Thursday, September 10, 2009

Finding the Middle Ground

The other day I had a chance to tell you about the fun we are having with our little fella. Each stage of his growth has opened up more opportunities to have fun, and while I enjoy watching him expand his world and become more interested in what we are doing, there is some extra responsibility on Joe’s and my end to keep up our end of the deal. As our children get older, we have to expand our Bag of Parenting Tricks.

Of course, we all know that the most powerful trick in the Parenting Bag is modeling. We try to use this to our advantage by showing our son safe and appropriate behavior, even at the risk of sounding like a complete idiot as we narrate for added effect. “I like to use the handrail. I hold on so I can be safe” or “Oh, I like to sit on my bottom when I eat. It’s just right for me.” This sort of talk sounds absolutely inane to anyone who hasn’t had a kid who will teeter no-hands down the concrete porch stairs and can’t seem to sit down for a meal unless it’s at a restaurant, strapped into a high chair. Modeling means keeping food in the kitchen…well, most of the time. And going in together to wash our hands before meals. We are trying to capitalize on the Monkey See, Monkey Do, and so modeling often creates a bigger impression than just telling him to wash hands. He’d much rather do it with us, and when he does, he also learns how to do it correctly. (This is especially important with all these new, exciting germs going round!)

It also seems that there are more opportunities for conflict than there used to be. Kiddo is feeling his oats, so to speak. He likes to use a really loud voice to make big noises, just to say “world, here I am!” and going on about his business. He wants what he wants, when he wants it, and we are doing our best to model patience and walk him through the moment as best we can. The empathetic language is essential for those moments when he really, truly cannot do nor have what he wants. Having that connection with us--our understanding of his desires-- before correcting or redirecting helps him to be more able to hear what we are saying. Somehow, the acknowledgment of “Gee, I see you really want to stand on the table. You like to be up high” clears his mind (now he knows that I know what’s going on with him) and now he’s able to move on to “I can see that you need something safer because standing on the table is dangerous. You may stand on your stepstool or I can hold you for a minute.” The acknowledgment of his feelings helps him move past his present action to a more constructive place, and a friendly invitation to make a choice from two pleasant things is so much more enticing than having someone tell you to cease and desist, now.

While one of my favorite Tricks is to give Kiddo two positive choices, when I’m in the moment it can feel like a mental struggle to remember that this is what they are supposed to be: positive choices. It’s all too easy to resort to “stop banging your spoon or I’ll take it away”; lots more effort to suggest that “I know you like the sound your spoon makes, but it is not for hitting. You may use your spoon for eating, or you may go play with your drum.” Some parents might see that sort of choice as a reward for misbehavior; I choose to look at it as the whole-family friendly solution: either way, the people at the table will have some peace and frankly, he’s two. If he wants to play his drum, that’s fine with me—his dinner will sit until he’s ready to eat and it’s no skin off my nose. Trying to make him sit quietly at the table (fine dining manners, intelligent conversation) is not my first priority. Kids wiggle and squirm. I understand that mealtimes are for meals, but he’ll learn with more comprehension as he grows.

I’m also learning to become flexible with him making an unspoken third choice. Sometimes at dinner he’s all over the place, standing up to eat and wanting to take bites from our plates even if it’s the same food. A few nights ago I gave him the choice: “You may sit down to eat or go play in the living room; Mama and Daddy want to eat our food.” Kiddo chose to find something to do on the floor near the table. In my mind, there were two choices: either frog-march him out into the living room or to let him play comfortably and eat in peace. I think it’s important to notice when a non-choice is acceptable and to follow through when it isn’t. Had he continued to pester us about our food, I would have moved him in a heartbeat, but he’d figured out how to stay in our company, and there’s value in honoring his choices when they end up pleasantly solving problems. Once again, some would say that I’ve become too lax, but I think that this happy-medium reduces the child’s biggest incentive for disruptive actions: attention.

It takes a lot of experience with our child and confidence in ourselves as parents to comfortably live in that middle space between insisting our children follow our directions to the letter and just letting them ride roughshod, shrugging our shoulders. Just as much as we should guard ourselves against excusing our child’s behavior out of hand, we should also be wary of being overly strict. If every single parental request must be followed to the letter, we might want to look at what sort of fear and beliefs are behind this. Likewise, if we find ourselves being dismissive of our child’s actions when they are being disruptive and hurting others or themselves, we need to do some soul searching and find out why we are afraid to deal directly and honestly with what's going on. Somewhere in between, I believe, is a place where children can be respectful of the people and the activities around them and be able to find their own way of doing things in a constructive manner. If we can support and respect their process while giving them positive guidance and being clear and consistent regarding limits, we offer them opportunities to problem-solve in ways that only enhance the sense of family harmony. In this way, nothing is taken from the parent or child, but the moment gives back to everyone.

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