follow url By Chip DeLorenzo, M.Ed.
This weekend I walked to the back of my house to get our garden hose to do some work on the front of the house. I wanted to wash down an entry way that had accumulated some spider webs and mildew. I had been meaning to do it for a few months, but just hadn’t gotten around to it. My wife and three of our four children were visiting some friends and I had a little time, so I decided to take care of it. When I got to the hose, I realized that the plastic tip that controls the water flow had been unscrewed and taken off. I had just purchased the nozzle this spring. It was the expensive one. After 10 years of using the same cheap plastic nozzle, and suffering through the constant leakage, I finally broke down and bought a new nozzle. It was the expensive one! It sprayed beautifully, with absolutely no leakage. I remember using it this summer and thinking proudly, “You get what you pay for. This thing is incredible!” Upon finding the tip missing, all that I could imagine is the kids, sitting in our backyard spraying each other, and one of them deciding to unscrew the tip, for some unknown reason. The unknown reason was probably as simple as, because it unscrews! I was furious. I wanted blood. It was the expensive one! Unfortunately, no one was home, so my retaliation would have to wait.
I used the nozzle the way it was, and took care of my project. The nozzle worked OK, but I couldn’t help but imagine how much nicer it would have gone if the nozzle had the tip. Each time I noticed the nozzle tip missing, I would think of how I was going to turn this into a life lesson that would forever turn my children into cherubs, who would always honor someone else’s property (namely mine) and treat it with the highest regard. The methods that ran through my head were strategies like making them scour the yard until dark (then they would take a dinner break and return with flashlights), withholding all allowances until a new nozzle could be purchased (mass punishment), or conducting a family interrogation (with plenty of finger pointing, and potentially some tears). Of course, there might need to be some yelling, because we all know that children don’t listen unless we yell at them, right?
Well, let me tell you the rest of the story. I finished washing the entry way. It took me about 20 minutes, and I was left wondering why I had put if off for so long (that’s another article). I was still not happy about the nozzle, but I was feeling good that a long overdue project was done. I then took care of a couple of other things on my list and went about my day. By the end of the day, I had almost forgotten about the missing nozzle tip. It was no longer a major issue. The rest of my family came home, and the nozzle tip incident was now in perspective. Before dinner I remembered the nozzle, and asked the kids if anyone had seen it. My 4 year old daughter said, “Yes, its in the dirt by the rocks under the deck.” I couldn’t help but laugh. No mass punishment, no interrogation, no withholding allowance, and no yelling.
Don’t just do something, sit there!
In the moment, things seem so big. It sounds funny now, but I was really angry about that nozzle. I’m sure you can identify with that feeling. Something so small, seems so big at the time. That last phrase is they key: at the time.
Had my family been home when I found the nozzle tip missing, I would have acted on the anger I was feeling at the time. In the moment, I wanted them there so I could “take care of the situation.” Most likely I would have yelled. Now, yelling to me doesn’t always mean I raise my voice. My children feel like they’ve been yelled at when I don’t raise my voice, if my tone is angry or accusatory. When I yell, everyone loses. The kids feel worse – blamed, disconnected, ashamed, angry, rebellions, etc. I feel worse – guilty, ashamed, hopeless, etc. When we feel worse, we do worse. That’s the problem.
Most of the time when parents yell at their kids they are trying to make things unpleasant so that the kids don’t do “it” again. But, it doesn’t work. Not long-term, anyway. Instead of inviting cooperation, problem solving and respect, yelling actually invites rebellion, revenge, passivity and dependence. When we misbehave, we invite misbehavior from our children.
A friend of mine once said, “The confused mind does nothing.” I think this is true sometimes, but in parenting situations, we don’t see ourselves as having the option to do nothing. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have the option to do nothing. It just means that it’s our perception that we don’t have that option. We worry that doing nothing will be interpreted as permission to do the wrong thing. We worry what other people might think of our parenting. We think we must do something in order to teach our children how to be behave respectfully.
When I am angry, doing nothing, in the moment, is a lot better than doing something. That doesn’t mean that the situation shouldn’t be addressed later, but when I am feeling stress, letting go in the moment allows me to regain perception and address the situation with dignity and respect. And generally, when I am angry and am tempted to yell, it’s my perception that is the real problem.
Doing nothing, takes practice. But, I think you will find, that as you learn to step back when you are tempted to jump in, you’ll have a much greater chance of success in inviting the cooperation you seek. Here are three strategies to employ doing nothing:
Watch and wait. With younger children, ages 3-10, take a few moments to observe before jumping in to correct your child when you see them behaving in a way that is concerning to you. See if they self-correct, or just move onto something else. Sometimes your presence will prompt them to make a different decision. Sometimes you will find that they will self-assess and make a different choice (a great way to learn to trust your child’s decision making).
Take a time out. Parents often send their children to time out when it’s the adult who really needs the time out. The next time you are angry (see above nozzle episode), take some time to yourself and resolve to readdress the situation when you have more perspective. If the situation needs your immediate attention, be honest with you child about your feelings, and let them know that you are too upset to talk about the problem right then, but that you would like to talk to them later, when you are calm. This is a terrific way to model self-regulation.
Let it go. Not every situation needs to be addressed. Ask yourself, does it really matter, in the big scheme of things? Sometimes doing nothing might be better than the alternative.
Until next time…
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