Welcome back! We left off my previous post where I was preparing to take my girls to one of their least favourite activities…swimming lessons. If you haven’t yet read the events leading up to where we are starting from today, you can read all about it here .
I alerted both girls that we would need to leave the house within thirty minutes. I then went upstairs and followed up with the offer to help them to get their things together in preparation for going to the pool. Now, given the tears, upset and refusal to go which we had endured earlier in the day, it might seem a bit odd that I would go in and offer my help!
The thing is, as paradoxical as it probably sounds, my rising above what has already taken place is the true source of my natural power to parent them. How so, you are probably wondering? That doesn’t sound very logical at all! Aren’t you reinforcing their behaviour by being ‘nice’ to them? Shouldn’t you be trying to teach them a lesson and let them know that the way they reacted was unacceptable? Shouldn’t you take a firm, no nonsense, this doesn’t fly with me stance to ensure that they never try and get away with this sort of thing again? Well yes, definitely yes, to all of the above – if I still thought the way I once did…but now I no longer do. I see things differently now.
I have come to understand that by coming down hard on them (or worse still, giving them the silent treatment) I would be working against our relationship (more details to follow on another day). For now, all we need to know is that the most important thing we will ever have with our children is a ‘right relationship’. That means a deep relationship that we strive to preserve and protect above all else, no matter how messy the circumstances are. That been said, I should now explain that the biggest lesson to be learnt from ‘the swimming lesson debacle’ is to be learnt by me, and not by them. My lesson is this: I need to look past their outward behaviour and keep my focus on what is driving it. This way I stand a better chance of leading them through this unpleasant situation and we will get to the other side with our relationship intact. (Whew, quite a mouthful!)
Allow me to elaborate: The reaction my children had to my “You’re going to swimming lessons” announcement is a defensive reaction to the situation and I must not take it personally. Now that is a hard one to stomach, because in the moment it feels very personal…and pretty darn intentional too. It is however, neither of these. This is an instinctual reaction to feeling threatened by that which scares them, that which they cannot get out of …and I just happen to be the one who delivers the message and so I bear the brunt of it. (Bad luck for me!) This all happens in a split second, before their fear is even apparent to them. It is instinctive. That is why this situation goes so wrong, so very quickly. (I predict that some of you may be having a hard time with this, but stay with me here.)
Think about it this way – Same children, same mother, same announcement “We’re going to swimming lessons tonight!” If they loved swimming lessons, I would have come out smelling like roses. I would have been seen as the good guy (and who doesn’t want to be that?) BUT as it turns out, they don’t like swimming lessons. That isn’t of my making, it doesn’t really have anything to do with me BUT when they react explosively and I take it personally, I make it about me and I act from this place. (Huh, go figure, it isn’t always about me!) When I make it about me, I feel many things including disrespected, unappreciated, taken for granted…the list goes on. How do I react? I push back, I am furious and part of me actually feels like I have every right to be.
In the good old days, No – make that the bad old days – I might have launched into a defensive attack that may have gone something like this, “After all I do for you two, this is the thanks I get. Well, this is the last time I try and help you two to better yourselves. You are so inconsiderate. I have so many other things to do with my time and this is how you treat me when I am doing all this for you!” You get the picture…a little harsher than I would have gone in reality, but you get the picture, don’t you? That is how we think, and how we sound, and how we react when we make it all about us… when really it isn’t. Ouch, that hurts.
This parenting thing is so much bigger than many of us thought we had signed up for. It requires so much more from us than we had possibly imagined. Regrettably, there is no way of knowing just how difficult it will be until we are in the thick of it and we can’t see a way out. We panic, we start reacting defensively, and make it about our children, when really – this is more about us. We’re just like they are, only bigger and older and supposedly more mature. We have the very same reaction that they do when confronted with a scary situation – We get noisy, resistant and defensive. My children’s response to scary swimming lessons can be loosely be equated with how scary it is for me to do this whole parenting thing. I find myself scared shitless (can I say that here?) about messing them up. I see you nodding there! We feel so responsible for the way they are going to turn out and we are scared, we feel threatened, we react…often before we have had the time to think about just what we are reacting to. Hence we make many mountains out of molehills, we jump up and down about the small stuff and then it is when it is too late and we realize that the damage has been done, we feel even worse and are riddled with parental guilt. Do you see the similarities here – They feel threatened, they react. We feel threatened, we react. Different scenario, same reaction. You still with me here?
What we don’t often anticipate is that parenting will require us to do some of the growing up. We have to, so that we can help them to do the same. There are times, so many times, when I need to suck it up and rise above the messiness going on around me. (Don’t for a minute think that I don’t have much of what I wrote above spinning around in my head, because I do, but that is where it needs to stay. In MY head, not past my lips and into their heads, where it will stay forever and I can never get it back). This is part of being a responsible parent, and it isn’t easy to do. I need to keep my focus on what is driving their behaviour rather than being reactive to it. I anticipate it, I make room for it, and then I breathe, oh my, do I ever breathe! This awareness is what will help me to become the parent my girls need me to be.
There is more…and I have to add this piece in because it is a very important part of the process (and it might make me appear less like a trodden-all-over parent!). Don’t think that their apparent ‘rudeness and disrespectful behaviour’ is going to slide by me, never to be mentioned again. No,no – that wouldn’t be the way through for a responsible parent! (See, some times that title works in their favour and sometimes it works in mine!)
I’ll address their infraction once the incident is over, once tempers have dissipated and when we are no longer being driven by heated emotion. I’ll mention the circumstances that took place, and in the words of Dr Gordon Neufeld, will talk about it when we are in right relationship, during a time of warm contact and connection, when our attachment instincts are engaged and they are open to hearing what I have to say, then I’ll have my say. It may be in a day, or next week, but the time will come…
And when it does, I will acknowledge their frustration, their upset, their harsh words. I ‘ll give them the message that we all say things that we don’t mean when we are mad, that is just what people do. Being a a kid is hard sometimes (So is being a parent…but I’ll resist sharing that for now – Remember this isn’t all about me!) I’ll choose my words carefully and I won’t try to make them feel bad for what has taken place, because I believe that they already do. We all know when we have wronged another, we don’t need our mistakes to be paraded in front of us in order for us to learn from them.
I’ll be quick, just in and out, “That was hard for you when I told you that you were going to swimming lessons. I could tell that you were really mad with me and I get it. I probably called my mom a few of those things too when I was a kid.” That’s it. No lengthy lecture on what is right or wrong. No apology insisted upon. That will come one day when they are ready, and it will be heartfelt because when an apology comes from within, and not because it was demanded, it will be the real deal. That’s the sincere apology I’ll hold out for and it will be worth the wait. They will get there, that day will come. They’ll get older, they’ll get more adept at keeping it together when things aren’t going their way, they’ll say sorry when they feel it. That is the beauty of truly growing up, we can all get there if the conditions are conducive. That’s my job as a parent, I’ll provide the conditions. I’ll trust the process and I’ll let nature do the rest of the work. After all, everyone grows older, not everyone grows up…but it is never too late to start.
So, after that little behind the scenes detour, let me close with this happy ending. The swimming lessons turned out to be better than all three of us had anticipated. My girls chose to play in the pool for an extra hour after their lesson, and they had such a good time! Not bad for two girls who weren’t going to the pool, eh?
On the ride back home, a little voice piped up in the back of the car, “Mom, that was really fun! I didn’t think I would like it, but I actually did.” “Yes” agreed the little sister, “it wasn’t too bad.” Oooohhh I had to dig soooo deep to resist ruining the moment and making it all about me with a sharp tongued response along the lines of ” Ha! I told you so!” This wasn’t the time for a lesson. Harder still, I had to fight off my impulse to spontaneously burst into song at the top of my lungs singing the chorus from Disney’s ‘Tangled’ that goes something like “Mother knows Best!” because that would have just sucked the air right out of this wonderful day that had gone so wrong but had turned out so right.
PS. Before we had even arrived back home they had both asked to return for another swimming lesson next week. Between you and me, it would appear that this time, ‘Mmmmmmmmmother did know Bessssssst!’ and little do they realise, I have advanced booked them into lessons next week and the week after and the week after that. There are however, some things that I don’t need to mention…just yet.
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