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.
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.
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...)
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.
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?
Welcome to the Carnival of Gentle DisciplineLinks will become available on the specified day of the Carnival.
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!
Day 1 - What Is Gentle Discipline
- Gentle Discipline 101 at The Parent Vortex
- The Power of Praise (hint: it's not what you think) at Mighty Marce
- Golden Rule Parenting at Novel Mama
- Choosing Joy at Raising My Boychick
- Making It Fun - The Power of Play at Schmoopy Baby
- Assuming the Best Intentions at Hobo Mama
- 50's Childhood - Guest Poster, Connie at Baby Dust Diaries
- I Have The Urge To Spank But I Choose Not To at Breastfeeding Moms Unite
- Mistakes at Breastfeeding Momma
- Undermining General Beliefs about Corporal Punishment at Authentic Parenting
- Choosing Gentle Discipline at Hybrid Life
- A Tiny Word With a Powerful Impact at Little Green Blog
- Parenting a Toddler With Loving Guidance at Little Snowflakes
- A Positive View on Tantrums at Edenwild
- The Terrible Two (and Two Parenting Strategies to Replace Them) a guest post by Code Name: Mama on Good Goog
- Gentle Parenting During Toddler Tantrums at Typical Ramblings, Atypical Nonsense
- Gentle Parenting Ideas from a Toddler's Perspective at Code Name: Mama