. . . a discouraged child tends to focus increasingly on her anxious desire to fit in and quickly loses sight of the needs of others in the family. Children are always trying to improve their sense of securely belonging as valuable members of the group, and they fear losing that connection. Therefore, the more the child’s discouragement deepens, the less capable she feels of interacting with others in useful ways. Instead, she is more likely to resort to misbehavior to connect inappropriately, to feel negatively powerful, and finally to gain at least a perverse sense of respect before giving up when her attempts fail.
– Linda Jessup and Emory Luce Baldwin, Parenting with Courage and Uncommon Sense
My boy has been back with me for a week. During that time, I have not screamed once. I have not stormed out to cool down. We have been on time for camp drop off every morning without a fight. Bug has gotten himself out of the bath, teeth brushed, and into bed before 9:00 every night without me raising my voice or lifting a finger.
On July 7, I made a commitment to heal our family. This is a tall order. A family is more than just one mom and it would seem that one mom alone can’t overhaul a whole family culture. Each of us can only control ourselves. As it turns out, this may be the concept that brings the most significant change to our family.
When children are very small and dependent on us, we can haul them out of troubling situations and put them in their cribs at specified times. We can decide what food is in front of them. As they get older, this control shifts. They fight their own playground battles. They can get up out of bed and turn the light back on. They can snub dinner and sneak treats from the fridge behind our backs.
A parent cannot control a child. Control is an illusion. Dominance as a method of control is an illusion. A parent can withhold, wheedle, punish, threaten, bribe, and ignore, but even with these dangerous tools, a parent cannot control a child.
What a parent can do is model healthy choices and guide a child to build the capacity to navigate the world.
I made a commitment to learn whatever I could to strengthen our family. The past few weeks, I have planted this commitment into the center of my days. Between reading and journaling to reflect on the approaches I’ve taken (and might like to try), I’ve immersed myself in a 16-hour Parenting Encouragement Program class. The process has been intense and even transformative. That word that usually makes me roll my eyes, but in this case, “transformation” about captures what’s happening here.
My son comes off the day camp bus in a foul mood and immediately lays into me for some perceived slight, like asking him to please hand me the tablet so I can charge it. He is furious, steaming, telling me he hates me. These are his steps in our standard friction-filled dance, one we’ve been perfecting for years.
Now, I choose a different dance, one that improvises and responds. First I catch my breath. No reaction. I ask myself quietly to note that Bug’s behavior is a textbook version of discouragement, that he is actually seeking connection and a sense of belonging through a mistaken goal of taking revenge on me.
A parent cannot control a child. A parent can only control her own choices.
I choose my words with care. “It seems like something is really bothering you. I’m sorry it’s hard. Remember that it’s not okay to call me names or hurt me. When you are ready to talk about what’s bothering you in a less hurtful way, I am here to listen.”
He continues to simmer and spit but it’s cooling down. I sit quietly and breathe, remembering that my son is a creative child, he’s bright and resourceful. That he is learning, as I am. Even in my silence, I keep my mind on the goal of encouraging him and helping him feel connected and capable.
After a little while, after we’ve moved on to the next phase of our evening, he quietly — almost distractedly — says, “You should write a bad review of that camp.”
“Really?” I say, just as casually. “And what would I write in this review?”
Then he opens like the sky. Something happened this morning at the high ropes course. A misunderstanding, a punishment he felt was unfair. We talk it through and I match his tone. Attentive but calm, like this is any old conversation on any old day, not a huge issue. I do not come up with a list of solutions or reprimand him for what most likely stemmed from his failure to listen to instructions. I reflect back what I’ve heard and capture what his feelings might have been about this. Finally, I say, “Would you like to think through what you could do if this happens again? Or to keep something like it from happening next time?”
Bug shrugs and says “maybe,” then turns to his crafts. He’s had enough for now. Enough is fine. Enough is miles ahead of where we were a month ago. Enough is a victory. When and if he does want to tackle the issue, I’ll be ready to help him tap his courage and find his way.
I can only control myself. The choices I make contain the threads that stitch together this family. When Bug and I were stumbling through our difficult 9-day stay-cation together in June, this was my commitment:
I am determined to sustain a creative, positive planning attitude for the duration of this stay-cation with my son. This means I am equally determined to postpone any self-improvement initiative that might divert energy from our formidable endeavor.
Now I see that these two journeys — family health and personal well-being — are part of the same whole. Indeed, they turn on the same axis. The more skillful a parent I become, the more loving our relationship, the more encouraged my son, and the more nourishing our home. From this place, we all grow. In this place, we thrive.
Image: Pristine Cartera Turkus, “Mother & Child”