Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Becoming a Better Parent

Parenting requires more than just love and sacrifice; it requires skill. So many times in the middle of my sons' or daughter's daily emotional meltdowns, I find myself thinking, There has to be a better way to handle this. Spanking, yelling, and threats can clearly reflect that a parent has completely lost his/her cool and these methods of obtaining order just don't leave me feeling right. I do think kids should be polite, and taught to behave properly, but there are better ways to accomplish these goals and in turn, keep a more peaceful tone in my household.

Think about it, in the classroom, where I spent my time before kids, the above means of discipline were not effective at all, nor were they even permitted. Navigating the emotional jungle of the classroom required skill on the part of the teacher. Just like parenting, my goal there was not to make 130 friends under the age of 18, but rather to gain mutual respect so my students would be open to learning. I think the same applies to parenting.

In his book Between Parent and Child, Dr. Haim Ginott supports the idea that parenting requires skill.

"Parents need to learn to respond to their children as they do guests." (3) He writes. I am a bit skeptical of this idea at first, fearing that Ginott's tactics are ultra liberal, turning a parent into a slave-servant walking on egg shells in her own home. Then I ask myself, is this a clear perspective of what having a guest in one's home should be? So I have to straighten out that idea first.

To do that I make a list of what is acceptable guest-host behavior, and what is not. It's not about giving my children more time or attention. It's about communicating honestly with a true effort towards listening with empathy and stating clear limits without criticizing. What Ginott is saying is that there is a way to be a kind parent and maintain discipline. This idea reinforces a prayer that I keep on a bulletin board next to the phone. It helps me refocus when I start to lose patience with the kids.

"Help me be detached and balanced in my wisdom, and yet never far from feeling...Help me to remember that this child is Your gift entrusted to me to watch over with love."

The idea that my children are my guests is actually in keeping with how God wants me to parent. That being established, I keep reading.

"An interested observer who overhears a conversation between a parent and a child will note with surprise how little each listens to the other. The conversation sounds like two monologues, one consisting of criticism and instructions, the other of denials and pleading. The tragedy of such communication lies not in the lack of love, but in the lack of respect; not in the lack of intelligence, but in the lack of skill...We need to learn a caring way of conversing with [children]." (12)

This idea resonates with me. I'm learning that I can shift my children's moods more easily with empathy and rational listening, (without necessarily offering solutions), rather than let myself be pulled into the emotional turmoil that grips them at the moment.

I was getting my hair cut last week and the lady in the seat next to me brought her children with her for her own appointment. They were a boy of about 9 years old and a girl of about 6 years old, and of course, they were arguing. "He hit me. She called me noodle head, etc." The mom lost her cool, which is understandable, and yelled at both kids. In doing so it was obvious that the daughter was embarrassed and she began to cry, which only caused the mom more frustration. She used threats and mean language to get the child to go sit down. The whole time, while I completely understood where the mom was coming from emotionally, I kept thinking that this little girl just wanted a hug and a kiss from her mom. I had a hunch that would change her mood. Then, as the girl bawled in the corner of the salon, the mother did something mean, that I could not understand nor relate to.

She said to the hairdresser in a loud voice, "I swear my daughter is the poster child for birth control."

I had to control my gasp. Although some people in the shop shook their heads, most laughed nervously at the comment, not knowing how else to react. It is not my intention to bash this parent. Honestly, I've often had not-so-stellar parenting moments. I see the path of frustration that led her to feeling this way about her children, and I do not want to take it myself. There is a more skilled way of handling parent-child relationships and I'm going to find it if I have to read one hundred books on the subject. My relationship with my kids is worth my effort to become a skilled parent. Their development into strong, compassionate, courageous adults is worth my time. I don't expect to be Mary Poppins, but I can improve myself and increase the sense of calm in my household.

I'm half way through reading Between Parent and Child, and I'd like to share some of the advice from this book. Ginott suggests that my responses as a parent "can make a decided difference in the atmosphere of [my] home." He emphasises the power of words in creating negative or loving relationships. I need to try to listen with understanding, not blame, and without telling how to improve. (19)

I try to put this method into practice. My 6 year old and 4 year old are fighting. The two year old joins in. What starts out as a "Did not, Did so!" squabble becomes an all-out Tom and Jerry cartoon-style war when the two year old walks by pulls both of the children's hair. I step in and remove the baby first to a chair.

"Hair is for combing, not for pulling." I say, handing him a soft bristled brush. The idea is that he is a baby with limited understanding, and rather than make him feel guilty, I have to be non-judgemental in correcting his behavior. He totters off with the brush, smiling, brushing his hair. Meanwhile my daughter runs up to me crying.

"Big Brother says I'm a poopy head. He won't let me use the crayons, and the baby pulled my hair!" Usually when they fight like this, I shout, exasperated, WHAT HAPPENED?! and then punish the older child automatically. This time I try the book. I bend down to her level and make eye contact.

"I bet you feel angry right now." I say, making an amusing mental note of how therapist-like I sound.

"Yeah!" she scream-cries in my ear.

"Big brother wont let you use his crayons." I say, "mirroring the problem," as Ginott suggests.

"Yeah!! ...and Mama, I feel sad." she cries.

"Do you need a hug?" I ask.

"YEAH!" she wails. We hug and I kiss her.

"Mommy loves you very much. I will talk to big brother about sharing, okay?" I say.

She nods and then it happens: the mood change. She smiles.

Next I take big brother aside, alone.

"Your sister is crying. She wants to use the crayons." I say.

Big brother's expression hints that he knows he should not have treated his sister that way. He defends himself. "She breaks them and that makes me mad. I don't want her to ruin all of my crayons."

"Oh. So you feel angry and worried about her breaking them." I say.

"Yeah!" he shouts.

"Are there any colors that you don't use, or doubles?" I ask.

"Well, yes, there are some double greens and yellows that she can have."

Alright. Grab a plastic sandwich bag from the drawer and we'll go sort out the crayons. We'll give sister a bag that can be just for her."

Big brother agrees to my proposal and adds, "She can have all the pinks, definitely."

The above instance is an example of when the book worked for me. There are plenty of other times that I am tired, the children are tired, or interaction with another adult is at play in the situation, and the book does not help me as much as I hope it will. As far as parenting is concerned, I am taking baby steps in becoming more skilled, in finding ways to peacefully deal with conflicts and challenges of authority in my home. This book is helping me. There is so much in it, and yet, if I remember to say one thing right, there is inevitably another situation that I mess up. Unfortunately, we don't get "practice kids." I plan to share more about my experiments using Between Parent and Child in future posts.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

It sounds like back-to-school has been good for you both as a mom and a writer! I hate it when parents say stuff like what that mother said. It is very sad.

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