Have you ever felt lost, like you've lost your way? Perhaps you set out with a plan. You were going to keep your cool, set respectful boundaries, and model the values you want to instill in your children. Then life happens and you realize, as you yell at your kid to stop yelling (irony not lost), that you have wandered off track. That was me the other day. I was screaming from another room at my son to stop yelling and realized, "This is exactly where I don't want to be." I had been parenting from a place I didn't want to be for some time, but how long exactly? I didn't know. The small tasks of daily life, the hurrying out the door, the small priorities like getting to school on time, the conflicts, the weary routine had all imperceptibly blurred my perspective. Luckily I know that I'm not alone. I speak to lots of parents and know that this is a common challenge.
So, what is the solution?
What do I mean by inspiration? Inspiration is anything, literally anything, that reminds you of your parenting goals and why you have chosen the path you have chosen. Some examples of sources of inspiration include: reading a short passage from a book, listening to a podcast, writing in a journal, reading an article, meditating, repeating a mantra, referring to a "cheat sheet", talking to a support person. Visiting your inspiration can include a combination of many things. I often read an article or passage from a book several times a week, write in my journal every few days, listen to a podcast from time to time, and meditate often (not as regularly as I would like). Your inspiration may vary by day, week, or moment.
Tonight I was taking a calm moment, relaxing with my eyes closed, taking deep breaths. A reflection of the moment when I caught myself yelling to my son to stop yelling popped into my mind. It was quickly followed by a mantra, "Patience. Perseverance. Peace." This resonated with me. I will be focusing on this mantra this week. I may create a "cheat sheet", which is simply this mantra written on a small piece of paper that I can keep in my pocket. I rarely have to look at my "cheat sheets". The simple act of putting it in my pocket in the morning and taking it out again at night to put on my nightstand is enough to remind me that it is with me all day.
As you start surrounding yourself with inspirational resources, visiting your inspiration will become a habit rather than something you have to actively seek out. And with some inspiration, you may discover that you were never really off your path. Rather you were taking a detour that has allowed you to better define your path. Each time I return to mine I feel that I know it even better.
You’re 4 years old and your favorite toy is a mini helicopter your dad bought you. You LOVE the helicopter and you have taken extra care not to damage it. You put it up on the shelf when you are done playing with it so that your little brother (who is 2) doesn’t break it.
One day, you’re playing with your helicopter on the floor and you look away for a moment to arrange your pretend landing pad. In that instant, your little brother swipes the helicopter and runs. You yell after him, “Give that back! GIVE IT BACK!” You chase him. He’s laughing. When you get close enough you grab your little brother and grab the helicopter from his hands. In doing so, you knock your little brother over and he starts crying for Mommy. Mommy comes in, takes one look at the scene and asks, “Did you push your brother?!” You say that you did but only because he took your helicopter and wouldn’t give it back and you didn’t mean to push him you were only trying to get the helicopter back but he kept running and -- Mommy says, “That’s enough. It doesn’t matter why. Say you’re sorry!” You put your arms across your chest, cast your eyes down, and mumble, “I’m sorry.”
How is 4 year-old you feeling? Are you thinking to yourself, “Wow, I really made a mistake. I could’ve done that differently. Next time I’ll do better.”? Or are you thinking, “Wow, my little brother gets away with everything. None of this would have happened if he hadn’t taken my helicopter. I’m never sharing anything with him, EVER. Mom must love his more.”?
The truth is parents rarely know what is really going on between children when a conflict arises. Even if a parent watched one incident happen right in front of them, the parent still does not know if something preceded that particular incident or what, perhaps, mistaken perceptions one or both children had in the moment. Forcing one child to apologize when he/she probably doesn’t mean it is not only forcing a child to lie, it’s inviting discouragement from one or both children and possibly creating or reinforcing a child’s mistaken belief about himself or the world around him (for more about mistaken beliefs see “Positive Discipline” by Dr. Jane Nelsen).
Rudolf Dreikurs noted, “Children are great perceivers but poor interpreters.” When Mom demanded 4 year-old you to apologize for knocking down your brother, she invalidated your experience and feelings of frustration, failed to acknowledge your attempts to “use your words”, and decided who was the victim and who was the aggressor without the whole story. In simple terms, she chose sides. Mom probably saw her 4 year-old and thought, “You should know better. You’re so much bigger than your brother. You have more skills than he does.” However, 4 year-old you may have perceived that Mom chose sides and interpreted that as Mom loving little brother more. We all know Mom doesn’t really love little brother more than 4-year old you, but 4 year-old you’s mistaken belief that she does is your reality, and that is discouraging. Believing that your feelings and your experience don’t matter is discouraging.
Furthermore, how does an empty apology feel to the child receiving it? Children can tell the difference between a genuine apologize and a forced apology. My guess, as I remember back to my childhood, is that the child on the receiving end either feels upset knowing that the other child isn’t sorry at all or feels like the victor for being picked by the adult as the victim. What does a child interpret from that? Perhaps the child decides empty apologies are ok. Perhaps the child learns that he doesn’t have to take responsibility for his part in a conflict as long as he doesn't get in trouble. Perhaps the child learns that feelings don’t matter as long as the adults decide who is right and wrong.
The importance of making amends for mistakes made is an important lesson for children. There are ways parents can address conflict between young children without inviting discouragement. I say young children because as children grow older they are (hopefully) developing the skills they need to navigate conflicts without adult involvement. Instead of forcing my children (ages 2 and 4) to apologize when they don’t mean it, I am teaching them to use three words. "Are you ok?" I tell them if you have hurt someone’s body or feelings, accidentally or on purpose, you stop what you’re doing and ask, “Are you ok?” My 4 year-old sometimes forgets and I will ask him, “Your friend looks upset/hurt. Is there something you’d like to ask your friend right now?” He will stop what he’s doing and ask, “Are you ok?”
“Are you ok?”
Those three words can be very powerful. Asking if the other child is ok does not force a child to assume the role of aggressor. It does not invalidate his feelings. It doesn’t choose sides. What it does do is create space in a moment of conflict. It allows both children to connect in a way that isn’t threatening to either’s sense of who was right and who was wrong. It teaches empathy. And it allows me, the parent, to follow up with other tools at the appropriate time that encourage my child to make amends for mistakes made and to want to do better next time. Saying, “I’m sorry,” is always an option, so long as it is genuine.
Positive Discipline offers many tools for parents to utilize in situations such as these. Some of the tools I use regularly include (but certainly are not limited to): validating feelings, putting children in the same boat, using a cool-out space, embracing mistakes as opportunities to learn, and modeling. I encourage every parent and adult who works with children to explore the resources Positive Discipline has to offer. You will find a link to Positive Discipline resources below.
I cannot remember the specifics but it was something on par with wanting the sky to be purple instead of blue or up to be called down. It was a culmination of over-stimulation at the end of an exciting trip into the city. I remember thinking, "This is ridiculous!" and I know my husband was thinking the same. If we didn't know better, we might have tried reasoning with him, explaining the reality of the situation, bribing him to settle down because his brother had just fallen asleep, or even threatening punishment if he didn't pull it together. Instead I looked at my husband and with a hint of humor said, "Well this isn't a teachable moment."
The Flipped Lid
We both knew our little guy had flipped his lid. If you aren't familiar with Dr. Daniel Siegel's practical illustration of what happens in the brain when humans are feeling stressed or vulnerable, you can find it on youtube here. Essentially, when humans are stressed, the part of our brain that is responsible for executive function, reason, adaptability, problem solving, etc. neurologically separates from the part of our brain that is responsible for storing emotions and primitive reflexes like fight, flight, or freeze. When you watch Dr. Siegel's demonstration you will see that the lid of the brain flips, hence flipped lid. The result is often a runaway emotional train without a conductor. Attempting to reason with someone who is unable to access the part of the brain that is responsible for reason is...pointless. And yet we parents do it All. The. Time.
Time & Connection
Many, many, many (MANY) parents feel that if they do not address behavior in the moment, they will lose the "teachable moment". What they don't realize is that trying to teach a child who has flipped his or her lid is like trying to turn on a lamp that isn't plugged in. Attempting to reason with someone who is unable to access the part of the brain that is responsible for reason is...pointless. Not only is it pointless, in doing so, we don't ever get to the "teachable moment". So what is the key to getting past a flipped lid state so you can successfully address behavior (and hopefully the triggers behind the behavior)? Time and Connection. Teaching your child ways to help himself feel better when in a flipped lid state actually helps him reconnect his brain so that he can learn, problem-solve, adapt, etc. Positive Discipline provides many tools to do this including (but not limited to): hugs, special time, positive time-out, wheel of choice, validating feelings, and more.
"Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, we must first make them feel worse?" - Dr. Jane Nelsen, author Positive Discipline
When a child flips his lid it's often accompanied by some misbehavior. When we talk about helping a child learn how to make himself feel better before addressing the behavior parents often say, "Well, isn't that rewarding the behavior?" The answer is no, so long as once the child is feeling better you do take the opportunity for that "teachable moment" and talk about what happened in a respectful, calm way. The "teachable moment" doesn't disappear because we take the time to teach our children self-regulation. The true teachable moment is the moment when you can connect with your child so that he is actually able to receive the lesson.
So after my husband and I acknowledged we were not in a "teachable moment", I turned around to my son and said, "I'm sorry you're so upset. I can imagine that's very frustrating." I said it genuinely and with empathy because I recognized the circumstances of the day and what was happening in his brain and as ridiculous as the situation was, it was real for him. Acknowledging his feelings was enough of a connection to soften his reaction and ultimately he was distracted by something he saw out the window. I did not teach him that the sky is blue not purple or that up will always be called up not down. Instead we named his feelings, practiced some self-regulation, and I modeled empathy. Maybe it was a "teachable moment" after all.
Parents, how many of you had a conversation with your partner BEFORE you had kids about the kind of parents you want to be? Did you talk about your expectations around topics like chores, discipline, and school performance? What about the life skills and characteristics that you feel are most important for your children to develop? Have you discussed your own personal values when it comes to money, civic participation, and gender roles in your relationship?
If you did have these conversations before you had children, chances are you are ahead of the curve. Many, perhaps most, parents do not have these conversations and are disappointed and sometimes angry to find out later that their partner isn't on the same page. For the parents out there who have had these conversations, have you had them again recently? Things change.
How many of you see a difference between the parent you thought you were going to be and the parent you are? The circumstances of life change and we adapt. Our children often need things we didn't expect or anticipate. Jobs change and schedules are adjusted. We move. Our children grow - and boy do they grow fast. And as we learn and grow, our values sometimes shift. It's important to maintain communication with your parenting partner about your goals, values, and expectations for yourself, your family, your partner, and your individual children. This isn't a one-time conversation - it's an ongoing dialogue.
Whether you have had some of these conversations or none of them, the good news is that it is never too late or too early or too frequent to start or start over. The Positive Discipline: Keeping the Joy in Relationships Workshop Tool Cards have a great tool for getting started called "Couple Meetings". Similarly to "Family Meetings" (from the Positive Discipline Parenting Tool Cards), a regularly scheduled Couple Meeting helps you and your partner stay connected and check-in with each other about the topics that matter most to each of you. This small step can bring more joy and satisfaction to your parenting as well as to your relationship.
Positive Discipline: Keeping the Joy in Relationships Workshop Tool Cards
Positive Discipline Parenting Tool Cards
Positive Discipline: Keeping the Joy in Relationships Workshops
*This blog post has been revised to include correct credit to the tools included at the bottom from Positive Discipline Tools by Jane Nelsen and Adrian Garsia.
Today I took my boys to the Fish Hatchery. I was pushing my youngest in the stroller while my eldest led us around throwing fish food into the ponds for the fish to eat. He got so excited when the fish went nuts for the food, splashing and jumping out of the water. We finally got to the last pond and it was very still. Though the atmosphere was more serene, the fish in this pond were way more interesting than in the other ponds. Some were very long and narrow and some were very large. I was surprised that my son wasn't more interested in the different looking fish. He was intent on throwing food in the water but the fish were lingering at the bottom of the pond, obviously uninterested. He kept throwing food in the pond even though I told him the fish weren't hungry. I could see he was getting frustrated and the tub of fish food was about to go flying. I parked the stroller and walked over to him.
As I bent down, I noticed that there was a glare on the water at his height. The lightbulb in my head went off. He couldn't see the fish underneath. No wonder he was getting frustrated that the fish weren't coming to the surface. No wonder he wasn't interested in the peculiar looking fish. I picked him up and pointed out the fish on the bottom of the pond. We talked about the long fish and the fat fish. He agreed that they must not be hungry. His demeanor flipped immediately back to that of an engaged, curious three year-old.
I wondered, how many times has this happened? How many times have I assumed that my son sees the world, experiences the world, the same way that I do? And how many times have I had expectations of him based on that assumption? In my brain I "know" that my children experience the world differently than I do. I "know" that their physical size and developmental level are HUGE in shaping the lens through which they experience the world. And yet I forget. I forget to put myself in their shoes. I forget to get into their world.
I was listening to a podcast the other day and the guest described a rare and enjoyable evening she got to spend doing a puzzle with her husband. It was relaxing and leisurely and they were enjoying themselves very much. She later wondered how she would have felt and reacted if someone had walked in, picked up the puzzle, and said, 'Ok, playtime is over. Time to go."
When I remind myself to get into the world my children live in, to bend down, to get on the floor, I remember that they often have a completely different point of view and a different set of priorities. There is a whole other world going on in my house that has no perception of time, that has no care for getting laundry done or floors cleaned, that doesn't even see the world above three feet most of the time. I know that if I want to be an effective parent I need to remind myself of their world. It is just as significant as the world I live in. It is real for my children and it shapes their perception.
So what can we, as parents, do? There are a number of Positive Discipline tools that can help us get into our child's world so that we can truly connect with them.
GET EYE TO EYE
Stop what you are doing. Get on your child's level close enough to see in his or her eyes. You will likely notice a difference in your approach and your child's response. From Positive Discipline Parenting Tools, by Nelsen & Garsia
Take time to sit quietly near your kids. If they ask what you want, say, "I just wanted to hang out with you for a few minutes." If they talk, listen without judgement or blame. From Positive Discipline Parenting Tools, by Nelsen & Garsia
ASK CURIOSITY QUESTIONS
Ask instead of tell (avoid judgement and blame). "What happened?" "How did that make you feel?" "What could you do next time?" From Positive Discipline Parenting Tools, by Nelsen & Garsia
TAKE A STEP BACK & OBSERVE
When we are in the moment, sometimes it is hard to see what might be happening for your child. Take a step back and consider the pieces of your child's world you may be missing in a given situation.
Have you ever tried a technique that works to correct misbehavior, but only sometimes? Maybe the behavior changes, but then returns. What is the missing piece? If [mis]behavior was the core of the problem, the same technique would work for the same behavior, and probably with every child.
The truth is behavior, good and bad, is just the tip of the iceberg. What lies below the surface are a child's (or an adult's) beliefs about himself and about the world around him. Mistaken beliefs (a missing sense of belonging and significance) often lead to misbehavior. Those mistaken beliefs can manifest into different types of misbehavior. If the behavior is the only thing being addressed, the solution is temporary at best.
When parents begin to understand the belief behind the behavior, we can address the root of behavior. Helping a child shift his mistaken belief to a sense of belonging and significance can change current AND FUTURE behavior for the better.
As parents, do we strive for perfection? If so, why? What does it mean to be perfect? Does it mean we must always know the right answer, must always be the best, must always succeed, must always be correct? Does that sound realistic and is that what we want to be teaching our children? Or is it ok to be wrong, to make mistakes, to ask for help, to apologize?
An analogy - when you work out in the gym, do you get stronger, faster, or develop more endurance by doing the exercises you can execute perfectly and with ease? No. Our muscles need to be challenged. Our muscles need to be taken to the next level in order to grow. We need to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone, outside of our own mastery in order to get stronger.
As parents, we are constantly facing new challenges, within ourselves, with our children, with our partner, with work, etc. If our goal is to be perfect, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, frustration, and stagnation. Alternately, if we can seek out the value of imperfection, we can find achievement, success, motivation, confidence, and more in the most challenging of situations.
What is the value of imperfection? The willingness to make a mistake. The ability to apologize. The desire to learn and grow. Through our own imperfection we are able to evolve. And better yet, we are able to model for our children that it is ok to be imperfect. It is ok to make mistakes. We get to show them what it looks like to recover, rebuild, and try again. What life skills and characteristics could our children learn from watching us embrace our own imperfection? My [very] short list includes: humility, respect, confidence, resiliency. There are so many more. The next time you feel you've made a mistake, rather than feel discouraged, remind yourself that mistakes are beautiful opportunities to learn (and teach). What a gift!