Friday 20 September 2019

Dear David Coleman: 'My six-year-old has started rolling her eyes, talking in a fake-American accent and it drives me mad'

Children can be motivated to look for attention from their parents
Children can be motivated to look for attention from their parents

Q My six-year old is a great little girl: well-adjusted, kind and generally well-behaved. Recently, she has started to behave like a teenager - rolling her eyes, talking in a fake-American accent, you get the idea. It drives me mad (fake voices drive me mad in general), so I give out to her when she does it and remind her to use her own lovely voice, and that it is better to be herself than to copy someone else. I want her to be confident and independent, not follow the herd. Am I being too harsh?

David replies: No, you are not being too harsh, but you may be being a little unfair to her. Six-year-olds are still at an age when how they act and behave is very much our responsibility as parents. Unless she was born with a fake-American accent, you might want to start with a consideration of where she has learned the eye-rolling and the American voice and attitude.

There are two likely suspects. Either she watches American pre-teen or teenage programmes (whatever current iteration of Hannah Montana is out there), or she has a best friend who watches this stuff. At her age, what she watches and who she hangs out with are still very much within your sphere of control. So, if you don't like the Americana, then try not to expose her to it.

Think twice, also, about giving out to her every time she uses the voice, because it is always possible that there is a secondary gain for her in using the fake-American accent. If, over time, she has realised that this way of speaking "drives you mad", then she might use it as a way of retaliating against you when you have driven her mad. It is easy for us to annoy our children; simply making demands of them, or setting limits on them can be enough.

Even if she isn't retaliating against some perceived injustice by you, there may also be a gain for her in having your time and focus directed towards her. She may be aware that using this voice, or acting like a teen, gets a big reaction from you. Children can be motivated to look for attention from parents, even if the attention is not especially positive.

So, much as it may grate against your hearing and your sensibilities, ignoring her when she talks in this way may be more effective, if it has become a way that she does try to draw your attention. If there is no reinforcement or reward, then she may be less motivated to talk in the dreaded accent.

I'm also intrigued, and a bit amused, by your comment about wanting her to be confident and independent and not follow the herd. Perhaps this is a direct reaction to your sense that she is picking up these affectations from her friends. If that is the case, then you may be rightly concerned about the peer influence. However, another way to look at her behaviour is that she is being exceptionally independent and confident, since she is the only one in the family talking like this, and is persisting in talking like this, even in the face of strong resistance from her mother. That requires guts, determination and a willingness to be her own person, not the person you want her to be!

Whenever I hear parents comment about wanting to raise independent, confident, children, I'm always reminded of a mother who came to me for advice about her 15-year-old son, who was pushing lots of boundaries and was a real challenge to manage. In our first session, she said: "I always wanted him to grow up to be independently-minded and to make choices - just not in opposition to me!"

So, be careful what you wish for in terms of your daughter's independence. It may end up being a double-edged sword.

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