I am a big believer in guiding my children to the place where they do things because they want to, not because I want them to. If you read my post referring to Dr Gordon Neufeld’s approach on inviting dependence in order to encourage independence (read about it here), you’ll get a little window into why I believe this to be so. That been said, there are some situations where I can’t wait around for my children to want to do certain things for themselves, that just isn’t practical or in their best interests. When these situations arise I become the mother who says “I know you don’t want to, but this is one of those times where I get to decide how this is going to go.”
As you well know from your own experience, this usually doesn’t fly very well with children, especially when it involves something deemed by them to be unpleasant. In our family the following scenarios qualify: Going to the dentist, going to school when you don’t feel like it or in my present situation, attending swimming lessons because Mom says you have to.
My girls can swim. They have attended lessons on and off for a few years, but never consistently. I know this situation has been created (partly/mostly) by me because I have tried to avoid the conflict and the upset evoked by the words ‘swimming lessons’. We live in Canada and at best we can ‘go jump in the lake’ for two months of the year! Swimming is not that high on the priority list, but it should be. I made excuses like the climate for the longest time and for a while I even had myself believing me! I recently looked up and noticed that my children are growing older, but I hadn’t really seen it. That can happen when you are just trying to make it through one day at a time. You know what I mean? So, being older, my daughters are starting to do more things without me right by their side and that startling reality check made me aware that I won’t always be around to keep them safe. This means that it is my parental responsibility to prepare them (as best as I can) to keep themselves safe when I am not around.
Fast forward to today. I made the announcement with all the enthusiasm that I could muster, that tonight we were going swimming. I then tried to slide in the fact that it would be a swimming lesson (and kind of held my breath) hoping that neither child would notice the last part. Who was I trying to kid? The very reaction that I had anticipated followed…and it wasn’t pretty. Both my girls launched into a litany of reasons why they didn’t want to, why they didn’t have to and then the grand finale, we’re not going go. Huh!
Now this sort of stalemate could end in a few different ways. I know this from experience. I could dig in my heels and pull the trump card and say “You don’t have a choice, you are going!” and then deal with the fall out of that. (Nasty repercussions, but I’ll get into that in another post, another day). I could bow down and go the “You win, we’re not going to go because this upsets you too much.” (As if that would ever happen.) Or , my personal favourite, the choice that appeals to me and has the best outcome, a sort of straddling of the two aforementioned options. A calm, but firm response, “I know this is hard for you and you don’t want to go. I fully expect that you are going to be really mad at me and I get that…BUT this is one of those things that you don’t have a say in, this is something I get to decide.” And then I wait for the backlash, it’s gonna come so why not be ready for it? I breathe, I don’t say too much else. I don’t give my reasons, I don’t try and change their minds. I ride the wave for as long as it takes for them to come out on the other side. (More on what that looks like a little later.)
You may wonder why this noisy, messy option is my preferred route. It is because I have found this to be the only way for me to go. I didn’t discover it on my own, I needed the wisdom of Dr Gordon Neufeld to help me to understand what was needed in order to get my children to the other side of something they didn’t want to, but had to, do. As some of you may already know, Dr Neufeld is a world renown psychologist. So are many other people, but he is different to most of the pack. He is a developmental psychologist and his approach is rooted in attachment. He focuses on growing children up within the relationship rather than trying to manipulate them to comply, and thereby risk sabotaging the relationship. As a student of his I have learnt so many things, but my focus today is on what I now understand about my children’s brain function what happens to it in a situation like this. In summary, they don’t want to, but they have to. In this instance the outcome is non-negotiable. This is one of the things in life where there is no alternative on offer and they need to adapt to it. I now understand that there is a way of getting them there and it doesn’t involve punishment or rewards like I once assumed it would have to.
Dr Neufeld’s explanation, in my words, is this. In order for human’s to adapt, the brain needs to feel the futility of what cannot be changed. Futility refers to that sinking feeling you get when you realise that this is it and there is nothing that you can do to change it. In a sense it is that hitting rock bottom feeling, but it has a purpose and has a good outcome…in the long run.
Most times, futility registering in children comes in the form of physical tears, and my job is to invite those tears and make room for them. No trying to stop them because they make me feel like a mean mom, no trying to change the situation so that the child feels better, no apologising for what is. Let me tell you this is not easy to do. If you think the child is having a hard time crying, try being the parent who ‘caused’ the tears in the first place. Having to watch them roll and not jumping in and trying to stop them, is not for the fainthearted. The only thing that keeps me going in moments like these is the knowledge of what is on the other side for my children.
I have learnt how to gently ‘hold my no’, to keep them in that uncomfortable place of feeling the sadness of what they cannot change. I do this with my words ‘This is hard for you, I can see you are upset’ and my posture, keeping it soft as a comforter, rather than rigid like the bad guy. My children have learnt that this is how I ‘do’ these situations. What they don’t know is that it requires nerves of steel to pull it off. It is hard on me too, but I can’t let that out. Going in I prepare myself by accepting that this is likely to get ugly. I know I am going to feel bad, I am going to feel horrible. I pick my moment to present the futility carefully and I always make sure that we are at home (or in a moving car) where no one but me gets to experience the outburst. It pretty much goes like this: I make the announcement, they don’t like it, they get upset, I make room for the upset, they have their tears, I share their sadness, we give it some time, we go to swimming.
That’s where I’ll leave it for today. Much for you to ponder. My next post will be a follow up on what happened when we had to leave the house and head to the pool. I’m looking forward to sharing it already…
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