Children don’t come with a rule book, however, if we look closely enough and pay attention more clearly, we’ll see that the rules are embedded in the child. It certainly doesn’t take a parenting expert to tell us that our busy lives are busy or that sometimes our own needs overshadow the needs of our children. And most of us don’t require an expert to remind us that we may occasionally miss these emotional cues because they happen at inopportune and wholly inconvenient times. You’ve been there, right? I know I have. The test of course is what we do in the moment despite how lofty our expectations regarding the outcome of what an ill-timed parent-child exchange “should” look like.
For example, last month, one March Break day began like any other day. Except my 7-year-old decided that she didn’t want to take a bath before spring Adventure Camp and felt that the most effective way to communicate that to me was via a hysterical meltdown. Only, her mother — that would be me — wasn’t having it, so I gently insisted she take one. For the following reason: The day before she and her sister had spent the entire day with their camp friends at the zoo. If I had my druthers they would have taken baths the previous night before bed but they were both very animated and stimulated from the day’s events so we scrapped that idea. But this morning, I wasn’t wavering. “It’s bath time,” I repeated. My daughter, confident and bold, emphatically stated that she was not going to take a bath. My response was to calmly reply that oh yes, she was.
We went back and forth for about one minute; both of our tempers rising and both of our voices rising as well. And then I took a step back and laid out a few options for her to consider. I told her that she had the option of staying at home and not going to camp, or she could take a bath and we could all get going. She refused the bath, again, insisting however that she would still like to go to camp. Our disagreement escalated, and I restated my position for the 15th time — which in my books is five times too many. Meaning that I’m totally cool with repeating myself 10 times. I then left her alone to catch her bearings, reflect on her behaviors and either get herself bathed and organized so we could go to camp, or to stay at home and pout. Her choice. Her decision. She eventually conceded and drew herself a bath, but, Oh.The.Drama!
Ten or 15 minutes later I came upstairs to brush her hair. She had settled down, but of course there were hurt feelings that need to be addressed and remedied. “I’m sorry, Momma,” she said as she ran to embrace me, tears streaming down her face. “Sorry for what?” I asked, gently stroking her hair. “For having a long tantrum.” “I love you and I’m sorry for raising my voice,” I replied. And then I asked her why she didn’t want to take a bath. She calmly told me, and I reassured her that her reasons were valid and fine. And then I explained my reasons — not my expectations.
Once it was established that we understood one another, I told her that with respect to tantrums she is never going to win with me. Her eyes grew wide. “Never, Mommy?” she asked incredulously. “No, never” I told her. And here’s why: “Negative outbursts are counterproductive and just make everyone feel lousy and upset. You have every right to get angry and upset and cry but when things don’t happen the way you want them to, there shouldn’t be a body count. In other words, we all shouldn’t have to stop having a great day simply because you are feeling and acting miserably. We have to figure out better ways to voice our displeasure about the things we feel we don’t want to do without all this resulting hysteria.” “Okay, mommy,” she nodded in agreement. “Okay, sweetheart,” I told her and we hugged it out again.
The above exchange is a result of my learning how to loosen my Parenting Expectations. You know what I’m talking about. The story goes a little something like this: Your child, or someone’s child you know, “misbehaves,” or is perceived to be reacting poorly to your discipline and you, the parent/adult taking the role of disciplinarian in hand, reprimands the child with the expectation that your child — or that child whom you perceive to be “similar” to yours in age and background — will react to your discipline by behaving exactly the way you want them to at that precise moment and in the future. This expectation is based on a preconceived — and widely accepted — notion that because parents set the rules, and not the child, children should behave according to parental rules, while simultaneously living up to the (false) expectations of parents or adults in charge of their care.
Again, if we look for “the rules” which are embedded in the child — I firmly believe that children teach us how to care for them — we’ll better understand the emotional needs of our children without pressuring them to behave according to our false expectations about situations they truly don’t understand. Put another way, expectations lead to failure — a failure (and a breakdown) of communication, a failure (and a breakdown) of trust, a failure (and a breakdown) of understanding and a failure (and a breakdown) of compatibility.
Now go and grab your dog-eared copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting, the “bible of American Pregnancy,” and tell me that you didn’t self-flagellate because you couldn’t breastfeed, or you gained “too much” or “not enough” weight, or your emotions and symptoms didn’t match the prescribed month, or, or, or. After all, “14 million” can’t be wrong, it must be you.
(photo: wavebreakmedia ltd/Shutterstock.com)