I’ve wondered about doing some posts specifically on parenting advice for a while now. The main thing that has put me off is that such an action makes me sound like I think I’m some sort of expert, and I know I’m really really reeeeally not. I am, of course, a mother to five children though, and as they are all very different and I have made a lot of mistakes along the way, I suppose that does give me plenty of material to share to give ideas about how to react to some of the many different personalities that children arrive with, and to point out my past mistakes in the hope that it’ll save someone else from making the same ones. I love chatting to other mums about kids, because you learn a lot from each other, and are also often reminded about how far you’ve come in your parenting journey. It’s SUCH a steep learning curve that we need all the help we can get!
Recently, in a couple of conversations about kids of totally different ages (including a first time mum with a newborn), I was reminded of a lesson that I learned really early on that has helped me hugely, and I think is relevant to many parents who’ve got themselves into a negative cycle.
The message is this: Your child is not your enemy.
When my first child was just a few days old, I took him to the wonderful community that every child should be raised in, because of the depth of relationship and experience you find there, and that is church (if you don’t have one to go to, find yourself one). A lovely lady the generation ahead of me gathered to join the throng of women who had gathered around me to coo and stroke my prize, and as she stroked his little face, she said, with a forlorn tone in her voice, “I remember when I had my first son. I thought he hated me.” That’s all she said, and that’s all she needed to say. It stuck with me instantly.
You see, over the years I had worked with a lot of young people, and seen many interesting parent/child dynamics. And I kept coming across this pattern of certain kids in certain families who seemed to have a different relationship with one of their parents than their siblings did. It’s like no matter what they did, they clashed with that parent, and it was usually the mother. When their brother or sister made a mistake, it was dismissed as them being daft, but when that particular child made a mistake, the parent took it as a personal attack. By the time they were teens, they found it almost impossible to live together. I always wondered how as a parent you got yourself into that position.
And I think that lady kind of summed it up. It’s really easy to look at a child sometimes and think they’re doing things purely to spite you, and that there’s something innately wrong with your relationship with them.
It can start from day one. Even if you put aside the trauma that giving birth puts you through – that feeling that your body has just been ripped apart and left you shaking and bleeding and possibly patched back together (I feel a collective shudder from all the ladies) – becoming a mum is a difficult thing. This little person comes into your life, and not only do they need you constantly so your time becomes a much different matter than it was before, but it also cries. A lot. And the books and the antenatal classes said that if it cries, you feed it, and you burp it, and you change it, and you encourage it to sleep. But sometimes you do all that and it still cries.
The trouble is that by the time we’ve become adults, we’ve learned the vital life lesson that the ways people react to you emotionally are important signals we read to know whether our behaviour makes them happy or sad or angry or excited, and we then adjust our behaviour accordingly. But newborn babies don’t give us that rich tapestry of emotional clues - they can only use one – crying. So we hear, all the time, “You’re doing something wrong! You’re doing something wrong! You’re doing something wrong!” And that equals failure in our heads. And that’s where we can get to where my dear lady friend was on day one of her son’s life – assuming that he hated her.
It’s a sad, and yet logical response.
If you happen to have a particularly settled baby that doesn’t cry much, or a great community of people around you who give you great advice and breaks from the crying (did I mention you can find that in church?), or such a massive rush of feel-good hormones because your body is so jubilant at the fact it’s not pregnant anymore (which is what I had, thankgoodness), then this stuff balances out the negative response that crying creates in us. But some people don’t have those things, and so they can start on the backfoot.
Of course, once you get to week six and your baby starts being able to smile at you, life can feel so totally different that you don’t mind the crying anymore, and you begin a new kind of relationship with your child where they give you visual signs of recognition and acceptance (and, in case I’m putting off anyone from having children by my previous paragraphs, THIS is what can’t be bought by all the gold in the world and what makes it all totally worth it). So you plod on a bit further and things can go well.
Along the way, you have other obstacles to get over, like the ogre of comparison, when your child’s behaviour doesn’t match up to other people’s children (that’s a whole other post I’ll do in the future because parental comparison is a MASSIVE thing), and the realisation that having the aim of keeping your kids happy ALL the time is completely unattainable, so you have to lower your standards to keeping them fed, clean and sometimes happy instead. And then you hit the toddler stage.
Probably the best advice to give here is to read this book:
Seriously, it changed the course of where I was going to go and brought me to a better place. Because I had THREE toddlers all at the same time, with different responses to the many changing hormones that were charging around their bodies, and they needed three very different techniques to help handle them. And this book goes through ideas, gives you realistic expectations for your child’s behaviour, and most, importantly, it’s funny, which is really important after trying to get through massive humourless volumes on parenting that make you feel ten times worse about what you’re NOT doing right at vital developmental stages.
Toddlerdom is the point where their predetermined personalities come out with full force and you’re expected to somehow tame the bad, encourage the good and discipline the potential to become all it can be inside this little person who walks around carrying your heart, your dreams for the future, your hopes for the world to be a better place, and the decisions of which nursing home you’ll end up in in several decades time. Wow. No wonder we feel the pressure when things seem to be going wrong.
The main difficulty I found in raising these fiery balls of potential is not facing the child who is very different to you. Those children are usually the ones who fascinate you the most, because they approach life with a fresh set of eyes that you don’t have, so you feel like they broaden your world to new possibilities and get you thinking out of the box. They might also have got these traits from their other parent, which can be the very same traits that attracted you to your partner in the first place.
No, for me it’s facing the same traits that you already have, and struggle with on a daily basis, that are the tipping point in a parent/child relationship. There’s something in watching that tiny person mirroring some of the worst of your own behaviour that makes you want to climb back into history, relive your life, and change all your bad habits and confront your biggest weaknesses, as if somehow if you’d learnt to conquer them years ago, then maybe you could’ve wiped them from your DNA before being given the chance to reproduce and put them back into the human race. It’s so utterly painful to see the stuff you’ve never been able to deal with in your own character, bubbling up in your three year old (that you assumed was a perfect blank canvas before they came to you), that instead of rationally finding a way of dealing with that child’s behaviour and walking them through it, makes you yell “Stop doing that NOW!”
I am so glad that God joined up some dots for me early on (mainly through seeing other people getting it wrong) that prepared me for this battle. I did have a child who was like me in almost every way, and as lovely as it was to feel like I could read his mind, and exciting when he got interested in the same things that interest me, it was also extremely difficult to back down when we disagreed. As soon as I saw traits of stubbornness and pride rising up in him, I would try and stand in his way and oppose him till he backed down. In other words, I would try and fight his stubbornness and pride with my stubbornness and pride. Not surprisingly, it didn’t always go well.
It really wound me up on so many levels. I felt guilty that the reason he struggled with these issues was because I’d passed it on to him; I felt determined to do all I could to never let him ‘win’ so that he would learn that these character traits wouldn’t do him any good; I felt like all my buttons were being pressed so that I kept showing the worst side of myself – it had the potential to spiral into a really negative relationship.
So what did I do about it? By the grace of God, I had to remind myself that I was the parent and he was the child, so I had to handle the situation with maturity and creativity, not pig-headedness (he was a toddler – that’s all he had). So I used techniques that didn’t come naturally to me.
When I saw his temper rising and that he was about to challenge my authority, I tried distraction. Instead of demanding respect and obedience (which ARE important things to nurture in a child), I would point to something out of the window, or suddenly change the topic of conversation, to give him chance to think and make better decisions about what was about to come out of his mouth. With one of my other children, whose main difficulty was concentration levels, distraction would have been the worst technique to use, but in this case it worked to break the cycle of constant heated confrontations.
I also had to be selective about what I challenged him on. I wanted him to always respond nicely, but if he didn’t, sometimes I would just turn away and start chatting to another child instead, to show him that speaking nicely brought about positive results, but yelling doesn’t get you what you asked for. With one of my other children, whose main difficulty was disappearing and destroying things around the house, ignoring him would have been the worst technique to use, but in this case it was like pouring water onto an explosive situation.
I also asked for help a lot. If Richard was home, and I had drawn swords (only metaphorically, honestly), I would sometimes send him a look and he would step in and diffuse the situation immediately. His opposite-type personality to the child in question meant there was never the same clashing between the two of them, and so it often made things so much easier for all of us. (And it works the other way too, with Richard and one of the other boys, who are chalk and chalk. I step in and be the cheese.) (Who came up with that analogy and why?) We never disagreed with or undermined the work of the other parent – we went in supporting each other but by using different techniques.
It got to the point where the real challenges became fewer and further between. Of course, sometimes I just had to stand my ground and refuse to give in, because that’s part of a parent’s job; to bring consistency and help a child learn self-control. But when I did it less often, I felt stronger to be able to carry it through and not get as emotionally het-up as I had been doing (which is another separate post I’ll do another time too).
As he grew, our relationship got better and better because I had resolved that we would never be enemies. When his mood was good, I capitalised on it and used our commonality for bonding times, like playing board games and reading (told you he was like me!) and when his, or my, mood was bad, we gave each other space. So not only did we end up with a great relationship, but a greater understanding of each other that meant we could learn a lot from each other. There were certain traits in me that I saw much more clearly because of the reflection he showed me, and so I learned to deal with them in my adult life in a way I never had done in my childhood and teens. I didn’t realise how much my pride got in the way of relationships until I saw how destructive it looked from the other side. I didn’t realise that my desire to always get things right actually stopped me from doing lots of things because I had a fear of failure and didn’t know how to repair things when I got them wrong.
I am so completely grateful for the relationship with a child who I could have treated as a nemesis, but instead became a great teacher, shaper and friend in my life. Even though our time together was cut short, I look back with no regrets because I know I did my best, and that he became a person who turned those traits of stubbornness and pride into tools of tenacity and determination, and inspired me to do the same along the way.
So that’s my parenting challenge: God put you and your child on the earth to shape and form each other into better people. Therefore you’re on the same team! So what’s standing in your way? What are the similarities in you that clash with each other, and how can you form a path around them so they don’t become a wall between you? Who and what can you use to break the stalemate when neither of you is prepared to back down? There are many ways to discipline and build character into our children, but too often we choose one (whether it works or not) and refuse to change our technique – maybe it’s time to think outside the box.
Hope that helps!