The other day my daughter found a baby slug. So tiny. Just a little speck of a thing. She carried this little creature around on her finger half the day, made it a house in a jar with dirt and leaves. She was greatly concerned as to the whereabouts of its’ parents, and whether it would be eaten by a bird if it was all alone in the wide world. She came up with the solution that if she found an adult slug of the same species, who “spoke slug language”, then it could help the baby find its’ parents.
Children are naturally compassionate. If they are treated respectfully, and shown concern and empathy when they express sadness, fear, anger…then the roots of their compassion grow deep.
My youngest is only 17 months. But whenever another child cries, for any reason, he will stop whatever he is doing and run to them. He will pet and stroke and hug, and show the greatest concern.
Children are also still learning the rules of socially acceptable behavior, and are still developing the capacity for emotional regulation (heck, I’m 34 and I’m still developing that!). Sometimes they act like monkeys that drank a gallon of coffee. Sometimes they show kindness one moment and then clonk their brother on the head with a block the next. Sometimes they melt down on the floor of the grocery store because the free fruit bin didn’t have green apples today.
If we treat children with compassion when they behave appropriately, and withdraw our compassion whenever they act like drunk puppies, then we are modeling for them the very opposite of what we would wish for them to learn. Who wants their child to grow up to be an adult who treats other beings with conditional compassion? This is how we get racism, homophobia, gender discrimination, religious radicalism. As parents, of course we want our children to treat all people and all creatures with unconditional compassion.
So how are we supposed to model that, in our everyday interactions?
If you’ve ever read a book by Alfie Kohn (or met a 4 yr old), you know that punishments and rewards simply do not work.
They don’t work to elicit social behavior. They don’t work to teach empathy, or give any bearing to our children’s moral compass. And they definitely, most certainly do not work to foster a connected, trusting relationship.
I say punishments AND rewards, because they are simply two sides of the same coin. They are both methods of attempting to control a small human’s behavior by extrinsic pressure, either by doing (or threatening to do) unpleasant things to them if they “mis” behave, or by giving them something enjoyable (stickers, candy, screen time) if they behave. Our entire public education system bases its’ discipline on these strategies. The problem with both of these methods is that they rely on purely extrinsic motivation, and (as study after study continues to prove), kills intrinsic motivation in the process. I have much more to say about extrinsic/intrinsic motivation when it comes to education, but that’s another post.
So, who needs a study to tell us that? All we have to do is put ourselves in the child’s place. If we’re having a bad day…we’re on our cycle, the children are climbing up the walls, the composting toilet is having issues (oh wait, that’s me!)…and you’re having trouble “behaving” because of your mood, would it help if your hub walked in and said “now honey, if you use that tone of voice one more time I’m going to take away your car keys!” Probably not. Likely he’d get a soapy dish thrown at his head, am I right?! Why? Because he would be only focusing on whatever it is you’re doing that he deems inappropriate. Human beings almost uniformly chafe against being judged this way. It causes feelings of alienation, disconnection, and hopelessness. A human being “mis” behaving is almost always doing so because of feelings that they’re having difficulty regulating. What would we rather he did? Walk in, see that you’re obviously having a rough time, and instead come up behind you at the sink and give you a hug? Maybe a little “I love you. You’re beautiful.” Whispered in your ear? Which action would make you feel seen, supported, and connected? Which action would defuse your frustration and make it more likely that you could calm down and find your center again?
Kids are no different. The alternative to punishing (or threatening to punish) “bad” behavior is not just to reward “good” behavior. Neither is it to simply allow actions which harm people or property, disturb your peace or that of others, or are simply socially inappropriate. We can set limits-and indeed, must!-while still offering closeness and connection.
I’m still learning this every day. With my first child, I still had my head full of all the commonly accepted child-rearing rhetoric of the day. Like so many parents, I’d never questioned the socially accepted idea that time-outs were a gentle alternative to spanking or that it was an adults’ job to discipline a child. I firmly believed in peaceful parenting, and with twelve years as full-time nanny under my belt, I thought I knew what I was doing. Right! I cringe as I think of sitting in my living room, listening to my two year old cry as she sat on the stairs, where I’d put her for some transgression or other. I hated it. She hated it. It alienated us from one another. So I quickly abandoned such tactics. But then was left to discover…what now?
If coercing, manipulating, threatening, putting up a sticker chart, etc., doesn’t feel right…what does? What are we supposed to do when our children are causing harm, or disturbing our peace? I’ve seen so many parents (myself included!) simply do nothing, out of a desire to not control, and end up losing all authority with their children. Or else we try to reason with the child, which doesn’t necessarily work when a person is emotionally flooded. That would be like our husband walking into the room in the previous situation and saying “now honey, I hear you having a very negative tone. Do you see how this is hurting little Johnny’s feelings?” Yep, I’d say dishes would still be flying. I don’t know about you but my reaction would be instant overwhelm. Because of course I already know my tone is negative (duh!), and likely I’m already embarrassed about it. But in the moment, I’m probably emotionally flooded and having difficulty regulating. First we need reassurance, or help (“why don’t I finish the dishes and you take a walk honey?” My hub is good at this one. Sometimes he has to insist). Later, when I’m calm, is when I can assess how I could’ve done things differently. For an adult, sometimes we need to just walk away, right? So how do we help a child get back to a place of calm, without alienating?
For me, it helps to ask what I would need if I were in their shoes. Because c’mon, do you, as an adult, always manage your emotions perfectly? Do you never become angry, or frustrated, or lash out at your spouse? Never say something you regret? If you don’t, congratulations. You’ve either reached nirvana, or you’re in deep denial. HA! Some of us might be farther along the road to managing our emotions than others, but we all have our moments. We’re all still learning.
How wonderful would it be if another human offered you compassion in those moments? To know, without a doubt, that you were still loved and accepted without conditions.
We all love our children that way, right? Not because they always do what we say. Not because they behave perfectly in every situation. Not because they perform to our standards. But because they exist.
And you know the best part of setting limits with love? You don’t have to experience the guilt that inevitably comes with control. Because trying to control and manipulate another human being alienates you from them just as much as them from you. What parent hasn’t felt that? That horrible, nagging disconnection. Because every parent wants to be connected with their child. It’s the natural state of things. When we feel angry at their misbehavior, often it is due to a sense of hopelessness as to how we are supposed to react. We are afraid that their unsocial actions are a reflection on our parenting ability, instead of just seeing them as small humans, still learning emotional regulation.
So what does this look like? I’m still learning that every day.
Let me tell you a story.
The other night my four year old was losing it. This boy is a fire child, and feels things deeply. He is incredibly physical (could ride a two wheeler by the time he was three), and when he becomes emotionally overwhelmed, he expresses it with his body. Generally at any person or item within reach. It was the end of a long day, he hadn’t had any down time, and he had fixated on wanting to watch a movie. Obviously he was trying to express the fact that he needed to unwind, and in his mind he’d decided that watching a movie was the only way to fulfill his need.
He’d asked, screamed, cried, and threatened to get what he wanted. Now, I could’ve just given in. However, I know this boy of mine. I knew, in that moment, that watching said movie would just amp him up, not wind him down. I knew from experience that sitting in front of a flashing screen right before going to bed was going to mean a bedtime full of tears and lashing out and jumping on the mattresses. I knew that what would actually accomplish his winding down was some hot chamomile tea and a snuggle with a good story. So I said no.
I said no with love. I didn’t explain, or offer a bunch of words which would just overwhelm and frustrate him more. I just said no. But then I showed him (over and over again, as this lasted for a good twenty minutes), that I was not rejecting him because of his “misbehavior”. When he tried to land punches, I deflected. When he tried to throw blocks (and cars, and pillows), I scooped him up. When he shouted “I HATE you! The ONLY thing that will make me feel better is if you let me watch a movie! If you don’t let me watch a movie I’m going to never draw you a picture again EVER!” I offered back “I see, you’re angry. That’s ok. I love you even when you’re angry.” And went about my business.
Finally, I felt a hot, sweaty body barreling into the back of my legs. “I need you to HOLD me, Mama!” Of course. Of course I will hold you. Of course I will not leave you alone, sitting on a stair, isolating you for the sheer fault of being four and still learning to emotionally regulate. So I held him. And he buried his sweet, tear-stained face in my neck and I knew that he knew that he was loved. Unconditionally. That no matter how he felt, or how he acted, he would still be received back with love.
And then we made chamomile tea. We snuggled with a good story, and as we were falling asleep, him curled against my back, he whispered, “I love you Mamma, as much as the whole world and all the stars and all the planets and all the trees. Tomorrow I’ll draw you a hundred pictures.”