Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Pause of Parenting

Let me start off this post with a huge disclaimer that my Handsome Stallion of a Husband and I are by no means parenting experts. We only have two kids, and the oldest just turned four, so I know we don't have all the answers. That being said, I have a blog title hinting at the opposite, so I have a reputation to maintain.

Sigh...it's so hard being perfect.

Please don't yell at me. That was sarcasm.

At the same time, I'm home with the kids every day, all day. If I measure my parenting just based on years, I'm an amateur. But if we're going by days... we're over 1,460, and that sounds like a lot. Because it kind of is a lot of time to be around the same two children. Every single day I try my hardest to be better than the day before, and to try to be that parent I want to be. It's not always easy; it is so hard to break old habits even if you never planned on having them to begin with.

But my husband and I have learned a skill that is too good to not share. The name of this skill is, what I call, "The Pause."

The name is not original, and I first heard about it when reading "Bringing Up Bebe" by Pamela Druckerman, where she describes French parents who stand back and pause before rushing to their fussing newborn. The French believe that babies have sleeping cycles, and sometimes a fuss means the babies are just transitioning from one cycle to the next. The French think that parents who rush in and scoop up the baby at every single peep disrupt the baby's ability to self-sooth and become a patient, independent little person.

To be honest, I have never had the chance to try this with a newborn. Little Huck was well beyond the newborn stage when I read that book. But I'm due with my third baby in May, and, between you and me, I cannot imagine standing by and watching her fuss for several minutes when I could easily pacify her with a snuggle or some boobies.

But the idea behind "The Pause" is smart. Maybe parents do too much too soon, and maybe they get in the way of what the child needs to accomplish on his or her own.

I have a confession: I used to love self-help books. Parenting, marriage, self-improvement - whatever the topic, I could read all day. Psychology and human interaction fascinate me. But I have to admit that my desire to read such books came to a contented little halt after reading "Connection Parenting" by Pam Leo. I've written a whole blog post about this book before, so I won't go into it deeply here. But what I will say is that it found a comfy spot in my heart and filled a void I never realized I had (until right now, as I type this paragraph). Her wisdom applies to all relationships: self, marriage, and parenting. I can put my feet up now and say good-bye to all the other books!

Ta-ta, darling!

One thing Pam Leo makes very clear is that parents do not have to fix everything. I know you might be quick to say that you don't try to fix everything, but how many times have you said, "Oh you're fine, it's nothing, you're okay, shh, don't cry, here let's do this instead, it's not that bad, that's nothing to cry about, let's sing a song, let's read a book, look - a chocolate, hey do you want to see me stick out my ears and tongue at the same time?" All those things are what adults say when trying to fix a problem. Instead of going through this list of dismissing, distracting tricks each time our children are upset, all we really have to do is be there and connect with them while they learn the skills to deal with their feelings that arise from the upsetting situations. 


Totally watch this video and then come back.

We often act like children do not deserve respect. After all, they're children and they should know their place. And I'm not saying that they never act a little ridiculous and seem to need a firm reminder, but what if most of the time it's not the children who need disciplining, but instead it's us?

What if parents are the ones who need to be taught how to behave? What if parents are the ones who need to realize that their children are human beings and deserve respect and understanding, just as adults expect it from each other?

"But kids are crazy. Parents need to teach them how to behave."

I totally get it, and our tactics might seem like we're teaching them how to behave. But actually, they're not. They're our attempts at stopping a behavior - not teaching the right one.

Young children have very strong emotions. Trust me, you haven't seen a dramatic four-year-old until you've seen Little Olive completely lose her cool when she has the tiniest, smallest, not-even-bleeding-boo-boo. It could be a leftover pink mark on her skin from when she was painting earlier - you'd think the world was ending. When my husband and I simply try to move her hand out of the way for one second to inspect the damage, she exclaims desperately, "JUST GET ME A BAND-AID!"

Little kids have very strong emotions because 1) they haven't learned how to otherwise express them and 2) because they haven't learned to hide them.

Yeah, think about it. In the eyes of most people, having strong emotions is seen as unstable. "Omg, she's emotional" automatically means "Omg she has problems." So when we see a young child expressing and displaying strong emotions, adults tend to jump to the conclusion that there is a major problem needing to be fixed. NOW.

Little children are easy to control. Haha...wow, I can't believe I just typed that. No, they're not. Anyone who's ever been around a toddler for more than three seconds knows they're not easy at all to control. What I mean is that adults behave as if it's their right/duty/life's passion to control little children. Control their words, their emotions, their behavior, etc.

Honestly, the only person you have control over is yourself. It doesn't matter if you're a permissive parent or a rod and staff parent: control is always out of reach. Sure, it might appear to be happening for a little while, and for the wrong reasons, but eventually someone's going to snap. The more that parents try to control their children, the more they teach their children to behave in a way that gives the parent the impression of control.

It goes along with a very important truth I am trying to instil in my kids to protect them from predators: "You cannot force someone to do something they don't want to do." Sure, I could sit my four-year-old down and explain to her about our private parts and how she should never allow anyone to touch them or make her touch theirs, and I fight with this daily because then I risk putting scary images into her mind at this age. Or, I could just try my very best to instil in her the value of basic respect - both of herself and of others. You cannot force someone to do something they don't want to do. I tell my kids they have to respect each other, they have to be gentle with each other, that it's not okay to cry to get what they want when the other sibling isn't doing something the right way, that manipulation and bribing is not okay, or that physical force is not okay. Even during diaper changes and nose wipes, and unwelcomed kisses from that relative who's insisting on a kiss, it's a fine line to walk to condition a child to hold still while something is being done that's uncomfortable for them.

This makes me shudder.

Instead, I want to have that connection with and respect for my children where their emotions are validated, even if those emotions don't change my mind or the outcome. In the end, I'm the parent, and what I say goes. But that doesn't mean I don't have ears or a brain that can stop and listen first. I know for a fact that when children (and let's face it, anyone at any age), are given the opportunity to connect and express their emotions freely,  they are emotionally healthier than those who have been taught that certain emotions should not be shown.

Children whose feelings are dismissed learn from an early age that their feelings are not important and/or not good.

Children who are constantly distracted when upset about something learn that 1) their feelings cannot be dealt with and that, ultimately, 2) life cannot be dealt with.

Children having a tantrum or crying over something we see as trivial makes adults feel uncomfortable. That doesn't always mean the child needs to stop so that the adult can go back to feeling comfortable. It actually means the adult needs to ask him or herself why it's uncomfortable. Yes, I know, if the child is screaming at an ear-piercing pitch, that is physically uncomfortable and hurts the ear drums and everything. That's not what I mean though. I'm talking about a child being upset at any level. Why are adults not able to deal with it but then expect the children to do so at the drop of a hat?

My husband and I try very hard to do "the pause" when one of our children is upset about something. That doesn't mean we stand in the doorway and say, "Deal with it, kid. Figure out your emotions." No. We go to them, hug them, hold their hand, dry their eyes, and sometimes we repeat what's going on. "I know you're so sad that you can't have chocolate milk right now. I want chocolate milk too."

From the naive eye, this looks like we're coddling them. I respectfully disagree. What people need to realize is that this is not always done with a sugary voice and perfect gracefulness. Sometimes it's done with our own real-life emotions. But we're learning that it's possible to be frustrated and calm at the same time. Showing our frustration is not the same as yelling or losing it. We can still be there for the kids without being scary on one extreme or fake on the other. Understanding and connection is not coddling. Let me repeat that in pretty colors:

Understanding and connection is not coddling.
  
Would you believe that most times, our kids are sad for a few more moments, and then move on? Like, completely move on. Little Olive is able to talk about it later and explain exactly what happened and why the solution didn't end up as she wanted. Sometimes though, depending on the situation, they keep crying for longer than a few moments. But we usually just try to keep doing what we're doing. It might take more explaining, sometimes it takes a bigger hug, but eventually, they move on.

No bribing, no shaming, no shushing, no offering of candy, another food, a movie, a toy, a distraction. Just "This is it, you are okay and safe, and I'm right here."

Children are so smart and capable. We have to step back and trust them sometimes. That doesn't mean disengaging. It just means being there for them while they figure it out. It's hard! Trust me, I don't always do it the way I'd like. But it's amazing what happens when parents apply the discipline they need for themselves. It's not always the children who need it.

Like I said, I'm not a parenting expert. But I'm trying hard to teach my children what they should do when something upsetting comes. Telling them what not to do is not exactly what parenting is about. Discipline means to teach. And since kids model everything, showing them what to do is how they learn. 

I would highly suggest trying the pause whenever you think of it. Your kids might surprise you with their response, and you just might surprise yourself too!