By Kathy Matay
Perhaps you have seen the viral video of the toddler who liberally applied permanent Sharpie markers to himself and then to his sibling? Or the mischievous tot who dusted the entire kitchen and himself in a fine layer of flour? Do you ever wonder how their moms reacted before they picked up the smartphone to capture the event on camera? Did they lose their tempers? Or maybe it was Dad who first encountered the chaos. Did he yell or begin to lecture?
Years ago, we had an incident like this in our home. I clearly recall discovering that the back of the new couch had been liberally – and I do mean liberally – smeared with peanut butter. By volume, I judged it to be three or four sandwiches’ worth of the gooey substance. How did I react in the moment of discovery? Sadly, it was nowhere close to my proudest parenting moment. All I could think of was that our beautiful, brand-new, budget-busting couch had only recently been delivered. I called the boys into the living room, pointed at the offending scene and peppered them with rhetorical questions: “Do you see what you’ve done? Have you any idea how much this couch cost? How am I ever going to get this cleaned up?” It felt good to rant for a few moments, until I noticed the tears welling in their eyes, and then it felt terrible. So now, on top of my feelings of exasperation and disappointment, I had heaped regret and shame. Worse, I had missed the opportunity to model a healthy response to an unfortunate situation.
At the time of the peanut butter incident, our two eldest boys were 6 and 4, and our youngest was just a few months old. While the baby was not directly implicated in the “crime,” his tendency to wake up every two to three hours, all night, every night, might have contributed to my disproportionate reaction. Certainly, my feelings of being exhausted and overwhelmed were a contributing factor to my loss of composure. I like to think that, with more rest and some time for self-care, I might have been able to stay calm and reasonable in the face of what our now-teenage sons refer to as their “shenaniganery.”
Not long after this low point in my parenting career, I attended a PTA meeting at our son’s preschool. The presenter was a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington, Maryland. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat for the duration of the 45-minute presentation. I came away with three new concepts that have become mantras for me in the intervening years. The first was “Preserve the relationship;” the second was, “Connect before you correct;” and the third was, “Give yourself the permission to pause.”
In the thousands of interactions we will have with our children while they live under our roofs, we have the opportunity to build and maintain a loving, respectful, trusting relationship. It is safe to say that not every interaction will go as well as it might, and that is okay. The important thing to bear in mind is that, on the whole, our goal is to preserve the parent-child relationship. Once our children leave the nest, we fervently hope that they will want to return to visit. We hope they will want to continue to be part of our lives and share their children’s lives with us, as well. The choices we make as parents on a day-to-day basis can either solidify or gradually erode this possibility.
As lovable as they are, our toddlers will often exhaust us, our children will frequently try our patience and our teens will sometimes tune us out. If we can remember one thing above all, it is to take the long view by placing the utmost importance on preserving our relationship with our children. As the Dalai Lama says, “It is important to be kind whenever possible. It is always possible to be kind.”
When parent-child interactions do not go as well as they might, it is generally because emotions are running high – whether ours, our children’s or both. As the mature adults in the home, it is helpful for parents to remember that when we are flooded with frustration, anger or impatience, it is best not to preach or teach. Our children will not be receptive to listening or learning in a moment that is fraught with emotion. Ideally, we can wait until things calm down later in the day, outside of the moment of conflict, to reflect on the problem and share our observations with the child. Be curious and ask questions about what they were thinking and feeling. In the course of a collaborative conversation (instead of a lecture), we can talk with, rather than to, our children about our family values and the reasons we feel certain limits must be upheld in the household. It is important that we model the behavior we are requesting from our children. They do not always listen to what we say, but they are always watching what we do.
As parents, we can give ourselves permission to pause. When the PEP leader first mentioned this, it seemed so simple and so obvious, and yet it has turned out to be freeing and immensely useful to me over the years. We often feel a sense of urgency to deal with challenging situations immediately as they arise. When our temper is elevated or when we’re hungry, tired, distracted or frustrated, we might act rashly and say something we will regret. These are the moments that we wish we had handled differently when we look back on them.
Very few situations require an instantaneous parental response. It is okay to take a few minutes – literally take a breather – to bring ourselves to a sense of calm. By slowing down our response, we increase our ability to think and act rationally and creatively. Just a few minutes can make all the difference. We can temporarily remove ourselves from the room, take some calming breaths and wait for the emotional temperature to cool. Often this will surprise our children, especially if they are accustomed to certain responses from us. When we are able to calm ourselves before reacting hastily, we are modeling positive behavior for our children.
So, how could I have handled the peanut butter palooza in a more positive way? Ideally, I would have short-circuited my anger by taking a moment to privately appreciate the humor, and then modeled a task-oriented approach to cleaning up the mess and getting the kids involved in the solution. It is the rare parent who can do this every time, but it is definitely movement in the right direction when we increasingly pause to plan out a reasonable response.
I like to think that I would handle the situation differently now. I have learned to resist the impulse to react in the moment, and instead take a pause and pivot. A calm and measured response is preferred over a hasty reaction.
Kathy Matay is a Masters-level counseling student with the Granato Group and a Parent Educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington, Maryland. This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Washington Parent Magazine.
Parent Encouragement Program
10100 Connecticut Ave.
Kensington, MD 20895
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