Control. We all desire it, at various points throughout our lives; some of us more than others. And especially when we have children, we feel that it’s so important that we remain in control, and that our children know this. When I first started to learn about the ideas of attached and gentle parenting, I was excited. I’d sit reading the posts and comments, wondering how in the world all these parents were able to get their children to follow instructions with just their words. These people are really in control, I thought. I wanted to be like that.
I began, as I endeavor to begin any transition in my life, with reflection. This is one of the aspects of AP that I most love; it is also the one I think turns so many off to AP – we have to take a great big look at ourselves. Before we do anything. Being an AP parent, for me, is like walking around with a giant mirror always in my face. I constantly have to stare myself down; question my motives and the behavior that follows; ponder over my reactions to my children; process events from my past that have shaped the person and mother I am, and ask myself if I’m doing my best.
The mainstream says that children are children and adults are adults; and that we have very little in common. It says that children should learn to fit into their adult-driven world; that they should be trained to behave in a way that accommodates everyone; that the best thing we can do for our children is to prepare them for adulthood by molding them into who we see them becoming.
The ideals of gentle and attached parenting are that children will become adults, and that all adults were once children. We aren’t so different, and we need to remember that. Children are like that closet in the back hallway that you’ve filled with your family’s stuff – whether or not everything comes spilling out once the door is opened depends on not only what you’ve put in, but how you’ve arranged it. Training children without regard for their emotional well-being is like throwing things into the closet without looking, so long as it gets in. Connecting with children is like throwing the door wide open, turning the light on, and assessing the best spot for the item you’re holding; and maybe even coming back later to check that you’ve chosen well.
And, the one that I had the hardest time accepting and making an ideal I live by: that the children are fine, just as they are. That they come here with their own make-up and identity; that maybe my job is not to ‘mold’ my children, because maybe they are already who they will be for the duration of their lives. That maybe my job is to protect and guide my children as they seek out those things in life which compliment who they are, even if those things don’t necessarily fit well with who I am. It hit me hard, this realization – that if any training was needed, it was I who needed it. I was the one who was having a hard time adjusting to my children being here, not the other way around. They were doing what is expected of a young child – laughing at the wrong moments, boisterous play, mistakenly breaking objects, fits of anger and crying… They were doing what any being would do after having been thrown into life on a planet already in full swing, and run by people who already possess the skills needed to be successful; trying to understand the world around them, and to figure out how and where they fit in.
I was the one with the problem. I realized that when I learned how control works in a family; that my children could, of course, be intimidated into obeying me. I knew from experience that yelling, spanking, shaming and ignoring worked to get their attention. But then I learned about talking to them, not just saying words, but all sorts of techniques to help me to pause and listen; with the common goal being that of letting them know, “Hey, I hear you and I am responding to you, and it’s not about ME.” I learned about making my children feel respected and cared for and in tune with me.
I started to classify my children’s behavior into three categories: Acceptable, Could Be Acceptable, Unacceptable.
Acceptable: I’m reading and the girls are playing in the same room. – Times when what they’re doing is obviously not causing any chaos.
Could Be Acceptable: I’m reading and the girls are playing loudly, running around and yelling. – Times when what they’re doing is ‘normal’ child behavior, but it bothers me, for some reason. Most of our differences fall into this category, and realizing this is what really helped me to stop yelling and spanking.
Unacceptable: I’m reading and the girls are throwing things, playing with items they know they shouldn’t use, and hurting each other. – Times when what they’re doing is not allowed and they are aware of this.
The Could Be category is the one I struggled with the most, and still do. It is also the one that helped me to progress the most. After I learned about the dangers spanking and yelling pose to a child’s emotional growth, I vowed to stop. But I just couldn’t do it right off, and I couldn’t figure out why. Why wouldn’t they just listen when I say something?! Why wouldn’t they just not do what I’ve asked them before, not to do? Well, there are certain factors at play when a Could Be Acceptable situation presents: 1) Why I want to change it; 2) Why the children are doing what they’re doing; and 3) What bad/good could come of it.
As with the example above, I’d ask myself, why don’t I want them to play in the same room, right now? Sure, I’ve just sat down to read, but I know I can focus even with distractions, and this is a good way for us to be together, even if we aren’t all doing the same thing. Why are they doing what they’re doing? Because they are children, they are curious, and they like to play – they aren’t thinking of the fact that I’m reading and purposely trying to interrupt me. They are thinking, “Hey, let’s play! Mom is here so we can be near her, too…” What bad will happen if I let them play? None. What good? Well, they can play quietly together, and I know that for children, play is their work; so I’m sure they are over their discovering and figuring and forming new ideas.
And there I had it – the problem was mine. I had such a desire to be in control of every situation, I often didn’t pause to truly sort the situation out in my mind. I’d come in and only have my goal in mind, my goal to keep my house clean and to ultimately express my power over them, and I would cause the chaos. Even after I’d gotten to the root of my control issues, my past abuse, I couldn’t figure out how to implement what I’d learned. I asked myself, what is it that these other families have that mine doesn’t, that is allowing for this harmony? Money? Two parents? Higher education? I read and read and read, thought and thought. And it came to me: they are connected. There is a pure, unconditional love there. They just love each other for no reason, with the parents setting that example.
When these parents’ kids hit them – they loved them, first. When these parents’ kids lied to them – they loved them, first. When these parents’ kids wouldn’t go to bed on time – they loved them, first. The parents considered their children’s feelings foremost, and so were able to keep their children on board with the game plan, even if it meant making adjustments to the tactics. They were completely in control and they only had to use their words. That’s another thing I’ve learned about connection and control – they go hand in hand.
I can see the difference. When I lose my temper with Logan, my very strong willed toddler, she loses her temper with me. When I order her around with no regard for what she’s thinking, she yells and puts her tongue out and stomps around. I know why. From her perspective, Mom has lost control. She is angry and she is being mean to me and I am upset and I don’t know what to do, and now Mommy doesn’t know what to do, and I’m confused. They look to me for guidance, even when they test me. They want to know that I have the answers and that I am not afraid, so they do not have to be afraid. Spanking and sending them away from me and shouting at them sends the exact opposite message. It tells them that my anger has overtaken my ability to be reasonable and loving, and they can see that I’ve lost it. They take their cues from me.
When Logan or Ryleigh do something in the Unacceptable category and I am firm, the difference is incredible. When I get at Logan’s level, look her in the eyes, and say, “We do not hit each other, we’ve talked about it before. I’m sorry you are angry and I can always help you, but I will not let you hurt anyone else. You must use your words, Logan,” she responds so much better. From her perspective, Mom is going to help me, I heard her say it. She is not angry with me and she is not scaring me. She said we can work together and I can be nice just like her.
I did this very recently with Logan. She was upset with her sister and started screaming. I called her for a time-in with me and she sat next to me and made the loudest sounds she could. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, her face turned red, she looked me in the eye and screamed in my face, she said, “NO! NO! NO! NO!” over and over, and she started spitting. I looked her back in the eye and kept talking. “Logan, I know you’re upset but you cannot do that to Ryleigh, I don’t let her do it to you. I cannot help you right now because you’re just screaming and I don’t know what you want. I am really sorry you are so angry right now Logan, it hurts me when you cry because I love you. I really want to help you now, do you want me to help you?” She screamed and spit through my entire monologue, but when I got to, “Do you want me to help you?” she stopped. She wiped her tiny nose and croaked a tiny, “Yesth.”
I almost cried, even now, even after I’ve been practicing this for a while. Logan is just so tough that some days nothing works. That day as I was talking and she was screaming and spitting at me, I was shaking at the sheer power of not losing my temper – it was like I was watching us there, even though I was sitting there. When it does work, it just feels good. No bigger word needed. It’s good.
“Okay,” I said. “What do you want to do?”
“I chyna biwd a cub’ouse bud Waleigh take aw my pots (parts).” She sniffed.
“Okay, I can help you Logan. Let’s go fix it.” We got up and went in and fixed it, and she actually accepted my crappy design. She actually apologized. She agreed that we don’t hit, that we need to use our words. She smiled at me and gave me a hug. I could tell she was happy to not be distressed anymore. I was so happy I hadn’t lost it. I’d felt my anger rising to my lips, my pace quickening, my head pounding in response to her screams. But then I’d looked at her, into her eyes. My little girl, only three years old, with emotions bigger than her body. She was so afraid! She needed to stare me down, challenge me with her screams and her anger; she was asking me, “Are you in control? I am not, I am only a child, I need you to be in control, are you?!” Had I hit her and sent her to sit down, the answer would have been a resounding, “No, Logan, I am not. I am just as afraid as you are, and now I will act out like you’re doing.” And you know, honestly, sometimes I am as afraid as she is, maybe more so because I know so much more. But I can’t show it. I kept cool and showed her, “Yes, Logan, I am in control and I am here to help you relax by keeping myself calm.” No chaos, because someone was leading. I was leading. I was completely in control and I’d only had to use my words. Go figure.
I ask myself how I’ve gotten here, and before the question has fully formed the answer pops into my head: my connection to my children; that thing all those other parents had. Nope, I don’t have money, or a partner, or a degree in social work or a degree in anything. I have my heart and my head. I have the power to drop all notions about what my children should do and to just love them, unconditionally. When I feel connected, I pause. When I pause, they listen. When they listen, our household runs smoothly. When our household runs smoothly, we all feel connected and we have time and peace of mind to work on strengthening our bond. It’s the least vicious cycle ever. It’s a chain no one wants broken. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s raised my self-esteem higher than anything ever could have – freeing me to focus on my MAGNIFICENT young daughters. It’s something I will lie on my deathbed and smile to recall, how I changed myself and gave my children the gift of my unconditional love. It’s like fire inside me. It’s the real power, not what I was doing before. Intimidation has no place in my life, not when it comes to my children or anyone else. I can love, first. No matter what they do, I can remain the gentle leader of my family, and keep control over myself, with love.
If you’re still on the journey, please keep at it. All my love to you.