Monday, September 15, 2008

Beyond Threats: Moving Past "All or Nothing" Situations Toward Respectful Resolution

These days, Joaquin and I are spending a lot of time at the park. Today, while we were playing, I overheard an all-too-familiar phrase come out of the mouths of several different parents, all of them strangers. What were those popular words?

"You need to (blah blah blah) or we're going home right now."

One father was standing by the slides. He had just issued this edict to his 2 and 1/2year old daughter, who was laying on the slide as other children were waiting to come down. Clearly there was something about the situation that had to change. Most of us would agree that the little girl did need to come off the slide and let other children enjoy it too. Dad had asked once, twice, then used the Big Scary Threat in his demand for compliance. Not only was he taking the slide away from her, he was taking the entire park away from her. I walked on, not wanting to witness the fallout. Either it would be tears and screaming or Dad would be the purveyor of empty threats and this game would be repeated later.

Despite my unwillingness to watch the drama, I have compassion for this father. He, like so many of us, grew up with these all-or-nothing "I demand mindless obedience" high stakes threats. There are generations of us who were controlled by the idea that, if we didn't 'hop to' and do what we were told, we would lose something we desired. And, to a degree, it did work. Most of us decided that there was a hefty price for disobedience, and listened to our parents. At least, in front of them.

But we also felt that our parents were big meanies. Just because we followed orders didn't mean we felt our parents understood us. Sometimes we would try to explain or reason with the adults, only to be brushed off and reminded that we needed to listen. Our feelings were swept aside. The adults ruled supreme, whether we liked it or not. Many of our parents taught us that deviating from their rules was being defiant, and deserved punishment. We weren't given tools to have empathetic conversations with our children because we didn't have them with our own parents. And so we continue that same relationship dynamic with our children.

So, I thought about some ways to move through those moments when our children seem to be too autonomous for our comfort, doing as they like instead of as we would prefer, without threatening. My focus is on respecting our children, modeling empathy, showing real compassion, and a sense on the child's part of being understood. Let me make it clear, the child does not have to "understand" and agree with our reasons for asking them to do something they do not want to do. We are adults and can live with it if they don't blithely agree with our view. What is important, however, is that we take a moment to try to see the situation from the child's view, and speak to their feelings with sincerity and compassion. We want to let our children know that even when the world seems unfair, their feelings are always acceptable and we are their ally.*

Let's start with our little girl on the slide. Our more conventional Dad sees the problem as: "My daughter isn't following directions." The little girl, however, sees the problem as "I want to sit on the slide and I don't want to move, because: I might lose my turn/ I may not be able to come back/ I just don't want to move, I like it here."

Let's take a moment to see if from a little person's perspective. Little children can get very confused by concepts that seem very basic to us. Young children are encouraged to "take turns", and that "whoever is using an item first will pass it along when they are finished with it". This little girl was most certainly not finished with the slide. The socially accepted "rules" for different environments are still to be learned for many children, and only become concrete with repeated adult assistance.

Here's another piece of this puzzle to consider: children from very young to even five or six need a lot of help with the concept of "sharing". It is a really big, fuzzy word. Sharing could be taking turns, counting out a fair share of an item, moving over to make room, or even getting out more of something. When we want our children to share, giving them a clear concept of what we want them to do will help. And don't expect altruism. If you ask a child to share their playdoh, they may very well pinch off a small amount and think this is fine. "Sharing" is too vague a word. Give them some guidelines.

Our little girl in question doesn't want to move. This is where dad can apply a little empathetic language to the situation. He can walk over to his young daughter and notice what is happening."I see you really like sitting here on the slide. You really want to sit here." Here, he acknowledges her feelings without judgement. Now he can point to the top of the slide, where the children are waiting. " All of those children also want a turn. They want to have fun on the slide too." Now he's showing that their feelings are also important. Then, it's time to give his daughter a choice. "Your turn is over now. Do you want to slide down, or shall I carry you off?"

At this point, she may or may not move. If she doesn't, dad can always help her up. She may then become upset and insist on sliding down. Let her. It's easier this way, and to a child, sliding down means saving and keeping her pride intact. She might get up and go on her way, or want to climb back up. Parents, this is where our ability to become our child's ally can really kick into high gear. Dad may need to physically remove his daughter, but he can give her a lot of compassion while he does it. "You really wanted to sit on the slide! It just didn't seem like long enough, did it? Sometimes it's no fun to have to take turns! Sometimes you feel sad/mad when you have to wait for a turn." Pour on the empathy!

To finally resolve the situation, dad can offer to wait for another turn with her or ask where else she might like to sit. "Hey, I want to sit down too. Where should we sit? How about the swings? no? How about the bench? no? hmmm...where do you want to sit? My lap? no? What about...at the top of that tree? no? How about that garbage truck? Should we go sit in the garbage truck? oh, you're right, we would get so stinky!.... " Using a sense of humor to change the mood can help profoundly and get a few giggles.

Or not. Sometimes our kids are just too tired, hungry or frustrated to appreciate our efforts, and seem stuck in the angst of the situation. Then, maybe it's time to go find a place to have a snack, or go home and rest. At this point, we are the adults, this is our decision, and we don't need to make it a "consequence" (a/k/a-Punishment) for our child's very real feelings. "I'm tired, honey," Dad says. "I'm ready to head back. Tell me, what do you think we should listen to in the car?" Dad and his daughter say goodbye to the park, maybe tearfully, and then he can lovingly tell her a story or just continue with more empathetic language, whichever his daughter needs. Off to the car, pick out a cd to listen to, and home for rest or lunch or whatever everyone is needing.

That said, I'd probably be wanting a beer and hoping naptime came sooner than later. We are all human, and all that empathetic work can be draining. We all blow it from time to time, but we have to keep trying. My point in all this is that, while we must be our child's parent and not necessarily their friend, we do have moments when our children can discover that they have a friend in us. That we don't need to be the boss of them inasmuch as we can take their hand and support them through some trying times.

And when you are two and a half, leaving the slide can be a trying time. But you don't have to necessarily leave the park. And if we do go home, our we've made an effort to show our children that their feelings matter to us, that we understand their hurt, and that we wish for them that it didn't have to be that way.

When our children are older, hellbent on living their own lives, this is all we will be able to give them. So why not start now?

*I want to point out that we can be a child's ally without condoning behavior that is wrong. Even when they get themselves into trouble, we can acknowledge what they did is wrong while getting help for them and listening to their thoughts, troubles and feelings. And hopefully, help them feel encouraged to move past those mistakes and make better decisions in the future.

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