Apparently I do all my best thinking while walking in the woods with my [almost] four year old (you can read about what else I've learned from our hikes here). I think it's something about the quiet and total lack of distractions. It’s just the two of us, we’re far from the car, and for better or worse I’m completely engaged with him.
Lately he and I have been having what at my house we call “a rough go.” We’re butting heads, there have been lots of power struggles, and I’m feeling overwhelmed. Just yesterday I thought to myself, “what business do I have helping any families when I don’t know what to do with this child!?”
I’ve been stuck on one thought: this is a behavioral issue that I must fix. What else could it be when he’s kicking me and laughing about it each time I strap him into his carseat? In my frustration I assumed our power struggles were all his fault. One parenting trend that consistently ruffles my feathers is the philosophy that no matter the issue, it’s always the parent’s, and more specifically the mother’s, fault. It wasn't that long ago that we blamed both schizophrenia and autism on mothers. Certainly kids are heavily shaped by their parents, but they’re also influenced by their peers, their environment, and their own free will. In this case, however, I discovered our rough go was primarily my creation.
Back to today. We were walking in the woods, and my blood sugar crashed. It occurred to me that with our recent busy schedule, I haven’t been eating often enough. And as my husband can tell you, I’m unpleasant to be around when I’m hungry (to put it mildly). I realized that lately every time my son’s behavior seemed out of control, it happened to be when I was hungry and cranky. The truth is he hadn’t changed, I had. Feeling a bit annoyed and chagrined to realize his behavior is little more than a response to my behavior, I vowed to react differently today. I was once again reminded that parenting has a way of humbling me like no other experience in life can.
We were almost back to our car after an hour of hiking when my son started ramming into me. Yesterday I would have reflexively scolded him and bemoaned the fact that he never listens to me. Today I asked him to stop, and when he didn’t I had the awareness to choose to improve the situation. I playfully challenged him to a race. The rest of the way back to the car, we ran and giggled. When we made it to the car, he climbed into his carseat and allowed me to strap him in with no fuss for the first time in a week.
When I was actually mindful of my own behavior rather than focusing on his, it was so easy for me to respond empathically to my son’s graceless attempt at connection. Meeting that need with playfulness rather than a stern tone changed the course of our day for the better. It’s amazing how willing he was to cooperate when it was clear that I understood him.
This was a conscious decision since I was already hungry and tired, but my disregard for my own needs certainly wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own. The fact is, difficulties with our children always call for increased connection. And increased connection is only sustainable if we’re actively meeting our own needs throughout the day. I’m not sure how many times I’ll have to learn this lesson before it sticks, but today I got one step closer.