Parenting is challenging and unlike any job I’ve ever had. You must be equipped to deal with everything from tantrums to booger flicking, trying to explain who or what God is and why people die, make vegetables and fruits more appealing than icecream and candy and develop an infinite amount of patience. But sometimes the challenge lies in discovering the holes in your own parenting pedagogy.
I learned very early on that if you don’t take the time to think through your parenting techniques, you will default to how you were raised, thus imitating your own mom and dad. Luckily for me, I have great parents. But even great parents get caught in the cycle of default parenting, and let’s just say there are some things I want to do differently.
For example, one day Ezra started talking in a baby voice. This annoying little voice was accompanied by a physical performance, his legs waddling along in little baby steps as if he was a toddler, his lips pursing into fish lips, his eyebrows raised. I don’t like seeing my bright, capable four-year old acting like an 18-month old. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this behavior. I felt a surge of annoyance, which transformed into words, passed over my vocal cords and spilled into the room before I had a chance to stop and think: “Stop acting like a baby,” I said.
Its one thing to think something. It’s quite another to give it voice. I was as surprised as he was to hear these words. They instantly brought me back to a situation with my father 36 years ago. I remember wearing new cowboy boots, which were slippery on the bottom. We were walking with my two older brothers down a hill covered in chapparal on an expanse of natural land behind our home. My steps felt uncertain and I began to whine a little bit, wanting to hold my dad’s hand. Instead of reaching out his hand, my father snapped at me; “Stop acting like such a baby.” I was shocked, as he usually didn’t speak to me like this, and his words felt biting and mean.
Now I had just repeated the performance with my child, not even thinking of the consequences of my words. If Ezra is acting like a baby, he is asking for attention, even negative attention, as he knows we don’t like this baby voice. Snapping at him only worsens the problem. If I stop and think for half a second, I know it is more effective to say, “Please use your big boy voice,” or better yet, “You know we don’t like baby voice. Do you feel the need for more attention? Is that why you are using your baby voice?” But, these words don’t come naturally. You have to work at it.
According to Marshall Rosenberg, P.h.D, author of a series of books on nonviolent communication and raising children compassionately, people often treat their children with less respect and compassion than they do acquaintances. He gives an example from a workshop he held. The participants were broken into two groups to discuss how they would resolve a conflict with another person. One group was told the conflict was with a child, the other was told the conflict was with a neighbor. When the two groups were brought back together, they thought they had been given the same scenario. Each time he performed this experiment, the group who was resolving a conflict with a child seemed less respectful and less compassionate than the group that had been told the other person was a neighbor.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t tell my neighbor to stop acting like a baby, or send him to his house for a time out, for that matter. I would think my words through carefully and make sure I used respectful language in trying to come up with a resolution. I obviously love my son much more than my neighbor, so why the disrespect? Definitely time to re-train!
My parents also taught me you need to be friends with everyone, even people you don’t really like. When I had a birthday party, we invited everyone in the class–even Eric Tipton, a boy who had karate chopped my birthday cake into an unrecognizable mush the year before.
In my version of the world, you don’t have to be friends with everyone. You need to be kind to everyone, but you don’t have to be their friends. In fact, in some situations, it can even be necessary to establish a healthy distance from other people. Yet, just the other day, I found myself defaulting to the “be friends with everyone” policy of my childhood–despite the fact that I don’t believe in this.
Choosing Friends for our Kids
I befriended a very nice woman at Ezra’s school who is the mother of one of Ezra’s classmates. Thus, without consulting Ezra, I decided that our sons should have a play date together. From the get go, Ezra was opposed, but I told him he had to be nice. The kids played well enough together, but before long, I could see that Ezra was more reserved than he was with other kids. Two or three more playdates passed before I half admitted I was forcing the friendship, more thinking of myself than of Ezra.
I didn’t realize the repercusions of my actions until a few weeks later. My son is usually the type to answer the question, “So what did you do at school today?” with a case closed “Nothing.” Thus, when Ezra volunteered a rather ghastly story of kicking the other little boy, I listened carefully, encouraging him gently yet firmly to tell the whole story.
I soon learned that two little boys wanted to hold Ezra’s hand; his favorite friend Jan, and the boy I had pushed upon Ezra whom we’ll call David. Ezra told David he didn’t want to hold his hand, but David insisted and wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, Ezra kicked him. Hard. David started crying.
“What did you do then?” I asked sternly.
“You just let him cry?”
“But, isn’t David your friend?””
“No. I don’t want to be friends with him.”
“But honey. David is your friend, and we’re friends with his family . . . did a teacher come to help him?”
“No. There weren’t any teachers around.”
I looked upon Ezra with new eyes. My little 4 year old angel had kicked another little boy with no remorse, a child whom had been to our house a handful of times, whom we had taken a train ride to visit outside the city, a child he had laughed and played with well enough in my presence.
“Thank you for telling me Ezra,” I said at first. I heard myself saying a few other things that seemed appropriate, yet not scolding: “It seems you feel a little bad about kicking David. Do you think it was okay to kick David?”
That evening and the next day, I created stories of a forlorn little boy who lost a friend, and Ezra felt very sorry for the little boy in my stories, felt as if rhis little boy was treated unfairly. I saw the light bulb go on at some point, and by the next morning over breakfast we were planning together the best way to say sorry to his little friend.
Choosing his Own Friends
“You don’t have to be friends with someone you don’t want to be friends with,”Arie Jan said calmly, “but you do need to be nice and use your words if you don’t like something.” And of course Arie Jan was right. Through it all, I was still trying to make Ezra be friends with this sweet little boy. I was doing what I had been programmed to do by my own upbringing. Yet, you can’t force anyone to be friends, just as you can’t force two people to love one another. It has to be by mutual consent. But, you can teach someone how to be compassionate and nonviolent in conveying that information.
Ezra’s apology was met with a happy dance by David. Two days later, I volunteered for Sport’s day, a morning filled with sports activities, which called for a large amount of parent volunteers. The boys were in the same group for sports day, along with three, meek little girls. As we walked along with the children, who are required to hold hands when walking from the school to the sports field, I saw Ezra hold David’s hand with acceptance, rather than joy. It seemed the teachers were also trying to make a match or help along the relationship; I noted that each group of five children seemed to be carefully selected based on energy levels and friendships.
Ezra was friendly enough, but more from a position of tolerance. By the end of the sports day, he no longer wanted to hold David’s hand on the walk home, and for once, I listened. And it seemed Ezra had listened too. He knew he had a choice about being friends, but he also knew how to be gentle yet firm when saying no. I felt proud of Ezra in a way I hadn’t before. I saw him being tough, cool, a bit distant. And though it was uncomfortable for all involved, it showed that Ezra has the strength to do what was right for him.
3 thoughts on “Default Parenting versus Compassionate Parenting”
wow, some great insights there- parenting is such a crazy ride sometimes but also one of the greatest learning tools we have.
Hello Kristin…I wish I had had the opportunity to raise my daughter with you. Thank you for sharing your insight and your love.
Its hard to see your weaknesses unfold, and harder yet to share them with others. I am so thankful for your feedback Keely and Robin, as it confirms that we all learn from one another’s mistakes and successes.