Modern Parenting: Please Pass the Olives

The Next Family

By: Julie Gamberg

child holding mom's hand- setting limits compassionately

I’ve had a fruit fly infestation in my apartment since last summer, when a forgotten bag of potatoes at the back of the pantry rotted. I’ve been at war with them ever since. I scour the web, searching for new ways I might get rid of them and thus finally win. I set up fruit, cider vinegar, and red wine traps. I’ve papered the kitchen with disgusting fly strips. When the population gets below a hundred, I start counting them, awaiting the day it will be below 20, below 10, and then voila, they will be gone and I will have won the war.

We often feel we are at war with our children. We focus our parental resources and attention on minimizing their infractions; we count them when they are finally few enough to be counted, and we await the day when they will disappear altogether. We are so afraid of being labeled a parent whose child is out of control, that a book like “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is debated by parents and pundits who applaud author Amy Chua for her toughness, reserving most critique not for her overall goals, but for the most sensational examples of her authoritarian parenting, such as calling her kids “garbage,” allowing no play dates or sleepovers, or insisting (it’s a house rule) that they be number one in everything they try (except drama and gym). Many pundits are rallying to the familiar cry of how soft modern parents are (the cry of each generation), and how much harder we need to push our children. There is no insult greater than, “You can’t control your child.” Or, worse, “Your child is a spoiled brat.” Compare that to, “Your child is depressed.” Or, “Your child looks very anxious.” We don’t bristle as much at the latter because although these should be greater causes for concern, they are also often assumed to be societal, whereas out of control, or “bratty” behavior is almost always assumed to be a lack of parental firmness. And if a little firmness is good, society says, extreme control is even better.

There is an illusion that we are inundated with parents who dote on, spoil, coddle, and protect their child from any difficulty life may bring. Yet in reality, when parents fall down on the job, it is most often in failing to meet their child’s needs, whether by ambivalent parenting (alternating being too strict and then too permissive), whether by failing to set limits, or whether by over-controlling their children. Yet parents who problem-solve with their children, who listen to their children’s concerns with compassion and empathy, who are creative in their approach to setting and enforcing limits, are very often mocked or caricatured as parents who let their children rule the roost, don’t wear the pants in the family, get walked all over by their children, and every other similar cliché, all by which bully us into adopting parenting styles or using parenting techniques which aren’t best for our children or our family.

Children learn from what they see us do, not from what we tell them to do. If we treat them with compassion, empathy, and respect, they eventually strive to model compassion, empathy, and respect. Some of the best-mannered children I know were never “taught manners.” They were never told to say ‘please’ or say ‘thank you’. The parent simply modeled please, thank you, and excuse me especially when talking to the child. If you don’t believe this will work with your child, do an experiment. Try it for two weeks. Speak to your child with the maximum amount of kindness, respect, and empathy you can muster at any given moment. Do not let go of limits. Don’t mistake empathy for permissiveness. Empathy and respect with limits might look like the following:

During a calm moment, a family discusses limits and agreements about how long children can play in the morning before the family heads out the door to work, school, daycare, etc., as well as how much notice the children want before it’s time to go, and any other logistical concerns. The family talks this through with everyone giving input and ideas. In this scenario, it is now morning; the parent has given notice that it’s time to leave, and the child refuses to stop playing with toys…

“Awwww,” you say, (without sarcasm), “I really see that you want to keep playing with those toys and not leave the house. I see how sad and frustrated you are that we have to leave now. It’s time to leave now, so we can’t play with the toys anymore. Please take mama’s hand, and we’ll walk out the door together…Oh, I see you’re very upset about leaving the toys. I see you don’t want to take mama’s hand. I’m sorry we have to leave now. Please take mama’s hand, or you can go up with mama [carried] and we can walk out together. Thank you for giving mama your hand. That makes it so much easier to go to the car and go to work. [Talking as you’re walking – I know no one has all day here]. I know that was hard for you leave your toys, and you did that for mama. I really appreciate that.”

So the limit is basically: we’re leaving now. The limit is maintained. But the child is approached with empathy, compassion, and in this case, a dose of manners.

In his article, “The Beautiful Tyrant,” Joe Newman gave an example involving giving a time-out to a two-year-old for climbing up on a coffee table and throwing a bowl of olives. This whole scenario begs so many questions, the most basic of which might be: A bowl of olives on a coffee table in a house where a two-year-old lives? Really?

In this scenario, the child, named Jacob, first climbs onto a coffee table. This climbing incident and the coffee table itself get short shrift in “The Beautiful Tyrant,” however we can see here that tracing a child’s behavior to its cause is a much more effective way of solving problems than simply treating the symptoms. In this case, let’s begin with a few words about coffee tables:

-They’re the leading cause of furniture-related injury in the home. From a baby-proofing perspective, many parents ditch the coffee table in the early years – not a bad choice.

-If a family does keep a coffee table, and sets a no-climbing limit, the child needs to always be removed from climbing on the coffee table with a simple, “We don’t climb on the table, here is where you can climb.”

-Lastly, a coffee table is one of the few surfaces that is at your child’s height. It is asking too much of the developmental stage of a two-year-old to pepper it with items that cannot be touched. Try putting child-friendly items on the coffee table.

In the scenario painted in “The Beautiful Tyrant,” after two-year-old Jacob grabs the bowl of olives, “The father catches the bowl before Jacob can throw it and asks, ‘What do you want to do?'” What sort of a question is this? Jacob has just tried to throw a bowl. For starters, he appears to want to throw stuff, in which case, redirect him to a suitable item for throwing. Looking deeper though, at the cause of Jacob’s behavior, he may also want to communicate how seriously he doesn’t like olives and how much he does not want to be offered them again, in which case, empathize with him … “Oh, olives are really yuck-yuck for you! Jacob does not like olives!” Or, he may want an untouchable item removed from one of the few eye-level surfaces in the house. And you know what? That’s a pretty reasonable request. Because we’re not at war with our children and every instance of setting limits is not a battle that has to be won by the parents so the child can see who wears the pants. Our children will learn with our guidance, and our coaching, as they are developmentally ready. And if we feel like we are losing battles along the way, we may want to take a moment to reframe the entire context of our relationship. Our children will take their guidance in what kind of people to be in the world, in how to behave toward others, and in how to give and command respect, in how to give and receive empathy and compassion, by seeing how we behave…especially toward them.

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