Think of your child as a plant who is programmed by nature to grow and blossom. If you see the plant has brown leaves, you consider if maybe it needs more light, more water, more fertilizer. You don’t criticize it and yell at it to straighten up and grow right.
Kids form their view of themselves and the world every day. They need your encouragement to see themselves as good people who are capable of good things. And they need to know you’re on their side. If most of what comes out of your mouth is correction or criticism, they won’t feel good about themselves, and they won’t feel like you’re their ally. You lose your only leverage with them, and they lose something every kid needs: to know they have an adult who thinks the world of them.
– From “Building a Great Relationship with your Child” in Aha! Parenting
On our spring break trip to California, my son rounded up other kids at the hotel pool and played for 4 hours without pause. At the San Diego Botanical Gardens, he climbed up into tangled two-story treehouse and built a shelter out of balsa wood. On one bright morning, he hiked with his grandma and me through the hills at Torrey Pines as Pacific tides lapped at the cliffs.
He also fought, screamed, raged, cried, hit, kicked, and hurled insults. Every single day at every point of conflict, his body went rigid with defiance. He said hateful things. He brought his grandmother and cousin to tears. Me, to worse.
My belly burns even now, remembering my words of violence. The way I used force and threat to yank him into compliance.
I left for the west coast excited for sunshine and family and time away from the office. I returned eight days later a shattered zombie. Because of his behavior and my disastrous responses, we cancelled our reservations for a summer trip to Myrtle Beach.
We have months of home now stretching out before us.
My son is now halfway through his last year of being a little kid. He turns 10 soon, officially a tween. At his annual physical last month, the doctor confirmed that he’s not starting puberty yet. This aggressive intensity has roots in some other dark soil.
Where to go from here? Bug’s dad has no concerns. He’s hinted that any problems with our son are due to my bad parenting and are my issues to resolve. I’ve decided it’s not worth pursuing an adjustment of that thinking. Yes, the civility with which we coordinate homework and summer schedules makes us the envy of our divorced friends. Even so, it’s clear that our co-parenting relationship ends at the border where our worldviews collide.
In part, then, Tee is right. These problems with Bug are mine to resolve.
Magical hopefulness, reliance on that specious promise of “time” to stitch up fault-lines, has proven an utter failure. I see once again that some kind of work on my part is required.
I don’t know what to do.
But I have to do it anyway.
I wish some grand gesture could flip Bug’s and my relationship and turn it into a loving bond. With this singular, powerful approach, we’d open a treasure box full of thoughtful communication tools and emotional insight. We’d know the secret. We’d be transformed.
The grand act worked at 22. It was possible to take off to Africa for a summer of service work. A person could break a lease and move onto a communal farm, or fall in love a dozen times, or join a circus troupe. Those choices freed us. They terrified us too, and changed us on a cellular level. Expansive moments turned earnest young adults into inventors and peacemakers and artists and leaders. Big acts can shift the universe around us, cracking open new fissures that we can slip through to an unexpected future.
Now on the other side of 40 with a child and a home and a place in this community, the grand gestures no longer do the trick. They still tantalize (oh, to learn Spanish while tilling fields in a Costa Rican village!) but they are more craving than nourishment.
Now, it is small actions that sustain.
I’ve lost my way with my son. I have to find — if not the way, then a way — back to us.
I pause and consider how to orient in other twisting landscapes:
Fitness flagging? Don’t kick off a new regimen by going all-out paleo and running 10 miles a day. Instead add 5 planks and 5 pounds.
Job inertia? Don’t leap to career overhaul by giving notice or mortgaging the house to start a business. Instead, submit a proposal to a conference. Look for a local leadership opportunity. Pick one new concrete skill — that one you’ve been avoiding — and learn it.
Bug’s had nine years to become the person he is. I’ve had 42. If I hope to cultivate healthier ways of being in our family, I’ll need to do it one itty-bitty step at a time.
I’m trying this now. Seeking out and attempting tiny new approaches. Even if I have no idea what or why or how, I’m trying something.
Yesterday, I read one interview in Washington Parent with Vicki Hoefle. Last night, when Bug was dawdling in his bath, I chose not to nag or roar. I just leaned in over him, traced my hands across the water and stroked his hair. We talked quietly for a few minutes and then I whispered that the only way we’d have time for bedtime reading was to get ready for bed. He stood right up and stepped into his towel.
This morning, when my boy raged at me over some mysterious slight, I stayed calm and listened. Then I spoke in clear, even words, and gave him room to fume. He settled down almost as quickly as he’d ratcheted up.
Today, I read one list of reminders from Aha! Parenting.
This evening, I brought my son home and let him race around outside with his friends as a deliciously late sunset drew the day to its long and lazy end. When he came in and we began setting the table together, I met his pace instead of seething at him to settle down. We tripped-ran-looped from kitchen to dining room and back, pretending to overshoot our targets each time. We managed to get the table set even while laughing and sloshing water on the floor.
We may end up awake past bedtime. We have homework still to do.
Also, we have a bond to nourish. A family to heal.
Tonight, we’re finding our way together.
Back to each other.
Image: Katie M. Berggren, Blessed Nest