Saturday, November 27, 2010

Draw Four: Pause, Model, Reflect, Refract

The other day I sat down with my oldest daughter Scarlett and watched as she played a game of UNO with three other children at camp. She had never played the game before (we like to play Old Maid and Go Fish), so she was unaware of the rules. I took a passive role allowing the others to teach Scarlett firsthand. They played a couple of rounds and Scarlett caught on. It was Lily's turn, the little girl to Scarlett's left, the color was yellow, the number two. Lily got very quiet. She muttered under her breath, "I don't have anything", her words laced with dishonesty. I said "Are you sure, Lily?" She leaned over to me and whispered, "Well, I have this card but it means Scarlett would have to draw four and I don't want to do that to her." I said, "That's very considerate of you Lily. It's a fair card. Use it." Lily reluctantly played the card and Scarlett willingly drew four cards from the deck.

As I observed the interactions between these children playing a favorite childhood game, I was initially struck by Lily's care and concern for Scarlett. What made her hesitate and think about how her actions would make someone feel? Where did she learn to consider making a different choice based on how it impacted another's feelings? Lily could have very easily revealed her card and laughed mockingly to show that she had forced Scarlett to draw more cards. Instead, she was compassionate and empathic. She chose compassion over aggression.

On another level, Lily was not only modeling empathy, but she was also teaching Scarlett the rules of the game. Social norms and rules are formed by society at large, but they are also constructed by the people who raise us into adulthood, our parents. So I ask, when you are holding up the choices you make as a parent like a deck of cards in your hand, how do you play the game and what are the rules that you teach your child?

My thoughts immediately shifted to a news story I heard earlier in the week about another teen suicide caused by bullying. Despite the media attention, I have yet to see a story about the parents of the bullies. As I watch news footage describing how some of these bullies have been arrested for their behavior, I naturally ask the question about the adults in their lives. What about them? At what point should parents be held responsible for their child's destructive, hurtful and sometimes fatal choices? Is there even a connection between bullying behavior and parenting? Yes. A researcher from the University of Cincinnati, Elizabeth Sweeney, has studied the family connections in the origins of young bullies. Sweeney reviewed research from England, Germany, Norway, Japan, South Africa and the United States. In children ages nine to sixteen, she discovered that children raised by authoritarian parents, parents who attempt to shape, control their children and those who are demanding, directive and value obedience as a virtue, are most prone to act out bullying behavior.

Sweeney's research is validated in studies conducted by Diana Baumrind, a psychologist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. After studying one hundred preschool-age children, Baumrind concluded that authoritarian parenting styles lead to children who are obedient and proficient, but they rank lower in happiness, social competence and self-esteem. In all, Baumrind researched three parenting styles: permissive, authoritarian and authoritative. The style with the greatest positive effect on child development was authoritative, where children are typically happy, capable and successful. The authoritative parent establishes rules and guidelines for her child to follow, while also being democratic. These parents are responsive, attentive and willing to listen to their children. Instead of punishing children for not meeting expectations, the authoritative parent is nurturing and forgiving. They are assertive, but not intrusive and restrictive. I equate the authoritative parent to a good coach who sets standards and expectations for his/her athletes. A coach doesn't ask his team whether or not they want to run five miles or do practice drills. The expectation is clear. The coach is there to support them in meeting the standards.

Aside from parenting styles, our brains are hardwired to imitate and mirror behavior we see. The same brain region that controls action also supports perception. Observing a behavior occurs in the same region as acting upon it, therefore, our modeling as parents has a dramatic effect on our children's social competence. Children's attitudes and beliefs toward others are shaped by the adults that care for them from birth. Ruby Bridges, the civil rights icon who is now a personal friend, states that in order to rid the world of racism and discrimination, adults must model tolerance for children. Following this advice, one way to circumvent the onslaught of bullying and aggressive behavior in and between children may be to reflect compassionate, tolerant behavior in our adult world.

UNO may seem like a simple game between children, but when looked at through the lens of parenting, there are many lessons to learn. The Draw Four Card of parenting directs us to
1. Pause

2. Model the behavior you want your children to demonstrate

3. Reflect that behavior in your adult relationships

4. Let it refract into the world.

Next time you hold the decks of cards in your hand and it comes time to throw down a draw four, think about your child.


  1. As parents we should emotionally respond like Lily and we should act as you, Elizabeth, advised. This is a tough one though. I am often conflicted in my feelings toward, and actions toward my son, who is very competetive, when he and I are playing a game, when he and his sister are playing, when i observe him and his friends playing or when he is relaying something about playing with his friends and he feels frustrated, left out, whatever. He plays to win which is fine but puts the rest of us in a precarious situation. From what he tells me and what i observe people tend to feel hesitant to play with him if they sense the competetiveness of their interaction. And then I feel torn when I have to discuss with him something to the effect of "how do you think your friends/I/your sister feel when they/we lose every time we play with you". He is talented and smart but difficult that way:) Not perfect though, do not get me wrong. He possesses a focus, almost a tunnel vision but the empathy or awareness seems to be missing.

    I guess, based on your writing and insight that I might need to reach further into myself in order to guide my son. This is, however, unchartered territory. Thanks for your posting. Robin

  2. Hi Robin,
    Thanks for your comment. I think your last point is where you start. What has he observed in you or others in your family about how to play the game, the value of competition and winning. Are you or your husband naturally competitive? It is important to model empathy for your children so he will learn how actions affect others. It sounds like he has the strengths of determination and fairness/justice. Those are wonderful strengths to cultivate!