It was an unbearably hot day, the kind of day that left me sweating profusely even as I stood perfectly still. The relief brought about by my fifth, maybe sixth cold shower lasted maybe three minutes at most. At 4:30 p.m. the sun was still beating down ruthlessly. I planned to pick up the kids from school , drop off their stuff at home and head to the supermarket. There wasn’t much at home to put a decent dinner together.
When I met my 5-year old daughter outside her classroom, her face was flushed red and her hair damp with sweat was matted to her head. “Let’s go swimming!,” she said. On any given day, and especially on a day this hot, we would have gone to the river for a dip. “Not today, Honey, we have to go to the supermarket. We have nothing for dinner tonight.”
And then it happened. Her face contorted with anger and she stomped off, grumbling about how hot it was and that we ought to go to the river to swim. I said, “If you’re hot, why don’t you take a cold shower when we get home? You can cool off before we go to the supermarket.” “No!” she screamed. Then it turned ugly really quickly. With her face even redder from crying, she said, “I hate you! You’re so mean! You’re a bad mommy!”
I ignored her until we got to the school gate. Outside, I tried to talk sense to her and explain that yes, I’m hot too but if we go swimming, we would have nothing to eat for dinner. She was not hearing any of it and continued snapping back at me. I decided to move further down the road for more privacy before attempting to talk with her again.
I wasn’t sure what to do. It felt completely useless trying to talk to her. But I didn’t want to walk home with her storming behind. We stopped at a pocket in the road. I was quiet as I looked at her. I don’t know where it came from but I thought of asking her right then, “Tough day at school?”
Suddenly, like the clearing of a storm cloud, her face softened. “Yeah.” A classmate had been particularly rude to her, covering her ears when my daughter talked. It hurt my daughter’s feelings. “That’s not nice. That would annoy me too if she did that to me,“ I said sympathetically. Then she added, “I just wanted to show you my new swim, Mom” It turns out, she was really excited to show me something she tried out at the school pool that morning. “Awww, I’d love to see your new swim Honey. But do you understand why we have to go to the supermarket?” “Yes, otherwise, we won’t have anything to eat for dinner,” she said, without the least bit of sass in her voice.
Without any prompting, she said, “How about we go to the river tomorrow and I’ll show you my new swim Mom? Also, how about you fill the tub with cold water and we can play and cool off while you cook?” I was amazed at how she came up with this solution herself. Here’s what I learned then.
1. When you feel like saying “It’s not all about you,” it is actually “all about you”.
In the heat of the moment when my daughter was screaming at me, I wanted to parrot a phrase with which I was recently chastised: “It’s not all about you.” I wanted to tell my daughter the world does not revolve around her and could she please act human again and go along with the program? I wanted to tell that to her in words. I wanted to tell that to her in actions — to hell with her seething and fuming — We ARE going to the supermarket.
But it is precisely when I acknowledged that this is about her, when I let myself be completely present with her and really listened to her, that she was able to move beyond the intensity of her anger. Dr. John Gottman, who has behind him more than 40 years of solid, scientific research on relationships, families and parenting styles, said that 95% of problem solving is understanding and empathy. I was amazed with how she came up with her own solution just by being there with her.
“It’s not all about you” is also directed to me as a parent. Again, it is actually about me too. When my daughter was talking back and being cheeky, I felt the strong urge to slap her face and put her in her place. You can guess where this is coming from. Selma Fraiberg, Edna Adelson, Vivian Shapiro in their classic 1975 paper Ghosts in the Nursery described what is happening in an almost poetic way:
In every nursery there are ghosts. They are the visitors from the unremembered past of the parents, the uninvited guests at the christening. Under all favorable circumstances the unfriendly and unbidden spirits are banished from the nursery and return to their subterranean dwelling place. The baby makes his own imperative claim upon parental love and, in strict analogy with the fairy tales, the bonds of love protect the child and his parents against the intruders, the malevolent ghosts. This is not to say that ghosts cannot invent mischief from their burial places. Even among families where the love bonds are stable and strong. the intruders from the parental past may break through the magic circle in an unguarded moment. and a parent and his child may find themselves reenacting a moment or a scene from another time with another set of characters.
It is only when parents become aware of their own pain and brokenness, when they can acknowledge that “It is actually about me,” that the ghosts depart and parents can guard against repeating the past.
I do not know why, despite the irritating heat of the day, I remained calm at that moment and was able to focus on my daughter. But this is not always the case, and that’s why the next lesson is particularly important.
2. Dealing with flooding
My daughter and my 3-year old son were having fun at the playground. It was almost lunch time and I told them that we better head home soon. My daughter was surprised: “But you said we were going to the library after!” “Yes, I did say that but that was before we spent most of the morning here in the playground, leaving no time for the library. You must be hungry right?” “No! I’m not hungry! I want to go to the library!” Her brother stood a little bit too close to her and without warning and without any provocation on his part, she kicked him then marched angrily in my direction.
Something in me snapped. I dragged her by the hand, sat her on the park bench and hit her hand. “You do not kick your brother!” I shouted. “You’re hitting me! It hurts!” she shouted back. The irony of my action did not escape me. At that precise moment, I took a deep breath and slumped down on the seat beside her. I have, as Dr. Dan Siegel calls it, “flipped the lid.” In a moment of sheer anger, fear or panic, we lose all our creative abilities (i.e. sense of humor, perspective, wisdom, problem solving abilities) which are located in the cerebral cortex or the “lid” of the brain. Dr. Gottman reassures that every parent flips their lid every now and then and this doesn’t mean that you are an incompetent or bad parent (I had to read that sentence several times).
When I saw my daughter kick her brother who is smaller than her, I felt flooded and overwhelmed with anger by what I labelled as cruelty. What I should have done is to step away, take a break from the interaction, and calm myself down. But I did what I already did and my daughter was already hurt; thus, the next lesson.
3. The importance of repairing
“I’m sorry I hit you. That was wrong of Mama to do.”
“It’s okay,” she said in between sobs.
“Do you know why Mama got so mad?”
“Because I kicked my brother. But but but… I know it’s wrong to kick him but my head keeps forgetting not to hit, kick or bite. I know it’s wrong but my head told me to kick,” she said with evident frustration at how her head doesn’t cooperate.
“You know what? I think that’s exactly what happened to Mama too. Mama got so mad she forgot that she should not hit you. Mama’s head also forgot not to hit. How about this, how about you and I help each other to train our heads not to hit, kick and bite?” And I mimed how we should stop our hands midair before they hurt someone else and she laughed.
Repairing an interaction is one of the most valuable gifts we can give our kids — they learn that it is okay to make mistakes and that it doesn’t take away from a person to apologize. Kids benefit more from a parent who bumbles and repairs than from a perfect parent. Another wonderful thing I’ve learned firsthand is that kids are so forgiving and they can sense a parent’s commitment to them. When we got home, my daughter made me this drawing to repair her interaction with me.
p.s. Special thanks to my dear friend Sabrina Tan for sharing Ghosts in the Nursery with me.
Selma Fraiberg, Edna Adelson, Vivian Shapiro (1975). Ghosts in the nursery. A psychoanalytic approach to the problems of impaired infant-mother relationships. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 14(3), 387–421.