A friend asked recently for an example of a natural consequence, so I shared one that had occurred just that morning in my own life. My older daughter, dawdling endlessly, was just about to make us late for school. As the absolute last minute approached, I told my daughter that if she wasn’t able to walk out the door in 2 minutes, the natural consequence would be that I wouldn’t be able to walk her to her classroom, as she prefers. (The back door that we use to get to the classroom is further away, and gets locked a few minutes before the tardy bell.)
This was a decent example of a natural consequence: waste time now, lose options later. In theory, by identifying a likely outcome for my daughter in advance, I was helping her to understand the potential consequences of her actions, and motivating her to make different choices.
But, I added, I didn’t feel that good about it.
My daughter was very upset at the prospect of this possible outcome, and the remaining minutes we had together that morning were fraught with drama and upset. Yes, she got out the door on time, but at what cost? I’m pretty sure she didn’t learn anything—although I stayed calm, the (natural) consequence was so big in her eyes that she pretty much came unglued.
My friend asked me: “What do you wish you had done instead?”
Wow, what a good question! After thinking about it for a bit, here are some options:
- Wake up earlier. It takes time to handle behavior problems, and when you run low on time, you also run low on options.
- Slow down and be late. (see above) The idea of being late to school makes me very uncomfortable, but one tardy one time might have been a better outcome than the upset.
- Intervene earlier. I could have put down whatever I was doing, gone to my daughter’s bedroom, and done a little light-hearted micro-managing. I could have playfully put her clothes/shoes/etc on for her. She would have loved it, loved the attention, loved being ‘babied,’ and it probably would have gotten her out the door in time.
- Plan ahead. This was a Monday, and the first day of the week (especially after a long weekend) is often the hardest for kids. They aren’t ready to give up the fun, the parent attention, the relaxation of the weekend any more than we are! I could have seen this coming, and made sure that we all went to bed a little early, with tomorrow’s clothes laid out, lunch packed, breakfast set out, etc. Mornings are always better when I do this prep.
- Understand her. Identify the root cause or causes for her dawdling. Does she want to avoid school? Is she physically tired? Does she need a longer/better transition from home-days to school-days? Is her proverbial cup empty? Does she need of a ‘dose’ of attention/fun/love? Once I identify these causes, addressing them is a wonderfully effective way to prevent future incidences.
- Understand me. Besides the never-ending ‘on the fly’ nature of parenting, what kept me from choosing some of the above options in the moment? Do I need a little self-care? Is something coming between me and enough sleep and the time/space to prepare for our routines?
Numbers 1-4 are basically shaping the environment to accommodate or better manage her needs. These are great tools to have in your toolbox, and frankly, that’s about the best I can do at 7:35 in the morning. Numbers 5 & 6, however, are the black belts of parenting—the kind of responses that allow for an ever deepening relationship between parent and child. Understanding your child, understanding yourself, and acting from that understanding—this is where the rich, cooperative, connected, and mutually respectful relationship that we all want to have with our children begins. So, if this appeals to you, let this percolate in your mind for a while. Look for a moment this week when you can pull those tools out, and see where it takes you.
Virginia Woolf was on the required reading list when I was in college, and the piece I remember best was the famous “A Room of One’s Own,” in which she argues that a woman must have a room of her own (with lock and key!) and her own money in order to write fiction. Lately, I’m been thinking about how this is completely relevant advice for modern parents, too.
I’m like most parents of young kids, I think, in that I mostly get things done after bedtime or in stolen moments here and there. But some things just cannot be done in little stolen moments or after bedtime. I had a very real-life experience of this some months back when I was able to have several hours in my house without anyone else there, especially my (beloved) children.
Once my alone time began, here’s what I did: I started a load of laundry, picked up the house a little, defrosted some meat for dinner, and wasted time on Facebook. (sound familiar?) This all took about as long as I usually have to myself.
But on this day, I knew that the rest of my family would stay gone for much longer. So I waded in to my email inbox and cleaned that out, balanced the checkbook, did more laundry, visited a blog I like, and wrote down some memorable stories about the kids. And then, only then, could I feel my brain clearing out a little to make room for the creative work I had been procrastinating for weeks. Then I was able to sit down and begin working on the task that required focus and creativity.
This is an issue of self-care. One of the hardest things I’ve encountered in motherhood is looking for balance between taking care of others and taking care of myself. But if I am going to be the best mom I can be, I have to be the best human I can be, and that requires enough sleep, good nutrition, physical exercise, mental stimulation, connection with others, and… time away and alone. And not just little stolen moments.
What can you do to get a few hours to yourself this week?
My 4 year old daughter was born without all of her fingers. It causes her no issues in daily life. However, she does get a lot of comments, questions and stares. We are working with her on ways to answer questions, ask people to stop staring, etc…but it doesn’t seem to be sticking. She prefers just to give people the “evil eye” and make a face at them if she feels uncomfortable. Should we consider therapy for this?
- I think that the evil eye seems pretty darn appropriate for the time being. Geesh, people can be so rude, even grownups, why should we expect the 4 year old to be the mature one. I really mean that–it would be a little different if she were 16, but she’s just 4! Keep giving her the information and guidance about a better way to respond, but for her age, I think the evil eye is a pretty appropriate response. It will probably take many, many conversations about how better to respond before that will ‘stick.’
- I would encourage you to step in and set the limit/advocate for her for now, too. “Excuse me, but I noticed that you (adult) are staring. It makes my daughter feel uncomfortable when people stare at her, so I’m making a friendly request for you to stop.” or something like that.
- With kids I might just go ahead and answer whatever question they are asking (or might be thinking.) Something like “‘Oh, nothing happened, it’s just the way she was born. Her fingers look different but they still do the same things your fingers do. She loves to color and ride her bike and play catch, how about you? Do you like to do those things, too? What’s your favorite… blah blah change the subject…”
By doing the things I suggest in #s 2 and 3, you are role modeling what you want your daughter to do (and how you want her to “be”), taking the pressure off of her having to both handle her feelings about the rudeness/intrusion while trying to rise above it to be polite, plus it’s got a wonderful “I’m on your side and I will protect you from the goobers we encounter out there” feel to it. Very relationship-reinforcing. :^)
A father told me a story recently of a family outing that had a rough ending. Loading up in the car after a fun bike ride, the dad asked his older daughter to share her water bottle with her baby sister who was crying and asking for water. Older daughter refused, several times, with rudeness, ignoring, and defiance. It quickly became a power struggle, and this dad told me later that he was so mad that he came “this” close to just yanking the water bottle out of her hand.
I think we’ve all been there (I know I have.) Especially when we ourselves are tired, hungry, emotionally drained, or stressed–our children’s negative behaviors can really push us to–or past–our limits. Yanking, yelling, whatever your version of “not parenting the way I want to” is… everyone has had that moment.
When this father and I talked about this incident later, he was still full of self-doubt. What was he “supposed” to do? His daughter was being uncooperative, unkind, defiant, and disrespectful–all traits that we parents believe that we are supposed to teach our kids NOT to be. He wondered if he had done the wrong thing by letting her “get away with” those bad behaviors. He worried that he was teaching her that she doesn’t have to respect him, or his limits, or his authority.
My take on this scene is that the immediate need was a moment’s pause, a deep breath to help everyone regain their inner balance, even just a little. In that moment, here are a few items our higher selves might be able to remember:
- Right now, we are ALL tired and thirsty and hungry, so no one is at their best… these behaviors are definitely related to our physical states.
- When a person is stressed (tired/thirsty…) they CANNOT learn.
- This child of mine is, usually, pretty darn cool and cooperative and kind. The behavior in front of me now is NOT the norm. (refer back to #1.)
- I need to calm my own anxieties about raising a good kid here, and remember that taking the long view is key in parenting.
- When my brain is peaceful, I can see solutions or options that would otherwise be overlooked. In this situation, there were other water bottles available, so that the immediate need (baby’s thirst) could be handled.
- The non-immediate issues (defiance, etc) can be handled later! When we have all come back to our normal selves (rested, watered, fed, etc) I can bring this incident back up for discussion with my child. Her ability and likelihood to listen, discuss and absorb will be 1000% improved.
When we are peaceful, we have better perspective, more creativity, and are more effective in whatever we do. So when you find yourself in the moments of high conflict and parenting stress–just try to remember to take a breath. Then take another… and very soon your own inner best self will show you what comes after that.
The Beyond Birds and Bees workshop is coming up in about 4 weeks. It’s been a while since I’ve given it, and I was thinking about it today–looking forward to it, really. BBB comes in a 3 hour format (the full workshop) as well as a 45 minute ‘sampler’ that I give at schools all over Austin. The sampler is very popular, and I was just sitting here comparing the two.
Three hours on this topic (healthy sexual development, signs of a problem, and how to talk about sex with your kids) might seem like a lot–especially when there is a 45 minute version available… after all, what parent has extra time to spare! (not me!) So why ‘should’ you take a 3 hour workshop on it? There are many reasons, but here are my two favorite:
1. You can ask questions, get specialized feedback, and really walk away with information that is specifically tailored to your family’s needs.
2. You get to practice! The sampler is great, but all you get to do in the sampler is listen to ME talk about talking about sex like it’s no big deal. In your head you might be thinking that it doesn’t seem so hard now, but there is a big difference between thinking and speaking, and especially between being on the hotseat to answer a question you didn’t see coming!
With the full BBB workshop, you’ll practice, and it makes a world of difference. Check it out!
Yesterday, I spoke with Tara Trower of the Austin American Statesman for an article she was writing about talking with kids about the local wildfires. I smiled a little when I read the article, because the other therapist she spoke with (Seanna Crosbie of ACGC) apparently said the same exact things I did. Reassuring, actually :^).
When I was in graduate school to become a therapist, I remember one of my professors using a metaphor to illustrate what a therapist does for her clients. She encouraged us to imagine that we held a large, uncovered bowl in our laps, and that our job was to hold that bowl while our clients put their fears, upsets, anger, etc in the bowl.
It seems deceptively simple, but trust me–some emotions are awfully hard to “hold.” Someone who is bitterly angry, or wracked with grief, or sobbing with guilt–is someone who can be hard to be with in the moment. But, that is one of the things that a therapist is there for. A therapist gives you permission to have whatever feelings you are having, and stays with you, peacefully, without her own agenda, and without changing the subject, making a joke, or running out of the room, no matter how big and scary those emotions may seem to be. She keeps holding the bowl for you.
Many years after grad school, I realized that parenting requires the exact same ability. Only now, it’s waaaay harder, because those strong uncomfortable emotions are coming from one of the people I am most emotionally connected to in the world, and frequently–the strong uncomfortable emotions are about ME! (aghhh!) But our children need us to be able to handle their strong and/or uncomfortable emotions. They need us to be able to handle their fear, their disappointment, their sadness, their fury or their injustice–without telling them they “shouldn’t feel that way,” or minimizing, or making a joke, or punishing them. They need to know that you are bigger and stronger than their biggest feelings, because those feelings can be frightening or overwhelming to them.
The next time your child is having BIG emotions, take a deep breath and think about your response for a moment. What does your child need? Perhaps what you need to do is Hold the Bowl.
I often talk with clients about how, a generation or more ago, one of the most popular markers of “good parenting,” and therefore “good children,” was obedience. An obedient child=a good child=a good parent.
Nowadays, far fewer of the parents I know place primary emphasis on obedience. I think this is healthier, and I recently read something that further strengthened my resolve.
In the book “The Altruistic Personality,” authors Samuel and Pearl Oliner report on their research interviewing over 700 survivors of Nazi-occupied Europe. They interviewed both “rescuers,” (people who actively rescued victims of persecution,”) and “non-rescuers,” (those who were either passive in the fact of persecution or were actively involved in it.) One of the many results of the research found that there were profound differences in the survivors’ upbringing. Non-rescuers were 21 times more likely to have grown up in families where obedience was emphasized.
Sure, a little obedience would be awfully nice sometimes (clean your room, go to bed now, stay in bed now…) but when it comes to rearing ethical, caring, healthy members of our world, it’s not the way to do it.
Food for thought.
132 hours until school is back in session, but who’s counting, right? ;^)
I hope you’ve had a great summer, and with the start of the new school year right around the corner, I’d like to share a few tips and a link to even more.
1. Remember that the transition to full-time school is a big one for kids! Even if they’ve been in full-time care all summer, the school setting is still different and usually more tiring. Try to reduce outside obligations for a few weeks, and at least aim for a slightly earlier bedtime.
2. Take extra good care of yourself, too. If the kids are tired and cranky, you’ll be able to deal with them better if you aren’t already tired and cranky yourself. ;^)
3. Can you get your child some pre-first-day experience with the teacher and building/classroom? Especially for the incoming Kindergarteners, it’s really important for them to know where the bathroom is, where you will pick them up, etc. Playdates with future classmates are fantastic, too, if you can arrange them.
4. Throw in an extra cold pack into your kid’s lunchbox. Did y’all read this article yet?
5. Here is another really good, informative article about back-to-school.
6. Call me. If you feel like your child is having an extra hard time with either the transition, or fitting in in the classroom, perhaps I can help.
Look out Monday! :^)
Yay summer vacation! Are you planning a trip with your family somewhere this summer? If so, here are a few tips for making things go a little more smoothly.
- Remember that when you bring your kids, it’s a “trip,” not a “vacation.” You’ll still be working plenty, so set your expectations accordingly. (Travel is work for kids, too, btw.)
- Plan some down-time for every day.
- Are you staying with friends or family? Then plan ‘away-time,’ where just you and your immediate family are together, maybe even every day. Also, consider exchanging some info with your hosts ahead of time, like the rules of their house, and your kids’ sleep habits, etc.
- Consider planning individual, away-from-your-kids time if you and your partner can swing it. Expect some behavioral regression. Being away from home, eating strange foods, constant novelty–these things are fun but wearing. Do yourself and your kids a favor and don’t worry too much when/if they happen. Stay calm, and switch to Plan B (downtime).
- Talk with children ahead of time about what will happen on the trip, including the good, and the bad. Explain what they are likely to encounter at the airport, or the lines at Disney, or how Grandma’s house has breakables.
- Give kids a basic daily agenda each morning (“Today, we are going to take a boat tour, and see Uncle Mike, and walk through a big park”) so they know what to expect.
- You set the tone for emotion. Try to project a calm, flexible, adventurous vibe when things go wrong.
- Make sure to leave yourself at one day after your trip to recover, before anyone has to go back to work/school/routines. More is better if you can.
What other ideas do you have? Share them in the comments!