One of the reasons why I reject the behaviouralist approach to parenting is because it focuses on the behaviour rather than the underlying cause of the behaviour. Like treating the symptom rather than the disease, one risks extinguishing one negative behaviour only to have another pop up in its place. It’s rather like the classical tale of the child who tried to plug the hole in the dam, only to find that more holes popped open and he soon ran out of fingers with which to plug the holes.
I’m going to share to two recent examples from our family that illustrate how, when we can look past a child’s anger to see what underlies it, we can effect real change that benefits both the parent and the child.
A few weeks ago during a family meeting it was decided that we would institute a “family tidy time” each evening after dinner. Daughter, probably being mature enough to appreciate the need for it, has been very helpful and willing, with little to no resistance on her part. Son, on the other hand, is not quite mature enough to appreciate the need for it, and does tend to grumble when it’s time. He does, however, do it and since we strive to make it fun, he generally ends up enjoying it. So a couple of evenings ago when I said it was time for the Family Tidy I wasn’t too surprised when Son resisted. However, it soon became apparent that this resistance was much greater than usual, and that instead of getting less so as things progressed (usually if I get started he soon joins in) he got more and more upset as I began.
The mess in question was a huge box of Lego that he had dumped on the living room floor, blocking the passage between the living room and our bedroom. At first I thought his reaction to clean-up time was due to worry about losing some of his recent creations, but giving him the chance to put aside anything he wanted to keep didn’t seem to help. He was getting more and more distressed, and with Son that means quite a production. It was very tempting to come down on him in that moment about how he was behaving, and also very easy to believe that this was all about him simply not wanting to help his family with the cleanup (and for a mess that he himself made). That line of thinking typically ends up in a tirade by mama about how unappreciated I am and how everybody expects me to clean up their messes. Thing is, most of what he was saying was either how much he hated tidying, how stupid it all was, and how stupid I was for wanting it done. So had I just taken him literally perhaps I would have felt justified in such an outburst on my part.
But I’ve been working hard on my own temper lately and this time I forced myself to stay calm. As soon as I calmed down and opened myself up to the possibility that Son may have good reason for being upset (and it wasn’t to shirk his duties), I got the distinct feeling that I was missing something, that there was something more to this issue than what appeared had I just taken his words at face value. So instead of trying to force him to get started on the cleanup, I took him to his room and sat him down. I gave him a look of sympathy for his distress and asked him to explain to me what his need was, what it was about me cleaning up the Lego that was upsetting him so much, and upon seeing that I was “on his side” and truly wanting to know, he calmed down enough to explain better: he said he didn’t want the Lego put back in the box because it’s too hard to find things.
Ah, now I understood. The box of Lego is indeed big, and Son in particular likes to play with pieces that are very small. This makes it difficult for him to find what he needs, and by dumping the box on the floor he can better sort through it. Now we knew his need, and I restated my need (to have a clear floor so we don’t hurt ourselves or lose Lego pieces), and we were left to come up with ideas that would meet both needs. We soon came up with the idea of sorting the Lego into smaller boxes (which can all fit in the big one) to make it easier to find what one is looking for. With that decided he and I had big hugs and the tears that came down now seemed, to my mind and in my experience with him, to be ones of relief. He’d been heard. That felt so good! And I knew I’d done the right thing.
In the meantime his sister had offered to clean up the Lego and it was not long after I joined her that Son came out and helped put the rest of it away, with a smile on his face and cheer in his voice. Later on that evening during a snuggle we talked about how he had expressed his distress. He knew what he did that was inappropriate, he knew it was wrong, felt genuinely sorry, and we went over the alternatives as we regularly do. He confessed how hard he found it to control his temper when he is so upset, and I confessed that I too found it equally hard. It didn’t feel like a lecture so much as sharing a human moment together, and I bet that holds more influence over him than any reading of the riot act could ever do.
The second incident happened today. I had to stop at the store, and out of the blue Son started yelling that I needed to stop worrying about us getting fat. I couldn’t make out half of what he was saying; at first it sounded like he was mad at me because I don’t buy them treats at the store very often. It was tempting for me to go off on a tangent about how spoiled and unappreciative he was and how this was exactly the sort of behaviour that would ensure we didn’t get treats, blah blah blah…but perhaps because of the recent Lego incident I again tried to calm myself and truly listen to what he was saying. It had seemed a strange outburst, even for him, since it had apparently come out of nowhere. But by listening I soon guessed at it, asked him about it, and with a flood of sad tears he confirmed it.
I had made a batch of cookies a couple days ago. As is the usual practice in our family we all just helped ourselves to them that evening. Unfortunately I forget that Son is like his Dad, and Daughter is more like me: us girls help ourselves until we are stuffed, but the boys regulate and save until later. The next morning there were 12 cookies left, and so I assigned 3 to each of us. Son was upset because those three cookies, and perhaps 2 or 3 more the previous night, were all he got. Daughter and I had eaten the majority of the cookies, and he was upset that there were so few left for him the next day. He hadn’t said hardly anything about it until we arrived at the store, where we usually get our free cookie (they hand them out to kids under 12). I had planned to just run in and let them read in the car, which we often do when there are only 1 or 2 items I need, but today this meant one less cookie he was going to get. He wasn’t able to verbalize this properly, and it came out as anger against me for insisting that we all eat less sweets and more healthy foods. Had I not stopped to listen and let him trust that I really wanted to know what was going on for him, enough for him to calm down and think about it some more, I might have gone off on him for some totally unrelated reason.
When he saw that I *got* it, and that I felt for him, and didn’t brush off his concerns as pointless, childish, irrelevant, etc. the tears immediately turned from anger to sadness, the sort of look that melts a parent’s heart. He hugged me long and hard for understanding him. I felt really bad for eating so many cookies myself that night, so I asked if he’d like it if we made some more cookies tonight and this time we’d divide them up from the start so that he could keep some for later if he wished, without being ripped off by me and his sister. He was all smiles and calm then, and the rest of the shopping visit proceeded in peace.
These two examples illustrate, I hope, the importance of seeing past the behaviour *especially* in the moment. I know my son really appreciated being heard and understood, and that I was willing to find a solution that respected his needs and wants as well as my own. Had I focused only on the behaviour, and tried to use punishment or manipulation to extinguish the behaviour, what an injustice that would have been to him! Not to feel heard, to feel like someone cares less about what is upsetting you than how you express it, feels really lousy and I think many of us can recall experiencing that as children ourselves. The time for talking about what behaviours are and are not acceptable is not in the heat of the moment, but later during a calm moment between the two of you when the child is not focused on his or her hurts but rather can really hear what you are saying.
I want to finish this up by stressing that I don’t mean this post to sound like I’m bragging or patting myself on the back. I do my fair share of yelling, of being reactive to behaviour and not being able to see past it. I have to work hard to control my own temper (which makes it all the more ironic that I would try to punish a child for not being able to do so himself), but when I do control myself I can so clearly see the benefits. I post this as much for myself, as a reminder to keep working at it. Kids are worth it!