I see you over there, avoiding playdates, avoiding Facebook (or staying up late reading Facebook like a punishment, because you think you deserve to feel bad about yourself). I see you at the grocery store with the tantruming 3-year old, trying not to cry or scream or completely lose it yourself. I see you at the high school, hurrying by to meet with the guidance counselor yet again. I know that you dread family gatherings where people will give you advice you didn’t ask for and don’t need.
I know your baby’s birth didn’t go the way you hoped and you think it’s your fault.
I know your child will only eat buttered noodles (straight, not curly) and you think it’s your fault.
I know the teacher keeps calling you for conferences and you think it’s your fault.
I know your teenager is depressed and you think it’s your fault.
You know what? It’s not your fault.
I don’t want you to beat up on yourself anymore.
So much of this parenting thing is out of control, which is one of the scariest things ever. That’s why we give ourselves (and each other) such a hard time over it. It feels safer to say, “This is a direct result of that!” instead of acknowledging that in so many ways kids are exactly who they are no matter what we try to do about it.
One of us follows the book to a T and our 6-month old sleeps through the night. One of us follow that same book the same way and yet we’re going on a year without more than two unbroken hours of sleep a night.
I’ve got a secret for you. Are you ready? This insight comes from decades of working with other people’s kids and reading about child development and having my own kids. It’s hard won wisdom and I’m going to share it with you:
Some children really are easier than others.
Some go to sleep more easily and eat a wider variety of foods. Some handle their emotions better. Some are naturally neat and clean and sweet and even-tempered.
Some parents just get lucky.
Then there’s this other thing, which is that life happens. Bad things happen and hard things happen and sad things happen and parents lose their way sometimes. We all lose our way sometimes.
There’s not a parent alive who hasn’t made mistakes but that’s not the same thing as being a bad mom. Making mistakes doesn’t mean that this is all your fault. Making mistakes doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job.
You know the best way to handle mistakes? Try again. Get help if you need it and try again. Try it differently. Try it with more support. Try it with better information or better friends or better tools. And you know what’ll be great about that? Your kids will learn that mistakes are inevitable but we can do something about it. They’ll learn that taking responsibility is not the same thing as succumbing to blame and shame.
When we can do that, that’s called resiliency. Really when it comes right down to it the best thing we can do for any of our kids is teach them how to be resilient, teach them to survive the hard stuff, even when the hard stuff is us.
Here are two things that everyone everywhere needs to know about everyone else:
- People do the best they can with what they know.
- All behavior makes sense when viewed in context.
This is true for ourselves and our friends and family and definitely for our kids.
Knowing this about each other can make it easier to understand — if not approve — of other people’s choices. Likely if we could stand in their shoes at just the right moment, that thing they just did that we think looks like a very bad idea would make perfect sense.
Take Amelia Bedelia. Now when I was a kid, I could not stand Amelia Bedelia because she was so silly. Amelia Bedelia, in case you did not know, is a fictional maid in picture books who is forever doing dumb things like putting raw chicken in baby clothes (because her employee asked her to “dress the chicken”) or putting sponges in cake (because her employee requested a “sponge cake”). But Amelia Bedelia is certainly doing the best she can and if you stood in her shoes — shoes that are on the feet of someone extremely literal — her choices would all make perfect sense.
Kids can be a lot like Amelia Bedelia (grown ups can be, too, but let’s stick with kids here because I’m filing this entry under the “parenting” category). They can do something that we can clearly see is a very bad idea and we can say to them, “Why did you do this?” And kids say, “I don’t know.” Because they don’t know; it just made sense when they did it. That’s why they lose their homework and hit their baby siblings and eat the last cupcake that didn’t belong to them and watch television instead of picking up their toys. It made perfect sense at the time.
If you assumed your child really was doing the best she could at the time — even if at the time she was leaving her lunchbox at school — how might that change how you consider and deal with the problem? Might you think about the last time you left your cell phone at work or left your wallet on the kitchen table? These things happen when we’re overwhelmed or under slept or chatting with friends while we pack up to leave. We do the best we can and then sometimes we have to deal with the consequences when the best we can do isn’t so great.
What about your child who hits his baby sister every time your back is turned? What if you thought about the problem with the belief that he’s doing the best he can with what he knows. What does he need to know? In what way does his behavior make sense to him? I’m not talking about letting him off the hook but when we understand what’s going on our interventions are more likely to work. Maybe he needs more supervision. Maybe he needs help with emotional regulation. Maybe he’s imitating his big brother.
Assuming there’s a reason behind behavior — even if it’s a lousy reason — gives us tools to solve real problems.
One of my children really liked to make messes when she was small. You take a kid who is curious, who is sensory seeking and who is creative and you get a lot of messes. (Many of you are nodding and sighing and wringing out a sponge ready to clean up your own child’s brand new mess.) This child of mine used to find new and unusual ways to make already messy things even messier. She used to find a particularly sticky or wet or ooky thing and she had to take it to the next level, wondering how it felt or how it smelled or how it might look over here instead of over there or what might happen if she dipped a stuffed animal into it.
Now I have to give her some credit because even when she was small she would clean up her messes with the caveat that first she had to realize that they were messes. If she didn’t realize it then I would find it eventually and she was generally amenable to being handed a sponge and being told to go to work. Most of the time I could be pretty calm about it. I understood how it was for her — she often didn’t realize that the mess has begun until it was already pretty crazy. At the first part she would be in the moment. She would be humming and swishing her hands through the soapsuds for quite some time before she realized that the soapsuds have spilled out of the sink onto the book she brought into the bathroom with her or that the water was running out of the sink onto her shoes. She was very in that moment, focused, experiencing the mess. And when she did realize it, she was often dismayed. She did not want to be that messy girl all the time. She didn’t like having to come tell me what happened so I could help her figure out how to clean it up.
My way of dealing with it was to emphasize how responsible she was even before she knew what responsible was. So when I came into her bedroom and saw that she’d found a stray bottle of black tempera paint and that her resulting art projects had gotten out of control I would say, in a calm (but certainly sometimes simmering) voice, “I know you are a responsible person so I expect you to take responsibility for this.”
And she would as much as she could and I would help her the rest of the way.
Eventually when she spilled her soup after deciding to fix herself a little snack she would say, “Don’t worry, Mommy, I’m responsible. I’ll take care of it.”
I was thinking about this because we sometimes have to fight not to give a messy child a negative self concept because she happens to be a messy person. It’s hard, I know, because I’ve been there.
When things were NOT messy, I would sometimes talk about what a creative, curious person my messy child was (and remains) and how sometimes this makes for messes and then I would add, “But you are so responsible, you always clean them up. Even if you whine a little first, you take responsibility for it and you take care of it.”
Jean Luc Picard has faith that the messes will lessen. Trust him.
I said this before it was true. I said this when the only reason she took responsibility was because I stood over her and coached her through it. I said this even when her efforts made things worse as she toddled behind me imitating me cleaning it up. I said it to make it true. My husband and I gave her that self concept, “You are responsible” and we are still giving it to her because we are like Picard, we are saying, “Make it so.”
The other thing I would do is tell her that it’s OK to be a little kid and to be messy. I would say, “Yes, you are having trouble with X but that’s because you are X age and kids who are X age are learning about that.” So when my child was lamenting her propensity for messes, I would say, “You make messes because you are learning. You will get bigger and you will make fewer messes. Besides it doesn’t matter as long as you take responsibility for your messes, which you do.”
I’m not trying to pretend that I didn’t tear out my hair or stomp around or holler because I did those things, too; after all I’m human. When I saw yet another roll of toilet paper ruined or another bar of soap squished into wet oblivion I sometimes did not behave with an iota of grace or patience. But we worked on it together and I trusted that if I said it often enough and gave her the tools, she would get better. And happily she has. She’s still creative and she’s still messy but she’s also independently responsible about cleaning things up 99% (ok, maybe 96%) of the time.
So these are my parenting tips for loving our messy kids: Act like Picard (“Make it so”) and give them a little perspective (“It’s normal to do XYZ but my job is to help you grow out of it”). Not necessarily in that order.
When our kids are driving us crazy it’s easy to get locked into negativity. They’re being terrible, we’re trying to get them to quit being terrible, which often causes us to also act terribly and then we’re all being terrible with and at each other and that’s where many people are by the time they land in my office.
When this happens, one of the best things parents can do is to look for times their kids are being good and then praise the heck out of them. (Even if they’re not being all that good.)
To explain how this works, let’s use Goofus (as in Goofus and Gallant) as our example. Do you remember them? They’re from Highlights Magazine and Gallant does all the good stuff and Goofus is just plain rotten. (As a kid I didn’t really like either of them because Gallant was so good he made the rest of us look bad and Goofus seemed like the kind of boy I wanted to avoid during recess.)
For absolutely understandable reasons, Goofus’s parents are likely pretty sick of parenting him. Per Highlights:
- Goofus barrels through people in the way and bosses them around.
- Goofus is rude when responding to others’ ideas.
- Goofus uses his book with dirty hands.
- Goofus berates the bus when he misses it.
- Goofus yells when he can’t get what he wants.
- Goofus takes the last apple.
Man, Goofus, seriously. GET. IT. TOGETHER.
What all this means is that Goofus’s parents probably sound like this all of the time:
- Watch where you’re going!
- We do not talk that way in this family!
- Stop touching that!
- What is wrong with you?!?
- Go to your room!
- Put that back!
Given his track record, it’s no wonder Goofus’s parents are always steeling themselves for yet another Goofus screw up. They’re behind him before he’s done anything wrong saying, “Careful! Watch it! You better clean that up when you’re finished!” and he’s got it in his head that he’s a lousy person, someone who does mess up all of the time so why even bother?
Seeing as we’re the ones with fully developed frontal lobes, it’s up to us parents to disrupt the pattern. Goofus’s parents are the ones who have to help themselves (and help Goofus) see him as someone who can and will do better. And often this starts with finding ways to say, “Good job!”
When Goofus grabs his book with dirty hands his parents could ignore the urge to tell him to go wash up and instead say, “Goofus, you are such a great reader!” (Unless the book is a priceless edition or belongs to someone else, it can always be replaced so ignore the grubbiness for the sake of paradigm changing.)
Of course some things demand intervention — safety issues, for example. Parents can’t ignore it when Goofus (per one Highlights example) brings glass into the pool area but because they’ve learned to let go of things like dirty hands on books, Goofus is more likely to listen. First they can say, “I love the way you pay attention to your thirst signals, Goofus! That’s a smart thing to do in hot weather” before adding, “But let’s get a plastic cup to be sure you stay safe.”
Some days it’s a lot harder because some days Goofus is probably even more awful than usual. On those days, parents can and should find any little way to praise him. Even if it’s just, “I really appreciate the way you walked across the room there, buddy, without bopping your brother on the head.”
Goofus’s parents need to start looking for the good in him and pointing it out so that Goofus can start finding the good in himself. This can be really hard to do if you’re locked on molding your kid to be more like Gallant — it can feel like you’re allowing mayhem into your home if you’re not offering lots of correction. But you know that “be the change you want to see” quote? You need to SEE the change you want your kid to be before it ever happens.
Trust me, most kids know when they’re being rotten and they would like to find another way to be but they either don’t know how, or feel stuck in the immediate gratification or they think that’s the best way to get their parents to put all eyes on them.
Goofus’s parents need to see it for him. They need to ignore the filthy socks on the floor and instead say, “Thanks for changing your socks everyday.” They need to download one of those “100 Ways to Say Good Job” posters and memorize it so they have a whole bunch of phrases at the ready.
Now this is not empty praise; it’s finding new things to praise. It’s changing the atmosphere between parent and child and finding new ways to interact. It takes time to create a new way to be and it can be scary. It can feel downright neglectful not to call your kid out whenever he does something wrong so it’s important that both parents get in on the plan and have a clear idea about what’s non-negotiable (safety) and what they’re willing to ignore for the sake of building back a positive relationship.
For kids who are really entrenched, I think it makes sense to find a therapist. Many of the children I see who are acting out are struggling with other issues — anxiety, low self esteem, etc. It’s not fun to be Goofus, at least not all of the time.
Kids who self-injure tend to be particularly emotionally sensitive and vulnerable and suffer from what Dr. Hollander calls “emotional illiteracy.” They can’t name their feelings, let alone formulate a plan for managing and coping with them. Strategies that work with most kids, such as reassurance, minimizing the severity of difficulties, or offering to help them solve problems, can backfire with kids who self-injure.
When my son was about two and half I no longer knew how to parent him. He went from toddling baby I knew and adored to a stomping, glaring preschooler I didn’t understand. My tried and true techniques quit working and more than once I carried his screaming self out of the store, the library and away from the park completely baffled by his behavior. I felt guilty for his behavior, I felt guilty because I didn’t know how to quit triggering his anger and I really felt guilty because I sure wasn’t liking him much.
It seemed like neither of us could do anything right.
“I’m a terrible parent,” I cried to my husband. “I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m ruining him.”
It was my first lesson in how developmental stages could hit both of us. I knew he was going to grow and change but I didn’t understand that I would have to grow and change with him. It was only when I was commiserating (i.e., crying on the phone) with a friend whose daughter was exactly one month younger that I realized that I’d become stagnant. I was still trying to parent a toddler and he was trying to grow into a kid.
Parenting is anything but stationary. Our kids are growing all of the time and sometimes it takes a crisis in the relationship for us to realize that it’s time to change things up. We can’t parent a preschooler like a toddler; we can’t parent a teen like a tween. Those parenting plateaus — where kids and parents are perfectly in sync — are temporary. They grow, we grow and then we all have to readjust to each other.
I have found in my own life and in the lives of the families I see that the greatest push-pull comes when kids are edging to greater independence and parents haven’t caught up with this new scenario. There are predictable developmental windows when it’s easy to lose track of each other — when toddlers learn that they’re separate from their parents; when teens start looking to peers instead of mom or dad. But it can happen in less volatile times, too. Maybe a child wants the training wheels off or wants to choose their own clothes or wants to be left alone with a project. What was welcomed as attentive parenting one day is all of a sudden perceived as overbearing and we don’t even know when we crossed the line.
I tell this story a lot so you may have heard it but right around this same time when my son and I were first knocking heads he got furious with me because I didn’t remember his dream. He was trying to tell me about it at breakfast and he was so angry that I couldn’t remember it for him. For me, that sums up those trying toddler-preschooler times; he wanted me to psychically keep track of his inner thoughts and feelings but he sure didn’t want to hold my hand when we were crossing the street. No wonder I was confused, right? This stuff is confusing.
It’s painful to grow up (and not just for kids). It’s hard to make sense of these mixed messages — the 13-year old who mouths off and rolls her eyes then tries to climb onto your lap, the teen who won’t let you into his room but who wants to tell you the entire plot of Homestuck and exactly what he thinks of it. How are we supposed to know?
The answer is that we can’t know until we run into that brick wall and realize that our parenting needs updating. Conflict is a sign that things need to change. Sometimes what needs to change is our parental expectation and behavior. Sometimes it’s our kids who are dragging us to the next stage while we’re still trying to hammer away at the way things used to be.
It’s hard. It’s frustrating. And it is often painful.
That first time was the worst. I really thought I’d broken him and that chaos and conflict were going to be a permanent reality. But we did work it out. I changed up my expectations, I built in more opportunities for him to feel independent and suddenly my sunshine son was back, both of us happy to be with each other again.
And after that I could recognize when the landscape was starting to change and knew to rewrite my map. Acclimating to the new terrain got a lot easier once I knew what to look for.
One of my most favorite things to do is help stuck parents because I’ve been there (boy howdy) and I know how hard it is. Hit me up if you’d like some support.