Overt behaviour

by Ruth Minshull

[source: Miracles for Breakfast by Ruth Minshull]

By now you can probably see that there are countless ways in which we can alienate a child by not accepting his communication. But, the most devastating (to him) is the failure to accept his confession of an overt act.

What is an “overt act?” Anything we do (or fail to do ) which hurts another.

Billy takes his sister’s toy away from her. That’s an overt. Billy does not open the door for his sister when she is outside crying and unable to reach the door handle. That’s an overt. In the first instance, he did something. In the second, he neglected to do something. Both resulted in sister feeling hurt.

You can do much to enhance the well-being of your child if you make it safe for him to talk to you, safe for him to tell you his overts and, thus, clean them up as they happen. He will try to do this when he’s very young and this is where most parents make their first errors.

Little Abercrombie is playing on the beach. He comes up to Mother and says, “I hit that girl on the head.”

If Mother is very wise, she will say, “Thank you for telling me that.”

That’s all.

If Mother is typical, she will say, “Why, you naughty boy. You must never hit little girls.

You’re going to get a spanking for that.”

Abercrombie gets the message. Not that he shouldn’t hit little girls. He already knew that.

What he learned was this: “I mustn’t tell my Mommy when I do something bad ‘cause I’ll get spanked.”

So this Mother inadvertently takes one of the first steps in making it unsafe for her child to talk to her. Soon he will start “withholding.” He will not tell anyone about his misdeeds.

If you kick the dog every time you come in the door, the dog will soon learn to hide when he hears you coming in the door. If you punish a child for communicating, he learns to stop communicating.

You may wonder (and rightly so), how’s a child going to learn right from wrong if we just say “OK” to everything he does? That’s part of our job as parents. We certainly should teach him the acceptable behavior of our society. If we see him doing something destructive or detrimental to others, we step in, stop him, and explain why this is not a good thing to do.

Accepting his admissions is not the same as condoning overt actions. It is important to make this differentiation. Stop overts by all means; but DON’T STOP HIS COMMUNICATION.

Remember the child is basically good and he doesn’t want to create bad effects on others. He really wants approval and admiration. All of us do.

When he does create a bad effect, he will want to set it straight. He will bring you his mental hurts just as he brings you his skinned knee. He wants you to help make it well. Now, you wouldn’t take that skinned knee and hit it with the hammer a couple more times, would you?

Let’s take the teen-age boy mentioned in the first paragraph. He won’t talk to his parents. They’re not sure where he goes all the time, what he does or who his friends are. Do you really think he doesn’t know his parents’ views on the subjects of driving, stealing, drinking and moral conduct? Of course he does, ( unless he’s been deaf, dumb and blind for the past twelve years of his life). He also knows the accepted mores of his society and he knows the vies points of his educators and religious leaders. There are so many “do good” lectures in his life that he is; probably fed up to the teeth with them. Let me assure you, he doesn’t need another lecture.

He needs an understanding ear. He needs to know; that it is not too late to correct his mistakes and misdeeds of the past. He is unwilling to talk to his parents because he knows they will be unable to accept his communications without Q & A.

After successfully auditing many teenagers, I can tell you that it was never necessary to tell any of them that he was doing something wrong. They told me. And they felt wonderful after they did.

Another question parents ask is this: If you just accept a child’s overts without threat or criticism, won’t he think it’s OK to go right out and commit the same overts again?

No. He will gradually improve. After he gets off overts, he will feel clean and he’ll want to stay that way as much as possible. You cannot completed erase the compulsion to commit overts. This requires auditing. You’ll keep him from piling overts up, however, and this is extremely important.