There’s a dating cliché that goes: “It’s not you, it’s me.” And it’s also one of my two parenting mottos. (The other is: “Naps save lives.”)
When “It’s not you, it’s me” is used in dating, it implies the other person shouldn’t take the break up personally. When I use it with my 10-year-old, I’m trying to tell him if someone’s made him feel bad, there’s a good chance it’s not really about him.
It applies to things such as what kids say in the playground, or if a teacher uncharacteristically speaks sharply. Or even if I lose my cool, not because he’s done something wrong, but because I’m exhausted.
Unkind words and actions have the power to make or break a child. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is a load of crap, and we all know it.
We can tell our kids to ignore unkindness until we’re hoarse, but the truth is, even just one word’s effect can last a lifetime. Fat. Stupid. Ugly. Add twenty years, and you’ll have an adult who’s internalised that hurt, maybe even to the extent they’re potentially inflicting it on others.
I think the key to avoiding that is teaching our kids resilience; how to “bounce back”, be optimistic, navigate a crisis – and not to take things so personally.
That’s why I always apologise when I’ve unreasonably lost my cool with my kid by explaining, “it’s not you, it’s me.” If he tells me someone was mean, or abrupt, I suggest, “It’s not you, it’s them – they might be having a bad day.”
I noted on Twitter recently the story of a man that had said the same thing to a child who was being berated by her mother in public, and it changed her life:
.. a stranger – a random person who happened to be there – whispered, “Hey.” And the (then 11 yr old) girl turned back. The stranger said: “It’s not you. It’s her.” And then the elevator door closed. Why do I bring this up?
— Ed Solomon (@ed_solomon) January 29, 2018
The girl in the story was 11 at the time, so old enough, as my son is, to truly absorb the words spoken to her. Reading how the stranger’s truth helped her deal with her mother gave me faith that whilst unorthodox, and whilst you are more likely to read those words on a dating site than on a parenting one, “it’s not you, it’s them” may just really work.
I’ve found talking about context also helps my kid not to personalise things. For example, I recently discovered a girl at school, who’s known for her sharp tongue, is a ward of the state. The next time my son complained she’d thrown some fairly nasty words in his direction, I explained to him that her parents are in jail because of what they did to her. And that she’s still learning about kindness and respect, because she’s rarely experienced it.
Giving the girl’s behaviour context appealed to my son’s empathy – he understood it wasn’t about him. And it changed his attitude to her – in response changing her attitude to him. Time will tell if I can actually call that a bona fide parenting win, but it’s a great start.
It’s crucial that he doesn’t allow negative words to define the way he thinks of himself, because most of the time, they’re not accurate. There’s an old saying I always think of; “If you walk into a room, no one is thinking of you; they’re thinking of themselves.” It means that even if people are looking at you and judging your appearance – they are doing it in comparison to how they feel or appear. Their opinion is biased towards themselves. And that’s what my tactic is all about – exposing that it’s just one person’s biased opinion.
“It’s not you, it’s them. Not everything is about you. It’s a reflection on the other person, just as your own actions are.”
I want my son to stand up for himself. Respect himself. And take responsibility for his behaviour. But not take responsibility for the issues of others.
LISTEN: Holly Wainwright and Andrew Daddo discuss toeing the line between helping your child, and letting them fend for themselves.