playful parent

It’s been a few months since I decided to stop disciplining my kids and while it hasn’t been a complete transformation (yet), my goal is progress, not perfection. I do sometimes yell. I sometimes lose my temper and punish my strong willed little boy, but I have learned to forgive myself and I make an effort to admit when I’ve made a mistake and done something I shouldn’t have. My son will say “Mommy, you yelled at me. It hurt my ears.” And rather than say “well, if you hadn’t done x I wouldn’t yell!” I say “I know. I am sorry I hurt your ears. I don’t like yelling and I don’t want to do it. I am trying hard NOT to yell but I am only human and sometimes when I get overwhelmed by big feelings I forget and yell. Does that happen to you sometimes?” He will then tell me that yes, he doesn’t always want to hit or scream or throw his toys, but his body takes over and he can’t stop. I tell him that I will help him try to stop, and then we discuss how we can solve the problem in the future. Sometimes it works, sometimes he’s overtired or hungry or overwhelmed and hits anyway, but I have seen him in the moments when his sister is in his space and he DOES try to make an effort to solve the problem before he hits her. Unfortunately she’s 2 and doesn’t always get the message he’s trying to tell her, so we still have some work to do. BUT it’s progress! That’s the goal, right?

The managing of emotions is still in the works and my little boy doesn’t always feel like talking about how he’s feeling right away. Usually he has to have the tantrum first or be distracted temporarily before I can address those feelings, and that’s something I have a lot of trouble doing because I prefer to address the issue NOW! Believe me, it’s a source of contention with my husband too, who also likes to process his feelings on his own first before he is ready to address them. If I’m honest with myself I would say that I’m just really uncomfortable with leaving those feelings “unresolved”. I get anxious and can’t handle feeling anxious; I want THEIR feelings that are affecting me to “go away” and be “fixed” so that I don’t feel that energy anymore. So having a son who is very much like his dad in that he might not tell me how he feels for several hours is really difficult sometimes. Especially when I KNOW which emotions are underneath their anger and it’s so obvious they should just figure it out already and move on!

The Things I Haven’t Mastered Yet

Emotional regulation isn’t easy when one is trying to learn how to manage oneself AND happens to be a freaking empath who feels other people’s emotions even when they act “fine”.

I can deal with the constant addressing of feelings about 60% of the time without issue, but I still have a lot of work to do and it’s probably going to be something I’ll always have to remind myself to do. I notice it a lot when I talk to people; I’ll address their problem first, then I will stop myself and think “wait, they need their emotional needs met first” and backtrack. It still feels awkward to address the feelings in a genuine way. I used to say “it’s okay” or ” look on the bright side” or try to “fix” the feeling to make it better and move on. It is still uncomfortable for me to dwell on certain feelings when I believe that I’ve already addressed the issue. I mean seriously, I get that you’re disappointed that we can’t go to the park today because of the rain. It really sucks. You were looking forward to it, yes, I know. We can go another day. Here’s an activity we CAN do. Yes, I heard you the first 56,000 times you said it. You want to go to the park even though it’s raining. Yes, I can see how sad you are…(GET OVER IT ALREADY! OH MY GOD JUST STOP!!! SERIOUSLY THERE ARE A BILLION OTHER THINGS YOU CAN DO BESIDES GO TO THE FUCKING PARK!!!)

Obviously that last part is in my head, but I’m pretty sure the empathic responses I give my 4.5 year old start to lose their empathy and start to sound robotic and annoyed after a while. So the whole emotions being rehashed over and over…really not my strong point.

Why I REALLY “Have To” Use My New Tricks

What IS my strong point? Playful Parenting. I’ve become the master of that, as long as I’m not too drained (too much empathy can drain me because I’m an introvert and people’s emotions are siphoning of my energy) and as long as my kid is in a good mood. If he’s overtired, hungry, overwhelmed, or overly emotional then the tricks don’t work the way I like them to, but 90% of the time I get a much better level of cooperation out of him than the other ways.

Here’s what happens when I try to do the “other” things, as an example of just how strong-willed my little boy is:

Commanding

Me: It’s time for bed. Go brush your teeth, go pee, put on your pull-up, get into your pjs, and climb into bed.

Him: NO!

 

Bribing

Me: We have time for two stories tonight if you go brush your teeth and start getting ready for bed right now…

Him: NO! I don’t WANT to go to bed! I don’t WANT two stories!

Me: Okay then *shrugging*

Him: NO!!!! I WANT two stories!

Me: Then go do what I asked.

Him: NO! Little (insert insult of the month here)!

 

Threatening

Me: If you don’t get ready for bed right now you won’t get a story.

Him: Fine, I don’t WANT a story! I’M NOT TIRED!!!!

Me: GO. TO. BED!!!

Him: NOOOOOO!!!

 

Giving Choices

Me: Do you want me to brush your teeth or do you want to do it?

Him: Me!

Me: Okay *hands him toothbrush*

Him: NO! YOU do it!

Me: Okay *tries to take toothbrush back*

Him: NO! I want to do it!

Me: Okay, then do it.

*little brat just stands there with his toothbrush in his hands, refusing to do anything until I find myself locked in a power struggle*

 

Asking Nicely

Me: Can you go get ready for bed now?

Him: Mmmm, NAH!

 

So yeah, this kid took every single trick from the conventional parenting methods and showed me just how futile they were with him. I HAD TO get creative. When I found How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen, I finally found something that would work. I created the EVIL Mr. Plaque Man!

Playful Parenting for the Win!

Who is this nefarious being? Well, he comes out at night after dinner has ended and bedtime routines must begin. You know he’s coming by his evil, maniacal, deep laugh.

MWAHAHAH!

My son will pause in whatever he’s doing. He’ll say “no, not yet!” then run to the bathroom. Then he will say “go, Mommy! Make him talk.”

And so I say in my supervillain voice: “I am the EVIL Mr. Plaque Man! I have come to drill holes in Hunter’s teeth!”

And he will say “Oh no you don’t, Mr. Plaque Man! I’m gonna get you!”

He teams up with Super Toothbrush and Mighty Toothpaste. Sometimes I mess up on their names and my son will correct me “NO, Mommy, it’s Super TOOTHBRUSH!” Clearly he’s paying attention, so that’s a win for me. He asks me to do the teeth next, so I’ll use my high pitched squeaky voice “oh no! Save us, Hunter!” and he’ll brush and giggle and I’ll say things like “MWAHAHA! I’M SENDING MY PLAQUE MONSTERS TO THE BACK WHERE HUNTER WILL NOT REACH!” And my son will remember to brush those back teeth super well because he won’t let his arch nemesis win this round!

At the end I will say “ARGH! YOU BEAT ME AGAIN, HUNTER! BUT I’LL BE BACK TOMORROW!”

And that’s how I get him to brush his teeth.

Then I change focus. He was slow at putting on his pjs and used to insist that I dress him. I would attempt to fulfill his request and get kicked for my trouble. It was frustrating for me and would end in his tears as I walked out of his room and told him “no story tonight” even though that was really punishing both of us. My son is super active during the day. I can ONLY get him to cuddle and sit for a story at bedtime. It’s our special time. So “no story” really sucks. I hate “no story” nights.

So now I created The Resistant Clothing. I do the voices of his pull-up and his pjs. They don’t want to go onto my son. They say they want to be free. I say “now pjs, it’s your job to be on Hunter. You have to keep him warm.” and they will say “NNOOOO I don’t want to.” and I will argue with them as I make the bed or tidy up the room as my son giggles and puts his pjs on. I do the same thing for getting him dressed to go out as well. And if I just say “go get dressed” my son will sometimes comply but other times he will say “make them talk, Mommy”.

I’ve done this for food, too. My almost-5 year old delights in biting off the many heads of his sentient chicken nuggets, fries, vegetables etc. He’s kind of sadistic about it, but I won’t worry too much about that since I also have a messed up sense of humor and yet haven’t murdered anyone and stuffed them in a wall or anything.

When Dad Doesn’t Use the Tricks

When I don’t use the tricks, the kid will dig in his heels. I see it all the time with my husband (who once could get him to do anything, but now is suffering the same frustration I have been since he was 15 months old). Barbara Coloroso calls it the second “Age of Rebellion”. 2 year olds rebel against mom, 5 year olds against mom AND dad. Teenagers rebel against the entire older generation. So having already gone through the first stage, I’m kind of enjoying that my husband is now experiencing that frustration too, but also I feel bad because he’s not working with the same tools I am. He tries, but these things take practice and you have to know when to use them and use them correctly. My husband works 90+ hours every 2 weeks; he isn’t around enough to catch on as quickly and it takes much longer for him to learn the tools by watching me in my more triumphant moments and trying them out for himself. It’s not to say he hasn’t picked up on it though. He’s slowly learning and when I catch him using one of my tricks I feel pride that he was paying attention and felt it was worth trying.

Other times I know he’s overtired and short on patience and he’ll command our son to do something and get resistance, and I’m thinking to myself “that’s not going to work”. And of course it doesn’t work because they are both strong willed and resist being controlled. If I’m in a good mood, I’ll step in to help. If I’m drained, then it’s a bad day or at least a bad few hours before I can recharge.

That’s the other thing to keep in mind, btw. THESE TOOLS WILL NOT WORK IF YOU DON’T RECHARGE YOURSELF.

Why I NEED a Break (and demand one)

I know that a lot of articles stress “self care” and that there’s also this attitude that parents don’t GET a break. You are expected to just suck it up and deal with the issue. Well, I say that’s bullshit! Of COURSE I deserve a break, and damn it, I am going to DEMAND one. I don’t care what the oldschool attitudes are! I am not JUST a mother; I am a person with needs. I took care of those needs before kids and I am still going to take care of them now. What I NEED is to have some time to myself at least every few days, if not every day. I NEED that time to myself because I am an introvert and being around people is draining. I NEED to recharge so that when the kids come to me with their feelings, I can address those feelings and mirror them. I have found that I have a limit to how long I can function without a break from people. I get little warnings that come up.

Level 1 is when I get so tired and drained that I just want to sleep. I don’t want to do anything and can’t focus on anything.

Level 2 is when I run out of patience. I start getting snappish, I have less tolerance for whining, and I start to run out of empathy. I’m functioning on autopilot and might “stress clean” and get frustrated when I can’t get things done.

Level 3 is the danger zone. I HATE Level 3. I don’t want to BE in Level 3. Level 3 is when all my empathy is gone! I start to yell and punish again. I stop being the fun, playful mommy and start acting like a drill sergeant. This tells me that I need a break within the next day or things will get much worse. I have trained myself to start demanding a break at this point and I get very anxious if that’s not possible.

Level 4 is when I know I have to get a break NOW! It is the worst level and one I very much wish to avoid because THIS is when the spanking mother I never wanted to be comes out and I become the worst version of myself. I DESPISE this person I become; she is an evil demon. She rages and scares her kids. She gets out of control and I have a very difficult time reigning her in. I see her less and less since I started demanding more help from other people. Even the members of my family who don’t believe I really NEED the help will get called on, and I have just started ignoring their opinions on what I “REALLY need to do” (which is often change my parenting style back to the “old ways” that worked for THEM, and doesn’t address that I actually WANT to parent differently). If I know my husband is going to be working a lot more and that I may not be able to get a break in the usual way (having him take the kids for the day) then I will call on my backups. And if I have to break down and cry and tell them that I’m at my breaking point, then I will do that because if I’m at Level 3 already then a simple change of scenery or taking the kids to the park is NOT going to cut it. Taking the kids ANYWHERE is just going to add to my level of frustration because at Level 3 I am in no condition to be around ANYONE. If the kids act up at the park I will lose it. I just know that about myself.

It’s important to know ones limits

I have been working very hard at looking at myself and just where those limits are in my efforts to do better than what I was taught. I WANT to do better because those tactics that come out in Level 3 and 4 are exactly the things I remember vowing I would NEVER do to my own kids because of how awful they made me feel growing up.

I remember just wanting to be heard, and so now I work at hearing my son when he’s upset. I try to look past the action (throwing his toys or hitting/screaming etc) and dig down to the feeling behind it. I address that feeling and I tell him that I sometimes feel like that too, so that he knows it’s okay to have those feelings and that he’s not bad, he’s just a little boy who got overwhelmed by his big emotions. I want him to have a healthy relationship with his emotions. I don’t want him to feel like he needs to push them away and I don’t want him to feel like he “can’t deal” when other people express their own feelings. It’s not any way to live life! It SUCKS! I don’t like that when my husband is upset and just needs someone (me) to vent to, my first instinct is to point out how he’s thinking about it all wrong or what he needs to do to fix it, or just giving the wrong tone with my empathy so that the words sound hollow. I don’t like that instead of addressing feelings when things get heated, my first instinct is to just hide in the bedroom all night until it all “blows over”. I know from my reading that this isn’t a healthy response to other people’s emotions and that if I’m to do what I need to do for my kids, I have to change this first reaction.

A BIG reason to change

So that’s my update on my Peaceful Parenting journey! I started this back in January (though technically I was reading the books in December) and now it’s April. I’ve cut WAAAAY back on sending my son to his room so that it only ever happens when I’m out of ideas and out of patience. I stopped sending him to the corner, stopped taking away his toys as a punishment for not cleaning them up (they only get taken if he’s throwing them, and only the toys that can hurt or break something or someone), and I try to use playful parenting tactics rather than command him to do something.

It doesn’t always work and I still have a long way to go, but the more I keep at it the less I yell.

As an added thought for this month, my son was playing with his sister in the tub earlier this week and accidentally broke something that REALLY wasn’t good. When I came in there I saw the toy in his hands and he looked at me in fear. He started to cry. He said “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry!” I didn’t immediately see what he had done (I had been finishing up the dishes while listening intently to the giggles of the kids and had only heard a splash, a crash, and an “oh no!” from my son. I should add that I was calm that day. I had managed to get some rest the night before and though my husband was at a friend’s place helping him with his truck that night, I was only at Level 1. I had only yelled once that day and I had caught myself. So the look of terror in my son’s eyes was heartbreaking to see. This poor little soul was sobbing. He was so scared that he had done something SO bad that he would surely be punished.

It was pretty bad. Repairs would have to be done and my husband wouldn’t like it, but it WAS an accident. I knew that he hadn’t meant to do it. He had been playing and trying to make his sister laugh. He’d gotten too excited, he lost control of where his toy landed. Accidents happen. Had I been right there, I probably couldn’t have stopped it from happening and couldn’t have predicted it.

What shocked me was that he had already tried to “fix” it. He had cleaned up the broken pieces and put them in the garbage and done so rather quickly considering that I had rushed in there to see what had happened. And still, he was crying. He was inconsolable.

“Don’t yell at me.” he cried. “Don’t hurt me.”

He has been spanked before. I am not proud of it. It’s a source of deep regret and shame, as well as self-loathing that I have raised my hand to my child, but it’s a reality. And that reality is what caused that fear in his eyes. And I hated myself for it. I hated myself SO much that in this moment when he accidentally broke something, his first instinct was to beg me not to hurt him.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I said as calmly as I could. I told myself in my head “this is not an emergency. Your child needs comforting.” And I told him to get out of the tub.

He cried harder. He begged me not to hurt him. I calmly said “I’m not mad, sweetheart. It was an accident. You need to get out and so does your sister. There might be broken bits you can’t see”

He kept crying. His sister whimpered, not sure what to do. Mommy wasn’t upset, but Brother was and it was confusing. I took her out of the tub first, looked her over, and determined that she was okay. No cuts. I toweled her off and got his towel and wrapped him in it and hugged him. I told him that he seemed so scared and I was sorry and that it was okay and that I wasn’t mad at him. I told him I was just happy he wasn’t hurt because he could have been cut (he did have a small cut on his toe upon further inspection, but we covered that with a band-aid and he didn’t even make a fuss until I pointed it out). I told him we needed to tell Daddy.

Fear returned, and I hated THAT too. This is what punishment does to kids. It makes them fear, even when they don’t need to. It makes ME feel such shame and guilt that WE were the cause of that fear. So I held him, rocked him, reassured him. And still this little boy was unsure of me. “You’re not going to yell?” he kept asking. He really didn’t believe that I wasn’t upset. I told him “well I don’t like what happened, but it was an accident and can be fixed. I know you didn’t want to break it. You wanted to make your sister laugh. And when the toy hit that thing and broke it, that scared you because you knew it was not a good thing to do. But you tried to clean up the mess, and that was good that you wanted to keep your sister from being cut, but YOU could have been hurt too. I’m glad nobody got hurt. That could have been very dangerous.”

I called my husband and told him calmly what happened and how upset our boy was. I was relieved that he got my message in my tone that he needed to be very careful how he addressed this. He was calm and echoed what I had already said; this was an accident, it’s okay, and that we would fix it.

My boy went to sleep that night knowing he was truly special and loved, and that he would not be punished for his accident, no matter how bad it was. But I lay awake much longer and I thought about his little face full of tears and it broke my heart. It made me resolve to keep at this new way of parenting and to keep rejecting the old ways until that awful, scary, angry mother becomes nothing more than a distant memory of the time when Mommy didn’t know any better. I want him to KNOW that I recognize how much that scared and hurt him, and how sorry I am. I don’t want him ever thinking that spanking and punishment was justified. I don’t want him thinking he’s “bad”. I want to give him everything I didn’t know I had needed as a child; all the love and understanding that my parents hadn’t known to give even in my worst moments. It’s easy to be that kind parent when the kids are “good”, but when they test your limits that’s when you really have to work at it. And it’s moments like what I experienced this week that show you how your kids actually see you when you’re at your worst, and how often you’re at your worst.

The Legacy I Want to Leave Behind

This week was an eye-opener. It really pushed me to do more to be better for him. So I will continue to work on my demons. I will continue to figure out just where my limits are and find ways to fulfill my needs so that I reach the worst levels only a small fraction of the time, if at all. And I will continue to show my poor little boy that Mommy really ISN’T going to yell at him and that she certainly doesn’t want to hurt him no matter what he does, because those things are not okay to do to the people we love.

And hopefully those messages will stick with both of my children and my future grandchildren won’t ever know that fear that I saw in my son’s eyes. Because at the end of my life, when my children are grown and look back on their childhood and share memories of me, I want them to remember the funny voices and the characters we made up together. I want them to recall fondly my stories of Evil Mr. Plaque Man and the Resistant Clothing. I want them to remember Mommy Panther who catches her little baby panthers and Mommy Kitty who snuggled in her son’s lap. I want them to remember Kid Mommy who reversed roles and pretended to be scared to sleep alone; who made her children giggle uncontrollably. I want them to remember the crafts, the movie nights, the baking, the story time, the bedtime snuggles, the made-up songs with their names and the sing-alongs to Disney show tunes. I want them to have so many favorite moments with me that they can’t pick only a few, and I want them to know without any doubt that I loved them. In the end of my life, I want to know that I was the best mother I could be for my kids with the knowledge I had at the time, and that I never stopped trying to be better for them.

People can roll their eyes at my parenting all they want. I don’t believe kids need to “obey”; that’s not the most important thing. Obedience doesn’t get you very far as an adult and can actually work against you. So I’m not choosing obedience anymore; instead, I’m choosing love. And if LOVE is going to get me kicked out of the “good parent” club, then so be it. I wasn’t much for following others anyway.

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