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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Parenting: Don't Take it Personally

            I want to reassure you right now that your kids are not out to get you. Probably. Unless you have a Stewie or a Bart, but that’s unlikely since your kids always last more than a half an hour and don’t stop for commercial breaks. They may never stop for breaks of any kind. And you may feel that you never get a break, and I absolutely know what that feels like. In addition to my own kids, I also teach three preschool classes for four hours Monday through Thursday. There are ten children in each class, all under the age of five. Believe me, I know exactly how crazy kids can get.
            Occasionally I will be asked for parenting advice by a friend who is experiencing her first pregnancy. Or second. Or third. But by that time, they’re asking me how to survive doing this again. I actually have solid advice! The first thing I want you to know is this: parenting. Don’t take it personally. I mean it. We make the mistake so often of thinking that our children are doing these things to us, when for them we don’t figure into the equation at all. They aren’t being disobedient because they don’t love us or don’t respect us, they’re being disobedient because whatever it is that they want to has absorbed their whole attention.
            Nobody can make us angrier than the people we love most. Have you ever stopped to wonder why that is? If we love them so much why does it take less than a minute for us to be infuriated? Because everything is personal. We read so much into the actions of our loved ones and interpret them through the filter of our relationship to them, and so small actions become charged with meaning. Let’s use the example of a child being told to clean their room. They don’t want to clean their room, they want to play with the cool new toy. Mommy comes back and nothing has been picked up, and she gets a little angry. Why is my child ignoring me? The underlying question there is, Why aren’t I more important to my child? So the child is told again to clean their room. The child may think, why is mommy pestering me when all I want to do is play with this toy? Is my room being clean more important to her than I am?
            And suddenly there’s a fight. Mom is yelling because child didn’t listen and mom feels unappreciated and unimportant, child is hurt and angry because mom is placing more value on the room being clean than the child’s happiness. This is what I mean about not taking it personally. We get angry when we are hurt or scared, and no one can hurt us or scare us as much as people we love desperately. But these types of communications aren’t about us, and we need to stop making them about us. Children aren’t disobeying to be defiant, they’re saving that for when their teenagers. And even then, it’s best to assume they’re just being teenagers and trying to figure everything out, not trying to hurt us personally.
            After almost every preschool class at least one of the mothers will ask me some variation of, “How do you do it?” I tell them I don’t take it personally. When a child breaks the rules in class, it’s the rule they’re breaking, not me. They have made the choice to go to time out, and all I do is enforce the rules. And I explain that isn’t personal either: this was the choice they made and I am obligated to follow through with the consequences. It’s amazing how much better our relationship is from student to teacher when if things go bad, neither of us feel personally attacked or unloved.
            I wish it always worked. Sometimes it’s SO HARD to be objective and calm. I am a firm believer in time out, both for them and for me, because sometimes it’s me who needs to walk away. I need a moment of quiet, calm breathing to think rationally and not just react. Which is the next advice: act, don’t react. Reaction is that knee jerk gut punching first instinct when something goes wrong. It’s the screaming when the egg gets dropped and the urge to strike out when the crystal vase heirloom gets broken. This piece of advice evolved into a personal rule, which is this. In all capitals, NEVER PUNISH WHEN YOU ARE ANGRY. Send them to time out and walk away. Breathe, get perspective, come back and talk to your child about why that was wrong and what an appropriate punishment would be. If needed, send them to their room first to give yourself more time to calm down. Remember, you’re the grown-up here. Take however much time you need so you can act like it.
            And finally, be consistent. Children need to feel safe, they need boundaries and they need love. They need to know what to expect, because for them the world is still a new and scary place with monsters in the closet and strangers who might take them away and candy that could be poison. The best way to help them feel comfortable and have confidence is consistency. If going to time out is the punishment for playing in daddy’s office without permission, than it needs to be the same punishment every time. If they get a sticker every time they go in the potty, then it needs to be every time. We need to be the grown-ups they can count on, so that they know action A=consequence B and they can rely on that.
            We will fail, just so you know. All of us. Both my sons are in school now, and I’m just getting a handle on this with them. I feel like I’m holding onto the edge of the parenting precipice with my fingertips now instead of just my nails. I am not consistently consistent, or perfectly objective (but I do try and talk about it, as in “When you don’t listen to me, it makes me feel like I’m not important to you. Is that what you were trying to say?”) and I still scream “GO TO TIME OUT!!” with fire and spittle once in a while. But I’m trying.
            More than anything else, parenting is about loving your children. Whether you’re with them all the time or only from dinner to bedtime, they can tell how you feel about them. They don’t need perfect homes or even always clean ones (I gave up wanting a totally clean house years ago in order to preserve my sanity). They want a place to feel safe with people who love them. If you can give them that, you’re doing great. Everything else is practice. And patience. And for the love of your sanity, take a break once in while. Maybe watch some TV and be glad those aren’t your kids. 
           What about you? What are your best pieces of parenting advice?