Performative Narration Is the Most Annoying Millennial Parent Trend

performative narration parenting universal
Rudzhan Nagiev

Recently, I was at the playground with my five-year-old, when another kid grabbed a toy that we brought. It wasn’t just any toy, it was his beloved Great White Shark toy, but that’s beside the point—my son wanted it back; their daughter didn’t want to return it.

We all felt awkward, but in a true twist of weirdness, each parent started passively and performatively narrating the awkwardness aloud.

Her dad spoke up first. “It’s OK! We’re taking turns and sharing.” (The little girl went on ignoring him and playing with the shark.)

Then I felt compelled to respond with, “She is going to hand it back to you soon; we’re going to practice being patient.” (My son’s face crumpled in frustration.)

And on and on, until finally the dad wrested Sharky away, and handed it back to us.

According to Dr. Tamar Kahane, founder and clinical director of the Kahane Center, our parental intentions were good—but there’s a more constructive way to help kids navigate challenges, social or otherwise.

About the Expert

Dr. Tamar Kahane is a psychologist and the founder and clinical director of the Kahane Center, an integrated mental health center that helps children and adolescents (but also adults) grow their social and emotional well-being. She’s also behind the POWERS Program, a unique social-emotional learning curriculum that helps give children a toolbox to develop their executive functioning skills and emotional intelligence. (It’s currently being piloted in classrooms.)

What Is Performative Narration? 

In the land of parenting, there’s a natural moment when performative narration is employed. Often times, it’s an effort to help guide your kid’s reactions. But it can also be the result of awkwardness, in particular in situations where offense is taken or you lose control. “Narrating is the chance to cue your child—and others around you—into what’s going on,” Dr. Kahane says. “By using language, you’re trying to organize it, but also giving your kid what’s meant to be a constructive nudge to do the ‘right’ thing.”

Why Performative Narration Can Be Problematic

The problem with performative narration is that, as parents, we won’t always be there to script our kid’s life. And when we narrate, we don’t necessarily help children feel empowered to handle problems themselves. “Rather than being told what to do, we want to help them know what to do and, ultimately, connect the dots for themselves,” Dr. Kahane says.

In other words, scrap the performative narration around age four or five, and make every effort to step out of the social interaction so your kid can step in.

Back to the incident at the playground: My parental intuition led me to believe that the social interaction was fraught, so I narrated my feelings out loud. But what I didn’t do was ask my child how they felt.

“We want our kids to develop the ability to recognize and acknowledge the moments where they may have felt violated or frustrated or annoyed or upset,” Dr. Kahane says. In this situation, a child took his toy. “As parents, we can have a hard time validating feelings, especially those that play out socially. We want them to be good sharers after all! But bypassing their authentic feelings won’t help them learn that.”

A Better Approach: Prioritize Perspective-Taking

Instead of narrating, become an emotional info-gatherer, says Dr. Kahane. You could say, “Are you upset that that girl took your toy without asking? I understand that. You feel like that’s yours and you want it back? Of course you do, honey. Here’s what you can do.” [Insert teachable moment for you to empower your child and encourage them to take a more direct approach.]

After all, remember that your kid’s childhood is a template for how they’re going to behave in adulthood when you’re not there to protect them. So, instead of narration, acknowledge their feelings, then repeat those emotions back to them. (Yes, that’s the part you should narrate out loud.)

Bottom Line: We Need to Give Our Kids More Credit

“It’s about asking, not telling kids how to feel,” says Dr. Kahane. “Narration can be helpful, but you want to first check in with your child about what their internal compass is telling them at that moment and nurture that development of self.”

And if their efforts fail? “As parents, we can always ultimately step in with: ‘Hey, I think it would be a good idea if you could help your child get that toy back to my son.’”

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