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Structural Integrity

In the park, a dad holds hands with one son while his other boy darts off into an empty batting cage. “Garrett, come on,” the dad calls. “We’re leaving.” Dad and little brother are strolling at a toddler’s pace. They have plenty of ground to cover before they reach the parking lot. Clearly, they are not leaving yet. “Bye bye, Garrett. We’re leaving you here.” Garrett, God bless him, ignores his dad. He is in a cage. A deserted one. How dangerous can it be?
 
I have only one kid. I’ll concede that I can’t fully appreciate the challenge of managing more. How does a parent keep an eye on the one who has run off when the other is foraging in the dirt for cigarette butts? Like every other parent out there, Garrett’s dad is doing his best with the tools at hand to keep his sons safe. Still, I can’t help but think “bye bye” is a flawed strategy for roping the calves.
 
Garrett has undoubtedly heard his dad’s ploy before and knows it for the idle threat it is. I watch as he moves up and down the cage, lacing his fingers through the fencing. He is busy exploring and marveling, and his dad’s farewells ping off his deaf ears. “Garrett, now.” Ah, yes. Escalation. The wheedling has not worked, so Dad kicks it up to demands. Garrett stands at the gate for a moment before turning and re-entering the cage. Dad’s voice edges upward. “Come here, now. Five, four, three. . .”
 
I do not stick around for the next installment. The father will figure something out. So will Garrett. That’s the thing about kids and parents. We are always figuring things out. More often than not, what we end up learning is not what anyone intends.
 
It seems like eons have passed since I last counted down towards a punishment. It has been almost as long since I have seen Bug’s temper go volcanic. Parenting tactics in which I was engaging almost daily are now abstract memories. “If you don’t get over here by the count of three, the cinnamon toast goes in the garbage. One. . . Two . . .”  Threats are disappearing from my vocabulary. Time-outs have also been enjoying their retirement.  Occasionally, warnings about endangered privileges still slip out. My voice became accustomed to the feel of “If you don’t ____, then you lose ___.” These tics still skitter past my lips before my brain can intercept them. Like Garrett, Bug ignores these ploys. I usually do, too. We return to mending whatever is frayed between us.
 
From time to time, I still walk away. Before I respond, I need to quiet down my own howling, growling head. I am not always so good at telling Bug I need to step away to catch my breath, but I hope I am getting better. When I explain I will be back and we will figure it out together, he usually manages to wait for me without going off the rails.
 
They say twenty-eight repetitions form the habit. New approaches I established in my interactions with Bug are actually working. We get into the car for school most mornings now just by moving together through the preparations. It stuns me to watch my boy perform the straightforward exercise of walking out the door, sitting down in his car seat, and picking up his book. For months as long as lifetimes, that stretch between bed and car was a minefield. Now, I explain the expectations, give him choices, and speak in an upbeat tone about what is unfolding right in front of us. The former slog has become a simple morning routine.
 
While Tee and I were leaving kindergarten orientation last week, Bug threw not one, not two, but thee rocks at me. They all missed, but not by much. My vision constricted and my jaw set. I walked away from the first throw (which is why he hurled two more). Trying to stay calm, I called over my shoulder, “I cannot be near a little boy who throws rocks at me, even though I love him very much.” He had been asking to stay with me that night. It was, however, his night with his daddy. Repeated requests and increasing volume had not worked, so he scaled up to aggression. He was also tired, having forgone a nap at preschool, and was a little disoriented by his tour of the new elementary classroom.
 
All of these facts about his experience in that moment were right there for me to notice. Shifting my gaze away from my own rising temperature and back onto my son had the effect of cooling and centering my mind. In a previous post about Bug’s defiance, I wrote about focusing my attention on just one measure when deciding how to approach my son: Does this choice strengthen or weaken my relationship with Bug?
 
Halfway up the hill, I paused. Looking back, I saw my little boy standing all alone. He had been left behind. Even Tee was walking away, explaining calmly that Bug was going to lose his movie that night for throwing rocks. With yet another punishment added to the burden, Bug was cracking under the weight of it all. Somehow, he was supposed to swallow the disappointment and describe rather than act out his feelings in an unfamiliar location while being incredibly tired. He had almost no resource to handle the task before him. Clearly, he was far too small for all the decisions required of him in that moment.
 
A number of options are available to a parent to get a situation like this under control. Roaring, wheedling, doling out consequences, and putting the kid in a time-out all are on the table. The simplest approach might be to just ignore the behavior and continue walking. Wouldn’t this deprive the kid of a the satisfaction of a reaction while also making him practice moving through his stormy emotions? Any of these options might make Bug drop the rocks and get his butt in gear. They also might further fracture an already strained relationship.
 
The mantra about strengthening the bond reminded me to set aside every extraneous objective and slip back into alignment with my child.
 
Down the hill, Bug’s face was set somewhere between tornado and downpour. My response could determine which climactic event would occur. I took a breath. Then I walked straight out of the tight corset of my own anger and returned to my child. I knelt and opened my arms. He collapsed against my chest. I spoke in a very quiet voice. “You threw three rocks. You must have been feeling something big.” He quivered and sobbed. “I feel disappointed when something doesn’t go the way I want. I feel like throwing and breaking stuff, too.”
 
He quieted against me. “Yeah?”
 
“Yep. But throwing and breaking usually hurts people and makes things worse. So maybe I say how sad and disappointed I feel, or I cry, or I go find a hug. You did that. You cried and now you’re getting a hug.”
 
I kept holding him and letting him hide his face in my neck. He was as small as he needed to be. He was small enough to disappear. This was just fine, because I had become a big sanctuary carved into the side of a mountain.
 
For the first year or more of the separation and divorce, I lacked integrity. I understand this now. The foundation was cracked, the floor bowed, and the walls were caving in. My flawed judgment and instability led to poor choices. I was not able to face the truth of my limitations and situation, so I found escape in dishonesty. With upended priorities, I forgot how to be Bug’s refuge. He did not know who inhabited the tilting room that was supposed to hold his Mommy. Would he be entering Opelia’s haunted quarters or Medusa’s lair?  Would his pre-dawn knock awaken Miss Havisham or one of the Scylla’s sleeping heads? Sometimes, he did not find anyone at all. His grandmother had to fill in the sinkhole left in my absence.
 
“There is nothing easy about divorce,” writes Abigail Trafford in Crazy Time. “It is a savage emotional journey. You don’t know where it ends for a long time. You ricochet between the failure of the past and the uncertainty of the future. You struggle to understand what went wrong with your marriage, to apportion the blame and inventory your emotional resources. There is one thing you are sure of almost immediately: you know that life will never be the same again.”
 
During those falling-down months, I was not Bug’s safe place. Now, I can be now. The new floor is laid on bedrock. The beams are carved from oak.
 
“Tell you what,” I murmured into his scalp. “When I pick you up day after tomorrow, the doggy and kitty and grandma and granddaddy will all be at our house. We will have a special dinner. Anything you want. What is your all-time favorite meal?”
 
“You know,” he said, pushing his head up under my lips. He could not get close enough.
 
“Pizza,” I say.”
 
“Nope.”
 
“Hamburgers?”
 
“Nope.”
 
“No?  Hmm. Lasagna? Ham and eggies? Chicken on the grill?”
 
“No. You know.” He was smiling in his shoulders now. Stone pillars no longer pressed them down. He grinned up at me. “Thai food!”
 
“Really? You want Thai on Wednesday?”
 
“Yes!”
 
I lifted all fifty pounds of him into my arms and carried him like a baby up the hill to Tee’s car.  “I will get a whole order of spring rolls just for you.”
 
Five whole orders!”
 
I want to tell Garrett’s dad that his kid never needs to hear that he will be left behind. Not even a struggling, just-good-enough father would abandon his son in the park. Even if the little boy cannot keep up, even if he tests how far the radius of his parents’ attention extends and moves an inch or three beyond that, he will never have to find his way back by himself. This is the contract that we sign with creation when we become parents. We commit ourselves to being the safe place.
 
Building a refuge requires measuring with precision. We speak truth first to ourselves and then let it guide our voices. Because we know we would never hurt or leave our children, we should not say aloud the lie that we might. A threat, even a toothless one, is that first termite eating its way into the frame of our relationship. Either our children believe the lie and our rule is one of terror, or they do not believe us, and the emperor wears no clothes. Trust is brace, footing, and bolt. Trust is the stuff of integrity. If I have faith in my mind and the good universe to guide me along the parenting journey, then my son can have faith in me. He can even dart out of my reach from time to time, and I will always be there to carry him back home.
 

 
Trafford, Abigail. Crazy Time.. New York: Harper Collins, 1992. Print.
 

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Learn your Stripes

When the foal is born, his mama positions herself between the other zebras and him so she can imprint him with her stripes. Pressing her unique fingerprint into his awareness is a necessary precaution fir those moments when a lion leaps from the grass. During the ensuing melee, the baby can zero in on the correct adult.
 
I wonder, though, if she is also memorizing him. It is hard to tell from pure observation if mares also imprint during those first moments. Mama zebras do not say “What beautiful stripes!” You do not see them clapping their hooves together and crowing, “You look so nice with that design. Awesome!”  They are more dignified in the scrutiny of their young. The pattern is itself. Her foal, himself. Zebras do not waste their time taking the measure of the being. Seeing is the only act that matters.
 
Maybe it is time to bring a little Serengeti to our house.
 
Bug pads into my room on weekends just after sunrise, singing, “Good moaning, Mommy!” In his rumpled, happy daze, he climbs between the sheets with me. We read through his schoolwork from the week. I unfold a page covered in dots. “Tell me about this,” I say.
 
“It’s a marauders map. See? There is the Gryffindor common room, here are my footsteps, and Zee’s are there. . . “
 
“Oh. You drew footsteps.”
 
“Yep. And rain. Here, this is lightning,” he points.
 
Next is a picture of bunnies with an arithmetic problem in thick scrawl. I read it. “Two plus eight equals. . . ?”
 
“Ten. See? And there are two bunnies there. And that’s the Easter Bunny’s house.”
 
“I see dots inside.”
 
“Those are all his Easter eggs.”
 
We go through like this, a dozen papers in all. I am learning to quiet the impulse to declare the things “great” or “cool” or “well done.” I simply ask, “What is this?” I describe what I see, or ask Bug to explain to me what he sees.
 
Part of the game change around here is to begin mirroring my kid without judgment. This involves stilling the urge to assess his actions in any way, either positively or negatively. No more tepid, knee-jerk praise. “Good job” has overstayed its welcome. I send it packing, along with “awesome” and “nice work.” My preferences and my assessments need not be factors in my son’s pursuits. What matters first is what is happening, and second, the thing that follows. My job now is to put names to these occurrences and help the kiddo link chains of events. He and I can work through correlation and causation. As I help him see and reflect, I aim to let go of judgment’s illusion of control.
 
This approach to parenting may be so cock-eyed that it will backfire on me. Without giving my son a pat on the back for appropriate behavior, how will he be able to navigate the complicated choices before him? I do not have a clear answer to this. All I have is a sense that it is time for me to right the balance. My capacity to be critical and demanding is so well-honed, I tend to cut off parts of people who venture too close. Bug is never going to suffer as a result of my lazy discipline. The standards I lug around are exacting enough, thank you very much. It is time for Bug to tend to the cultivation of his own.
 
Let’s be honest. Bestowing and withholding praise are both well-meaning (if ill-conceived) attempts to shape my son to believe what I believe and like what I like. As most kids do, he is apt to learn both to crave my approval and recoil from it. Both are dangerous motivators. Do I really want Bug to be at the mercy of my capricious tastes and mercurial moods? Surely, I do not want to set my son up to swing between chasing down his parents’ admiration and rebelling against it. I want to protect him from, not make him susceptible to, peer pressure, charm, the controlling impulses of the more self-assured, and abuse. I am all too familiar with the tendency of approval -seeking children to grow into acceptance-hungry adults, clutching at wisps of praise as insubstantial as sugar floss in a sweaty grip.
 
Self-reliance and self-awareness are muscles requiring a steady buildup over time. My kid has to decide for himself how he will read the landscape. As he grows more independent and spends more time away from the brood, he needs the wherewithal to calibrate his own moral compass. Have I taught him to see clearly? Does he know how to assess his own developing stripes, to read his own moods and feelings, to sense in his own gut what is right and wrong?
 
Here comes the zebra, wandering back into the frame. She pauses to graze. One eye is on the distant field, keeping that tiny foal in her sites.
 
Her approach is worth a shot. I step back. I gaze at my offspring gazing back at me. He is both of me and separate from me. I release him to the grasses, surrender my grip, and just pay attention.
 
-“You put your shirt on by yourself.”
 
-“You threw a fork and it hurt mommy. I shouted. Now your body is curled up. Your face looks like this.”
 
-“You shared your grapes with that little girl, and she is playing with you.”
 
I only need to confirm what is already occurring, and try to help Bug’s developing brain consider his state of being. I can help him orient towards his own body and mind, the impact his actions are having, and the (possible) cause and effect of each choice. I can do all of this without pinning on the gold medal. By simply mirroring my son, rewards intrinsic to his behaviors resolve into view.
 
I believe in my child. I am actually learning to trust him. This is our journey together. As I resist the urge to judge, I allow Bug to watch and learn from my actions, speak his own perceptions, and draw his own conclusions. I also allow him to really see me, and to notice me noticing him.
 
When someone bears witness to our story, it lives more fully than it ever could when it is swimming inside of us. Because of this, the gift of attention confers both energy and serenity. I want Bug to be seen and known, exactly as he is in this moment. I want my son to hear his experience called back to him across the wide open spaces. I want him to see my pattern and know I am here, always, to help him orient himself. We hold each other, yes. Also, we are free to follow the unique angle of the wind to the source that calls us.
 

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Postcard from the Backcountry

You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.

Mark 1:11

This bungled, bumping journey with you is quite an adventure. Your unique sense of direction steers us into wondrous and uncharted territory. When I pause to look around, I see the strangeness for what it is. The high canopy shelters, the bright blooms startle, the roots hold the shifting soil steady enough beneath our feet. You carry me to a way of knowing I could not have visited without your companionship.
 
Because of you, I am learning new habits for walking well. As we go, I will pack these ways close and keep them within reach.
 

  1. Ignore the clock. No one wins any prizes for being on time. Misery cancels out the gold star for punctuality. When we are trying to dress to get out the door for school, moving between your two houses, or just gearing up for the next activity, we can make our way with care. A too-abrupt transition into the chaotic press of the outside world is like stepping straight from the bubble bath into rush-hour traffic. The mind needs to gain its footing. You will have your moment to stretch, to fuss a little, to hear about what waits on the other side of the moment. I can sit with you, touching you gently. Hot cocoa is waiting in the car, I remind you.  The kitty cat was asleep on your bed in the middle of the night. Your Grandpa Bill is coming next week.  A light touch can welcome you back from the unscheduled bliss of your play, your dreams, your lazy wanderings. We will get where we need to go eventually. In the meantime, let’s greet one another and enjoy the hello all over again.
  2.  

  3. Seek positive intent. When you knocked over the child at the party, I know you wanted something but did not know how to communicate your eagerness. I will try to say, “You were excited about the flag the little girl was holding. You wanted a turn with it. You grabbed and pushed her, but that hurt her. You could say, ‘Please, can I have a turn with the flag.’ If that does not work, come get me and I will help you figure it out.”  Even when you are hitting me, I know you are trying to achieve something. I empathize with this. You are trying to tell me you are disappointed about the pleasure you believe you have been denied. Your hitting hurts, though, so I will help you learn to say “Mommy, I am so angry and frustrated.”  I will let you cry. I will show you ways to be gentle with your big, hot feelings. In training my eyes to look for your positive purpose, I learn to see the intent in other people’s actions, too.  When folks around me behave in ways that strike me as wrong, I remember that they are trying to manage their own complex lives. So many of us walk through our days feeling we have failed ourselves and others, that we have fallen short. Yet, we are all doing our best with the resources we have. I am, too. When I pay attention to the good at work inside confused behavior, my heart softens.
  4.  

  5. Forgive, forget. Forced apologies are hereby banned. You have had enough with feeling bad about yourself for the time being. Saying “sorry” is only useful if you feel contrite, and we both know you cannot achieve anything as subtle and generous as repentance when you are tied up inside. For now, it is my job to forgive you when you make a mistake, even if you are not ready to admit you made one. I will decide you are trying your hardest, and I will remind you that you are good, no matter how tangled up you feel. We have time to untie the knots.  I will sit with you until we both simmer down, and then we will make our way out of the jungle together.
  6.  

  7. Apologize freely. True apologies are not an admission of failure. When I catch myself acting with fury or aggression, I will stop and tell you I am sorry. “I really got mad and started yelling when you were kicking the shower door. I’m sorry, Bug. I should not have yelled. It did not help at all. I was actually scared before I was mad. Next time, I will try saying, ‘I am worried about you breaking the glass doors. I do not want you to get hurt.’” My job is to keep you intact and well. When you act out, you have something roaring inside you that needs to be heard or received. At the same time, I am trying to help you get somewhere safe.  I know we can work together to solve the problem.  I can say I am sorry for boiling over. Then I can turn down the heat and train my attention back on you, on us, on the opportunity before us. As I speak my apology and act to guide you to a calm place, I forgive myself. I release my grip on the mistake, and re-commit myself to loving you well. My mind is clear of the fog of self-loathing and hopelessness, and I begin to see options again. I can help you find your words. The path forward begins to lay itself bare.
  8.  

  9. Come out of hiding.  When I slip into my room to piddle around on the computer, start tapping on my phone, or open the paper, I am not really with you. Long days of parenting and working can drain energy stores and leave me grumpy. My exhaustion manifests as a vanishing act. My sleight of hand does not fool you when we are together, because I am attempting to disappear in plain sight. When I withdraw, I believe I can shield you from the ill effects of my mood. I know better, however, and so do you. It’s no wonder you lock yourself into a suit of armor when you feel dark things. You see very few people giving name and face to their distress. My ducking and avoidance have far more of a negative impact on you than the blahs and blues of my presence. I want you to have more choices than “got it together” and “invisible.” I will try to stay with you, in my ups as well as my downs, and even the flat places in between. If I need to work on a project or take a few minutes to myself, we will discuss it. I can explain what is happening before I shift gears, and assist you in setting yourself up with an activity. You are learning to be perceptive about people and their needs. I can help you by naming my own place in time, talking you through what I expect, and being transparent about my behavior.

You have led me towards these small, immense lessons. I hope to continue to hold them close as we make our way through this tangled landscape. Walking this path is not easy, but it is the only one for us. In your company, I learn to be a better parent. This also means I am learning to be a better friend, neighbor, and inhabitant of this teeming planet.
 
During this leg of the journey (as with so many others), you are teaching me how to expand my capacity for love. You help me see more clearly, and I see what a beautiful boy you are.
 

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Nowhere Near Kansas

Defiance is always a relationship problem. If your child does not accept your direction (‘I don’t care what you say, you can’t make me!’), it’s always an indication that the relationship is not strong enough to support the teaching. This happens to all of us from time to time. At that point, stop and think about how to strengthen the relationship, not how to make the child ‘mind.’  – Laura Markham, Aha Parenting

When the brain is no longer in survival mode, it has the opportunity to come up out of the storm cellar and assess the damage. A weekend of nourishing activities and a few days of rest have calmed the skies. Climbing up into daylight, I can see the havoc this two-year typhoon has wrought on Bug’s and my relationship. It is hard to believe the thing is still structurally sound. It is even harder to face my own role in wrecking the place during my mad dash to get us to safety. Survival-mode parenting may keep the roof from blowing off, but it does not do much to help a kid learn to learn how to build anything solid.
 
This is not just guilt talking. A raw empathy for Bug also surges through me when I survey the scene. I want to be able to go back to the beginning and throw myself around him. He is too little to face so many of the events unfolding around him, and I wish I could protect him not only from the storm but from my own botched reaction to it. Alas, no one has yet perfected a time machine. Bug and I will have to pull what we can from the wreckage and start rebuilding right here.
 
As an earlier post described, my kid is struggling hard to manage life in two homes. Transition times yield the most resistance, but explosions occur at bedtime, in the morning, and during any activity involving additional people. Strong feelings seem to flood Bug all in a rush, and he acts before he has a chance to find his footing.  It is normal to look for a causal relationship between a child’s behavior problems and a single, identifiable event. The conventional approach is to wonder if his new teacher, the long commutes, a split home or a food allergy might be to blame. In my gut, I know better. I know that displacing my child’s distress onto circumstances beyond us has been a way for me to manage my own sense of being overwhelmed.
 
I also know better because I was a child once. The difficult situations around me were never the real challenge. The challenge was in not knowing how to make sense of my feelings about difficult situations. We all have painful childhood memories; for me, the ones with deepest imprint have nothing to do with the precipitating event and everything to do with fearing the fallout from my responses. Somehow, I was supposed to get my act together, yet I had no idea how to go about doing this. A sense of indistinct danger hung over my tangled feelings. The memory of distress is so vivid that even as I write about it from the safe distance of three decades, my heart begins to gallop.
 
A kid’s emotional vocabulary is rudimentary at best. I am guessing my childhood home was not the only one unacquainted with the “I statement.”  I remember how very difficult it was to know how to behave when I was feeling sad, scared, angry, or disappointed. This is not an indictment on my parents or any family culture. The language of loving guidance is a foreign tongue to most of us. Feelings are strange and slippery things, and they can seem even more perilous when we attempt to face them. Even as an adult, it is tough to gain composure, think clearly, speak rationally, and act well when the pressure is on. Who wouldn’t duck back down into the cellar and pull the hatch closed?
 
When I am feeling anxious or upset, I want someone to remind me that I am safe. That I am loved. That the world does not hinge on this one decision, that it is okay to take my time to sort it out, and that I have help if I need it. When I do not have these things, I become more prone to burst. Why would things be any different for Bug? In Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, Becky Bailey suggests,

When your children are having a hard time obeying you, they need to believe that you have faith in them. They need to sense that you have confidence in them before they can develop confidence in themselves.

 
Yet, when my son is acting with aggression, what do I do? Increase the pressure by threatening “consequences.” If he does not put his toys away and put on his jammies now,he will lose books at bedtime. If he does not stop saying “shut up,” he will go straight into time out. I take away his ability to gain confidence in his own decision-making, and he loses trust both in himself and in me.
 
I understand the argument that children need some form of punishment in order to learn to behave appropriately. I understand it, and I do not agree with it. I have been attempting that approach for months because my own stressed brain has not been able to come up with anything better. However, the more I attempt to will Bug into compliance, the wider the rift between us grows. Sure, he may hop to it if I threaten to pour the hot cocoa down the drain, but he only grows more tightly coiled as the day rolls on. Against this survival parenting, my heart and mind have been gently, insistently reminding me that my own intense and stressful responses to my son are exacerbating his defiant behavior. My child has been begging for help in learning how to face a tough situation. Because I have been so very tired, I have largely left him to twist in the wind.
 
What is the alternative? As I squint into the new daylight, this is about as much as I can discern: I need to mend what is torn between Bug and me. Laura Markham suggests that “the most effective discipline strategy is having a close bond with your child.” This is what my heart tells me to do. It is also what practice has been reinforcing. No matter how aggressive Bug’s behavior, I remind him that I love him and that I am on his team. “It seems like you are having some big feelings, buddy.  Let’s see if we can figure out what to do.” I try not to snap. I know what it’s like to have someone get angry at me when I do something I know is wrong. It only makes me feel more hopeless. Suggesting my kid has to “get it together” before he is allowed to be in my company or in the company of others sends the message that only his proper, polished-up self is invited to the party.  I want to reverse course, and provide affection and support to the messy, work-in-progress my son truly is, as all of us truly are.
 
I am practicing staying with him. I am learning to let him cry or blow up a little or say what he needs to say. Afterwards, we can talk it out. Maybe we will have a do-over or experiment with something altogether new. I try to remember to use just one scale to measure an approach before I take it: does this choice strengthen or weaken my relationship with Bug? I do not always get it right, but as I breathe through my own confusion, I remember that the thing my son needs more than anything right now is me, loving him.
 
Now that I have clocked a few good nights’ sleep and opened up the cellar door, I can see the debris strewn around. The gift of this perspective is that the sun shines under the broken places and reveals treasures I never knew existed. Where structures once stood, rich soil, long fallow, offers itself up to us. Here and now, my son and me. We begin.
 
 
Bailey, Becky. Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.

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Natural Tendencies

The “Growing Up” section at Barnes and Noble has something for the bullied kid, the child of divorce, the grieving kid, the kid with two mommies and the one whose mommy is pregnant.
 
How to Stop Being a Bully is nowhere to be found.
 
Bug’s defiant behavior has been ratcheting steadily upward over the past. . . six months? Year? It’s hard to say. I have not been paying as close attention as I should have been. It has also been tough to admit that something abnormal is going on. Bug’s intensity is not entirely out of character for a boy who punched his way into the world and latched onto me with a grip that made me writhe in pain for six straight months. All sorts of words are used to describe a kid like Bug. High-need, demanding, defiant, strong-willed, stubborn. “Charismatic” is on the nice end of the spectrum. The words on the other end are the ones you bite back when you see a child like mine lording over your kid at the playground.
 
As for the specifics? Let’s put it this way: Bug’s favorite clip on YouTube these days is Steve Martin’s evil dentist number from Little Shop of Horrors. He giggles with glee all the way through.
 
Most days, sunny strains of Bug’s goodness rise above the darker chords. He is playful and athletic, curious and agile, imaginative and silly. He dances like a fiend to rock star music and makes epic pirate ships out of old sheets and dining room furniture. However, his foul temper is a rising crescendo, drowning out his better self.  It is chilling to watch my beautiful baby unfold into a mean-spirited, unlikable child.  It is also tough to come to terms with the possibility that these characteristics are not just “a phase,” and that this may be his hard-wired disposition. I worry so much for the young man he will become, and I want him to learn how to manage his big feelings so he does not land in a vortex of reactivity feeding negative self-image feeding delinquency.
 
We have a tough road ahead. In helping my boy manage himself, I also have to face the role my constitution plays in his. He has inherited the wide arc of his emotional pendulum from me, and he learns how to calibrate (or not) the intensity from me. My reactions contribute as much to Bug’s behavior as my nature does. I cringe when I recall any number of the shameful ways I have responded to his button-pushing over the years. The explosive words I hear coming out of Bug’s mouth of late are perfect recordings of my voice.
 
Children’s books on the topic may be in short supply, but grownup books proliferate. Reading about tools like positive discipline and loving guidance has given me insight into the needs behind Bug’s behaviors, and the way my choices help or hinder him as he tries to get those needs met. There are no shortcuts. Accepting that something has to change requires me to discipline myself, all the time and in every setting. My knee-jerk snapping or weary permissiveness serve as a perfect model for the behavior I am trying to eliminate. Is it any wonder my kid’s grouchiness grows worse when I am at my worst? Responding with enhanced mindfulness is the only choice.
 
For nearly five weeks, I have been attempting careful consideration when responding to my son. No matter how hot under the collar we are, how loudly he is shouting hateful things at me in the supermarket, how exhausted I am at 11:15pm after two hours of bedtime struggle, and how much I feel like crying or punching the wall when he is up again at 4:30am complaining of a nightmare, I try to silence my Nurse Ratched instincts. Whatever my first reaction is, my job is to pause and subvert it. Taking a breath deep enough to turn down the heat allows me a moment to consider Bug’s perspective and our options.  I do not always succeed (like after gymnastics this weekend. Yeah, that was me forcing my child into time out right in the middle of the parking lot), but my track record is, I hope, improving.
 
The blowouts are diminishing in frequency and intensity. Bug may still be experiencing the lightning storm of big emotions, but his behavior does not ignite me as quickly. I keep telling him I am going to help him figure out how to manage his feelings. That he is not alone. After a few minutes, his temper settles, and we are back to some kind of equilibrium – even pleasure – in each other’s company.
 
Wouldn’t it be nice to wrap up this essay in a neat little bow? It would go something like this:
 
In time, practicing mindfulness becomes habit. Children are as resilient as the platitude suggests, and they can learn new ways of handling themselves. Parents can, too. Eventually, measured responses supersede knee-jerk aggression or defeat. Whether the human brain is capable of developing new instincts is a topic of debate.  I hold out hope that with intention and patience, mindful responses become an abundant source of inspiration, as easily tapped as whatever came before.
 
If you want the happy ending, then stop here. The messier truth is that subverting one’s instincts is incredibly exhausting. The self-control muscle grows fatigued from overuse. If making the transition to new behaviors is this tiring for me, imagine how tough it is on a five-year-old! I keep seeking settings in which good behavior comes naturally to Bug so we can both let down our guard and he can succeed without Herculean effort. This seems a critical counter-point to the hard-earned victories of the long game.
 
As of today, we are still seeking. Sadly, few low-pressure venues exist in our world. Even on playgrounds, even in the back yard, my boy appears almost to look for things to hurt or reasons to lash out. It is like watching an evil villain in training, rubbing his hands together as he decides where to sow seeds of discord. I have to tell myself that my son is just a strong being with a hair trigger, a bottomless pit of energy, and a few too many bad habits for handling disappointment in a world that does not turn on an axis of Bug.
 
This is an important realization for a mommy who is still learning to accept the same humbling truths. Habits can change. Doing so is a matter of re-orienting ourselves in the right direction then allowing our momentum to carry us forward. When we veer, as we inevitably will, we check the compass and make the necessary course corrections, as often as it takes, as long as the journey lasts.
 
Maybe Bug and I should add our own title to the “Growing Up” shelf at the bookstore. We can call it White Water: How to Change Course Mid-Stream without Capsizing.
 
My backup plan is to start saving for a top-of-the-line drill and dentist’s chair. As it goes with all children, whether doom or destiny, Bug is going to follow his own path wherever it takes him.
 

My mama said,
“My boy I think someday
You’ll find a way
To make your natural tendencies pay.”