Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Assuming the best intentions

This post is written for inclusion in the Carnival of Gentle Discipline hosted by Paige @ Baby Dust Diaries. All week, April 26-30, we will be featuring essays about non-punitive discipline. See the bottom of this post for more information.

Mikko in his pre-explaining days, very happy about emptying a trash can.
I wrote before about ascribing malicious intentions to innocent actions, but it was more theoretical then. This was before Mikko was verbal, and I was thankful for our extended period of pre-speaking time with him, because it kept me more aware of him as immature and still in development — to wit, a baby.

Mikko is 2.75 years old now and talking non-stop, so I thought I'd revisit the subject.

My contention before was that parents sometimes wrongly ascribe negative motives to actions their children take, particularly as they grow older and seemingly more mature. There's a tendency to see misbehavior in any behavior that inconveniences us as adults.

Mikko today, still determined to empty every container.

For instance, a child cuts up the pages of a book. The parent sees willful destruction; the child has no conception of OK-to-cut vs. off limits and just wants to practice his scissors techniques. A child pulls her clothes off in a restaurant. She's just hot; her parents note the transgression of social norms and think she's trying to embarrass them.

We're not immune from taking this attitude even into our adult relationships. Ever had a partner or roommate leave the toilet paper roll empty? Was your first reaction righteous indignation and an assumption that it was done on purpose to spite you? (Or is that just me?)

A lot of the time, as with the toilet paper roll scenario, we come to our senses and stop being so dang paranoid and tetchy. Maybe in that case, for instance, we start berating our partner only to hear that he wanted to change the roll but we forgot to buy toilet paper when we were at the store like we were supposed to. (Hmmm...)

Speaking of toilet paper…
But it can be hard with children, when their motives are hard to understand from the outside and they can't explain them clearly to us — or they do explain them, and we still don't think they're all that valid.

I've been trying to collect some examples since I knew this Carnival of Gentle Discipline was coming up. Fortunately, Mikko's a treasure trove of unexplainable actions that some parents would see as call for a time-out (or worse) — but we're trying to be patient and seeking to understand why he does what he does. We usually (always) find that, indeed, he is not a sociopath trying to ruin our lives but instead is a normal, curious, active, socially engaged toddler.

  • The other day at the store, Sam was trying to shop, and Mikko was trying not to let him. Every aisle they went down, Mikko would pull things off the shelves and start stacking them together. It took some observing on Sam's part to realize Mikko was organizing, in some fashion known only to a 2-year-old with early signs of OCD (no, really, but that's another post...). Another father might have seen only the inconvenience and the violation of the store's unwritten code (don't touch unless you're going to buy), but Sam was able to see Mikko for who he is and what he needed to feel comfortable and entertained in that moment. Did it lessen Sam's impatience? Marginally. But it did avoid any major parent-child conflict.
  • Today at the store! (We've had a lot of issues lately with Mikko and stores, to the point we're now considering never shopping with him again.) Mikko wanted to ride in the cart shaped like a car, which has the unfortunate feature of being open and low to the ground so that he can hop out any and every time the cart slows down (say, when you're trying to shop). He spent most of the time in the store racing away from us and thinking this was perfectly hilarious. But there's something infectious about cute giggles, even when they're running away from you and then popping up — surprise! — behind you. As long as we knew he was safe, and that the store wasn't too crowded, we took the road of least resistance and let him do the running around.
  • Mikko loves Sharpies, those permanent markers. They sell them near checkouts everywhere, we have discovered to our chagrin. (I spend a lot of time blotting stains with rubbing alcohol these days, to little avail.) One day he started drawing on his little diecast cars and trucks, and I had to stop my initial response to leap at him and shout, "No!" Because, you know? They're his cars and trucks. I can point out that the ink might not come off (though it often does off of smooth surfaces like that — most of my Sharpie lamentations are over beige fabric, sigh), and I can redirect him to paper, but in the end, it's something that can be his choice. He's not being destructive. He just loves his markers, and he loves his cars and trucks, and he wanted the two to meet.
  • Mikko loves the salt shakers at restaurants. He also needs to pour himself a little pile of salt so he can taste it. His conclusion every time? "Too salty!"
  • We're going through a phase where Mikko likes to pull his shoes off in public. I think it has something to do with how his socks feel on his feet, and I'm thinking I need to search out some seamless ones in case it's a sensory irritation. Lest you think no parent would ever berate a child for taking shoes off, I know a parent who berated her two-year-old for taking off his sweatshirt in an overheated house, even though he had a shirt on underneath. I couldn't figure out what the big deal was and thought she would never have objected to, say, her husband making the same choice for his own comfort.

I'm not giving these examples to suggest that I am the epitome of patience or have no limits for what my child is allowed to do.

To the second element, I often feel the need to guide my child into actions that are socially acceptable or that meet my safety standards. For instance, I have definite rules about not playing with sharp knives or medications; if Mikko is being destructive toward someone else's possessions (wanting to use Sharpies on library books, for instance) or bothering other people (running into their paths in the grocery store), I know it's time to redirect him. What I try not to do is ascribe bad intentions to his actions — a callousness toward other people, for instance, or an unnatural disregard for public property. (At 2 years old, it's entirely natural not to care much about public property!)

As for the first misapprehension — that I am some sort of Marmee-like saint — um, no. Sometimes, more than I like, I snap. I have those knee-jerk reactions that he's doing this to spite me and make me the laughingstock of the restaurant or store. But when I acknowledge those feelings and let them go, without acting on them (Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, by Naomi Aldort, has a helpful mnemonic technique for this if you're interested), I find that a closer look shows me a positive reason for my child's behavior.

Is he running away? He's connecting with me through play and seeking attention. He's also showing his trust that we won't truly lose him.

Is he making a mess? Children are messy creatures. They need to be free to experiment with objects and materials if they want to learn.

Is he being loud? He's finding his own voice and honing his musical skills. (Other passengers on the bus frequently comment favorably on his impromptu songs!)

Is he being disrespectful? He'll learn respect as he's shown respect. Often children say things that are truthful, not to hurt but because they're too young yet to know the right vocabulary and all the social rules. Yes, my son does know some swear words (gulp), but often he'll be saying something innocuous that I misinterpret as something inappropriate. I have to train myself to truly listen.

Who could begrudge this much fun?
Most of all, I need to remember that my child is his own person. He is not an extension of me. He is a whole human being with wishes, regrets, fears, feelings, and preferences of his own, and mine do not trump his.

I'm not trying to be all judgmental against parents who don't think this way, because (a) I don't always live up to it (see above, and take me seriously) and (b) it's the way almost all of us were raised. We think that there are Rules, and when someone doesn't follow the Rules, she deserves to be punished — whether or not she knew the rule existed, whether or not she has a good reason for disobeying, whether or not she did know the rule and chose to break it but is doing so, fundamentally, out of a desire for reconnection. That doesn't matter in a black-and-white view of human behavior, right vs. wrong. There are no extenuating circumstances. The book Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn, really opened up my eyes to how ingrained — and messed up — that worldview is. How it sets up love, even parental love, as something to earn rather than something that's given regardless of behavior.

I believe Mikko is worthy of my love and respect even when he's doing something I'd rather have him not do. I believe this is true even when he's doing something I know (or think I know) is truly anti-social, such as biting or hitting. I want to keep seeking the true explanation behind his actions rather than labeling behavior as "good" or "bad" from the outside. I want to hear, now that he can speak, his motivations and wishes for doing something or other, and his frustrations when we stop him. I want him to know he's allowed to make choices, too.

What funny motivations does your child have for the actions that befuddle you?

Gentle Parent - art by Erika Hastings at http://mudspice.wordpress.com/Welcome to the Carnival of Gentle Discipline

Please join us all week, April 26-30, as we explore alternatives to punitive discipline. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month in the USA and April 30th is Spank Out Day USA. In honor of this we have collected a wonderful array of articles and essays about the negative effects of punitive discipline methods, like spanking, and a myriad of effective alternatives.

Are you a Gentle Parent? Put the Badge on your blog or website to spread the word that gentle love works!
Links will become available on the specified day of the Carnival.

Day 1 - What Is Gentle Discipline
Day 2 - False Expectations, Positive Intentions, and Choosing Joy (coming Tuesday, April 27)
Day 3 - Choosing Not To Spank (coming Wednesday, April 28)
Day 4 - Creating a "Yes" Environment (coming Thursday, April 29)
Day 5 - Terrific Toddlers; Tantrums and All (coming Friday, April 30)


mrs green @ littlegreenblog.com said...

What a wonderful mama you are. Your words were soothing, like salve to this frazzled mother's mind. I love how you are so compassionate, loving, centred and focused on being the best you can.

And your final paragraph, was simply wonderful!

Now my DD is 9 we can almost laugh together at the stuff she does that winds me up. She knows she is doing it, I know she is doing it and she kind of looks at me in a way that suggests she's just checking things out - then we smile at each other and the situation is diffused.

Except if it's past bedtime, then I'm mama growly bear ;)

Paige @ Baby Dust Diaries said...

WOW Mikko! That's an impressive tower of toilet paper. I know so many parents that would never let their kids play with things that are off limits (and so many things are off limits!). I think this house is Aellyn's too and, unless there is danger, I don't follow her around telling her "no".

I have a friend that wanted me to spank my TEN MONTH OLD because she was grabbing the remote control. Now who does that inconvenience? She can't hurt herself. And what would I teach her by hitting her? That she has to be cautious in her own home. ugh.

Wonderful post Lauren! So glad you participated in the carnival and thanks for all your help with the code.

Alison Strobel Morrow said...

Such a great post, thank you so much! It just breaks my mama heart when I see children treated like the enemy, like someone whose every move is calculated to irritate and manipulate. THEY'RE CHILDREN. Let's assign some positive intent, people!!!! Your examples are wonderful, too--and I LOVE the toilet paper picture! Paige is right, so many parents would quickly put the kibosh on that because, well, you just don't play with toilet paper. But why the heck not!?

Jamie said...

great post! i'm trying to file all this away for later, for now i'm still working on the crawling stage.

i love the idea of thinking about their actions from their perspective. kids aren't doing things specifically to drive you crazy most of the time. you're incredibly patient!

Thomasin said...

Thank you for your thoughful post! I am so glad I'm able to read about these ideas online, because I feel like I don't hear them in person. Rules are something I'm very familiar with but I don't want to be a rules-type parent. Remembering that my daughter is exploring and excited about life is a good filter to look through. I may have to check out the book you recommend. Thank you again!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I feel the same way about my expectations of Everett. I often ask myself if what I am expecting is an adult expectation, something he doesn't understand or know about yet. I ask myself what his motivation for his actions are, and often I come out with the same results. He always has a reason for his actions and they are typically pretty harmless. I would stress myself out a heck of a lot more if I didn't pay attention to what his motivations are and what I am expecting of him.

I am doing a couple brief postings on my blog in the next week or two about what we "need" from our children, evaluating those "needs" for why we may not be getting cooperation from them,and how we can achieve cooperation. could I link back to this post when I talk about why we may not be getting cooperation? I think you hit the nail on the head by calling attention to mis-ascribing their behaviors.

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

So good, Lauren!
"There's a tendency to see misbehavior in any behavior that inconveniences us as adults." Ain't that the truth?! We forget that they don't have a direct psychic link to whatever it is we are thinking/wanting.
They are their own people - learning, exploring, growing. What joy do parents get in squelching that all.the.time?!

Anonymous said...

I reached a point where I wouldn't take my daughter to a store when she was around 2.75 / 3. It's not super-fun. However, I promise you that it will change. In the meantime, avoid the malls and enjoy the savings. ;)

Your points are very well-made. I personally found that when I was willing to slow down and let my kid do her stuff things went better. When I was tense and worried and trying to avoid trouble, that's when it really happened. Sometimes, that meant that we couldn't run particular errands, or I had to wait for adult backup.

Alexandra said...

I loved reading this post!! It's so easy to forget they are their own little people.

Lisa C said...

Okay, I read this last night but didn't get to comment, so I forgot what I was going to say!

I really try not to micromanange Michael. I know he is exploring and learning, and I just feel that "no" is stressful to hear. Better to save it for when it's important.

*Paige* What the?? For what even?? I'm just...stunned.

Anonymous said...

I read this post and it made me smile, but I didn't have anything to add (except to stare in response to the idea of spanking an infant for anything, let alone playing with a remote control)....

...until this morning. My almost-16-month-old has been going through a hitting phase. I know it is not malicious - but it hurts, darnit. He's typically very excited/hyper/wound up and has too much energy when it happens, and it has to go somewhere, and attempts to redirect him to smacking soft things doesn't work because he wants his parents. (I think we're supposed to fix the overstimulation!)

I've been at my wits' end trying to find some way to help or redirect that doesn't hurt him (physically, emotionally, mentally) but also doesn't result in us getting hit.

This morning he started to get wound up, and raised his hand and froze looking at me expectantly. After a moment he said "Dai?" And I realized why I recognized the pose. His Dad found a solution - he taught him a high-five ("Dai!"). I'd bemoan that I didn't think of that, but I am just so busy being glad that my husband did. Because this morning my wound-up little boy gave me high-fives over and over, giggling with glee that I was pleased with him and playing with him. He got his release, and I didn't get slapped in the face or chest (in fact, he didn't even hit my hand except when I held it up flat and facing him: he clearly "gets" this game!).

This? This is how it should be. I just wish I were better at figuring things out, but this is how it should be.

Mama Mo said...

Hi, Lauren! I am way late to this game, but I just found you, and I've been reading the best of posts and following them to whichever tangents strike my fancy today :-) I have eight month old twin boys, so I am reading and learning and filing away information to recall later. I appreciate the perspective of this post and hope many more mamas find it.

I just wanted to pass along a suggestion in case you haven't solved Mikko's potential sock-problem yet. Turn the socks inside out! I had (have) fussy feet and had to wear the seams on the outside for years.

Good luck, and thanks again for this post.

Crystal said...

I love this post. It strikes me that even though you may not always respond perfectly, let's face it we're all human (and case in point, if we make mistakes and errors in social situations involving our kids why would we expect perfection from them?) you are so mindful of the innocence of children's interaction with the world. I aspire to that level of mindfulness even if I still make mistakes in my responses.

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