“They’re just grabbing another gear.” That’s what Steve calls it. What he’s referring to are the moments when Robbie or Maddie’s behavior remind us they are in fact human beings with free will. But these “unexpected” moments always take us by surprise.
In grad school, long before I had children of my own, I “specialized” in childhood and adolescence. I read a lot of books and tried to glean knowledge from leaders in the field. Shortly after I became a therapist, I gave a talk to a group of parents and teachers and was introduced as a “parenting expert.”
I laugh out loud about that label now. What were they THINKING? Even now, with 2 kids of my own, I am still light years away from being an expert…At ANYTHING.
At some level, I suppose I DO expect some level of expertise from myself. That’s probably why I’m so surprised when my children don’t have textbook responses to my “carefully crafted parenting plan.”
For instance, the other day, when it was time to leave the park, I prepared the kids for our departure with my usual statement, “5 more minutes to play! Choose one more thing to do.”
Then, about 4 minutes later, I cheerfully announced, “1 minute left!”
Much to my surprise, Robbie threw a stick, narrowly missing another kid and loudly barked back, “Mommy! UGH! STOP IT!!”
I was SHOCKED. That’s not the way this exchange was supposed to go.
And that’s the crux of my problem. Apparently, I expect my “carefully crafted parenting plan” to produce the same results each time. But I’m not raising robots. I’m raising PEOPLE. And the gift of “free will” is alive and active in them!
The problem is, their “free will” triggers some discomfort in me.
Shame – “The other moms are probably thinking I’m terrible at this.”
Helplessness – “Ohmygosh! What am I supposed to do NOW?”
So, feeling shameful and helpless, I firmly gripped Robbie’s hand and said in a deep and serious tone, “We are LEAVING.”
He begrudgingly followed. (I say begrudgingly because it seemed his head and body had lost their structure as he limply wobbled all the way to the car)
Once we were all buckled in, I whipped around in my seat to look at Robbie.
Because I was attempting to regain control, I implemented 3 ineffective strategies:
1st – Demanding a logical response. “What WAS that? What would POSESS you to BEHAVE that way?”
The result – “I don’t know.”
2nd – Guilt – “Mommy does a lot of nice things for you, Robbie. And I don’t deserve to be treated that way.”
The result – Silence. Head hanging.
3rd – Threats “Well, if you EVER do that again, we are not coming back to the park.”
The result – Tears.
Ok. So it wasn’t my finest moment. After driving in silence for a few minutes, I realized that because Robbie’s behavior had triggered uncomfortable emotions in me, I had quickly and desperately tried to re-assert my authority.
Why didn’t that go well?
Because I wasn’t anchored in the truth.
And here is the truth:I AM Robbie and Maddie’s MOM.
No need to prove or reassert that.
Nothing is going to change that.
I love them.
They love me.
But sometimes, they will behave in ways which prove that human beings have free will and are far from perfect. And when that happens, I have a choice. I can either breathe and recognize their behavior for what it is (experimenting with free will, testing) OR…I can panic. At the park, I panicked.
When we got home, I tucked Maddie in for her nap and sat down with Robbie. I threw away my useless strategies of “demanding logic, guilt, and threats” and tried better ones.
1st – Restating our values – “Robbie – when you spoke to me in that harsh tone at the park, it hurt my heart. In our family, we want to treat each other with kindness and respect.”
2nd – Stating what I expect “If you’re feeling upset, you can share that with me. But yelling and throwing is never acceptable.”
3rd – Boundary setting – “When you choose to behave in ways that aren’t appropriate, there will be consequences because I am your mom. And God has given me the responsibility to teach you and guide you.”
4th – Expressing unconditional love – “I want you to know – there is nothing you could ever do to make me not love you. You made a mistake. You’re learning. And I’m proud you’re my son.”
I admit, that conversation went over better than the first one.
SO, if you see me in the park and one of my kids is “exercising their free will,” please remind me to breathe…because there’s a CHANCE I’m about to implement some pretty useless parenting strategies.