Many years ago when my son was 4 or 5 I was having a particularly frustrating day with him. At the end of my rope by day’s end, I bellowed at him “Stop acting like a child!” At that moment, despite the day I had been having, I still could recognise how crazy I sounded. So I stopped and laughed at myself. Pretty soon my son was laughing with me and we were able to repair the moment if not the day. It was probably that moment or moments like that, that fuelled my interest in better ways of parenting. The problem was not my son's behaviour but mine. He was behaving like a tired little boy and I was behaving like a tired little girl!
Parenting young children is often frustrating. Simple tasks become gargantuan barriers to getting on with the day. I cannot tell you how often I help parents with ideas to get their children to put on their shoes or hang up their coats or get into the car without bashing their sister on the head. Parenting older children is frustrating for different reasons. Rather than struggling to get them out of the house, the parent of the older child is often struggling to get them back home. Whatever the age of your children and whatever their struggles, the fact is that we as the parent need to behave like the adult that we ostensibly are.
When babies are born they have no control over their impulses. As they grow, it is our job to teach them that control. The ideal is to teach them those lessons in the way that we want them to behave because brains pay attention to actions and the tone of voice before they pay attention to words. So if we want our children to learn to calm down, we must parent them calmly. If we want them to use their quiet voice, we must use our quiet voice. If we want them to speak to us respectfully, we must speak to them respectfully even as they are behaving disrespectfully. When, because of our frustration, we shout at our children or hurl disrespectful labels at them like lazy or stupid or even naughty, we are behaving like an out of control child.
Albert Einstein famously said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” So when you repeatedly rant at your kids, some might argue that you are not only acting like a child but insane as well. I often meet parents who are stuck - repeating the same techniques even though they have never worked. They aren’t crazy. They are usually just tired and busy and wanting to get through whatever the task is at hand. The problem is that like me on that Sunday many years ago, they don’t have a better idea. And in that moment when your child’s behaviour is throwing the day off kilter, your brain is frustrated and therefore not really open to creative problem solving. The truth is that the more emotional the situation, the less access to our creativity we have.
So how do we protect our children from our childish impulses? How do we become better parents?
We spend time preparing for each day, not winging it. We can actually predict many of our children's reactions to any given event. So rather than hope it will be different this time, it is wiser to make a plan to help it be different.
We learn from our mistakes. When a day goes particularly badly, rather than grab a large glass of wine and forget about it, we can dissect the event and figure out where it went wrong.
We connect with our children to understand their point of view. Often a child was just trying to get their needs met and chose to do that in a way that got them in trouble. Taking some time to figure out what they were trying to accomplish can be helpful to helping them find a better way to get their needs met.
We renovate our parenting structures to accommodate our changing children. Parenting is a dynamic process. We cannot rely on static rules and routines that work for someone else's children or worked for our children when they were younger. When chaos is creeping into your lives, it is time to evaluate what needs to change to return life to a more even keel.
We think deeply about why certain of our children’s behaviours push our buttons. Parenting is an opportunity to figure ourselves out. What worries us? What do we most fear? These underlying issues often make themselves known to us when we become enveloped by big and sudden reactions to a particular behaviour of our child.
We delve into our own childhood memories to reconnect with our inner child. When we regress to childlike behaviour it is often because we are still viewing the world through the eyes of our inner child. These moments can allow us to become aware of those models of how the world works that we created as children and to amend them to a model that makes more sense now that we are adults.
When we do all of those things not only do our children benefit and grow well but so do we. Parenting gives us a unique opportunity to grow into our best selves. It would be a pity to waste that gift not just for our children's sakes but for our own as well.