The other day I was walking down a path with my kids. My son pushed my daughter from behind. She fell face first into the dirt. In years past, my reaction would have been swift and stern. I probably would have lashed out in some way against my son. This time I found myself in the position of observing the situation, with enough presence to think to myself, don’t freak out. I was still a bit tense and my jaw was clenched, but I breathed. Later, I would considered this a big win. In the moment it felt a bit strange, but I went with it. I watched and waited, and let the situation play out a bit. Instead of swooping in, picking up my daughter, and scolding my son in some way, I just did…nothing. It was really hard. My daughter was crying, covered in wood chips and my son was kind of smiling weirdly.
As the situation progressed, I thought to myself, this is it! I’ve struck gold. So much of my parenting has been reactive, intense, and actually dis-empowering for my kids. What if I step back a bit? I already knew that my blow ups were not good for anyone. Honestly, how would yelling at, grabbing and shaming anyone do any good? It doesn’t. It distracts from any good lesson that could be learned and it scares kids and makes them feel wrong. Freaking out also wouldn’t do any good for our relationship and how much my kids trust me.
In this moment, I had a realization. If I swoop in, I’m taking away an opportunity for my kids to work this out on their own. I’m taking away an opportunity for my son to organically find empathy somewhere in his body. If I take control of the situation and rant like a mad man, the energy confuses and distracts from what the real focus should be. I was hoping that he would see his sister crying, realize his role, and understand his mistake. I was hoping he would take the necessary steps to mend the situation. Things seemed to be taking forever, he still had a goofy look on his face and wasn’t doing what I wanted him to do. Looking back now, I think I know why. He was likely assuming that I would jump in and use my almighty powers to assume the role of judge, jury, and executioner. But I didn’t.
So, he was at a loss. He was in new territory as well. Of course he was looking goofy and confused. Who was this new Dad and what did I do with the old one? The normal unfolding of events was not taking place, but I felt good about it. I felt conscious, aware and empowered. I felt like I had the control to choose something different, something better. It honestly felt like I was changing the trajectory of my life, our lives.
Back to reality. My daughter was still crying, my son still silent. It felt like a long time, but was probably only 5 seconds since the push had happened. It was really hard not to pick up my daughter and comfort her. But she wasn’t asking for it, so I didn’t. I was leaving the option out there for my son to comfort her himself. Instead of judging him, I decided to make some observations about the situation, to help him along. “Looks like your sister is pretty sad”. I thought he would be old enough to connect the observations with some of his own actions. We started getting somewhere! He ended up asking her if she was okay, and gave her a little hug.
I think another way to do this, perhaps with younger kids, would be to model the empathy we are hoping to teach. Let’s say my daughter bites my son. Not good, but what are we trying to teach? Are we going to attend to the one that has been hurt, focusing our energy on him, showing concern and care for him? Or, are we going to teach that Daddy doesn’t like this and you need to do what Daddy likes or else you will get punished. This seems strange. More than teaching a good way to act, it teaches her to avoid a negative outcome. The lesson learned hasn’t really been internalized either. The biter avoids biting, not because of her own beliefs or motivation, but due to some external threat. In this way, we teach our kids to orient themselves to an external power to determine the right and wrongness of their actions. The lesson isn’t overarching either. Our children might learn not to bite because we punish that one act. But what about other acts? As a parent, we’d have to go through the same routine with other behaviours we deem unacceptable. It will likely come across as confusing and subjective to our children…punishing for somethings, not for others. The lesson isn’t enduring or meaningful in terms of empowering our kids to have a true, internalized sense of right and wrong. So, as you could have guessed it, my preference would be for modelling the empathy. When we develop a true sense of empathy, appropriate behaviours come naturally. Behaving “appropriately” to avoid being shamed, threatened, or punished will lead to problems for our children as they grow.
Look at the number of adults who are still confused about this one. We have grown adults acting like scared kids when they hurt someone or do something wrong. We see people being defensive, evasive, antagonistic and aloof. Perhaps they never learned how to own their own mistakes in a positive loving way. Perhaps the opposite was modelled to them. The beauty is that we have the power to turn it all around. We have the power to teach our kids to be truly big people. Being empowered, being in control of your own actions, is freedom, for us and for our kids.
So, let’s take our time. Time is on our side. Before we act, pause. I know that, in my parenting, many times I would have been better off just doing nothing, literally nothing. “Step away from the child”. It’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube. If you know that your parental instincts might need some fine tuning, or that you lean toward impulsive behaviour, think about sitting on your hands and closing your mouth once in a while. Give yourself the permission to do nothing, just observe, even if only for a second or two. Not only does it help us avoid parenting errors, it actually helps us make better decisions. Given a second or two, our big person brains can take over and often steer us in the right direction.
There is no immediate threat of our children becoming unruly members of society if we don’t swiftly and sternly correct their behaviours at a young age. Parenting is a long game. Quick stern actions might feel like the right thing to do, especially in social situations, but it can lead to impulsive punitive actions that actually do more harm than good.
Let’s set our children up for success. Let’s raise a generation of children who grow up, not afraid of being punished, but who choose to do right because it is right. The world will be better off for it.