By the time he was in Primary 3, I could stay in bed till 7am everyday while Little Boy woke himself up at 5.30am and was ready by the time the schoolbus arrived at 6.15am.


Set Up a Line of Natural Action

A variation of the trick above is to artificially frame a Line of Natural Action. When my children began to crawl, I was deathly afraid that they would have a kitchen accident. I decided to set up a small lesson with a Line of Action.

I boiled an egg and let it cool. It was hot enough to cause pain if touched, but not hot enough to scald a child. I put the egg in front of my children and said, “Don’t touch it. It’s hot.” Of course, they didn’t heed my words. Words don’t hurt.

They reached out to touch the egg, innocent defiance in their baby eyes. Defiance turned to shock as they experienced for themselves what “hot” really meant. Henceforth, if they crawled near the oven or were about to put something inside a plug, I would say “Hot!” and they would immediately retreat.

In one of my language classes, there was a child who wouldn’t focus. I told him gently that if he didn’t focus, he would do badly. I also asked his Mommy to have a gentle word with him. Of course, he didn’t heed our words. Words don’t hurt.

He sat on his haunches and intoned, “I am bored… I am bored… I aaaaaam bored… I am booooooored.” He stuck out his legs and tripped his friends. He brought toy guns to class and tried to get his friends to play with him. I said nothing. I waited until he handed up his homework the week after. I marked his work and returned it to him. It was graded F-minus.

Another student in my class was a good friend of his. He didn’t like losing to her. I gave her an A-plus that week. Then, I ‘accidentally’ returned the pieces of homework to the wrong child. This meant that his friend saw his F-minus grade. It also meant that he saw her A-plus grade.

His ears turned beetroot red and he quickly stuffed his worksheet into his bag. I then asked his Mommy to have another chat with him, “When you refuse to focus in class, you will do badly.” It was a lesson he never forgot. He has been a changed boy since. He no longer brings toys to class. Once, he turned his face to the wall while doing his worksheet in order to stop himself from getting distracted.

Talk Less and Act More

I guess all this is the equivalent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous words, “Talk softly but carry a big stick.” It’s very unpleasant to always be yelling at your children. It’s also dangerous for children when we punish them while in the grip of fury. If we stay calm and think situations through to a Line of Action (and take action or allow action to happen when we’re calm), we will eventually train our children to attend to our softest words, said the very first time.

Dr Petunia Lee holds a PhD in Business. She reads and researches into Human Motivation within organisations. She is also author of the book entitled Internal Drive Theory(R): Motivate Your Child to WANT to Study. You can purchase her book here.

*Main image credit: Ben Earwicker, Garrison Photography, Boise, ID,

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Words! Words! Words!