By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
To call it an interesting parenting strategy would be to put it mildly. It certainly caught our attention. And if the number of responses to it on Facebook is any indication, it piqued the interest of many other parents as well. Viewer response revealed overwhelming approval.
"I wish I had thought of that when my kids were growing up!"
"I'm going to start using that tomorrow."
"What a great idea."
"Now that's what I call Good Parenting."
"Applause, applause for those parents."
What prompted this outpouring of positive reaction, you wonder? The Get-Along Shirt. The photo that accompanied the Facebook post showed a super-large white t-shirt with "Our Get-Along Shirt" handwritten on the front. Inside the single shirt were two children. One was about a foot taller than the other, suggesting different ages. The smallest child had her right hand protruding from the right sleeve of the oversized shirt. The taller one had only his left arm visible, on the other side of the shirt. Each had one arm unavailable for use, in the middle of the shirt where their bodies touched. The faces of the children clearly showed a state of extreme displeasure. The girl, whom we estimate to be 5 or 6 years old, had obviously been crying.
Viewer reactions communicated high praise for this strategy. It was hailed as creative, brilliant, effective, and useful for teaching children the important lesson of how to get along with each other. All comments were positive. Not a single person who responded to this photo questioned the intent, the motives, the outcome, or how this shared-shirt technique was implemented. So we will take that task on ourselves.
We have no way of knowing exactly how this strategy was implemented or processed. So we will begin by assuming the parents had positive intentions. Their intention was no doubt to teach two siblings how to get along better with each other. That is a positive goal and one to which most parents can relate. So far, so good. The question here, though, is not whether it’s important to teach kids how to get along. We can all agree that it’s valuable. More important questions are: How and when was the shirt used? And did it achieve the desired goal while communicating mutual respect?
If the shirt was used after the fact—that is, after an incident of not getting along—then we are highly suspicious of its effectiveness as a teaching tool. Implemented as a reactive response, the shirt is likely to have been perceived as a symbol of punishment. Used to shame "naughty" children into obedience, this shirt will not teach children to get along. It will build resentment among siblings, and any cooperative behavior that occurs will not be because children have learned the value of interdependence and respect for one another. It will occur because of their desire to avoid contact with their sibling and fear of punishment from the parent.
"You two better be careful or you'll get the shirt" is a threat that indicates you are not in a teaching mode. Instead, you have assumed a controlling stance that will not help your children learn about cooperation and connectedness. You are about to force two children who are having trouble getting along into a contrived proximity that invades each person's personal space without their consent or approval. This doesn't help children learn to respect one another's space. It teaches them that parents (big people) can disrespect another person's space without permission. This is an inappropriate use of power, a strategy often attributed to bullies.
On the other hand, if the Get-Along Shirt is used before the uncooperative incident occurs, or at a later time, it could have enormous value as a teaching tool. Used in a playful way, wrapped in the spirit of learning, the shirt could be the springboard for useful discussion and learning about interdependence, cooperation, a helping attitude, and other important family concepts.
Invite (yes, give them a choice) your children to wear the shirt for ten minutes. You can extend the time if they so choose after the short trial. Give them a simple task like tying their shoes, playing catch with you, or pouring a glass of milk. Watch as they work to accomplish the task cooperatively, or not. Listen to how they give and receive directions from each other. Notice the degree of frustration or patience they activate. See how they work together on a common goal: the two of them versus the task rather than versus each other. Resist the urge to preach and give lessons. Allow the lessons to rise within them, to come from the inside out.
Debrief the activity with questions that require thinking.
"What did you notice?"
"What worked and what didn’t?"
"What did you learn here that can be used in other parts of your life?"
"How is this the same as, or different from, how we operate as a family?"
"How would you summarize this experience in one sentence?"
"What is another incident that this reminds you of?"
Valuable lessons can result from this activity and the debriefing which follows. The importance of cooperation and doing things together; precise communication; patience; strengths and limitations of working with others; and the value of family are just a few realizations that can flow from this experience.
Why not use the shirt with your spouse in full view of your children? Let them watch as the two of you struggle, play and laugh as you engage the activity. Keep it light and lively. Debrief in your children's presence. Let them have input on what they saw and thought.
The Get-Along Shirt can be a helpful or detrimental addition to your parenting toolbox. Why not use it for teaching rather than shaming, education instead of punishment, and learning as opposed to controlling? Why not use it to truly help your family learn to get along?
Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the authors of Parent Talk Essentials. They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free Uncommon Parenting blog. To obtain more information about how they can help you or your group meet your parenting needs, visit their website today: www.uncommon-parenting.com