Just when I thought I got this whole parenting thing down pat, something comes up that unhinges me. Dealing with children is a moving target, or like my husband says, “nailing jello to the wall.” But days like these, nailing jello might be easier.
My six year old daughter’s homework was to memorize a passage from her language book. She handed me the book and proceeded to recite. I looked down at the page and saw two holes bigger than my thumb.
“What is this? What happened here?” I interrupted her.
I was exhausted. I had a long day and my legs were achy. I haven’t cooked dinner yet and if I were left to my own devices, would have opted to head to bed for the night. But I’m a mom of two kids who minutes before, were fighting over a library book resulting in a long tear down one of the pages (we’ll get back to this later in the next post). In our house, we love books. By love, I mean literally, we take care of our books because, as I taught them early on, “Books are friends.” After much screaming and crying, they both took responsibility for the torn page, and discussed ways to avoid that scene again. We decided that if the library charges us for the book, they were going to have to pay it out of their piggy banks.
And now this. Another book. Her textbook.
“I don’t know what happened.”
“What do you mean you don’t know what happened?” Did she suffer a concussion? Does she have short term memory loss? How is it possible not to know how this huge thing happened? She was neither forthcoming nor repentant. Thankfully my husband arrived.
“Okay. Off you go to the stairs until you can remember,” he said. Which led to crying and protestations. In her world, the event happened out of the blue (later, we would find out this was actually a pretty good description).
She knew the drill. After she had some time and space to collect herself, she yelled, “I’m ready to talk!”
“You still look upset. Are you sure this is a good time?”
“Yeah, yeah, I can talk,” she said through sobs.
“It’s okay to cry. I cry sometimes too. You want to tell me what’s going on?” my husband asked her. I listened to their conversation from the next room, peeking at intervals. As they talked, I saw Little Sherilyn crying and scared. I heard Little Sherilyn in my daughter’s earnest question, “ What will Mommy and Daddy do if I tell what really happened?”
After their conversation, I said to my husband, “That was beautiful, how you moved from the L-I-E to what she was S-C-A-R-E-D about.” When I spell things out, my husband has this annoying habit of blurting the word out loud in confirmation. Thankfully, he didn’t do it this time.
“It was a gift to spend that time with her.”
I’m so glad my husband can be there when I’m too exhausted and have limited patience. But I also recognize that even in the best of times, he is still the better emotional coach and the kids are so lucky to have him. I’m very fortunate to learn from him. Here are some of the things that he does so well and which I try to apply myself.
1. Give them time to be in a good place to talk.
If we send our children to the stairs (time-out), it means there has been some type of unacceptable behavior — in technical terms “Something pissed us off.” Both parent and child are emotionally hyped up and unable to talk like rational human beings. The time to cool down is important for both parties. But also equally important is to give the child a sense of self-determination. Yes, they have been put to time-out against their will (although there have been rare occasions when they skipped to time-out and as a parent, I can assure you that this can be quite annoying). Knowing they have the power to decide when to end their isolation (in this case, saying “I’m ready to talk”) is essential to what Mr. Rogers described as that “great feeling of control that children need.” It is the first step to reaffirming that kids have power over the situation and the ultimate outcome.
2. Acknowledge your inner child.
My husband’s father used to put him in time-out for what always seemed like eternity. Though he was perfectly aware of his transgression, he never knew how long he would be in time-out nor was there any discussion when he can be finally paroled. “Honestly, he left us there so long I think he sometimes forgot about us and why we were there.” It sounds funny now but the experience always left him angry and sad.
When my husband sat down with my daughter, he looked her in the eye and tried to see that little boy who desperately wanted to connect with his dad and feel accepted and loved. Between sobs and convoluted explanations, my six year old was reassured that her daddy was there, doing his best to listen. When we see our inner child in our children, we remember that, like the child we once were, they too are scared and may not have the best vocabulary to explain things. They are afraid that they might say things that will make their situation worse. They want to be understood and respected. Asking questions is a way to affirm their reality, no matter how convoluted it seems.
3. Give them the space to consider their life choices.
Kids know they should not hit their siblings. They know they should not tear books. Our tendency as parents is to moralize or try to teach a lesson when they do something wrong. What this is, in the words of our four year old, is “just a lot of words.” And when there’s a lot of words, their eyes glaze over, faces go blank, waiting for you to finish talking. The problem lies not in the action itself but in the thinking or feeling that led to the action. What led them to conclude that tearing a hole into a textbook was a good life choice? You learn some interesting things when you allow a child to share their worldview.
“My hand wanted to poke through the page. My head thought it was a good idea.”
“Hmm… what would be a better thing to do next time?”
“Maybe I could stop when my head says ‘Tear the page.’ Sometimes my head just talks…”
“Can I add something?”
“Maybe you could count to three first?”
“Yeah that’s a good idea. I will count when my hand wants to tear a book.”
In our daughter’s world, there are voices encouraging her to do things that are not always in her best interest. It is not a mental health issue, just her worldview. If she is able to name and understand these things, she is, in the end, in control. She can determine her own fate.
4. Connect and coach.
When our kids break a rule and are sent to time-out, they recognize that they are not part of the pack — they are disconnected from us. It is both painful and embarrassing to them (I learned this when our four year old sits in time-out long after we have sorted things out. Why are you still there, I ask. He bursts into tears and says he feels bad for behaving badly => shame). Sometimes we parents make it worse by talking to them too quickly about it, or moralizing, which leads them to be defensive or say things that make the situation worse, to which we parents have been known to respond with:
“You do not talk to me like that.”
“Who do you think you are?”
“I will not put up with your nonsense.”
And the conflict quickly goes from bad to worse.
But if we ask ourselves, what do we want out of this interaction? If the answer is, I want to feel connected to my child, then we can begin the real work of coaching. As a coach, we help them understand what happened, manage their feelings, gain perspective, and eventually come up with solutions. If we’re able to do this, then we feel closer to our children and have successfully connected with them.
We usually wrap up time-out by asking “Do you have anything else to say? Are we good? Do you need a hug?” Our daughter almost always needs one while our son almost always doesn’t and we’re okay with either response. We are open to the chance to reconnect in a way that makes the most sense for them.
Moments like these can be nailing-jello-to-the-wall-tough but they’re also a precious gift, a chance to connect with our kids on a deeper level. Our home life is noisy, chaotic but also sometimes very beautiful.