There’s simplicity parenting, attachment parenting, parenting by temperament. Authoritative parenting, French parenting, parenting the spirited child.
And one I think we’re all familiar with: parenting by the seat of our pants.

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Image by Shena Tschofen

That, whether I like it or not, is where I parent from most of the time. And let me tell you, the seat of my pants is battered and worn. As I have mentioned before, parenting Jo since I got pregnant with Cal has been no cake walk. We’re talking hitting, kicking and throwing things at me when I was pregnant, having big physical outbursts with other kids and trying to contain his massive physical energy in a small house with a newborn.

I sought advice everywhere I could—books, friends, my mom. I dissolved into tears while asking Jo’s teacher what I should do after his first morning of preschool, all while bouncing Cal in his carrier.

So this last fall, I went to an introductory talk for a Hand-in-Hand parenting class that was recommended by a mom I’ve been admiring for months. Her daughter goes to Jo’s preschool and she’s a kick ass and very real mom of 3 exuberant children, including a very physical, eldest boy which is why I sought out her sage advice.

At the end of the talk, I was the woman raising my hand, “Sure Angela, that all sounds great, but then what do I do when my 4 year old starts head-butting me?” I walked out of there with the massive chip on my shoulder that only a mother of a super-physical and sometimes-aggressive boy can have: Your slick limit setting ideas won’t work in my house. My child will chew up your parenting tools and spit them directly into my face.

But I was at the end of what felt like every one of my ropes, so I tried what she talked about.

I actually stopped the 7 things I was trying to do at once while making dinner and got down on the floor with Jo the next time he tried to hit me. AJ happened to be home, so I had the pleasure of being able to try this without having Cal in tow. I tried to set the limit with a “firm and warm tone while making lots of eye contact.” I just kept saying things like, “I can’t let you hit me.” And “I know you’re angry because we’re not going to watch a video.” And “Nope. I can’t let you kick me either.” I stayed with him while he flipped out.

It was the parenting equivalent of walking straight into enemy fire.

And it effing worked.

He cried and screamed and thrashed. And then the hitting stopped. And he melted into a hug.

I was stunned.

I signed up for the class.

Like any parenting advice worth its salt, the things I learned there and practice now are just good habits for living as a human being. And they happen to apply really well to the under-developed brains of children and the calcified brains of parents.

There’s so much to say here because the whole Hand-in-Hand approach is a sweeping understanding of human relationships in general.

It’s rooted in brain science, in particular the functioning of the social or limbic part of our brains that is fully formed when we’re born. When we feel connected to others, our limbic system is happy. When we don’t, the red flag is raised, the alarm sounds. Babies cry. Toddlers tantrum. Moms want to fly far far away from here.

So, in short, the answer when things are going pear-shaped is to find a way to connect if you can. If you can’t, it’s okay. Try again next time. Angela, the same Angela I grilled with chip-on-my-shoulder questions at the intro talk, would repeat this kindness over and over: sometimes you just can’t stop everything and connect. Surprise! You’re human. Each time she’d say this, I could feel every parent in the room deflate into relief. She understood. Sometimes, you just need to sit your child down in front of 6 episodes of Animal Babies on Netflix until you get your sanity back.

The other thing the class reminded me about was how crucial listening is. Often, our kids desperately want to be listened to when they’re upset. (Shockingly, I also want this.) And if we’re not getting listened to as parents, about the relentlessness of it, the trials and triumphs and mind-numbing Tuesdays, then it’s really hard for us to listen to our kids.

Eureka.

Getting listened to over the course of the 6 week class felt like cleaning out some backed-up old pipes. Week after week I was allowed and even encouraged to let ‘er rip: “When he bit me, I wanted to hit him. I wanted to scream, ‘What the hell is your problem?!’” And slowly, I de-gunked. And the water ran clear again.

I credit what I learned in my Hand-in-Hand class with helping me recover the relationship with Jo that I loved. The way I see his outbursts and respond to them has changed subtly, and we recover faster.

As a result of all this listening and limbic system learning, I was able to make a radical mental shift:

I was able to see Jo as a good kid.

After so many months of having him try to hurt me (and sometimes succeeding) and watching him lash out at the baby, I started to believe that Jo was bad. Damaged. Wrong.

This may come as a huge surprise, but when you’re parenting your child from the perspective that they are The Bad Seed, your relationship with that child does not tend to flourish.

I’ve witnessed now, time after time, that if I have the presence and time to connect with Jo when he’s going off the rails, (which sometimes I don’t—see Netflix option above) if I can stay warm and firm, it reminds him (AND ME!) that I’m the grown up. I’m the big padded wall he can fling himself against. I’m not going anywhere. And I see that he’s okay and that we’re okay deep down. He can unfurl in that safety, flip out, and then come back. I show him that I know he’s great even when he’s at his worst. And then he knows how to find his way back.

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‘The Long Way Home’ by Christine und David Schmitt

Case in point:

Cal was crawling around with some toys in the living room and Jo was running and jumping everywhere at ludicrous speed. I stopped Jo and looked in his eyes and asked him to please slow down, because he might accidentally knock Cal over, and I know he doesn’t want to hurt him. Not 2 minutes later, Cal got knocked over, fell on his face and came up with a bloody, screaming mouth. My face crumpled and started to get that angry look towards Jo. I scooped up Cal, and Jo looked back with this horrifying grin on his face as if to say, “See how bad I am?”

I had the presence in that moment to remember his goodness. So instead of talking to the sadistic nutcase in front of me, I talked to the kid I know he is.

Don’t worry, Jo. Cal is going to be okay. I know you didn’t want to hurt him and that it’s really scary to see him bleeding. But he’s going to be just fine. He needs to cry because he’s hurting. But I know you didn’t do that on purpose and I know how much you love him.

I brought him in close and just kept talking about how I knew he was scared and sad and that he loved Cal to pieces. He kept playing the cruel jerk. But I just kept right on.

When Cal’s crying died down, it was time for us to go meet a friend. Jo fell quiet while we were getting in the car, and as I was buckling him in, he asked, “Can I hug him?”

Why yes, dear boy. You can.

“Can I kiss him too?”

By all means.

And then, after the gentlest hugging and kissing that I’ve ever witnessed from my little dynamo, he settled into his seat, looked straight into my eyes and said, “Mama, I’m never going to do that again.”

Yowza. We made it.