This post began as a book recommendation, but there’s a story before you get there. I want to set up the scene because it’s crucial to have a feeling for the watershed moment that preceded me searching and finding this particular book. The realization that I needed a new playbook was almost as important as the book itself.
One of my daughters has a tendency to react dramatically and sometimes violently to things that I consider minor “stuff”. This book and its perspective helped me totally re-frame my perception of these situations and has greatly improved my ability to understand what was happening and indeed, to anticipate and constructively deal with these types of issues before they spin out of control.
What happened, you ask? I suspect it will sound all too familiar to many parents.
Right before Christmas we had a particularly startling example of this seemingly out-of-proportion reaction to a small thing, which because of my daughter’s reaction and then our subsequent actions, ballooned from a non-event into a huge deal and ultimately led to a breakthrough in our understanding of her perceptions and a significant change in my parenting approach.
Not kidding- this incident and the subsequent book that I found, changed my whole world-view dramatically.
Back to the incident. It’s morning, a few days before Christmas, and we have about an hour before we leave to drop the girls at Drama camp. Sofia asks if she can have her “computer time” (30 mins/day). I say yes. Sofia’s twin sister Audrey reminds me that last night, I said she could have her computer time first. Oh, that’s right, I say. You can go first. No big deal right? There’s an hour- so they’ll both get computer time and it’s a minor and logical change, right? Wrong.
Sofia goes bananas. I’ll save you the details, but by the end she has been throwing stuff, kicking, screaming, crying, and as a result has lost her “big” Christmas gift from under the tree and her computer time for today and tomorrow. My husband and I actually thought we’d handled it well- not raising our voices, staying in sync, escalating consequences slowly- the things that felt like success to us. Our parenting toolbox contained all the usual tools- boundaries, consequences, follow through, the belief that challenging behavior can’t be “given a pass”. We remained mystified about what caused this over the top outburst, but it wasn’t the first time, so we kind of wrote it off. (Note: we aren’t to the bad part yet.)
Later that same evening, Sofia gets in trouble at the dinner table. It goes something like this: She is not using correct table manners. Mom (me) gives a warning that one more incident of “x” behavior and your dinner goes in the sink. X behavior is promptly repeated. Dinner goes in the sink. No drama but action met with stated consequence.
Suddenly (again, seemingly out of the blue), Sofia goes into this horrible, sobbing meltdown. She runs from the room, throws herself on couch, buries her head in the cushions, and then jumps up and goes over to her desk and furiously writes something on a piece of paper. She comes over to me, still crying furiously and hands me a paper that says in HUGE letters:
I am stupid
I am stupid
I am stupid
I am stupid
I am stupid
That’s what I think.
And that’s what you think too.
My heart implodes. What? What? No, no, no, no, no! THAT IS NOT WHAT I THINK! I am completely shocked and horrified to see how my daughter is perceiving this situation. What I am seeing as “defiance” and pushing boundaries is obviously NOT what she is experiencing AT ALL.
I gather my sobbing daughter in my arms and start to say over and over again, oh sweetie you are not stupid (this is not a world that is EVER used in our house to describe people). Every time I say that, she just shouts that YES, I AM! I AM STUPID!
I am at such a loss. I can’t understand what is happening in this moment, but I know it’s bad and I know I have to get my arms around it, just as I have my arms around her.
In response to my question of what does stupid mean, she replies that it means I am MEAN and BAD, and I can tell by how she says it that she means that she thinks these things to the bone. Oh no, honey. You are not those things. You could NEVER be those things- even if you sometimes have bad behavior or behave meanly in the moment.
I think to myself, what have I done? Without realizing it, I have not handled this precious, sensitive, bright, funny, loving child with the care she deserved. By using the standard set of parenting tools, I have been badly off target. I have used a hammer when I should have used a…. what exactly, I’m not yet sure- but something a hell of a lot closer to a feather, I think. Something gentle. Something that recognizes the fragility of the contents.
After finally getting her calmed down and pouring my soul into reassuring her that she is not in any way, under any circumstances, in any universe- stupid. Never, never, never.
The next step is to look for a new fricking toolbox. The one I have is obviously totally ill-suited to the job.
The gods of reading have always been good to me. I have always been able to find the right book for the right moment. Whether a book to lose myself in, learn from, recommend, or take inspiration from- I have a gift for finding what I need, like a person with a divining rod in the desert.
So, in the oasis that is the Elliot Bay Book Company, I begin my search. After quickly reviewing and putting aside probably a dozen conventional parenting books (full of consequences, defiance, and power dynamics between parents and children), I discover a wonderful book. The Explosive Child, by Ross Greene.
Let me stop you right there- I hate the title. Not only does it turn me off to the book itself, but it makes you think it’s going to be about how your kid is a bomb- and bombs, as we all know, are bad. Nothing good has ever come from a bomb. But this book and the author’s philosophy couldn’t be further from that. If I could, I would rename it, “Handle With Care: How To Deal Gently With Children”.
Dr. Greene begins with this premise, “Kids do well if they can.” Those may be some of the most meaningful words about parenting that I have ever come across. Kids do well if they can. He asserts and begins from the concept that what is happening in situations like the one I described above, is that the child lacks the skills to cope with the situation. They are NOT being bad out of some kind of dominance play or desire to assert their power. This makes SO. MUCH. SENSE. I absolutely believe this and starting from this premise is so important to making positive changes.
Throughout the book, the author uses examples that are far more extreme than what we’ve experienced with our children. Our incidents, even the great “computer time” tempest that we just endured, though far milder than those mentioned in the book, share that same kernel- the difficulty coping with change or ambiguity, the incredibly emotional and dramatic outbursts, that feeling of “why is this happening?”
I won’t recap the full philosophy or techniques recommended in the book, except to say that we saw immediate improvement. That’s pretty amazing and I am so grateful that my literary diving rod again steered me true.
So, the main points of my story and experience are:
Parenting requires adaptation. The tools that you start with, that you grew up with, or that you “think” are the right ones may not be. Over time, you are almost certainly going to need to add some new ones to your toolbox. Don’t be afraid to do this. Not having these tools when you start is not a failure- how can we? But, not adding them, when it’s clear that the conventional set isn’t working, well- then you’re gonna have a bad time and that’s on you. I am learning that parenting is deeply humbling and that although you shouldn’t put your child ahead of your needs necessarily, you SHOULD absolutely but your child’s needs ahead of your ego. Big difference.
Kids, at times, will have a COMPLETELY different experience of an event from what you are experiencing. You have to be open to the fact that their experience of that event is as real and legitimate as yours. Probably more so. We adults have years of practice rationalizing and understanding things that seem scary or foreign or intimidating. It is a skill. Think back to watching scary movies as a kid and about how you cope with them now. I remember running out of the movie theater in terror while watching Gremlins of all things. True Story. Guess it’s no surprise that my daughter also struggles with the suspense and dramatic tension.
Seek help. This book, The Explosive Child, is a godsend for me. It has made an incredible difference, even in just the few short weeks since I picked it up. But, as good as it is, it may not work for you or resonate with you. If that’s the case- don’t sweat it. Keep looking. Keep talking with friends, teachers, and other parents. Our struggles seem so unique and sometimes so overwhelming and yet, just like child-rearing itself, these challenges have played out over and over again for hundreds, if not thousands of generations. Maybe the fight wasn’t over “computer time” but the difficulty coping with a change to plan or a delay- there’s nothing new in that. And the book covers many other scenarios- that’s just the one that’s foremost for us.
I have seen an incredible and immediate improvement in my parenting and in the relationship I have with both of our daughters, especially during times of stress. That’s not to say it’s “easy” now (guess, it’s time to give up on that notion!) or to say that we’ve even seen the worst of these challenges (I’m sure we haven’t). What I do know, is that every time I practice and use one of these new tools, I get better with it- and it’s more likely to be my go-to tool when something starts to go sideways.
Like many others, my greatest desire as a parent is to raise happy, healthy, confident, loving children. My greatest fear is that I’ll do more harm than good somehow, that despite all the love and my best intentions, my actions and behaviors will “screw them up”. I take heart knowing that by recognizing and embracing the three points above, I am moving in the right direction.
Thanks for reading and sharing. I’d love your thoughts, feedback, and recommendations too!
Although our kids are early in their school career, I noticed an interesting phenomenon before the start of this school year- jockeying for the “best” teacher. I had no idea the amount of chatter and behind the scenes positioning that goes on among parents about who their child will get the next year. I tried to adopt an attitude of nonchalance, but honestly did breathe a sigh of relief when both kids got “good ones.” But this phenomenon extends far beyond just teachers- there is this insidious desire to ensure that your child has the best of whatever’s on offer.
I’m here to say, “Stop the madness!”
Remember when you were a kid and your Mom made you take the first cookie offered- you couldn’t dig through the plate to find the biggest or the one with the most chocolate chips? There’s a valuable lesson in there. It’s not to say in some Orwellian way, be satisfied with your lot in life, but rather that there are important lessons to be gained out of not having “the best” <insert your preferred noun here: teacher, coach, babysitter, principal, toy, equipment, computer, clothes- whatever>. Not to mention, the broken cookie really does taste JUST AS GOOD.
In fact, while we are praising “lousy” teachers, let’s praise lousy parents too. When I use the word lousy, I am being slightly misleading in an effort to make a point. Obviously, if a teacher is truly not qualified or not performing up to a district’s standards, that’s different. But a teacher who is just performing at the mid-point, who’s room doesn’t look like it came off “Classrooms of Pinterest” or who tries to maintain some semblance of work/life balance? They run the risk of not being one considered one of the “good” ones. But if your kid (or my kid) ends up with a middle of the pack teacher- we should probably rejoice!
Here’s why- if you always demand “the best” for your children, you are setting an impossible standard, one to which you too, will not measure up. We simply can’t be at our best all the time. Sometimes you are going to be a lousy parent- whether missing an important game or conference, making a dinner of canned chili and left over fried rice (last night), or how about just telling the kids you don’t feel like reading a book to them before bed? The Horror! Maybe you are just tired- I’ve heard that happens to parents.
Another important reason is that coping with adversity is a critical skill and building resilience is a process that a) takes a long time, and b) is difficult to measure. And yet, we all know how important resilience is in our adult lives. Jobs are hard, managers are crappy, relationships end, money is scarce, opportunities vanish. A teacher who isn’t half Mary Poppins/half Miss Honey doesn’t put your child on the road to destitution, he or she actually helps them flex & build important mental muscles that don’t show up on the report card.
Tough times DO happen over the course of your life and almost always the right answer is not going to be to drop what you are doing and walk away from it. On the rare occasion where that is the answer- it is a decision that requires great courage, and unlike The Boy Who Cried Wolf, you better be a careful shepherd of that precious resource.
In our home, we take a pretty pragmatic approach when “lousy” shows up in the kids lives. We have a strong bias towards “This too shall pass.” If it’s something more serious, we talk about the importance of getting along or continuing to learn despite whatever challenges the situation may present. But, we also haven’t really been tested yet.
It’s not like the physics teacher I had in high school, who regularly fell asleep in class or the born-again Christian biology teacher who refused to teach Evolution… I’m not sure what I would do if something that extreme presented itself. My reaction as a student was to get mad that they were standing between me and what I was supposed to learn. I’m sure I talked to my parents about both situations, but they didn’t march down to the school, they told me I had better make sure I was keeping my grades up to par.
There is no doubt that children learn far more from good teachers and good parents, but I think we should consider stopping there. You know what, good is good.
There is no doubt that children learn far more from good teachers and good parents, but I think we should consider stopping there. You know what, good is good. Being a good person, having a good life, having a good job. These were the things that the “greatest generation” strived for. They were great because they were good.
I might say it another way and here, I’m going to lean on some big brains- so I’m taking no credit. I was looking to attribute the quote, “Perfect is the Enemy of the Good.” when Wikipedia tossed a few heavyweights my way, to back up my line of thought. Aristotle, Confucius, Voltaire, and others wrote about the idea of the golden mean, which counsels against extremism in general, and further explores the idea that since perfection is likely impossible to achieve anyway, chasing it only leads to diminishing returns.
Now, before you say that undermines the entire idea of striving and achievement- hold up. Let’s remember who these guys were- not exactly slouches. If you apply this principle in your home, and your kid comes up to you at some point and says, “But Aristotle says I don’t have to be the best!” You just say, “Fine, keep up with Aristotle and we’ll call it good.”
Thanks for reading! Please share my post if you enjoyed it- I really appreciate it and always appreciate you taking the time.
Someone responded to my blog Just How Big Is A Billion with the question, “Why do you even care?” The post in question focused on explaining how (insanely) huge a billion is, and then, building upon that talked about wealth inequity in America. I won’t rehash the post here, but I do hope you’ll read it.
Why do I even care? The question stuck with me. It bothered me. So I carried it around, thinking about it. Chewing on it. Examining it. And finally, I settled on a single moment in my life that brings it all together for me. What you read next is my “why.”
Our twin daughters were born seven years ago on a crisp September day. After more than six weeks of hospital bedrest (miserable), I’d made it as far as I was going to with the pregnancy- the girls would be delivered at 34 weeks and 5 days. Pretty good for twins. They were delivered via c-section and both arrived healthy with energetic cries that made tears of joy stream down my face. After the loss of an earlier pregnancy and a struggle to become pregnant again- our baby daughters had arrived healthy.
But they were a little early, so they needed to stay in the NICU for a short while- just to get going on feeding. Sofia was a petite 4 lbs, 11oz, and both needed a little extra attention. In the NICU at Overlake, we were situated right by the nurses station- primarily because the suite (bay?) across from the nurses station was just fractionally larger than the other bays in there, so could hold all the equipment for two babies.
While there, another baby was born and admitted to the NICU. The nurses did their best to be discrete, but given our proximity to the nurses station we inevitably overhead things. This other baby was intersexed (you may be more familiar with the term hermaphrodite, but I believe intersexed is the preferred term now). In addition, the baby was born prematurely to a teenage mother who had been a methamphetamine drug user throughout her pregnancy. It was clear immediately that this child was going to have a lot of challenges to overcome from the beginning.
Then we saw the family. But we didn’t see them in the NICU, we saw them in the halls of the regular maternity ward. In fact, we never saw them at all in the NICU. The baby’s mother and her family never visited the baby. It’s fair to say from observation that they were not a nice family. The family looked like they were straight out of Deliverance and it was apparent that even under the best of circumstances it was not a family you would want to see a child born into; to say nothing of a child with a host of challenges, including one that can carry a huge amount of lifelong stigma.
The nurses were on the phone with social workers, CPS, doctors, and specialists of all kinds constantly about this child- there were just so many things going on. And of course, on top of all this, the family had no insurance- so even getting the care needed was difficult.
And yet, this baby was just one day old. I could see the baby swaddled in the crib just 20 feet away and even with the various tubes and clothes and the little tiny hat that all newborns wear in the hospital, I could see a sweet face. She didn’t look any different from our daughters. When the nurses picked her up to feed her (I’m just picking a pronoun- I’m not sure), she could suckle a bottle. The nurses were obviously taking extra time to ensure she had human interaction and touch.
As we sat across the way, doing Kangaroo care, snuggling our little girls bare-skinned against our chests, I could see the lonely crib across the way. My heart ached for her thinking of the world she was born into.
There was a moment when I was laying one of our girls down in their shared crib and gazing at them with all the awe and love that a new mother has when looking at her baby. As I heard a nurse on yet another call with a social worker- trying desperately to arrange some service or another for this baby, this wave of despair hit me, and I just leaned over Audrey & Sofia’s crib and wept. Hot tears streamed down my face as the full force of the starkly different paths that lay ahead of these three babies became clear.
This wave of despair hit me and I just leaned over Audrey & Sofia’s crib and wept. Hot tears streamed down my face as the full force of the starkly different paths that lay ahead of these three babies became clear.
I couldn’t stand the profound unfairness of it all. Our girls, through no fault or result of their own had the very best possible road ahead. Not that we would be perfect parents, but the girls were born into a loving, happy, stable family. They were healthy and above all wanted and joyously welcomed into our lives. And yet, I didn’t really “know” them. Yes, they were from my body, but had one of our girls been born intersexed or with some other challenge or disability, it may have been a shock, but we would have rallied every available resource at our disposal to immediately begin to address the issues.
Obviously, I didn’t wish this had happened to one of our daughters, but that moment showed how so many of your cards are dealt AT BIRTH. It’s not about effort or worthiness or merit- for the child it is pure dumb luck. Yes- you can say a lot things about the young mother or her family or her choices, but to that brand-new day old child, it’s nothing more that an incredibly raw deal. It’s like she was born to a different world altogether.
Each of us, has experienced a watershed moment that defines our perspective- it may have been something you experienced personally, or observed, or read about, or watched in a movie. Truly, there are hundreds or thousands of moments that shape our worldview. More than any other experience, that moment, wrapped up in the joy of my own children’s birth and yet crying tears of sorrow and frustration for an anonymous and truly innocent child, sums up why I even care.
The hand of fate that defines the start of our lives was revealed for what it was- a crapshoot. Babies are not blank slates at birth- in fact, they are just the opposite, so many of the cards have been dealt the moment you take your first breath. It is precisely because of this fact, that it is our duty as humans, as a community, as a society, to do our best to give each person, each baby, a fair shot at life.
I still think about that little girl and the direction her life has taken. Obviously, I have no idea whether she even identifies as a girl or a boy. Whether things have gone her way or gone horribly against her. I was unable to help in that moment, but I do hope that the choices I make, the words I write, the things that I speak up for will in some way make the tiniest difference in her favor, wherever she is.
Thanks so much for reading! I appreciate your time and support!
Tonight I became completely unglued at my kids. I mean completely. COMPLETELY. I yelled, I stomped my foot. I slammed the bedroom door. I told them I couldn’t believe they could be so ungrateful. Ask for one more thing tonight, I taunted them. Go for it, I said. So yeah, I was all the things I never want to be and all the things I don’t want them to be. I was a jerk and I was mean. But you know, it was legitimate- there was laundry. On. The Floor. Two days worth. So it makes sense, right? No.
No, of course it doesn’t. Whatever it might have been, it wasn’t justified. After I was done with my audition for Mommy Dearest, I went and sat in the backyard for ten minutes, just staring off. What the hell was that? Who the hell am I? I could still hear one of my daughter’s crying upstairs. Yeah, I’d be crying too- how did she get stuck with this fuck-up as a parent?
So, I texted a friend- Do you have a minute to talk? Thank goodness she did. She listened and commiserated and made me feel just a tiny bit less shitty and alone and that was enough. I took a few deep breaths and went up and apologized- to the one that was still crying and to the one that had fallen asleep. I apologized and totally owned my anger (rage, really)- I said it was wrong of me to take it out on them. I said I was mean and unfair and that I was sorry.
I don’t know if that’s enough. I don’t know if putting this confession up on a blog helps. Does it help to “own” it or does it just mean that I can quickly justify my behavior? I get scared that I am not normal- that my moments of fury are different or more frequent than others. I *think* they are infrequent but don’t really know. I don’t know because it’s one of those things we rarely discuss as a community of parents. At least amongst my friends.
Sometimes, a mom or dad will refer to getting angry, but it’s always vague- I guess because it’s so shameful and ugly, and it shows how horrible we can be at times.
The joy of being a parent often takes my breath away for all the right reasons, and I am often filled with so much gratitude for this gift that I have been given. But other times, I am reminded that I am human and human beings can be ugly and cruel, even to those who are the most dear and precious to us.
I know that a lot, probably even the vast majority of the time, I am a good parent. Truly good at it. I can’t bring myself to say great, because in moments like this, I don’t know what that means. I think I just got my “great” revoked for awhile. But I am good- I think about building confidence, being kind, being forgiving, providing structure and opportunity, providing security and comfort. I really work hard, consistently to be a thoughtful, good parent. But every once in a while, this horrible part of me shows up with a rocket launcher and I look around at all the neat little things I’ve made- these carefully constructed, fragile towers of good moments, good intentions, good experiences, moments of tenderness and love- and I just blow those fuckers up like they are tissue paper. I guess that’s why we call it coming unglued- because you are going to need a lot of glue.
So, I asked my daughters to forgive me and they nodded mutely. I don’t think they know what that means exactly, but they reached out to me and hugged me. Hugged me hard, like I deserved it, which I did not. I couldn’t have felt more low and undeserving. Asking for forgiveness from your children feels like a coward’s request, but I don’t know how else to move forward. I suppose you do it by picking up all those shattered bits of glass- the good intentions and experiences, and start building again.
Then you ask yourself, how long will I build this next time? Will I be smarter and slower to anger? Will I be able to sidestep the twister of rage that out-of-nowhere picks me up like a rag doll? I don’t think so- not every time, anyway. I fervently hope that in the long run it’s enough- that I am a better builder than wrecking ball, that the ultimate balance tips in the right direction. I hope that I can be worthy of the fierce and loving hugs they gave me.
It feels like a long, long walk but I guess I am already on my way.
Tomorrow is the last day of Kindergarten and I suddenly find myself not ready for it to end. The kids are ready- they are excited for summer and the intellectual challenge of Kindergarten faded months ago, but I think they also have a tremor of trepidation at moving up. Kindergarten is safe and familiar to them- the friends and simple routines that move them through the days. But again, summer is gleaming just out of reach, like a much craved treat- so I know they will shed any fears as easily as dropping their backpacks when getting home from school.
I, on the other hand, was just getting into the swing of things. I was finally starting to recognize the moms and know which kid went with which parent (next year in the student directory- how about pictures of the kids AND parents, please?!). I was reveling in their growing independence and confidence. Now, seemingly suddenly, everyone is ready to close the chapter on this year. I keep thinking of a high school friend of mine who’s twin sons are just graduating from high school. High school! And I am sure she feels like it went by in a blink. I have this unreasonable feeling that I am going to wake up tomorrow to fully formed teenagers donning caps & gowns and heading off to college too.
As a parent of twins, I have the incredible gift of two children to watch through each stage, however, like a singleton parent, I also get only one “shot” at each milestone. We will not pass this way again. Kindergarten is in the books and there is no second chance to do the year “better” or differently. Not that I would change anything- it’s just the finality of it.
In our upstairs hallway, like many families, we have picture frames with dozens of pictures nestled together, chronicling our adventures and the growth of the girls to this point. I am finding myself slowing to stare at their faces, the younger versions of them forever receding from the present as if carried backwards on a conveyor belt into my memory. If I pause, I can sort of “zoom in” and rekindle the moment- whether it’s the touch of baby-soft skin, the smell of infant hair, or the squirmy hugs of toddler. But then it’s gone- that connection with memory is fleeting.
This morning, when I gathered my daughters, by turns, into my lap for a cuddle- they spilled out of my lap, all long arms and legs. They would settle into stillness for a moment, their heads just resting under my chin (if I raised mine a little), and I tried to breathe in this moment- to imprint in my memory.
So, I am left with this feeling that I have just arrived at a party, in time to see everyone filling out the back door- headed on to the next adventure, their laughter drifting back into the house, echoing for a moment before fading away. I don’t want to call them back, at least not in my head (my heart may tell you a different tale), but I yearn for the chance to pause time, so that I could linger among the sights, sounds, and feelings of the moment- the way you would take in the wares in a beloved antique store.
Maybe that is what we do as parents- collect and catalog memories (along with a myriad of physical reminders) like the owner of an antiques shop, presiding over them- dusting, repairing, treasuring them, so that when our children return as customers, eager to relive or try them out, we are ready with just the right piece for their collection.
I invite you to share your thoughts on these milestones or share this post, if it resonated with you! Thanks, as always, for reading.