TV Guide magazine declared it “The Worst TV Show Ever.” Simultaneously, it was the top-rated daytime talk show in the United States. “Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!” flowed out of the television set and into over 3 million homes every day. Briefly, this included mine.
When my daughter was in second grade, she went through a bit of a phase. Every day, she’d come home after school, chuck her book bag aside, plop down on the sofa, and eagerly turn on the TV to watch Jerry Springer. And there she’d remain, mesmerized, for hours.
As a parent, I was mortified. These were not the values I wanted my eight-year-old to be learning. I was horrified by the idea that she would think that this show was depicting normal, healthy relationships. “Jessi, real people aren’t like this! These aren’t good role models,” I argued with her. “Surely there’s something better to watch.” Then I tried diversion tactics. “Jessi, let’s go to the park! Or the library! Do you want to do some arts and crafts?”
Without fail, my offers were dismissed. “No, Mom. I’m watching Jerry Springer,” came her response. We went on like this for a few months. My lectures and appeals to higher reason fell on deaf ears. In her mind, I simply didn’t get it. No matter what I said, tried, bribed, I couldn’t pull her out.
So finally, in a desperate move to rescue her from the evils of this show, I decided to go in. One day when she came home from school, instead of trying to talk her out of watching Jerry, I sat down next to her on the sofa. I resolved myself to reserve judgement. I would watch without criticism. I wanted to understand. And, if nothing more, at least I’d know exactly what she was watching.
I sat next to her every afternoon for a few weeks until, one day I turned to her with genuine curiosity, and asked “What is it you like about this show?” Without missing a beat, she responded, “I’m just fascinated by what people are willing to do to be on television.”
Whew! I was so relieved! My kid wasn’t using Jerry Springer as a manual on how to live life or have relationships with others. She knew exactly what was going on. Her critical thinking skills were strong and her moral rudder was still intact. As it turns out, I didn’t have so much to worry about after all — something I wouldn’t have known, unless I had entered her world.
After that day, whenever I asked Jessi if she wanted to go to the park, or the library, she was ready to go — because she knew that I understood, that I wasn’t trying to change her behavior or deliver a lecture on the fundamentals of a wholesome life. I was simply offering an additional form of entertainment. By taking the time to see the world through her eyes, and discover the appeal of a show that caught her interest, I had conveyed that “I got it”, and she felt that I both respected and loved her for who she was.
20 years later, while interviewing experts on child development for my book, Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You, I realized why I was only able to get her out, by going in. Every psychologist, pediatrician, educator and social worker I spoke to emphasized that if you’re in any sort of power struggle with your child and having difficulty getting through, stop trying to teach. First, you have to relate.
Relating, as described to me by Dr. Laurence Steinberg, is about entering your child’s world and spending time on topics and activities of interest to them. It is the surest way to get to know your child for the unique individual they are, and to communicate that you value and love them. Teaching is a different (and equally important) way of connecting to your kids and demonstrating love. But there is a clear and important distinction between teaching and relating, and the order matters. When we teach, our intention is to be understood, and our kids are the students of us. When we relate, our intention is to understand, and we are the students of the child. Children are far more likely to listen to what we have to say, if they first feel understood.
If you think about it, that is true for humans of all ages. Few people –adult friends, students or colleagues —are ready to listen to advice given by someone who doesn’t first demonstrate they understand them. So whenever you find yourself in a situation where you disagree with the behavior of a friend, family member, or even a direct report at work, instead of jumping to advice, consider trying to relate first. Ask questions (without judgement), to understand their thinking before trying to impart wisdom. You just might be surprised and delighted by what you discover, and will build a stronger bridge for true connection.