Some of the parenting bloggers I follow have led me to Hand in Hand Parenting. Their approach resonates with my desire to parent with compassion and respect. Some of the ideas include the fairly common idea of making sure you spend time playing together, especially some time when the child is in almost complete control of the play, and also some time when you play physically, rough if the child allows, with the parent in the weaker role when possible (i.e. being chased), with lots of laughing — but not tickling. Now that I like. I was tickled far beyond my enjoyment of it, far too often, and I still REALLY hate to be tickled AT ALL. I have tried to not tickle Amy without asking or being asked, and to always stop as soon as she asks me to. It was really interesting to find someone else saying the same thing.
The harder, but perhaps more interesting, technique is called Staylistening. I’ve been hearing and reading a lot over the last few years about more positive approaches to discipline. First was the idea of a time out instead of a spanking. Then there were people talking about how time out can be just as shaming, isolating, punitive, and wedge-driving as a spanking. At first that sounded ludicrous to me… but it’s starting to make more sense that you CAN stay with a child who is misbehaving, in a way that does not condone or excuse or reward or reinforce the misbehavior, and that does not involve disconnecting from the child.
One of the things that I appreciate about God, as far as I understand him, is that even when he allows us to experience negative consequences from our sins, he does not shut off the relationship or our status as his beloved. He doesn’t withhold love or attention or presence from us. This perspective on God is pretty important to me, and it’s why I had to quit the Bible reading challenge at church (the challenge was to read the whole thing in four months). It sure seems to me, reading a lot in the Old Testament and some stuff in the New, too, that God sometimes does disconnect, punish, shame, and so on — like in Isaiah (somewhere near the beginning — maybe 8, 9?) it talks about some horrible consequences to Israel’s sins, and then says “But they did not turn to the one who struck them,” and I want to say, “Well, duh — since when does being punished, being struck, make one want to turn to the punisher?” There are enough examples of the Staylistening God that I think I must be missing something with these other punitive stories. I trust God will a) continue to stay with me while I hate various things the Bible seems to show about him and b) lead me into true understanding.
Anyway, back to Staylistening — the idea is, your child does something you don’t like, like makes yucky faces or says something nasty or throws something or hits you or otherwise pitches a fit. This is a signal that they are feeling out of sorts with themselves and need some help feeling connected and safe again. There are likely some big feelings going on that need release. Maybe your kid throws a fit because their pancake is touching the pool of dipping syrup. Yeah, the emotional outburst is not in proportion to the trigger — that tells you that the trigger is just a trigger, opening up the possibility of getting to the bigger stuff underneath. That’s certainly true of adults — Joe used to talk about that, that when you feel something out of proportion to what you think you’re upset about, you’re likely actually upset about something else. So it makes sense it would also be true for kids, who are less articulate verbally and less likely to manage life by thinking and verbalizing anyway.
So you move in. You might start with “I don’t like nasty talk.” If the child continues, you try something playful and humorous, which partly shows the child that you’re not threatened, that they’re not as powerful and potentially destructive as they feel, and partly shows you’re still connected. (If you are threatened — as I sometimes feel I am — then you need an opportunity to work on your own feelings.) If they don’t respond well to that, you might say “I see you’re not okay right now. Here I am,” and invite them into a hug or conversation. If they hit, kick, bite, throw, etc, you move in close enough to gently but firmly contain them so they are unable to hurt anyone or anything. You assure them of keeping them and others safe. They may need to fight back — like Jacob needed to wrestle the angel of the Lord (how merciful that the angel of the Lord provided that opportunity) — and the fighting back and the hot angry crying is the emotional release they need. It can only happen in safety, which is why a) the foundation of trust from playing together and b) your calm assurance and emotional neutrality during the outburst are so important.
I still have a lot to learn about this approach — and I may not be articulating it very well. But this week it has been interesting to try to practice it and see what happens. When I’ve been able to calmly stay and listen and contain, the peace afterwards lasts and lasts. When I was conflicted and uncertain but determined, the outburst took a LOT longer to resolve. In general, I feel pretty good about the direction this approach is leading me in. I think it could be just the thing I’ve been looking for to resolve the negative, combative, oppositional, nasty mama-child climate we’ve had at home, which has seemed a serious obstacle to my intent to homeschool after kindergarten, not to mention a serious obstacle to peaceful home life.
Oh, one other thing; the approach is based on the typical positive discipline belief that children are innately good, and that they behave well when they feel good. At first glance that seems to contradict the biblical idea of sin, that all humanity is in a state of sin (separated, disconnected from God) as well as guilty of sins (wrong things done, right things not done). On the other hand, we start with the premise that people are created in the image of God, that God’s creation is “good” and creation of people is “very good,” and that “while we were yet sinners, God loved us.” So perhaps the idea of innate goodness can reflect this premise, and doesn’t have to negate the reality of sin. It seems good to view kids as good creations of God, bearers of his image, though burdened by sin as we all are.