Parenthood: As Taught by a Nine Year Old
(scroll down for Q&A)
In reading through my journals from my kids’ childhoods, I came across this story. In my opinion, this is how parenthood should be understood.
When my daughter Molly was nine, she and I were having a conversation about envy and jealousy. She always was a little philosopher with amazing insight. I asked her if she ever still felt envious of her older brother Casey like she had when she was younger.
Note: Casey always had an easier time of it—in school, with friends, with us, with life. Once she grabbed ahold of his beloved Dukes of Hazard (remember them) matchbox car and wouldn’t let go until my empathy (“You want that car and don’t want to let it go.” I had no idea why.) prompted a flood of tears. “I just want to be Casey,” she cried as she opened her hand to give back the car.
She plunged right into talking about the time when she wanted to be him. She explained how she would give him something she didn’t want anymore, and if he liked it, she would want it back. She told me that Casey taught her “the basics” and because she loved him so much she would always go along with him and like what he liked. Now, she explained at her ripe old age of nine, she was more herself and could decide for herself what she liked.
“Like Nirvana. Casey loves them and I hate them,” she said. “But Bob Dylan. I didn’t really like his music, but because Casey did, I decided to let him take me along, and then I decided that I did like him after all. But Nirvana, I never liked them even when I tried.”
She explained how Casey would always lead the way for her and then she would decide for herself. “And then sometimes we would go off on different tracks, and I would be looking down at my track and then all of a sudden I would look up and there would be Casey. But I was there because I wanted to be, not because he said I should be to be cool or anything or that he wouldn’t like me if I wasn’t. He would teach me the basics of what was cool and then I’d follow and then I’d be able to decide for myself.”
It occurred to me that what she was describing was a connected, balanced parenting approach: A gentle guiding influence always there teaching without force or insistence, so that the growing child can internalize the learning, follow that influence and then have the freedom to use that learning to decide for oneself the best track to take.
Another philosophical riff of Molly’s a few years later offered more about effective parenting. “I think a parent’s job is to take their children to the crossroads,” she explained. There are many different paths to choose from there. The child chooses one path and the parent’s job is to support that child along that path.”
Out of the mouths of our babes come some of the best wisdom. We need to be still enough to listen and trust in order to discover and follow that wisdom. We must get off our own high horses of rightness (I’m the parent. You must listen to me.) thinking we always know what is best, and dictating orders before we can truly take in what is right in front of our noses.
Why are we so afraid to listen? Why do we think they can’t possibly know anything about what’s best for them? Because we have been sold a bill of goods that children are only wild and out of control unless tamed by rewards and punishments.
In order to have a cooperative relationship with your child, you have to risk not being right about everything to give them breathing-room. They require a lot of that, especially the strong-willed child. Being a guide rather than a police officer is a hard switch when you believe that everything is your job and you must maintain control at all times. When your children do not feel forced but instead feel your strong support, they will be eager to follow your influence.
Questions and Answers – and a story
Getting Your Husband on Board
Q. I am doing well with connecting to our son’s feelings by hugging, holding & whispering to him that I love him, it’s okay to be angry and that we’re going to figure this out together, but my husband’s favorite line, “there’s going to be serious consequences for your/that behavior” just “pokes the stick at the bear”, and our son either runs screaming or gets defensive against his Dad. Then I have to “referee” the two of them. When I try to explain to my husband about connecting to our son’s feelings, getting down on his level instead of towering over him with his arms crossed, he just rolls his eyes & walks away saying that he’ll parent the way that works for him. Any suggestions to get my husband on board with what calms & supports our son, as well as validates his feeling?
A. Ah, the question of 80% of the mothers I work with. Let’s start with what not to do. Do not lecture your husband with what you want him to do and why. When you come off acting like the expert, he will dig in his heels further. Especially if you say anything blaming or derogatory. He will respond better when you do exactly what you do with your son—what we should all do in all our relationships. And that is to empathize with his point of view. Understand that he wants to do what he thinks is best for your son just as you do. You are simply going at it differently, but you are both doing what you think is best. When you are alone, tell him your concerns by owning them. They are your opinions after all. “I know you and I want the same outcome. My fear is that our son digs more into a defensive position when he feels blamed, just as we all do. What I have found to be more successful is when I …. I’m concerned that when he hears our anger toward him, he just thinks he’s bad. Can we both work hard toward telling him what we want him to do instead of what we don’t want him to do?” Start your sentences with “I” and “we”, never “you”. Then model for your husband what works for you or getting caught up in his criticism. He will eventually see that he is losing his relationship with his son. Very hard when you don’t approve, but so important not to judge or blame him and do the same thing he is doing toward your son and you. And keep in mind you don’t have to parent on the same page, but it helps to be in the same book.
Aggressive 4 year old
Q. I have a dilemma with my four year old, who lashes out physically when he is angry. He kicks, punches, pinches, scratches, when he doesn’t get his way. My strategy is to carry him to a private place, sit down with him facing me on my lap and talk to him. “We don’t hurt in our family”, “I don’t like being hit”, “You are angry, but you cannot hurt people”, etc. Nothing is effective! How do I help my four year old control a behaviour that may cause problems next year at preschool? What strategy can I teach to help him in the moment of anger? I thought he would outgrow this behaviour, but now it seems to be the ingrained response.
A. You have a physical, impulsive boy—as so many boys this age are. He needs to express himself physically and when he is angry he needs something physical to do with that energy, not to be told to calm down. Stay with how angry he feels rather saying, “We don’t hit…” He cannot understand your reasoning because you are not fully understanding him. Great that you go to a private place and remain calm—very important. However, his energy needs expression. Have punching pillows available in different rooms. When he gets physical, grab one and tell him to show that pillow how angry he is. Show him yourself how you hit the pillow when you’re mad about something. Show him how to draw your face/stomach or his brother’s on the pillow and give it a good punch. You then teach him is that it’s ok to get his energy out physically, but not on people. He knows he’s not supposed to hit people, he just can’t help himself—yet. You can use paper and markers and tell him to draw how mad he is and then tell him to rip it up in as many pieces as he can. Banging on a keyboard, hitting a stick against a tree, squeezing clay or playdoh etc. are other good outlets. Get him a punching bag and gloves for his next present. As long as you model loving, caring behavior, providing outlets for him to get his anger out will eventually dissipate the energy as he matures and gains self-control.
Defining Name Calling
Q. Our 10 year old boy is being called names at school that he doesn’t understand, so he’s been looking up the definitions on our home cell phone & getting websites and graphic pictures as well. Is it time, perhaps, to have “the talk” with him & include slang words connected to the anatomical words he’s hearing or ban the phone?
A. Absolutely talk to him about the meanings of these words. If he’s looking them up, he wants to know. And do discuss the slang meanings that are often different from the real meanings. This can lead to some good discussions about what feels good and bad to be called, what is not okay to call somebody else and why, what is just stupid to call somebody, etc. Get proactive with this so he is getting his info from you and not the internet. You certainly don’t want the internet taking him places you don’t want him to go. Look them up together so you can tell him what’s what. This is not the time to be embarrassed, shy or protective. It’s all out there for the taking and you want to be part of what it is he’s taking.
I never heard the world “boundary” until I took my first parenting class with you, Bonnie, when my daughter was 3. In my family growing up, any emotion that anyone else had was blamed on somebody else. One of the most important lessons I have tried to teach my daughter (now 15) and my son (age 11) is that we are all responsible for our own feelings.
Today when I was upset and using an irritated voice with my son… he got up from his video game, came over with a big smile and outstretched arms, offering me a big hug. I grabbed hold of him and all the agitation drained right out of me. I said, “I’m sorry I’m upset but your sister is really upset right now”. He took a step back, looked me in the eye and said, “Just because she’s upset doesn’t mean that you have to be. She’s responsible for her feelings and you can chose to be happy right now.” This from an 11 year old boy!!!! There is NOTHING more satisfying than hearing your own words coming out of your kid’s mouth and knowing that he really truly “gets it”.