Community QA

Community Q&A: Talking Respectfully to Your Toddler

To help more of our readers with their crucial conversations, confrontations, and behavior change challenges, we recently introduced the Community Q&A column! Please share your answers to this reader’s question in the comments below.

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a three-year-old daughter, and I am concerned about the frequency with which I lose patience and “talk down” to her. My own father was very judgmental and intolerant of mistakes and inefficiencies. My daughter is three, and she is the epitome of inefficient!

As much as I try not to, I sound like my dad way too much. I hear the disapproving tone in my voice and know I shouldn’t use it, but I get so annoyed with her at times. I don’t want to raise her to be afraid to make mistakes and I want her to have positive self-esteem. How do I stop myself from repeating the patterns I was raised with?

Frayed Patience

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Merchant of Bellingham

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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To pay homage to the tens of millions of people out there who labor long and hard for all of us (often with little pay and virtually no recognition), today I honor my grandfather, The Merchant of Bellingham.

During WWII, my father worked for Boeing as the team leader of a group of craftsmen. They produced the mechanism that makes it possible to lower bomber landing gear by hand (should something go wrong with the automated equipment). When the war came to an end and there was no longer a need for life-saving bomber equipment, Dad was out of work. That is, until he stumbled on the idea of owning and operating a small grocery store—the kind you could find just about every six blocks in the mid-forties.

As it turned out, Dad wasn’t cut out for such employment (he ended up in apartment management), so Grandpa took charge of the store. He moved in, we moved out, and over the next twenty years, my grandfather (a fiery five-foot-two Irishman with a cigar stub perennially stuck in the corner of his mouth) became “pop” to everyone who stopped by the store to pick up a quart of milk and chat about the weather.

One day when I asked Grandpa what he called himself (I knew what he did, I just didn’t know what to call it), he told me he was a “merchant.” I haven’t heard anyone use that term since then, but when Grandpa claimed the title, it was clear that a merchant was something special. He always dressed in wool suit pants, a white shirt and tie, and a crisp green apron. And whether he was candling eggs, putting away redeemable bottles, or standing patiently as a child picked out five cents worth of penny candy, Grandpa attacked the task with the pride and precision of a physician performing surgery. After all, he was a merchant.

I remember watching Grandpa patiently wait on people of every ilk and disposition. Since his store was located in a rather poor neighborhood, there was no telling who would walk in the front door or what they might require. Several individuals who were learning disabled frequently found their way to his establishment. They’d shyly point at the items they wanted, reach into their pocket, and pull out a handful of crumpled bills and loose coins. Then, without making a big deal of it, Grandpa would pick out the right amount of money, bag the groceries, and send the customer on his or her way with a hearty “thank you.”

One time, a couple of teenage boys who were in the store ridiculed an adult customer who had been unable to count his money, and later that day when the boys returned for a soda pop, Grandpa counseled them on showing respect for all people.

Grandpa had spent the first forty years of his career as a bit of a celebrity in the lumber business. He was such a whiz with numbers that he could walk through an entire lumber mill and keep track of the board footage in his head. He had earned a great deal of respect performing these calculations, so you might suspect that in his senior years, he’d find the task of waiting on people to be beneath him. But he didn’t. Grandpa often told me it was an honor, even noble, to help others meet their needs. After all, he was a merchant.

People counted on Grandpa and Grandpa knew it. After my first year of college, I prepared to travel abroad for two years. One Sunday afternoon, and at the very last minute, I asked Grandpa to attend my going-away speech at church. He replied with a look of utter shock, “I can’t close the store!” (He kept it open thirteen hours a day, seven days a week.) “What if Mrs. Eherenfieldt needs some cheese for her casserole? Or what if Ronnie Kepler falls and skins his knee? Where will Mrs. Kepler get a Band-Aid?”

My father had made precision landing gear that saved whole bomber crews. Grandpa provided cheese and Band-Aids and saw himself as equally important.

And he was.

Along with the cheese and Band-Aids, Grandpa doled out friendly banter and helpful advice. I remember watching him celebrate with a young man who had just been admitted to a prestigious college. Granddad had watched him grow up. A penny-candy kid who excelled in math and who Grandpa saw as one of his protégés. Grandpa had taught him math tricks and study techniques. It was all part of the services rendered at Noonan’s Grocery.

Sometimes, people came to the store, glanced around nervously, and then timidly whispered in Grandpa’s ear. Years later, I learned that they asked for credit. They needed food for their tables and Grandpa would be the one who supplied it. Over the years, I heard some criticize Grandpa for extending credit to people whom nobody else would ever float a loan. Most paid him back, but a lot never came up with the money so at the end of the day, Grandpa didn’t make much of a profit. When I asked him about the practice of making bad loans, he smiled knowingly and explained that his mission covered more than simply making money.

One day, as I stopped by the store to pick up a loaf of bread, two rather somber looking gentlemen in dark suits were exiting the place.

“Those fellows were FBI agents,” Grandpa explained. “They come by every once in a while when one of the locals applies for a Federal job that calls for a background investigation. They talk to me about the candidate. You know, did he steal stuff as a kid? Things like that.”

Grandpa loved being a merchant who sat in the social and commercial center of the neighborhood. Partly because of the nature of the job and partly because he simply loved to work. In 1966, when my folks moved to Arizona, they invited Grandpa to come live with them in the land of sunshine and oranges. Grandpa wrote back that he’d enjoy the change in weather, but that he’d be staying in Bellingham. After all, (and I quote from his letter) “you know how hard it is for a man my age to find a job.” Grandpa was eighty-six at the time and hadn’t realized that Mom was asking him to retire. The thought had never entered his head.

Two years later, while fetching a cold bottle of soda pop for Tim Harmon (a young man with learning disabilities who had grown up hanging out at the store), Grandpa had a stroke and fell to the floor. Tim, not knowing how to operate a phone to call for medical help, ran out the front door and tried his best to flag down a passing car until someone pulled over to lend a hand.

Tim gently cradled Grandpa in his arms until an ambulance eventually arrived. “Pop” had fallen and Tim, loving him like his own grandfather, gently comforted the man who had served so many for so long.

“Call the bread man and ask him to remove the stock from the shelves. It’ll go bad,” Grandpa managed to utter as the ambulance pulled off. “We can’t be selling stale bread. Mrs. Eherenfieldt will never be satisfied with stale bread.”

And such were the last words of the Merchant of Bellingham.

Change Anything QA

Lose Weight and Defy Your Critics

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m in a weight loss program to lose the first fifty pounds and had a breakthrough of why I sabotage my weight loss efforts. I realized that I am negatively affected by my mother’s years of criticism of me and others who are overweight. I want to rid myself of these negative feelings, but I don’t know how to do that.

Can you help me overcome my negative feelings so I don’t keep sabotaging my weight loss efforts?

Sabotaged Efforts

Dear Sabotaged,

Thanks for your question. Many of us are working to lose weight or conquer other stubborn habits and your question taps in to several of the reasons we struggle. If we can answer your question, I think we’ll all benefit. I’m going to use concepts from our book, Change Anything, to suggest some possible solutions.

Be the scientist and the subject. We are all subjects in other people’s science experiments. People poke, prod, and provoke us to see if they can influence our behavior. The challenge is that many of these people are marketers and salespeople who don’t have our best interests at heart. Even when they do want what’s best for us—as your mother probably did—their actions often backfire, hurting us more than they help.

The solution is for you to become the scientist as well as the subject. Study your own behavior the way a scientist would. Instead of being discouraged by your setbacks, be curious about them. Notice, it was when you became curious about your self-sabotaging that you discovered the link to your mother’s criticism. This is a good first step.

Turn a bad day into good data. What you’ve discovered is a crucial moment—a time, situation, or circumstance when your success is especially at risk. Your particular crucial moment occurs when broken records begin to play in your head, repeating criticisms you remember from years ago. The risk in these crucial moments is that you will respond the same way you did years ago—with defiance. For example, the record in your head says, “Nobody will love you if you look like that . . .” and your automatic response is, “Oh yeah? Watch me eat this dessert and prove you wrong!”

Use a personal motivation statement. You need to find a way to replace your automatic, unhealthy response with a positive, healthy one. One tactic to try is a personal motivation statement. The statement should refute the automatic response and reconnect you with the positive reasons for sticking to your change plan. For example, it might say, “This isn’t about my mother or what she wanted. It’s about me, and what I want. What I really want is . . .” You might write this statement on a 3×5 card that you take out and read when broken records are playing in your head.

Learn new ways to manage your moods. Many of our bad habits are misguided attempts to manage our moods. For example, we eat when we feel down or we smoke when we feel frustrated. My bet is that the records you play in your head don’t just provoke your defiance; they make you feel lousy inside. If that’s true, then you need a healthy, positive way to boost your mood without busting your diet.

Managing our moods is a skill many of us never learned or never learned well. Our mood management attempts often involve spoiling or indulging ourselves. But there are far better ways to improve our state of mind. For example, recent research shows that doing something for someone else is far more effective than indulging ourselves. My mother says, “If you feel you need help, then go help someone,” and she’s right.

Become the scientist again, and look for better ways to boost your moods. For example, the Pleasant Events Schedule is a list of 320 different activities that people enjoy and is one place to begin your search. You can sort through the list and pick five or ten that might boost your mood. Try them. Test them out until you find a few that reliably work for you. Just make sure they boost your mood without introducing or reinforcing unwanted habits.

My closing suggestion is to remain the active scientist. Be the one who takes the reins and designs the experiments that will move your life forward. And remember that many of our bad habits started as solutions to problems that were real and remain real. We can’t just stop these bad habits; we need to replace them with more effective and healthier ones.