You Don't Have to Solve the Problem For Them--Just Be There

Some days, you just don't know. What's eating them? Why all the existential angst? What do we do when we don't know quite what or how to answer their upset and frustrations?

I think, oftentimes, just being there for our kids--with open ears, an open mind and a very open heart--might be enough. And thank goodness it is... 

Here are three short stories~

Story One. This Morning. "Damn."

Story One is almost silly and not very exciting, but it just shows me how my thinking and Kiddo's thinking about things really aren't the same. 

I'm in the shower this morning. Kiddo is playing in his room, then suddenly is in the bathroom. I hear "Mama" then some sad-angry grumbling. I peek my head out from behind the shower curtain to see a downhearted face. "Could you tell me that again? I couldn't hear you."

He looks up into my eyes. "Mama, I am so mad I want to say 'damn'."

"Oh? What's going on?" 

"My marble race is not working and I want to say 'damn' because I'm mad." 

"Oh, I see. That sounds like a problem. Hmmm...."

and before I can even think to say anything about it, he perks up and says "I could make another one." Great idea. And off he goes...*

Story Two. Last Week Wednesday. The Evening from H-E-Double-Toothpicks.

It's one of those evenings, when everyone's a bit tired and all the patience I have left has been spent on events that amount to penny-candy in the grand scheme of things. But Joe really wanted to go out for pizza and Kiddo had pulled out all the stops to behave during the afternoon because he wanted this dinner out as well. Which turned out to be No Fun For Anyone. Part of this was due to the family in the booth next to us, who felt it was okay for their son to pull decorations off the wall, bang them on our (then-empty) side of the booth, and to allow their kid to be pretty  much hanging out and in our faces without so much as a "no" being uttered. Of course, Kiddo interprets this as a gold-plated invitation to eschew his manners and thus begins the slow downward spiral. 

This, of course, is exacerbated emotionally (for me) by the parents in that neighboring booth, who look at me like I am totally bitching out and riding my son's butt on the manners.  Nonetheless, letting Kiddo stand on the seat of the booth or grab things out of my hand doesn't fly for me, so we go outside and have a matter-of-fact "If we have to go home because you choose not to use good manners, that will ruin the dinner for Daddy and I, and You Will Be Going Straight To Bed" conversation. When I return, I am now getting the unabashed "that mother is a holy terror" look from the other booth, as their son continues to take things off the wall...

At home, the bedtime routine goes a little better and then we are in bed, stories have been read.  He's off to the bathroom for one last potty break...but he doesn't come out. And doesn't come out. I don't want to rush him, so after five minutes I go in to check on him

and find him laying on the floor, flopping around, grinning. "Hi Mama. Look at." 

Really?  I was done. Done. Done. Done.
I told him to get in bed and Goodnight. No songs. No cuddles. Just go to bed. "I'll check on you in a bit" I reassured him, and turned off the light. "It's time for you to go to sleep."

Fifteen minutes later I'd had some time to cool my head off, and I peeked around his door. Usually he was asleep, but not tonight.

"Mama, I don't feel good."

"What's the problem?" my voice was still a bit brusque. Fifteen minutes doesn't nullify the last two hours of hardcore nonsense, not to mention the starter course of b.s. that I'd dealt with that morning.

"I don't like that you didn't sing the song."

"You didn't like that, huh?" my tone softened and was more empathetic. Instead of re-explaining why it happened or defending my actions, I just neutrally agreed with what he was feeling--no songs and no cuddles wasn't a pleasant way to end the day. I understand this deep in my bones: as a child, when my own mother was mad at me, she wouldn't come in to kiss me goodnight or check on me. This happened enough for me to know the gut-twisting anxiety of "I'm so bad, she doesn't even want to kiss me" . From there, it's a very short leap to "She doesn't love me", which is the worst way to fall asleep.  Which is why I leaned over, kissed him and said:

"We'll try it again tomorrow. We had a hard evening, and I still love you very, very  much. Have good dreams and I'll see you in the morning." 

"Will you check on me again?"

I did. Five minutes later, he was snoring peacefully. His problem-- of being aware of his mistakes and of my disapproval, of needing to reconnect and know I still loved him--was solved, just because I'd bothered to check in.

Story Three. Last Tuesday night. Swords and Guns.

One of those pleasant evenings. Bedtime had gone smoothly, stories were read, our song was sung. Ten minutes later I went to use the bathroom (which is next to Kiddo's room) and he called out "Mom. I need you to come lay with me."

Two minutes later, I was in his room. "What do you need?"

"I'm scared. I don't want to fall asleep."

"Oh? What are you worried about?"

"I am afraid of dinosaurs eating people." His voice was small and upset. Ah, this was a serious one, this worry. It wasn't that he thought it would happen, he was afraid he'd dream about it, which means he must have been thinking about it. I lay down on the bed and cuddled up to him.

"You know what, sweetie, I can understand that. If there were really dinosaurs alive right now, that would be very frightening to think about. And it would be smart to be scared about it." I hugged him and he was quiet. "I know that you know there are no scary dinosaurs alive right now. Are you worried you are going to dream about it?" He said yes, he was. 

"Well, if this happened in your dream, what could you do?"

"I could get a gun and a sword and I could kill it." 

"Wow. That would be very, very brave of you. And would that work for you?"

It was then that Kiddo created a new, alternate Very Brave Story to replace his anxieties. He became a powerful dinosaur slayer, protecting one and all. I snuggled him up a little more and told him what a brave plan he had made and that he could use it tonight in his dreams.

Suddenly, I felt him tense up. "Is it okay to have a gun and a sword to fight?" 

"You know, sweetie, it is a gun and a sword in your dreams. And you are using them to protect. That is really okay, because we know dreams are like pretend. It would be a problem if you had a gun and a sword in real life, because you could hurt someone or yourself with those things. But in dreams, they are fine. And you have a good plan, too.  I'll lay here with you for a while--go to sleep now."

Sometimes, it's just the Being There. To hear their complaint--just so someone they love knows. Knows how hard it is to be a kid sometimes. Sometimes, it's to check in and let them know that no matter how challenging a day is for everyone, that they are indeed very, very loved-- that we love them no matter what, and that their mistakes do not make them unlovable. And sometimes, it's a calm presence, a   listening ear, and space to talk out anxieties and make a plan, just in case the feared nightmare does come to play out on the dream-screen inside one's head. For a child, I think it's a powerful knowledge, to know that someone who loves them will listen, will make a space for them in their times of need or frustration...I think that this gives a child the support of what Abraham Mazlow** called "Being Love" (that we love them just for their own existence) and helps the child to move with confidence toward the next level, which is competency, trusting in their own skills and abilities to solve their own problems in ways that work for them. When they come up with their own answers, their own solutions--this is a powerful experience for them. And it takes a the burden off of us as parents. 

Besides --do you want to be the designated problem solver for the rest of your child's life? Not me!

*In case you were wondering, we are not cool with Kiddo swearing or cursing. However, this was about the level of his feeling of frustration,  (so big he wanted to use a very strong, even wrong, word)  and my correcting him would have gotten him off track from solving his first, very real problem of the marble race. Had I censured him instead of listening, the problem would have grown more frustrating for him--I would have been attending to the distraction of what had been said, but not what was meant--and would likely have rendered him to feeling even more incapable of dealing with the challenge.

Listening without prejudice as a parent is a challenge at times, to know what to attend to and what to let pass along without comment.  Had Kiddo been cursing at someone or something, I would have certainly responded differently. But to say that one is so mad they want to use forbidden words--well,  that's something else entirely.

**Are you familiar with Abraham Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs? Read more about it.

The Wiki is actually the most useful version of this I could find.  JoAnne Nordling has reframed this into The Child's Staircase of Needs in her book "Taking Charge: Caring Discipline That Works at Home and At School." This Staircase is always on my cupboard door, a welcome reminder for me and a quick reference.

And a quote by Mazlow~
"I wanted to make science consider all the problems that nonscientists have been handling— religion, poetry, values, philosophy, art. I went about it by trying to understand great people, the best specimens of mankind I could find."


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