“Unacceptable” is Unacceptable

The term “unacceptable” has become popular among parents in recent years. I find the word unacceptable. Let me explain. The term “unacceptable” does not assist children in understanding their difficult behavior and ultimately adjusting such behavior. Furthermore this word and several other such words are harmful to the children who hear them. Let me explain.

First let me note some of the words that have become popular with parents when dealing with a child’s challenging behavior:

  • Unacceptable
  • Inappropriate
  • Irresponsible
  • Immature
  • Selfish
  • And probably a number of other words

Examine with me the essence of such words and you will find an important, but subtle, element: they all speak about the other person, usually a child who has said or done something that the parent doesn’t like. We who have been parents know a myriad of such things. Since I have a large contingent of children in my practice, I have heard a number of such behaviors including:

  • Swearing
  • Yelling and screaming
  • Hitting a sibling, a friend, or a classmate
  • Throwing something at someone
  • Refusing to do homework
  • Urinating in the toilet without regard for “aim”
  • Throwing dirty clothes on the floor
  • Slouching at the dinner table
  • Whining
  • Chewing with one’s mouth open
  • And many others

Let me state the obvious. I dislike these behaviors as much as the next parent, or in my case the next grandparent. I have my particular pet peeves with my grandchildren include all of the above plus grammatical errors, like, “Me and Grandma” that my 10-year old tends to say. I recall my father finding it unacceptable (although he never used that term) when anyone would use one’s table knife to get some butter of the butter plate. And he also really disliked (as I dislike it) when someone scrapes food scraps off plates after dinner is finished. He used to say, “This is not the place to display garbage. Please bring your plate to the kitchen.” So “unacceptable” for one person is not necessary unacceptable to another person, as I know many people who find it courteous to scrape their plates after dinner is finished.

I had a conversation with a couple who had been good friends for decades not long ago. They were at our house and we had just finished dinner when Rachel started collecting plates and scraping them at the table. I interrupted and said, “Rachel, please let me tell you something that is very important to me. Scraping dishes at the dinner table is not something I like. Furthermore, it is actually a bit disgusting to me. Now I know that you are doing this as an act of kindness, and I appreciate your kindness. And certainly most people would not be offended by such an act of kindness. But I was raised in a home where my father instilled in me the idea that scraping plates at the dinner table, while common, and even gracious, is not something that he liked. And so I have come to dislike it.” So graciously Rachel stopped her gracious activity that was not gracious for me. I am quite sure, however, that my comment and suggestion was hurtful to her, as she might have thought of the many dinners we had shared over many years, sometimes at her house and sometimes at ours, all of which had had the dish-scraping part of the end of dinner.

I could have said that dish scraping was “unacceptable,” but I didn’t use that term, much less any other term like unkind or stupid. I didn’t say what my father would say, “the dinner table is not a place for garbage.” I simply told Rachel my feelings and then a bit about the origin of my feelings. I told her how her behavior affected me. I told her about me, not about what was wrong with her or even wrong about what she was doing. She wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was doing something that hurt or offended me.

My hope is that parents can do the same with their children, namely speak about themselves. You see, telling a child that what she is doing is unacceptable (or irresponsible or inappropriate) is telling the child that something is wrong with him or her. There is no way children can hear “your behavior is unacceptable” without thinking something is wrong with them, or at least that their parents think there is something wrong with them. We don’t need children thinking there is something wrong with them. Rather…

We need children to understand two things:

  • You, as parent, believe there is something wrong with what your child has done.
  • Your child’s behavior has affected you in some way, usually in a negative or difficult way
  • In other words, I suggest you learn to speak to your children about their behavior and about your feelings. Telling a child that his behavior is “unacceptable” does neither.

Let me give you some examples of how this might work when you encounter difficult, hurtful, or harmful behavior in your child. Let me help you to know what you might say in such circumstances:

  • Your child hits his sister. Normally, this would be “unacceptable”, but instead of saying that, you say…
  • Johnny, I feel sad that you have hurt your sister. I know that you love your sister and that she loves you. It saddens me when you hit her.
  • Johnny says something in his “defense,” like his sister made a face at him or “hit him first.” We’ve all heard these defenses.
  • Parent: that may be true, Johnny, and if that is true, Grace’s behavior also saddens me. I feel sad when someone makes faces and teases someone else.

In this proposed encounter, there is no:

  • That is unacceptable
  • That is mean
  • You should know better than that
  • What is wrong with you?
  • How would you like it if I hit you?
  • Because…

All of these statements and rhetorical questions are shaming. Shame is the feeling that there is something wrong with the person. Shaming always leads to hiding and defense. If you shame a child, that child will do both hiding and defending. Children never profit from shaming. They profit from understanding how their behavior affects other people. I think the most important thing parents can do for the psychological well-being of their children is to reflect how they feel when they hear or see something from their children that affects them. These emotional reflections can be:

  • Sadness, which is the essence of something that I have lost that I love. “Hurt,” by the way is essentially sadness.
  • Fear of danger to someone
  • Anger, which is a defense against danger, and always follows sadness and fear
  • Joy at what the child did
  • And combinations of these feelings like excitement, surprise, disgust, and hopeful

Children can profit from hearing your feelings, both good and bad, that you have when they do something or say something. We don’t have to be “affirming” all the time. We don’t have to mince words. We don’t have to avoid the necessary times of anger, hopefully few. We do need to help children understand that they cause emotional responses in other people, both good and bad.

As a final note (sic), if you continue to use “unacceptable” and the like with your children, it does one good thing: it keeps me in business.