This morning at breakfast, I reached over to stroke Amy’s leg. She sort of leaned back and covered her nose — she might as well have said, “Back off Mom, you stink!” The thing is, I wasn’t even that close to her — I don’t think she could have smelled me even if I did have a touch of bad breath or hadn’t put deodorant on yet.
This isn’t the first time she’s either told me I smell bad or leaned or turned away from me. It hurts.
We’ve been having some days where a) there seem to be an awful lot of instant dramatic nasty reactions to things, and b) I seem to be more than usually upset by them. I don’t like either of those things. How I wish she were more gracious and flexible, more able to accept a no without a fit, more willing and less reluctant to try things, more able to express her upset feelings in less aggressive and nasty ways. And how I wish I were so secure in myself and so full of goodness and mercy that all her nastiness would just roll off me without impact.
One of the beautiful ideas in gentle parenting in general is that people act the best they can in any given moment. If someone is erupting or withdrawing or overreacting or anything offtrack, it’s because they’re hurt, discouraged, or otherwise struggling on some level. It makes such a difference to be able to interpret misbehavior that way — that it’s not defiance, not manipulation, not rebellion, not inherent meanness — it’s just acting out what’s yucky inside.
It’s an idea to apply to kids, yes. And also to friends, family, spouses, other people. And also to yourself. So if I lash out in anger or upset, I can offer myself the same compassion, figuring that on some level I am struggling, and that I need something — some support, some rest, some replenishment.
In neither case is this perspective a way to excuse bad behavior.
Let me say it again, because this seems to be the biggest misunderstanding of gentle parenting — it’s NOT permissiveness — not lack of discipline, not lack of boundaries and limits and expectations. It’s not children ruling the roost. (Nor is it parents lording it over kids.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about setting limits / expectations. I’m pretty good about some of them, like with hitting or kicking, or keeping toys and clothes in order. Others are harder. It is hard to know exactly how to set a limit around rudeness or mean talk, for example — make too big a fuss and you encourage the kid to repeat it — not enough fuss and the same result — and it’s not something I can actually control. I can physically stop her hand from hitting me. I can’t physically stop her from saying something rude. Or it’s hard to stop her from throwing things when she’s frustrated. For one thing, I rarely see it happening before it happens — prevention is much much better than reaction — and when she does throw stuff it often infuriates me so much it’s hard to act wisely in response.
We just studied setting limits this past week in the Hand in Hand conference call study group I’ve been doing. The gist of it is to listen, limit, then listen again.
In other words, first you observe and listen — what is the child saying, doing, signaling?
Then, if a limit is what’s needed (maybe instead they need food or rest or a hug), you bring it — physically close is usually good, instead of calling across a room. It might be, in the case of rude talk, for example, moving close with empathy and saying simply, “I don’t want you to talk that way.” You can offer an alternative — a pillow to punch, an angry or upset picture to draw, ten deep breaths together.
Then, you listen again. Is the child still doing the thing? More so? A little less?
Maybe it’s a good time to move into some roughhousing, or some other physical, connecting play in which the child has the upper hand and the parent is cheerfully trying but not doing so well — when the child gets to laugh and laugh — laughter is a great reliever of tension, especially for fear or anxiety. Hand in Hand calls this play-listening.
Or maybe it’s time to stay-listen. This is when you stay close or move close and offer warm connection — an empathetic gaze, a gentle touch, or just devoted presence. It gives a child a safe place in which to offload icky feelings. They can cry, thrash, struggle, sweat, tremble, yell… and in stay-listening there’s no boundaries about rude talk because it’s a time for offloading. You hold the space so that they can let go and get rid of all that stuff without worrying about keeping safe.
Or maybe you brought the limit and your kid’s off doing something else and everything’s fine, no further action required.
Anyway, I spent most of the day not wanting to be with Amy. I felt rejected and hurt from the smell thing and from the accumulation of nasties from other recent days. It was a good opportunity to work on writing up the pattern for the carousel horse dress — which took most of the day. There were some minor clashes as well as some mildly pleasant moments.
I finished the pattern just about as dinner was ready.
Somehow, Amy and I got into a contest to see who could get to the table first. I think it was her idea. We did it over and over again. She got there first every time. I tried hard and complained lightly but enthusiastically and begged for another chance. She laughed and laughed. This girl is capable of the WORST screechy fake laughs — they sound desperate, frantic — but her real laughs are wonderful; no lovelier sound.
At some point at dinner she kicked me. I don’t remember what it was about. We had been talking about respect, I think — trying to give the word some flesh, talking about ways you can show respect, like making eye contact and listening when someone talks, not interrupting — inviting people to play instead of telling them to, asking people what they might want to play… When she kicked me, I quietly got up and followed her as she ran to the living room. I don’t remember exactly what I did but I thought I was stay-listening. At some point Amy sort of just shut down, withdrawing into herself and becoming still.
I went back to the table and she went to the bathroom.
While she was in there, I realized (again) that it’s easy to approach stay-listening as a punishment — or a consequence — or a way to sort of force “connection” and coerce desired behavior. And if that’s my attitude going into it, it’s not stay-listening at all — and it’s not helpful.
I have to remember that thing about offtrack behavior being the best a person can do in the moment, and that stay-listening is a way to offer connection, reassure about the steady stability of my love, and hold a space for her to reconnect with her wise self.
It’s happened this way — and it’s great when it does.
It’s not at all always easy to reach for that attitude of real, genuine, loving warmth and connection. I tend to caught up in those difficult moments trying to coerce myself into that attitude, but it doesn’t work that way. Instead I need to just be — breathe — rest — do something restorative like yoga, journaling, prayer, reading, seeing a friend, going somewhere fun. Just as it’s hard for Amy to loosen up, to let go of rigidity and willfulness, it’s hard for me, too — and it can’t be done by will alone.
Another thing I’ve been thinking about lately is words. I love words. I talk a lot. Sometimes words are not helpful. Sometimes words can send emotional work into mere intellectualizing, which can be interesting but doesn’t always accomplish anything as far as reducing the power of restimulation.
And with Amy, sometimes no matter how gentle and kind my words are, if they’re about something she doesn’t like, it’s hard for her to receive them as gentle and kind. I’ve been told often lately how mean and unfair I am… as stereotypical as it is, and as much as I know rationally not to take it personally, it does rankle, especially when I’m working soooo hard to be gentle and kind even when I have to be firm.
The other night she was upset about something she couldn’t do. I approached and said something like “I know you’re disappointed…” and she lashed out with “You’re talking the wrong way!” or something like that. I think this is more than just lashing out, though — I think she’s really getting at this idea of words not always being helpful. I guessed about that, saying something like “I guess you don’t want me to say anything; would it be better if I just offered a hug?”
She said yes.
So we’ll explore in that direction and see what happens.