kids do better when they feel better

You've been there.

Toddler and mom at the grocery store. Mom is loading up the cart, checking off her list. Toddler is sitting in the cart basket, looking at all the colorful jars, cans, and boxes. He starts to wiggle, whine, and say, "Get out! Get out!" Mom, exasperated, says, "You can't get out right now because I have to finish the shopping." The kid gets more and more upset until he's in full-on meltdown. Mom has a grim empty-shell-person face. Other shoppers are looking, shaking their heads, moving away from the scene.

Some version of this story may or may not have happened to you yet. I can tell you that Chicken did one of these in the pasta aisle of Whole Foods, except he wasn't in the cart. He was on the floor. In the middle of the aisle. Wailing and lying on the ground because I took away a glass jar of pasta sauce he'd grabbed from the shelf.

Why do kids always start acting up at the exact moment you need their cooperation? Seriously, it feels like they have a sixth sense on this one. Mom only has fifteen minutes to get the house in some semblance of order before her friends come over. I should pull all the papers out of the desk now.

Honestly, it's too easy to start thinking of your kid as "naughty," or "mischievous." I couch it in nicer terms than that, of course. I say, "oh, he's just pushing boundaries," or "it's age-appropriate for him to test me." I say or think that shit about Chicken every single day. He's being a monster to me, but he can't help it. He's just... pushing boundaries. And when you think you're being pushed, it's only natural to push back.

But I'm reading a book right now that's asking me to rethink that mindset, the place of "my sadistic kid is trying to make my life harder just to see what will happen, and it's my job to show him that his actions have consequences."

It's called How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

Now, I can tell you right now that if I'd seen that title on a bookshelf, I would have rolled my eyes and kept skimming for something a little more me - Taming the Savage Beastlet perhaps, or How to Say Stop So Kids Will Listen & Then Immediately Stop. 

But one of my mom role models recommended this book to me. She's the kind of mom I want to be - kind, firm, compassionate, fun, and warm. She's creative and patient with her three boys, and she appears to be some kind of child whisperer. She asks her boys to do things and THEY DO THEM. She says to her two-year-old, who is dangling off the edge of a play structure, "woah! that's too far, buddy!" and he smiles at her and retreats back onto the ledge. When I saw that, only days after I attempted to talk Chicken out of leaping from an open window 9 feet off the ground, I was absolutely dumbfounded.


She says she isn't. But isn't that what wizards say?

Anyway, she recommended this book to me. And it's slowly but surely blowing my mind.

I've fallen into the trap of thinking that my child acts this way TO ME. Every day at some point I think, why are you doing this to me? And in my mind, the only solution for his meltdowns was a firmer hand, clearer boundaries, more consistent restrictions and rules.

But the tighter you grip someone, the more likely they are to fight you.

The truth is that Chicken is a pain when he's feeling pain. He's acting angry or sad because he's angry or sad - he's not trying to make my day harder. He's saying, "Mom. I need some help right now."

Here's the killer concept from this book that really resonated with me:

"The attitude behind your words is as important as the words themselves. The attitude that children thrive on is one that communicates, 'You're basically a lovable, capable person. Right now there's a problem that needs attention. Once you're aware of it, you'll probably respond responsibly.' The attitude that defeats children is one that communicates, 'You're basically irritating and inept. You're always doing something wrong, and this latest incident is one more proof of your wrongness.'"

It makes me sad to think how often I've unintentionally shown my Chicken that he's irritating, or not capable. I mean, yes, he is often irritating, and he often attempts feats that he shouldn't - like oh, say, when he wants to plunge 9 feet down. You're damn right I'm going to say "stop, you can't do that!"

But there's got to be a better way. There's got to be a way we can arrive at the place where he and I can both treat the undesirable behaviors as problems that have solutions, and not fatal character flaws or evidence of my total failure as a parent.

So here's my resolution for today, and moving forward:


I will remember that you are a basically lovable little boy who is still figuring out how to let me know when something is wrong.

I will forgive myself for getting irritable and focusing on your frustrating behavior when you're feeling bad.

I will remember, in those moments of anger and short temper, that you do better when you feel better. I will look at how small you are, how large the world outside is, and try to understand why you feel like you need to dig in your heels and fight so hard for what you want.

I will shop at the grocery store during off-peak hours so you can take your time crying in the middle of the pasta aisle. I will sit down on the ground next to you and pat your back until you feel better.

I will try to find ways that you can help me while we are out and about. I will hand you oranges to put in the plastic sack. I will ask you to put the box of macaroni in the cart.

I will try to find tasks that you can accomplish yourself, without my help. I will ask you to pick a can of soup from the shelf. I will ask you to clip yourself into your seat. I will resist the urge to step in, hurry up, and do it for you when you're taking your time, learning, experiencing, and yes, maybe, sometimes stalling.

When I don't know what else to do, I will take you into your room and read to you, or we will throw stuffed animals around.

I will help you feel better.

I will try.


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