The power of “huh.”

We hear a lot about building kids’ self esteem and teaching them to be responsible, but some of the messages we send with our communication thwart rather than support the actual development of these things.  If we want kids to actually build these capacities, we have to actively invite them into the process.

When a kid says “I want to quit karate” (or piano or swim team or a job or school or homeschooling) if you say something like “Huh – I thought you liked karate.  I’m surprised you’re saying you want to quit,” you’re offering an inquiry, an opportunity for your child to ask questions of herself and the situation: to consider, weigh, reflect, and receive support from you in doing so.  You’re also setting yourself up for lots more effort and work than if you say just “no,” or “yes.”  (It’s more work for both of you, in fact, so it’s also a good idea to remember that if you suddenly start engaging with your child’s statements this way you may be met with resistance you don’t expect.  If it’s good for them, why aren’t they excited about it, you may be wondering.  Habit and ease. It’s easier to let you do it. And if they haven’t experienced the satisfaction of making an important decision themselves or even participating in one, they’re likely to opt for ease.)

The thing to remember when a kid blurts out something like this about wanting to quit something or something along those lines is that kids say lots of things to try them out, or because they’re true in that particular moment. (Frankly, adults do this too, but because we tend to be less present and more in a state of constant assessment of how things we say are going to sound to the listeners, we narrate the moment-to-moment truth less steadily.)  This can really send adults into a tailspin, especially if it’s about something they’ve invested a lot of time, energy, money into.  “What?” you’re tempted to say.  “You begged for karate!” Many times kids are just trying to express something that, while likely related to what they’ve declared, is not the earth-shattering final never-to-be-altered fact you take it as. It’s just something that they thought of or felt just then.  You get to decide whether or not to receive what they’re saying, and let it be something other than permanent.

So if you’re up for trying something a little different, but you’re not sure how it’s going to go or how deep you want to sink yourself into the inquiry and effort of it, start with “Huh.”  Often just that word will invite kids to reflect for a moment on what they’ve said and, if there’s actually more to it, expand on what they mean.  If you lunge at a statement like “I want to quit violin,” with your own upset: “But you love violin and you’ve almost mastered the piece you’ve been working on for so long!” or “You’re not quitting now after all this time” or “I always wished I’d played an instrument when I was your age…” there’s no room for the child to look at what he’s saying, check it for accuracy, add anything he’s left out.  He can’t clarify: “I think I want to quit because I’m nervous about the performance,” or “It’s gotten really hard lately,” or “There’s so much other stuff to do I don’t know if I want to keep playing.”

Starting with “huh” also gives you the chance to consider for yourself the possible reasons he’s saying what he’s saying before you respond at any length.  You give yourself the chance to look into it a bit and reflect from somewhere other than upset.