On "Giving In" to Our Children

Lake Accotink Park, Virginia - February 2013

Lake Accotink Park, Virginia - February 2013

I remember a mom on a homeschool email list writing in for suggestions because she felt like she was starting to see her strong-willed son as an "enemy," someone to do battle with in order to get him to behave each day. The last thing that we want is to have our sweet kids whom we adore and love like anything feel like an enemy or worse feel like we are an enemy to them. Yet so much parenting advice is filled with dire warnings and admonishments that if you don't nip problem behaviors in the bud at an early age you are going to have a self-entitled spoiled brat of a kid who does not care for anyone but himself. 

As I have mentioned, Jason was a very strong-willed kid. But it really was a bit more than just that and being able to see him through a more forgiving lens made a huge difference. I came to realize that he was (is) a kid of strong passions and impulses. When he was younger he just was not able to control them and they often overwhelmed him which made him lose it. Even when I thought that he should be "old enough" to be able to handle things, he often was not (just like not all kids are ready to read at 6). 

The other truth is that "traditional" approaches to discipline never seemed to work (or I was just not willing to do what seemed to be necessary to make them work for my kids.) Rewards never worked because Jason usually decided that the reward was not worth doing what I wanted him to do. Punishments and taking things away never worked because he just dug in harder and I had to keep upping the ante. Time outs never worked because they often wound up with me having to hold the door shut to keep him in which felt awful. Walking away did not work because he just followed me (and again, I would have to hold a door shut to keep him out). Yelling did not work because it was hurtful and made me (and him) feel plain awful. Spankings were not even on the table (did I mention he was strong-willed? Not to mention physically punishing my own child went against my own core beliefs about how you treat any person.)

I finally got to the point that I realized that I did not want to feel like I had to work against my own son. So I started asking the question: "how can I work with him, rather than against him?" This required a bit of a paradigm shift because I had to also shift to realizing that he was not acting the way that he was because of a failure on my part as a parent (or to just make my life harder which is how it seemed sometimes.) I had to start giving him the benefit of the doubt...he was fundamentally a good kid who wanted to do what was right, not just a problem that needed a solution. If he could do what I wanted/needed him to do, he would. So if he was not complying, then I had to realize that he was not able to do it. Which means that he needed my help and understanding, not my punishments.

So the trick was how to help him? Not by letting him "get his own way" all the time obviously. Although one thing that did help was getting better about "picking my battles" and letting some things slide (which could be considered "giving in" by some). On the things that were more important, however, I tried to shift from getting him to do what I wanted/needed him to do to helping him navigate his strong feelings. This involved a lot of talking and often mirroring his feelings and commiserating with him. "You really wanted that toy, didn't you? It's hard to not get what you want, isn't it?" Or sometimes if he was in full meltdown mode it just meant sitting with him and holding him while he worked through his intense feelings. 

In the beginning I was conflicted about this because it almost seemed like "rewarding" bad behavior. Until I started realizing that I was dealing with a child who, by definition, is immature which meant that he did not have the ability to regulate his feelings and needed my help. I realized that that when I am really upset it never helped if someone told me I should not feel the way that I did and that what helped me the most was just having someone who could commiserate that the situation sucked even if they could not fix or change it. 

But man, it is so hard not to take the strong feelings of our kids personally!  

It also helped to realize that my own emotional state very much affected how I perceived my son and recognizing this helped to allow me to give us both some grace. Let me say this again: My own emotional state very much affected how I perceived my son.  If I was stressed by other things going on in my life, I had less emotional energy and found that it was way harder to deal with my intense little kid who did not have an off switch. Often getting through the day was just about giving myself credit for holding it together as much as I could. And realizing that this phase too would pass. 

It took a lot of energy on my part to parent Jason when he was younger and in some ways more traditional approaches might have been "easier" in the short term. But now, watching the still intense, strong willed but fantastic person he is today at 18, I can honestly say that it has paid off in spades.

Doing my best to stay on his side whenever possible and giving him the space to learn how to work through his strong feelings has made my relationship with him stronger and much more enjoyable on the whole for me. I just don't have it in me to "be the parent" in the traditional sense. All I could do was to strive to have as authentic a relationship with him as I could and trust that he did have real, valid-for-him reasons for his actions. The more that I could try to understand where he was coming from, the more that we could work together. Obviously, a 4 year old's reasons are not always going to be rational, but they are valid and they are where he is coming from.

So, as in my previous post on relationship parenting, I am writing this to provide support to those who are like me and just find that a lot of traditional parenting advice does not "feel right." I want to put in a plug for choosing a relationship-centered path of parenting and overcoming the idea that by trying our best to accept our kids for where they are does not mean that we will create self-centered, spoiled kids.

Of course, the truth is that we are all winging it and this is just my experience of what has worked with my kids. So take what works and leave the rest!