I’m a father of two beautiful girls. I say this not because they are pretty, though that they may be. Even if they are pretty, well, that’s not really my fault. I say this because they were born with big hearts. They are now at the golden age where I can take them out and not worry about breastfeeding, diapers and potential upsets. They are mature enough now to take stock of our adventures outside, though they still like to play in a store like it’s a playground.
I’ve been a father for six years now. I can recall when I received word that my wife, Alice was pregnant. It was on April 1st that we got the call, and I worried briefly that it was a prank. We were expecting this call after taking a pregnancy test and all I could think was, “Oh, my God. I’m going to be a father.” I kept repeating that in my mind for hours and hours and eventually it faded. The news just sunk in. And when my first daughter was born, I was a father, starting a very long journey that is still in progress and it has brought me to this moment in time.
I am what some people may refer to as a lazy parent. I generally stay out of the way of my kids for they are doing most of the work of growing up. We didn’t get any walkers or bouncy things for our kids as infants. We let them lay on the floor and figure out how to move, how to roll over, how to crawl. We did that as often as possible, because we knew that for many months, that was their workout. We let them figure out how to walk.
I have enjoyed watching them grow up and now that they’re becoming familiar with some of the many nuances of their native language, English, I can deploy those nuances in times of boredom or even upset.
Being a parent (and reading a few books) has made me a master of dealing with upsets. From time to time, kids experience frustration, anger, and defeat, and so they cry, or at the least, express their feelings in ways that (I would think) most adults have grown out of.
The first tool that I deploy for any upset is the hug. Hugs are free. Hugs have 0 calories and no sugar. Hugs can deliver a few minutes of oxytocin, enough to calm the average toddler of any upset.
Now there are moments of defiance where one of my kids will refuse even a hug. They may be angry and insist on getting their way. To them, I say, “You can ask for a hug at any time, under any circumstance. I’ll be here.” I say this even when they’re yelling and screaming. I say this even when they give me the scowl with their arms folded, for I know that they are trying something on to see if it works. I also say, “I can’t give you want you want, but I can always give you a hug.”
During upsets, I let them cry, but I offer a hug. I will sit with them at eye level and talk with them while they are crying or having their upset. During their upsets I am patient with them, letting them discharge whatever it is they need to discharge, for a temper tantrum is to me, an electrical storm in the brain. I know that soon, the storm will pass, and they can talk again.
I also know that if I talk to them while they are crying or engaged in a temper tantrum, that eventually, they will have to soothe themselves to hear what I’m saying. I know that by talking to them, they see and hear that I’m talking to them, and that they want to know what I’m saying. So they learn to set aside their feelings for a moment to listen and inquire. The brain can only be angry or sad for so long and then it has to do something else.
I don’t see upsets as something I have to stop right this minute. I just let them be upset and then let them know, “Just because you’re angry doesn’t mean I have to be angry, too. I can make a choice to be angry or not. I just want you to know that I’m not angry at you for being angry. So just let me know when you want a hug.”
I have done this so many times, that my kids are used to not getting what they want right when they want it. And I’ve seen them fold many times into my arms for a hug. I want them to know that just being angry isn’t a way to get what they want. I want them to know that they are free to express themselves any way they want, save for hitting someone else and for that there is restraint. I just know now that I can reliably defuse any upset with enough time and patience.
Keep in mind that I absolutely deplore spanking or hitting of any kind. Toddlers are not equipped to “just stop crying” or to “behave”. They learn that from us. So if we hit them, if we coerce them, if we bully them into compliance, they are learning that from us and they will do that to others in school. And perhaps later on in business or government. If you believe that the United States is home of the brave and land of the free, coercion of your child will destroy that dream.
I have also used humor to great effect. One time, my older child was having an upset in the car, and to express her disagreement with me, she just kept saying “no” to everything that I offered in response. So, at a stop light, I turned and pointed to her and said, “Don’t make me smile, or I might smile back!” It’s non-sense, but it worked. She kind of furrowed her brow, thought about it briefly and started to smile. Then as the light turned green, I looked in the mirror and both of them were smiling.
I have even found a nice little trick for the reluctant eater. I’d look in their bowl and say, “Hey, I think I see something moving in there.” And I’d change my voice to a tiny high pitch and say, “Help, please don’t eat me!” And the spoon would dive in for the next bite, with both of my girls smiling. I know, not the most pleasant image. But I thought making a sort of game of it would be better than commanding my kid to eat.
Often, when I want my kids to go somewhere or do something, I challenge them. I know this works because when they were younger, they were constantly showing off to me, what newly discovered skill they had stumbled upon. They need that attention, by the way, so I never dismiss it. I always acknowledge a new skill.
So I’d say stuff like, “Be in the bathroom before me to brush your teeth”, and then I’d let them win. “Be the first to change your clothes and you get to wear my hat”, and clothes would fly in a fury of effort. “I’ll be upstairs to the kitchen before you” and they would scurry up the stairs before I could even get to the landing.
I generally use encouragement before commandments. I only use commandments in times of danger, with an exclamation point. I don’t like being told what to do, and I doubt my kids do, too. So I just challenge them. And when challenges of their own making present themselves, and they prove to be too much, I am there, with a hug ready to deploy.