Parents: Do You Understand Your Important Power to Reframe?

diane sitting on steps with three kidsWhile parents have many powers over their children, one I would invite them to consider is the power they have to frame and reframe the ways they speak to their children.

Parents are framing the world and their descriptions of their children all the time.

How intentional this framing is becomes the issue. So, how healthy, nurturing and encouraging are the frames parents use?

As an example, a child has just thrown a ball and the window has broken as a result. Is this a factual account? Yes. But how does the parent look at the situation?

Maybe that parent reacts by saying, “You did that on purpose!” or “You are always doing irresponsible things. Couldn’t you see that the ball was bound to hit the window sooner or later?”

On the other hand, the parent could express frustration in a healthier way, i.e., using a healthier frame: “Oh jeez, I know that you didn’t intend to break the window. At the same time, I want you to know that I am really frustrated because I asked you not to play ball next to the house. Now we have to figure out how to get it fixed.” This parent has reframed the initial reaction and taken a more accurate view of the event.

The words a person uses to discuss something, or someone are like a frame. They carry images, attitudes and values that may or may not be appropriate to what is being described.

When we frame a picture, the frame becomes part of the picture even though it was made separately.

The frame, in fact, tells us how to look at the picture. Therefore the frame should be chosen very carefully. Consider the following case in point.

A thick, ornate, heavily gilded frame may seem inappropriate to use with a tiny, delicate pastel painting. It sends the wrong message, sets up the wrong expectation, and conflicts with the image it surrounds. Such a frame might be just right, though, for an enormous oil portrait of an British king, because it suggests the majesty and opulence of the subject.

Reframing is the process of changing, modifying, discarding or at least acknowledging the highly subjective nature of a particular perspective or frame.

Reframing requires an ability and willingness to see the factual aspects of the situation as one thing and the frame as another, just as the picture on the wall is one thing and the frame is another. People “frame” the world by necessity. We need to label the many behaviors and situations around us and within us to create a “frame” of reference, to organize, prioritize, and distinguish one thing from another.

Through reframing, reactions and attitudes of the sender and the receiver can change, even though the actual behavior has not changed. Relationships can be nurtured and strengthened when a parent switches from a less healthy frame to reframing what they are saying so it is more descriptive and more specific.

For example, a parent could substitute the word “possessive” as a replacement for “selfish” in describing his child. Thinking about his child as “possessive about his toys” rather than “selfish about sharing” may give the parent a whole new way of looking at his child’s behavior, even though the child’s behavior has not changed.

It is even more accurate to reframe “bad” behavior, changing it from “bad” to “unacceptable,” “dangerous” or “unhealthy” behavior. “Bad” presents a judgment as an absolute fact whereas words like “unacceptable,” “dangerous” or “unhealthy” better describe behavior that has the potential to do damage or break a rule.

Here are some typical words that parents could use to reframe behaviors for their children:

  • Reframing “lazy” to “distracted,” “overwhelmed” or “not sure how to do this.”
  • Reframing “bad” to “lacking judgment,” “unexpected” or “unacceptable”
  • Reframing “helpless” to “hesitant,” “uncertain” or “cautious”

In general, healthier frames tend to be more descriptive than evaluative:

  • “You left the front door open and the cat got out” instead of “How irresponsible you are, letting the cat get out!”
  • “Maybe you did this today because you are tired,” instead of “You don’t pay attention to things,”
  • “Sometimes you get distracted,” instead of “You always have your head in the clouds.”

I encourage parents to become more aware of the power you have to frame what children are saying or doing. Ensure as often as possible the frames you use are healthier and more likely to nurture a child’s sense of self rather than diminish it.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Think about some of the things you said to your child today. How would you describe the frames around each statement: were they more descriptive or more evaluative? Were they more specific or more general? Were they more tentative or more absolute?
  2. Think about how each frame might have impacted your child.
  3. If any of your frames seem less than healthy, what might be a way you could reframe what you said? (Remember it’s always okay to go back and offer a reframe: “You know when I said you were lazy earlier today, I was wrong. That was not a true statement. You are not lazy. Sometimes you get distracted and forget to finish what you started. That can happen to all of us. Sometimes it takes work to stay focused.”)

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institutue


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