Thanks to a really insightful comment from one of you on my Facebook page, I decided to go back and change the title and some of the content of my last post about raging boys.
I like this post, but I must admit I’m not keen on the slight ‘gender essentialism’ edge to it. Labeling this type of behavior as somehow a ‘boy’ thing isn’t really a good thing for either boys or girls. Also in my opinion it’s really not that clear cut. I have a boy who is (at least so far) the total opposite of this- very physically cautious etc. this describes our friend’s daughter far more accurately. A mom I talked to recently with a wonderful spirited ‘wild’ daughter was lamenting the fact that everyone seemed to think this kind of behavior was fine from boys and wrote it off as ‘boys will be boys’ type stuff, but saw it as almost unnatural and totally unacceptable in a girl. Since having kids I see so many examples of how much we try to stereotype them. When we see behavior that confirms our bias we note it, but when we see anything that runs counter to our bias we ignore it. Boys or girls, the same principles, solutions and dilemmas apply so why pigeon hole?
Since honesty is my bag here, I have to admit that I felt really defensive after reading Ruth’s comment at first. “But I wrote it because I have a boy, and 99% of the comments on my post about Jo’s badness were from parents of boys.” And then I thought some more, and had a back and forth with Ruth and decided that she was right. Parents of raging, wild, aggressive girls probably feel less open about it than those of boys, so I probably hear less from them. And like it or not, this kind of behavior is something that’s more tolerated in boys. Based on my own experience at the playground, I can only imagine what onlooking parental wrath I’d incur if my 4-year-old girl kicked and then dumped sand on the little boy sitting by the slide.
So I want to broaden this discussion from parents of boys to parents of kids. Are you the parent of a kid? Do they rage? Do they head-butt you and then laugh? Well then step right up. I re-wrote this for you.
Things have been really hopping over here since I wrote my last post.
I’m a chronic over-sharer in my day-to-day, so writing about my life, all splayed open for the world to see, comes naturally and feels good. Necessary, even. And so I write and I keep writing and I hope it strikes a chord somewhere. Hope someone else feels a little less nuts, a little more jovial about their particular mess, a little bit encouraged by the good company of us other bumbling humans, just trying to see what sticks.
And then BAM. For whatever reason, I struck a chord last week. A relatively big one.
Wow. Just Wow. Your story resonated with our boy word for word.
The attitude of mum, the elder child’s personality and spunk, and the shock when it actually worked all ring so true.
My beautiful bad seed is all girl..lovely, opinionated, strong-willed, thoughtful, loving, commanding, and gorgeously all girl. With a temper that can send giants to the corner, silently weeping and hugging their knees.
What you wrote has an impact for me right now. I can be that padded wall.
This is our house, so thanks-
Like a few of you have said above, he hits, kicks, head butts, body slams me, bites, throws things, ect, and laughs all the while doing it. And I know he is not laughing to be malicious, but because he cannot get his emotions under control, and he doesn’t understand them. It’s damn hard though. And he’s a strong little bugger.
Ladies, this was so my son when he was younger. I think I still have PTSD from his first month or so of kindergarten when he was 5.
I’m trying to find a way with my 3 years old boy that plays –often– the agressive kid, usually against me.
I have four boys – two are like your son. Your piece had me in tears as not an hour ago I had numerous sets of eyes glaring at me at a park as a meltdown occurred. I stayed calm, told myself to ignore the judgement and to love my boy. But gosh was it hard. Even after two years of practice staying calm with him during his outbursts (since I finally learned not staying calm made it infinitely worse!) I still struggle.
Thank you for putting in words what I’ve been trying to do with my nearly-3yr old bundle of energy boy.
My very spirited 2 1/2 year old can be aggressive and violent like this to his very gentle 6 year old brother!
I needed this today.
my son is Jo…
This is exactly my 4yo.
When my son goes berserk he tries to hit and scratch and bite and he’s like a wild beast. If it’s not that it’s chucking things at me and knocking things down.
I am in exactly the same boat with my almost 3 year old and little ‘accidents’ with his younger brother.
My son is only 6-months and I feel like this already fits him to a T. Love the insight and I’ll be sharing this with my wife as we prepare for the next stage!
We have a Jo of our own in the form of Eli. Thank you very much for sharing this.
Your description of the sadistic smile that he gets is so like my William’s! He is so much more than that mask. Your post brought me to tears, because you showed me I am not alone.
Maria, I thought of you when I read this, especially the head-butting part.
And this isn’t even all of them.
I had no idea how many of us were in this boat. Parents with young ones who are scratching, hitting, throwing, biting and yes, as Maria well knows, head-butting; they’re hurting things and people in their path and then tossing off a sadistic laugh to boot. Even though I know these behaviors intimately because we’ve lived them all for the past couple years, it still baffles me to write it all out. Why is this happening? And to so many of us?
Maybe this has been going on for centuries with human kids. But if that were the case, wouldn’t there be a How-To-Handle-Your-Young-Child-Who-Often-Behaves-Very-Much-Like-a-Sociopath manual out there? Written and tried and tested by the droves of mothers who have come before us, and sat where we sit, staring, glazed-over, at a loss?
I’m working out a theory for why we’re seeing this particular kind of child so much.
First, there are a bunch of us parents who are suspicious of going straight to punishment when our kids’ behavior goes south. We don’t go straight to spanking or time out when the block goes whizzing by our head. That is not to say we don’t ever go the punishment route. After a long LONG day when I’m over it, I bust out some yelling and forceful placement in the room, to “not come out until you can touch your brother the right way.” But sometimes I have the energy and time to try other stuff. I listen. I give eye contact. For those of us who are willing to try this stuff, we don’t (or can’t!) stop the cyclone of destruction dead in its tracks (as much as we might like to!), so we see our kids’ raging as it gains steam and plays out.
My friend Meg brought it up as we were talking about the response to my post about “bad” Jo and all the droves of moms of kids like him that were moved to share their thoughts here. It’s a long read, but worth the time, about the dramatic trend away from unsupervised and risky play since the 1970s and how, these days, children expect to be constantly supervised. While the hyper-supervision trend seems to be rooted in parents’ fear of injury or abduction, instances of those things haven’t gone up since the 70s, though our awareness of them has. And I have a hunch that all this reigning in of our kiddos has something to do with these little psychopath boy moments we’re trying to contain out in the world and in our houses.
For example, beginning in 2011, Swanson Primary School in New Zealand submitted itself to a university experiment and agreed to suspend all playground rules, allowing the kids to run, climb trees, slide down a muddy hill, jump off swings, and play in a “loose-parts pit” that was like a mini adventure playground. The teachers feared chaos, but in fact what they got was less naughtiness and bullying—because the kids were too busy and engaged to want to cause trouble, the principal said.
Are our kids so bored out of their skulls with their wooden train sets and soccer practice and happy cartoons that they’re seeking out the juicy-dangerous-aliveness that comes from risk-taking with us? If they could wander, unfettered with their neighborhood friends and build forts and cut down tree limbs and explore on their own more often, would they rage less at home?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
I have a few friends who have separated from or divorced their partners after having kids, and from my vantage point, this is the biggest difference between their lives and mine: they have scheduled time alone. Sometimes 2 or 3 days in a row. While the kids are with their partner, they go dancing. They stay out late. They hang out at home and sit in their quiet, empty houses.
And I know it’s not all shiny triumphant alone time. I’ve listened to their heart ache and debilitating sadness and anger and disappointment. And when their kids are around, they’re the one on the hook. Solo. But they have more kid-free-time than I do.
I want the marriage and the time.
I had this eureka over lunch with a friend, while we tried to corral Cal and eat dim sum. She explained the revelation of unstructured time without kids.
Unstructured. Time. Without. Kids.
If you’ve been at this for a while, the mere thought of that might just blow your skull.
So I just called AJ and requested a time divorce. Why the hell can’t we schedule time during the week when one or the other of us is off?! Just clocked out. Not because we have a class or a plan or a thing we need to do. Just because we both need time when there’s nothing to do but what we want just then. We could alternate so that every other Wednesday night is ours to do whatever the eff we want. Or one Sunday a month. Or both!
Sure, there have been plenty of times in the last 5 years when AJ or I have gotten away for a few hours, a day, a whole string of nights even.
But every time, it’s a full-on negotiation. You have to ask, consider the delicate balance of getting both parents’ needs sort-of met, coordinate your schedule with your friends or the dance class and make sure it works for your partner and various feeding/napping schedules. Not to mention transportation if you happen to only have one car. Which we do. It can be a real palava.
This is why the time divorce is genius.
It’s pre-scheduled. No need to scramble or quibble or squabble. No need to “go to yoga class” and instead drive a revelatory 2 blocks to the park by your house where you feel emancipated and strange. And then you just sit in the grass in your yoga pants talking to friends on the phone for the next hour because you can.
You see, under the agreement set forth in ye olde time divorce, sitting in the park in your yoga pants talking on the phone is allowed–encouraged even!
Imagine yourself frolicking in an open field of unstructured time that is scheduled into your week.
Now, wipe the drool from your chin. And go file for a time divorce.
The boy across the street is incomparably generous. He lets Jo borrow all manner of toys for weeks on end. He often intones, “I have soooo many toys. Sure, Jo, you can borrow.”
Jo, on the other hand, is like a stingy old codger on his death bed, bony fingers wrapped around whatever happens to be within reach.
He gets it from me.
When I’m portioning out food for a meal, I constantly evaluate AJ’s plate against mine, and if his looks better or has more meat or sweet potatoes or sauce or whatever I might be after, I do a little switch-a-roo before smacking the plates down, and no one is ever the wiser.
My stingy little codger gets fed, eyes twinkling. “I got the best one.”
I know at this very minute that there are 4 chocolate chip cookies remaining in their crackly plastic sleeve on top of the refrigerator. I hid them under the tortilla chips last night so that Jo won’t notice them. If he asks for one later today, after having eaten an entire kale salad topped with steamed broccoli, I will give him one. Maybe half. And I tell myself it’s because I want to keep him healthy. But mostly, it’s because I want them for myself.
I have a friend, Clio, who I laugh with while our kids bounce around on her back yard trampoline. She brings out bowls overflowing with berries. Platters of cut cheese and crackers. There is an industrial size box of sustainably-manufactured, organic gummi candy in her pantry, and she doles out those little packets like they’re going out of style. I love going to her house. Shockingly, so does Jo. I often imagine–nay, hope–that heaven is like Clio’s house. Laughter in the back yard and delicious snacks neverending.
I know the basic concepts that are behind all this. My mother was also a food stasher, and likely her mother, who grew up poor in a dusty Texas town. Scarcity vs. abundance, blah blah blah. And I’ve tried to shift the dynamic—boldly buying a big $5 clam of strawberries and just polishing off the whole thing with Jo in one sitting on our front porch. Those moments of abandon feel good. But my default is the codger.
The bony old hoarder who thinks there’s never enough for her.
Pull up a chair, old gal. What are you hungry for?
I was inspired to write post by Glennon Melton’s Messy, Beautiful Warriors project on her blog, Momastery. The very first post I ever read there was this one. So I’ve kept in touch with her.
Learn about how to add your voice to the project here, and check out her book here.
(And no one paid me to write this, despite the commercial feel of that little banner down there. I just harnessed the inspiration this morning and thought you might enjoy knowing about Glennon’s stuff.)
I wrote this 2 weeks ago, and tossed it aside. Not for the blog, I thought. Too fragmented and emotional. When I read it again this morning, I recanted. I should post this. Because it’s fragmented and emotional, and I’m sure some of you will relate.
I love my new job. And it’s making it harder and easier to be a mom.
I get a break from the incessant demands of home and children. I ride my bike up the hill and sit at a desk and order lunch and walk about freely, where I’d like when I’d like. I’m making money, which feels blissfully good. Being at home has a new sweetness to it.
I have so little time to spend with Jo, just the two of us. I’m coming to terms with just how many hits our time together has taken in the last year: baby Cal joining the menagerie, Jo starting pre-school and me starting this job. This time last year, I spent all but 12 hours a week with Jo, traipsing to parks, wrestling him into rest time, gardening and navigating his physical outbursts sometimes with patience and other times by screaming in his face and then being racked with tears and guilt.
Ah yes, there was that. It’s easy to forget from this place, where unlimited time with Jo is the greener pasture. That damned greener pasture—always re-locating to somewhere other than where I am.
It’s such a radical shift to suddenly need to schedule time to hang out with Jo. So much so that I haven’t really done it at all. And I miss him. I miss the team that we used to be—sure, it wasn’t all roses, but he was my sidekick.
I worry that he may be suffering as a result. His crazy dips into extreme hyper-ness, run-by pinching of Cal.
And here’s the truth of it. It’s harder for me to connect with him these days not just because I have less time, but because I just don’t understand him as well.
Somehow, in the past couple of years, he’s slowly morphed from a soft innocent into a hard, fast trickster. And it’s harder for me to like him.
Right around that same time, I gave birth to blonde Cal. Sweet blonde Cal, into whose sweet, chubby softness I can dive for hours and feel an easy bliss.
I’ve been avoiding one child and seeking refuge in the other.
And the less I connect with Jo, the harder it gets. And the stranger he seems to me.
This division of myself between my two sons, this is what I worried about when thinking of having another baby—having to shift my attention between 2.
Is this just the inevitable course of our relationship? This slowly widening distance over which it feels too hard to bridge?
In having a second child, was I unknowingly signing myself up to lose my closeness with the first?
There are a million and one metaphors I could use to portal into this topic. But the one that is most vivid is a bear stuck in some sort of a paw trap in the woods. I have no idea if paw traps exist, or if they are used on bears, but bear (oy vey…) with me.
You know how this goes. The trap locks down on aforementioned bear’s paw and bear startles and struggles, tries to get away. In so doing, she keeps injuring and re-injuring her paw in the sharp metal confines of the trap. Finally, she surrenders, relaxes, submits to reality. And the paw, still throbbing and sore, feels better. The bear, still trapped, feels a little less terrified and takes stock.
Here I am. Now what?
Now I’m going to compare motherhood to being stuck in a bear trap.
There are many moments a day when I struggle against some known or unknown force and then finally submit and feel both defeat and relief.
I have a bushel of things to do this morning—meal planning, grocery shopping, nanny-share hunting, thyroid lab procuring, prescription filling and blog writing. This long list, in and of itself, is a problem. Some days, I do manage to keep things more simple and take on less. But let’s face it, I’m a creature of the here and now, and we’re pretty big on dodging traffic between appointments while checking our voicemail and sucking down a latte.
Since I’ve got this big list and one child who is off to school for the next 3 and a half hours, I assess my other wild card—baby Cal—to get a sense for how to organize the morning. It’s nap time, and I will triumph. I’ll put Cal down for his nap and get the meal planning and shopping list ready during that sweet 40 minute reprieve.
I do the song and dance (literally) and place Cal down for the nap. He won’t have it. I try again with a modified song and dance (literally) and still no. I could leave him to cry for a few minutes—sometimes he can put himself to sleep quickly this way, but I decide that it’s too much for me this morning, and I relent. Though I know he’s not hungry, I settle into bed and give him another long nurse. I hold his pudgy, white hand. And tip my head back against the wall and close my eyes. The bear takes stock. Her paw hurts less.
The other metaphor that was in contention this morning was that of a Chinese finger cuff. You know the little, cheapy tubes you can win at seedy carnivals—they’re woven out of contrasting strips of wood? bamboo? When you shove both your fingers in and try to pull them out, the cuff stretches and narrows and traps your fingers inside.
The way to get out of this particular pickle is, once again, to stop trying to struggle out of it. If you move your fingers towards each other, the cuff relaxes and voila! you’re free.
Now I’m going to compare motherhood to struggling out of a Chinese finger cuff.
Thirty five million times a day, I have something that I need or want 4 year old Jo to do. About thirty five million minus five times a day, Jo doesn’t want to do that thing. It is exhausting and frustrating for both of us.
I’ve been finding, thanks to a Hand in Hand Parenting class, that Jo is often a lot more cooperative when he feels connected to me. In other words, if I can put all the groceries and the baby down and turn off whatever is boiling over on the stove and get closer to Jo and look in his eyes and play with him for a few minutes or ask him what’s going on, things after that point go better. Not always, but often.
This morning we had 15 minutes to get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth and pack lunch before his carpool got here to take him to pre-school. We only had 15 minutes because I strategically took 7 minutes to send various cars and animals rocketing down a track he had built on our stairs in the hopes that this connection would see us through the morning gauntlet. It sort of did.
I still wound up restraining him from throwing cashews in the kitchen that he didn’t want to eat and the toothbrushing was a lengthier negotiation than I wanted. Finally, the car arrived to whisk him off to school. I wanted nothing more than to toss him inside and run for my life. Instead, he hid behind my legs and willed his body to weigh 80 extra pounds, his little shoes sinking into our patio like a rusty anchor. At this moment, I wanted to say, through gritted teeth, with all the authority and domineering I could muster, “Jo, you have to let go, its time to get in the car.”
She struggles to pull her fingers apart, and the Chinese finger cuff wraps its grip even tighter.
Instead, I surrendered. Got down, looked in his eyes and said, “Are you feeling shy?” “Yes,” he said. Connection? Check.
He shuffled those 80 lb feet all the way to the car and got inside like a champ.
While the motherhood-as-trap metaphor sounds defeatist and sad, it also feels deeply true. There are so many moments that I just want to use my free will and strength and smarts to muscle through. Often when I do this, there is so much collateral damage in the form of tantrums and resistance that it’s really not worth it. But there are some days when I just really, really want to run free. Fast and unencumbered.
And then I take stock.
Here I am.
I have 2 children. That means that there is a built in, hour by hour surrender to my days. Sometimes, that surrender feels like giving up. Other times, it feels old and true and wise. I want less struggle. I want more connection. But I also want freedom.
In order to encourage more cooperation around daily tasks, a friend suggests the genius idea of having your 4 year old earn video time, which he loves, by doing things like putting on his clothes, cleaning his room, taking his dishes to the table. You launch into the new plan with optimism and vigor, and lo and behold, he earns 15 minutes of video time and is standing in his straightened up room all ready and dressed for school. He wants to watch the video now, which you didn’t consider, since now there are exactly 14 minutes until you need to leave for school, but what the heck? You want him to enjoy the fruits of his labor in hopes that this earning video time system will continue to work in your favor. You crack open the laptop and will the red bar on Netflix to move a little faster so the video will start. He joyously watches Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater in a variety of highly gender stereotypical scenarios and you enjoy some “uninterrupted” time to chatter with the baby while he squirms in his bouncy seat while making sure the lunches are packed and finishing your oatmeal. You hear the requisite music signaling that Tow Mater has emerged victorious again. The video is ending. You walk up to your son and say, “We’re going to close the computer now. You watched your 15 minutes that you earned today. Good job.” And as you move your hand towards the screen, he erupts with animal yowls and starts kicking your side. “It’s really time to close this, honey. And I’m not going to let you kick me.” You reach out with one arm, trying to calm the kicking legs and close the screen with your other hand. Animal screams ensue and he launches towards the laptop, knocking it off of the table.
If this scenario sounds even vaguely familiar to you, read on. If not, I either 1) want to know your secret and welcome you to leave a lengthy comment including as many instructional details as possible or 2) think you might be kidding yourself.
Surprise! This scenario happened in our house not long ago. And though the details vary, we run up against similar moments on a daily if not hourly basis.
Since my recent tangle with anxiety, I upgraded “figure out how to set boundaries without Jo going completely ape or if he does go ape, have a plan” to the top of my list, since it was, largely, anxiety provoking.
I’ve found some great resources, so I’m going to share them with you in this little multi-part series, as I have the time.
This book is super cool. It gives very direct and simple explanations for why our children can react in the ways that they do and how we can work with the actual brains that our children have to help them. The single most helpful thing in this book for me was its clarity on what you can reasonably expect from a child and what you can’t. Since I often feel like understanding Jo’s motivations and reactions is like trying to speak a familar-sounding but completely foreign alien language, I found those distinctions really helpful.
It’s unrealistic to expect them always to be rational, regulate their emotions, make good decisions, think before acting and be empathetic–all of the things a developed upstairs brain helps them do. They can demonstrate some of these qualities to varying degrees much of the time, depending on their age. But for the most part, kids just don’t have the biological skill set to do so all the time. Sometimes they can use their upstairs brain, and sometimes they can’t Just knowing this and adjusting our expectations can help us see that our kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have.
And like all parenting books that I end up loving, this one helps you understand yourself and your own reactions too. After all, parents also have brains that were once children’s brains. And they do an awful lot of the same things.
There are also great sections of the book that are designed to read to your kid. They describe the upstairs and downstairs brain, the different sides of the brain and different ways that kids can work with their brains to help them move through various states of upset. I wasn’t sure how the book would fly with Jo, but he keeps asking to “read the brain book again,” so I think I’m going to break down and buy a copy, now that I had to return ours to the library.
This goes without saying, but as you read these little nuggets describing things I’ve found helpful, please share yours too. Cause we all know it takes a village. And since few of us actually live in a village, we can at least take refuge in a helpful string of blog comments in a nebulous space called the internet.
I go through cycles as a parent when I feel unfettered and fabulous and others that leave me worried, ashamed and inept. The last few months have been the latter, and I’ve done what I usually do when I’m utterly baffled by raising my son–I place a minimum of 5 parenting books on hold at the library.
And then I cart them home. I read the first part of a few chapters of one and then they sit until I have to renew them. And they sit some more. When the final return date threatens, our house looks like a child development study hall after 8pm. I cram.
Last night I read through page 73 of this one:
It was recommended on my Facebook page by one of YOU, radical readers. I must say, it’s a real doosey.
The take home message: babies and kids need to cry and rage. A lot more than you might think. Solter’s main point that I’m digging is that there are many sources of stress in children’s lives, even if they’re well cared for. And that they have a few ways of resolving that accumulated stress: play, laughter, talking and crying or raging. Often, this stress builds up in their bodies over time, and a seemingly insignificant event, like being handed a broken cookie or having to put their shoes on, can trigger a crying fit or rage-a-thon. I love this, because it helps me feel more compassion when J flips out over the fact that I cut up the apple instead of leaving it whole. Sure. Maybe it really is all about the apple. But it could also be about a kid snatching a toy away from him at daycare yesterday. Or when I grabbed his arm and told him NO! when he was walking away from me in the parking lot that morning.
The way I understand it, it’s not that they are actively remembering the prior stress when they’re freaking out about the apple. Rather, their bodies remember, and they are trying, through tears or tantrums (!) to resolve that stress.
I relate to this book because I do the same thing. We’re in the midst of a big move. (Yes, escrow closed! And I’m excited not to need to use that word again for a long time.) I don’t do moves well. I’m pregnant. We have a very physical, rage-y toddler. So it is not uncommon, once we put J to bed, for me to sit on the couch, start talking with A, and when he looks at me in a particularly kind way, I’ll just lose it. Tears upon tears. And some sobbing. Little patches of snot on his shoulder. And then I heave a few sighs and feel better. Stress resolved. For the moment.
Solter tells stories of parents recognizing when their kids need to cry and holding them close, somewhat immobilizing them for a bit, and then they (the children) tumble into a sob festival. Afterwards, they’ll be all relaxed, sparkly and at ease. I actually tried to get J to cry this morning when we were playing before I dropped him off at daycare. He’d had a pretty surly morning, so I thought maybe we could sit down and have a good cry. I did the gentle hold. Told him it was okay for him to cry. And he did have a few half-hearted wails. And then asked if he could get down.
Maybe he didn’t need to cry? Perhaps he’s more of a rager. Sigh. Either way, it helps me to see the rage and tears as a way for him to relieve some built up pressure in his system. That way, I won’t get too fixated on the apple.