Monday, September 21, 2009

Ignore-ance is Bliss

In my last posts, I’ve discussed some of my favorite gems from the Parenting Bag of Tricks: modeling, empathetic language, offering two positive choices and letting our children find their own ‘middle ground’ solutions that work for everyone. Well, today I’d like to introduce you to another Favorite Trick: mindfully ignoring my son.

I’ll let you laugh and roll your eyes for a moment.

As I mentioned in my last post, kids do a lot of things for attention. Can we talk about the child’s desire for attention? Their desire to seek our attention is perfectly reasonable, and in my opinion, very healthy. Even as babies, our children learned that connection with us is vital for their survival as a fully realized human being. It can be frustrating at times, because they often seem want our attention when it most needs to be elsewhere. And sometimes they do dangerous things which require immediate intervention. But what I noticed is that some of the time I was giving my son attention for doing things that were merely annoying. This was a game for him, but a trap for me.

So why do we get stuck in this trap? See, in my profession to we have to address behaviors immediately and thoroughly. “Let’s get to the bottom of this” is the thinking, and as a teacher for toddlers and preschoolers, responding to disruptive behaviors in the moment is essential for the peace and safety of the other 8 or 10 kids in the space. I’d also venture to suggest that there is indeed a proclivity amongst—dare I say it?—overeducated parents whose desire to illuminate their children’s understanding of right and wrong often involves the Long Drawn-Out Explanation. Yet, after careful parental observation, I find the opposite to be true. The more we talk about what we don’t like, the more we see our children doing the exact same things. Lesson learned: Less is more, so (not) to speak.

I’ve never discovered a name or established method for sort of purposeful ignoring (which is actually highly monitored), so I have to use my best judgment and wing it. I pick and choose which things to “ignore” in the moment, based on what’s happening, what’s safe, and what sort of outcome correction and attention will bring.

Here’s a simple example: what to do when he says something less than sociable. I think this is a challenge for nearly every parent at one point or another. We hear our child say something not so nice and it feels like we need to nip it in the bud by having a talk about it or doing something more extreme and less helpful. Over the years, however, I’ve discovered that carrying on about why “saying ‘such and such’ is not okay”, etc. can be just the encouragement our kids need to continue repeating it. Instead, I’ve found that ignoring most of these unpleasant utterances is the best tool for making them go away. And, not surprisingly, they do.*

There’s also something to be said for respecting that kids are people, too, and have the right to speak their mind even if it isn’t always comfortable for us. Kiddo has lately taken to repeating a slightly alarming phrase—“Want to hit kids”. When he looks into my face and says this, he’s already got my attention and so I follow up with the usual “Hitting hurts. Our hands are for doing fun, safe things. They are for being gentle with.” I don’t discuss consequences or other intangibles because they are too abstract. And this may very well be his fantasy talk, so when he’s just rattling on to himself about ‘want to hit kids/cat/mama’, I just let him be.

Joe and I are learning how to use this mindful ignoring to our advantage while parenting together. My new motto is: “One parent is a correction; two parents are attention.” While we initially thought we were being supportive of each other, it became clear to us that the attention of two parents was an irresistible inducement. “Wow! I got both of them to stop what they’re doing and pay attention to me! This is great!” We’ve since learned that one parent talking to Kiddo about safe choices is usually enough to move the moment along. This has helped in some very concrete ways. For example: Kiddo likes to turn the television off when we the adults are watching it. Once it occurred to me that he was likely doing this to get our attention, we decided not to respond to his turning off the tv and just talked to each other instead, mindfully ignoring what he was doing. (By the way, we didn’t discuss this in front of him, but used hand signals in the moment and talked about it in private.) It turned out to be exactly what was needed and after a minute he turned the television back on. Without our response and attention, the whole reason for turning the television off was gone. We then found a positive way of engaging him without discussing his previous actions.

I’ve also had to make some hard decisions about when to mindfully ignore. Kiddo likes to stand on chairs, and this has become a big, exciting problem in our house. Regularly, he’ll stand on the seat of his sturdy wooden high chair (which is high up and dangerous due to the things surrounding it) and grin, loving the attention he’s about to receive. Our automatic response now is to just put him on the floor and invite him to play on the kitchen floor or in the living room. But I recently found myself constantly reminding Kiddo to “be careful” on the edge of the couch or the low adult chairs at the kitchen table. Frankly, I was sick of hearing myself. My diligent cautioning fed his desire for attention; but this wasn’t why I wanted to be giving it to him, and he would not stop doing these not-too-dangerous things until he came up with his own reason not to. And so I let him take a few tumbles. This was a hard decision, but he’s become far more cautious on his own now. Of course, we have to be paying enough attention to make certain that the damage will be minimal; falling off a low chair is far different from falling off the porch, right? And what’s he going to be falling onto? But there is a time when we have to pull back and let them learn on their own. Recognizing when it’s truly okay to do this can lessen our frustration and provides them opportunities to learn to be careful on their own.

So, this is how I’m keeping up with my growing boy. Adapting to the moment and really trying to figure out the “whys” of his actions. I’m careful not to crumple his authentic self, but to preserve it by being empathetic. Sometimes his actions—say, hitting (which is rare)—are wrong, and we tell him so, but it’s important to me that he knows he’s not a bad person. Our kids are more work than ever, and we have to find our own sense of balance and calm in the middle of it. It’s important to keep in mind that our negative language may stem from frustration, but our children store up those comments like pennies in a piggy bank. There’s an old saying that “Children Live What they Learn” and it’s true; children are determined to live up to our expectations, no matter how negative. So lastly, be careful for little ears. If you don’t like something your child did, or are concerned about it, keep your own counsel and avoid mentioning it in front of the child or their peers. Remember: our little monkeys are very interested in what interests us, and if we find their previous actions interesting enough to mention to someone else, even in the least-judgmental light, they will think that doing it again might be worth it.

After all, it got our attention.

* I want to clarify here that if my son were older and walking around saying “bleepity bleep bleep” (insert your favorite naughty words here), I might take a different tack. This would be the time to explain that his words are saved for when he’s alone in his room, out of the hearing of others. That’s his space for doing what he wants, within reason. It’s important to notice when our children are capable of receiving the redirection and understanding the context for it; this is something that my son, at two, would not quite understand: why the words are offensive to some and the autonomy being in his own space gives him. There is a progression to all of this. Oh, and when we’re in public, uttered naughty words can get turned into a rhyming game, which is a positive distraction. Believe me, everything naughty rhymes with something!

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