I watched the frustration rise up inside him. He already faced one disappointment at the park and my reply pushed him past his limits.
I calmly explained that I understood his frustration, but what he wanted wasn’t an option. Unsure of what do do with his anger, he focused a laser beam of fury and focused it on me.
He started with the usual, “You’re mean, mom.” As I responded calmly, it escalated to more unkind words, then hitting. I heard two conflicting voices in my head. One told me, “You can’t let him speak to you that way. You need to control. He needs a severe consequence.” Another said, “A misbehaving child is a discouraged child. His behavior is letting us know he does not think he has belonging and significance, and he has mistaken beliefs about how to find belonging and significance.” (1)
I’m no stranger to the parenting conflicts between being overly authoritarian and permissive. I’ve been labeled both, I’m sure. As my kids grow and parenting challenges become more complex, I find myself seeking a balance between the two. I also see that striving to satisfy other people’s views of “good parenting” will never please anyone, including me.
I took a deep breath, calmly pulled took his hand, and led him to the car, explaining that we didn’t use mean words or hit. And his behavior escalated. I felt tempted to threaten or bribe, but then I heard a voice say, “His behavior will likely get worse before it gets better,” as he adjusts to your changing behavior.
I’ve never believed one book or parenting philosophy would solve all my parenting riddles, conundrums. In general, I’ve always looked around me for inspiration in parents I respect, followed my instincts, and sprinkled in parenting ideas I’ve found. But lately I’ve felt discouraged, torn between my children’s behavior and the way I instinctively believe parenting should look and feel.
Then we visited with some friends. Their home felt peaceful. Their routine felt natural. Their children weren’t perfect, but they seemed secure and they clearly felt a sense of belonging in a cohesive unit. Voices remained firm and calm, without bribing, shaming, overly praising, or power struggles. I had an opportunity to express some of my concerns to my friend, who recommended “Positive Discipline” by Jane Nelson (1). As soon as I arrived home, I ordered it.
As we approached the car calmly and firmly, I used soft words and reiterated appropriate ways to talk and use our hands. He calmed his body, but persisted in calling me names. I sensed people around me, watching us interact. I willed them from my mind and focused on him. Luckily, my other children came willingly and seemed to sense how they could help diffuse the situation.
When I didn’t respond in expected ways to his verbal assault, he continued trying to get my attention. And, against conventional wisdom, I gave it to him. I told him I loved him because that felt like the most important message he could receive in the moment. And I heard a voice say, “Children do better when they feel better.” (1)
Reading “Positive Discipline” is a head-nodding experience for me. The philosophies about why
children behave and how this relates to what we are ultimately seeking for our family truly resonate with me. The book is about gaining cooperation and teaching responsibility, self-discipline, problem-solving skills, and social interest. We want our children to be responsible for their own behavior, not blindly obedient or constantly monitored for positive or negative choices. I still have a great deal to learn, but I can promise you this is not a book about giving children whatever they want or a home without consequences. What it does do is rethink how we interact with our children to reach the goals mentioned above.
We arrived home and I calmly walked him to his room for a cooling off period. I explained to him that I couldn’t continue to be in a room with him while he spoke this way and I believed he needed to cool off. I invited him to come out when he could interact in a positive, kind way. The decision was up to him.
I would normally believe a “time out” should be a boring, frustrating time of punishment, but I’d recently read the following about logical consequences and cooling off periods. “Where did we get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, we must first make them feel worse?…Suffering is not a requirement of logical consequences.”
A normal time-out would usually include rebellion, blame on mom, and escalated yelling, blame, kicking doors, and coming out in anger. This time, however, he looked me in the eye and nodded. I left calmly and worked with the other kids to make lunch. He came out perhaps 5 minutes later, calm, apologetic, and prepared to talk about his choices.
This became a learning opportunity for all of us. As we prepared lunch, we talked about what happens when we get frustrated and angry. We talked about cooling off periods and I told my kids they could ask for them. My daughter spontaneously shared a story of a time when she could have used one. The afternoon remained calm, cooperative, and peaceful. While life is far from perfect, it set a new tone for our interactions and I am excited to read about more strategies.
Parenting is a sensitive topic, but I would love to share more of my experiences as I read this book and parent kids beyond the toddler stages. As I do, I hope we can have a respectful conversation. I hope I can emphasize that, while I am talking about some challenging moments, I love parenting my three terrific kids. I hope that we can encourage each other and create a safe place to talk.
Next Chapter: Using Encouragement Effectively