We had been out of school for hours when a little voice piped up from the back seat.
6y/o: “Hey Mom, you know what a boy said to me today at recess?”
Me: (bristling because I can hear she’s upset) “What’s that, honey?”
6y/o: “He said,” (voice growing louder and shakier) “Boys go to college to get more knowledge, and girls go to Jupiter to get more STUPIDER!”
I tell you what, it was a good thing I was sitting in front of her because at that exact moment I found myself caught between a couple of competing responses. And, I wasn’t sure which one was best.
On the one hand, I wanted to laugh because a) I was a little relieved and b) that ridiculous saying has been around for-ev-er and it sounded impossibly cute coming out of her mouth. On the other hand, I could definitely feel my internal feminist uprising, ready to launch into the history of patriarchy and steal the entire moment.
I settled on this: “Huh. What did you do?”
6y/o: “I frowned at him and walked away.”
Me: “What do you think he thought?”
6y/o: (confidently) “I think he knew that wasn’t okay.”
Phew. She handled it. And, more importantly, she felt good about how she handled it. And, I would never have known that if I hadn’t offered her a neutral response. I’m so grateful for this option to offer as a gift to our kids in conversation.
How & Why to Offer a Neutral Response
Neutral responses sound like they should be easy, but they often aren’t. We live in a culture where opinions dominate headlines and commentary, and neutrality and listening are sometimes labeled as weakness. And, when it comes to our kids, of course we don’t feel neutral. We have opinions on most of what they share with us. But, we have to figure out when it is helpful to share it.
Neutral responses work like this. When our kids offer us information, our job is to simply offer a neutral word (huh, yeah, really) followed by a “prompt” to keep them talking (what did you do, what do you think, what do you feel, how did that work out, etc.) Here are some reasons why the “neutral response” approach can be helpful:
- It allows us time to gather more information.
- It shows our child we are interested in hearing how they handled the situation.
- It gives us time to gather/evaluate our emotions. Believe it or not, our responses are often driven by managing our own emotions rather than what’s in the best interest of the other person.
- It lets our kids tell us what happened without being shut down or swayed by our opinion.
- It conveys trust and confidence in their ability to think through and manage their own lives (which is a major goal of growing up).
- It establishes a norm that helps our kids feel safe coming to us when the problems get much, much bigger than what happens on the playground.
“My teacher is mean to us.”
“Really? Tell me more about that.”
“My friends leave me out at recess. I don’t have anyone to play with.”
“Yeah? What do you doing during that time?”
“Lots of kids say cuss words at school.”
“Huh. What do you do when they do that?”
(And, for those future moments when we really hope that they come to us…)
“Hey Mom, some kid offered me drugs at a party.”
“Yeah, buddy? How did you handle that?”
Offering a neutral response doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion. And, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to offer one at some point in an effort to help, guide, protect, or teach them. But, leading with a neutral response is often a great first step to let everyone get their bearings so you can move forward with information, compassion, a clear head, and a child who gets the regular opportunity to grow in their confidence and practice independence.
Here’s to holding our tongue long enough to let them lead.