One of the things I really like about working with other people’s kids is that they are other people’s kids. When I’m playing with my child clients, it’s very easy to hang back and be observant and to feel invested in their play without fighting any urge to “help.” With my own children, it’s hard not to take advantage of so-called “learning opportunities.” It’s hard not to push a little bit — “What if we added this curved block there?” But I know from my time working with other people’s kids that hanging back and watching creates more opportunity for learning and growth than butting in ever can.
It’s hard not to be a help but well intentioned helping can often be a hindrance.
I notice this when children are opening new toys. Grown ups often start unpacking the items more quickly or they’ll grab the instructions and start to read them out loud. New toys are exciting even for adults! But if we can stand back and let the child come to his exploration in his own sweet time then he will have the chance to make the toy his own. He will get to try things that don’t work before discovering things that do, which is a great big part of learning.
If you are like me and often impatient with your child’s play, try sitting on your hands and watching next time.
- Watch your child put the puzzle piece in the wrong place, discover the wrongness and then try something else.
- If you would like to participate, describe what you see once you know your child has seen it, too, “Huh, that puzzle piece is blue and that space has mostly green around it.”
- Resist the urge to head off mistakes.
- Wait to be invited or ask, “You seem like you’re getting frustrated, can I help?” If they say no, believe them.
- Do the bare minimum of help once your presence is welcomed and be prepared to step back again when your child wants to take the lead once more.
- Allow your child to do things “wrong” because there really is no wrong (as long as people are safe). (It’s a good reason to buy sturdy toys — they need to be able to stand up to rigorous inspection, especially when children are younger.)
- If your child is used to you taking the lead prepare for some push back. If she gets angry because you are not showing her how to do it, model exploring. Let her correct you when she watches you do something that may not work.
Even though I am comfortable watching other people’s children struggle until they figure it out or ask for my help, I sometimes have to take a break from watching my own children get frustrated with a K’nex model or art project. I want you to know this because sometimes parents will watch me with their kids in my office and they’ll tell me they feel guilty. But it’s much harder with your own children! The dynamics are so different!
(You know what’s really hard for me? Stickers! The stickers that kids are supposed to put on the plastic cars or dollhouse furniture. I feel very stressed watching my kids trying to get them on right!)
So when it comes to my own children, I’ll make an excuse (“I’m just going to get a drink of water”) or find something else to do (“I’ll just be over here sorting the mail so holler if you need anything”). I sometimes have to steel myself for the tears I know are coming because there is value in frustration and learning to manage it even though what I’d really like to do is head it off and avoid it (and sometimes that’s appropriate — you know your child best!). But as frustration tolerance improves so will our children’s abilities as architects of their own experiences.
When I was teaching parenting classes in Portland nearly two decades ago I had one parent in the class who was there because she’d been mandated by child protective services. I don’t know the whole story but I knew that she didn’t want to be there. She made it clear that she resented having to sit there listening to a youngster many years her junior (me) who didn’t even have any kids yet.
I can’t say that I blamed her.
Fortunately the other parents in the class were there to help her process the information in a loving, respectful way that she could hear.
At one point we were talking about how children have their own experiences in the day beyond what we might witness. I don’t know how she got the message — I think another parent was telling a story about her child in school — but she burst into tears and said, “I had no idea, I had no idea. I never thought that maybe she could have her own bad day or be in her own bad mood.”
It was such a powerful moment.
From that point of the class on she was able to talk about her children’s experiences with compassion and empathy. The class was not easy for her — she was away from her kids and she was confronting a lot of things she wished she’d done differently — but I hope that what she learned there she was able to bring back to her relationships with her children.
It can be difficult to remember what it’s like to be small or even smallish. It’s especially hard to do if we weren’t allowed the full scope of our feelings. If we were treated harshly, we may have stuffed some feelings down so deep that we don’t know how to remember what it’s like to be scared or sad or to feel hopelessly overwhelmed by the big wide world and our small place in it. If we have that extra challenge then we can practice imagining. We can picture what it must be like to worry that we will suffocate if we fall asleep with a stuffy nose. Or to not have the experience to know that one lost book report won’t derail our scholastic dreams.
When we remember or can imagine what it feels like to be a child, it’s easier to know how to react with the firm and loving support that our children need.
I know that for lots of people it’s scary to bring your child to a counselor. You’re already worried about your son or daughter and then you have to bring them to a stranger in the hopes they can help. It’s never fun coming to experts and saying, “Hey, I’m stuck and I’m scared and I need help.” But it’s even harder when we’re looking for support over something as emotionally fraught as parenting. Especially since most of us already get criticism from friends or family or teachers or some know-it-all magazine or Dr. Phil.
I want to reassure you that I don’t look at parents with an eye to catch them out doing something wrong (and none of the child therapists I run around with do this either). I mean, I’m a parent, too, and I know how judgment feels (lousy and unhelpful) so why would I want to visit that on my clients?
Besides even if I know exactly the right way (mostly) to raise my kids that doesn’t translate to knowing exactly the right way for you to raise yours. No, I meet with parents to better understand their goals, their hopes, their values and then I mix that all up in the things I’ve learned about kids in general and their kids in particular and what the research says and some practical tips I’ve learned along the way so that together — together, mind you — we can help you build something better.
There is no one-size-fits-all for parenting. What works great for one family would never fly in another because we’re totally different people raising totally different kids in totally different circumstances.
Does that mean I won’t have opinions? Of course not. I love to have opinions and I’ll share those opinions with you but I’ll do in the context of my understanding of your unique experiences. So if I think your discipline techniques are causing you problems, I’ll tell you that but I won’t try to get you to become a totally different kind of parent. I’ll try to help you figure out ways to do things differently to help you discover your best parenting self.
I won’t judge you. I won’t sit around trying to figure out how wrong you are. (In fact, one of the most important thing I do with parents is find out what they’re doing absolutely right so they can do more of it!) I certainly won’t blame you for all of your child’s problems even though you might be blaming yourself.
I know that parents aren’t always at their best. I know that they make mistakes. I know this because I’m a parent and I make mistakes (ask my kids, I’m sure they have a list running). But I don’t believe in perfect parenting anyway; I believe in pretty darn good parenting and I believe that is plenty. I believe in celebrating your strengths and forgiving yourself your weaknesses even as you work to shore them up. I believe that chasing down perfection makes it harder for us to be pretty darn good. I will not judge you. I will be honest and encouraging and I’ll give you lots of tips. And I’ll listen a lot because I know that you are the expert even if you’re not quite sure about that just yet. I’ll help you get there.
Do you ever get stuck explaining something to your child? Why he needs to put his dirty socks in the laundry. Why you can’t buy the cookies she wanted for her lunch this week.
“I’m not making you put your socks away because I like bossing you around; I can’t wash them if they aren’t there to wash,” you might say. “Listen, the cookies just aren’t in our budget; I don’t like saying no.”
We explain and we explain and we explain because we want them to not only understand but to believe us. We want them to see our point and quit whining about laundry and lunches. We want them to both do the thing we want them to do (put away socks, quit whining about cookies) AND be happy about doing it.
That’s not really fair, is it?
We need to keep our eyes on the prize. The goal isn’t cheerful understanding, it’s understanding period. Weirdly, kids — like the rest of us — are more likely to come to understanding when no one is desperately trying to make them understand.
Remember this: nobody — and I mean nobody — likes to be lectured.
So explain it once, that’s it. Don’t get trapped thinking that if you can only explain it exactly right your child will light up and say, “You know, now that you’ve explained it so well I really understand the value of picking up my Lincoln Logs.” Because that’s extremely unlikely to happen. In fact, I can say with certainty that it has never ever happened in the history of parent-child relationships. (On the bright side, older kids have been known to say to their parents, “NOW I see the point!” but that’s years in the making.)
Fortunately most children will figure out the value of clean underwear and clear floors on their own eventually. It may take a very very long time. Until then we need to appreciate that what makes sense to us doesn’t make sense to them even when we spend a lot of time and effort trying to talk them into coming over to our way of seeing things.
And we need to give up on the idea that if we are very reasonable and very clear in our explanations that our children won’t be disappointed about the lack of cookies in the house or be thrilled about doing laundry.
Sometimes people get afraid of feelings so we deny them or try to ignore them or explicitly tell our kids to shut those feelings away. But how children feel and how they behave are too different things.
There’s being angry and then there’s yelling or hitting. It’s ok to be angry with your little sister but it’s not ok to hit her. It’s ok to feel frustrated with the Legos that won’t work right but it’s not ok to kick them across the floor.
When we correct or redirect our children to express their negative emotions (anger, frustration, sadness, guilt) appropriately, we need to make clear that we accept their feelings even when their behavior is unacceptable.
For kids, feelings may be so overwhelming and painful that they have to act them out in their bodies. We can give them appropriate ways to show their anger in their bodies. They can punch pillows instead of punching brothers. They can go outside and yell instead of screaming inside. They can stomp their feet instead of knocking down blocks.
Help give kids words to describe their feelings.
“You are so angry!”
“This puzzle is so frustrating!”
Sometimes sad or worried or scared look like angry so if you see that, say it.
“I think you are sad that we have to leave the bouncy castle and that’s why you don’t have the patience to tie those shoes. Leaving can be so hard!”
“I wonder if you’re feeling worried about the big swimming pool and that’s why you’re snapping at me.”
However we feel, it’s fine because feelings are morally neutral. How we manage our feelings — how we treat others, how we treat ourselves — is what matters. The more we find acceptance for all or our feelings, even the yucky uncomfortable ones, the easier it is to manage them.
I was thinking about this quote because a few weeks ago I spent an afternoon talking about open adoption with a group of people looking for more education on the topic. One attendee was expressing her concern that adoptive parents might feel hurt if their children “choose” their birth parents and it’s true that some adoptive parents can feel insecure or afraid in open adoptions and in reunions, too. But love truly is infinite and when we give our children that experience of infinite love, we can know that they will reflect this back to us.
Happy Valentine’s Day!