Tuesday, 21 August 2012
How to parent well when no one’s watching
My teeth on the impossibly slippery yogurt tube, I’m tearing it open with the baby on my lap and trying not to squirt yogurt in his hair and I’m due in yoga in 10 minutes (serenity. NOW) when the 6-year-old says “Mom, look at this,” and starts squeezing his juice box.
“DON’T. SQUEEZE IT.” I seethe, too loudly, my teeth still clenched on the yogurt.
At this exact moment, my favorite, I-want-to-be-like-you yoga instructor materializes out of nowhere, already almost past our table, and of course she saw and heard that whole damn thing.
“Do I get to see you today?” she asks with her sweet smile and hopeful eyes, and I roll mine, saying yes, my face saying I think I need it today don’t you?
I slump over after she’s out of sight, defeated. I want a do-over.
For the rest of their lunch, I’m patient. I’m kind and funny, I’m engaging and warm. I keep looking around for her to walk back through the room.
Where is she now that I’m being amazing, dammit? Where’s my audience for this moment of mothering?
* * *
I’ve been taught to know my audience.
You adapt a piece of writing for its intended target. You change things according to who you’re talking to and where you’re going with an article.
Children are the intended audience for parenting, obviously — so why do they get the worst performance when we’re in private? Why is my best parenting on display when others (other parents, even other kids) are watching me?
* * *
Of course, they save their worst for me, too. They’re compliant and agreeable and downright charming for their teachers and other parents. At their worst, when I’m exasperated, sometimes I even ask them if they behave that way for their friends or for other parents, but I know the answer. Of course they don’t. Their dad and I get the complaining, the arguing, the screaming, the crying, the defiance, the pushing of limits and buttons.
And it’s a compliment; I know this. It’s healthy, it’s right and good that they let out their worst for me. It means they’re securely attached. That they trust me. That they aren’t afraid to be at their worst, because they trust that my love for them won’t change no matter what.
But the reverse, no matter how easy it is (and it is easy), shouldn’t be true. I know that being my worst for them won’t change their love for me, either, but if I want to build a relationship of trust, if I want to model kindness and respect and joyful parenting, then my kids shouldn’t experience my worst. At least not every time I’m feeling it.
* * *
Here are two things that help me parent well when no one (except my kids) is watching.
The first is practical, and it’s a tip a friend of mine came up with. When I’m feeling frustrated or tired or at the end of my rope, I pretend I’m disciplining other peoples’ kids.
You know how it is during a playdate, or at the playground or anywhere you have to step in to discipline or instruct someone else’s kid? It’s not what were you thinking? knock it off! but more like hey buddy, that’s not how we treat each other, right? We soften it, we are more sensitive, even more loving. It’s weird, and I do wish my default was the other way around — but it’s a brilliant, in-the-moment tip that has helped me out of rage or shaming my kids.
The second tip is based on my kids’ example. They give their worst to me because I can handle it without changing my love for them. So, I give my worst to God. Because he can handle it.
When I feel the most frustrated, when I feel like raging or screaming or hyperventilating, I push pause on the urgent situation in front of me and then focus the negative energy at God. Scream at him in my mind. Tell him how pissed off I am, how hurt, how I can’t take another second. I lay it all out there for him, because he can take it. He knows anyway, but my act of giving it to him helps diffuse the energy, absorbs the negativity. I can open my eyes, whisper grace, please and get on with the hard work with more kindness and patience because I’ve let go of the other stuff, at least a little.
Because it’s as comforting as it is humbling: God takes me at my worst and loves me through it. He wants me however I feel, wherever I’m at, at my worst and at my best. He just wants me, period. It’s a truth that can change a life and a heart, and it’s helping change my parenting, too.
* * *
How can you give God your worst today?