Let’s say you’re the dad of three active kids, ages 3, 5 and 6. Today is your sister’s birthday, and there’s a party at her house. The house, like your sister, is not particularly child-friendly.
Shortly after the party starts, all hell begins to break loose:
The three-year-old is stomping in your sister’s flower bed. The five-year-old is sliding his finger through the birthday cake frosting. The six-year-old can’t stop touching your sister’s cherished collection of glass elephants.
Embarrassment lands on you like a steel blanket. You take a beat to curse those goddamn elephants and another beat to question every decision that led you to this moment.
But now you have to act. Which, if any, of these courses of action do you choose?
#1: You yell at the kids, and threaten to take them home if they don’t stop misbehaving. Your children should know better.
#2: You take the kids home, and lecture them about how their behavior just ruined your sister’s birthday.
#3: You resign yourself to the fact that you’ll be spending the day stopping your kids from ruining your sister’s shit. Happy Birthday, Sis.
#4: You crack open a beer and let your kids be kids — to hell with the flowers and cake and goddamn elephants. Your sister should know better.
#5: You apologize to your sister for raising hellions and then get your kids to settle down by promising to take them to the toy store after the party.
To be sure, any of these reactions would be understandable. And on a rough day, they might well be put into motion without a second thought. The problem is, they all are examples of controlling or permissive parenting.
Option #1 relies on punishments and threats of punishment (controlling)
Option #2 relies on lectures, guilt and shame (controlling)
Option #3 relies on martyrdom and overdoing (permissive)
Option #4 relies on giving in and poor limit-setting (permissive)
Option #5 relies on bribery (controlling and permissive)
And while most of us have at least a little bit of controlling and permissive tendencies inside us, what we are going for here is something a bit more heart-centered. In the heart-centered model, your kids aren’t hellions; they are natural explorers.
In the heart-centered model, your kids aren’t hellions; they are natural explorers.
In this model, we aim not to label the behavior as "bad” but to identify the unmet need that led to the behavior. We aim not to REACT hastily with rough language and tactics, but to RESPOND thoughtfully to the underlying need. We aim to deal with tricky situations without setting ourselves up for more, and far worse, problems down the road.
With that in mind, let’s go back to your sister’s birthday party. What if you came to that party knowing that your kids had a higher-than-average need to EXPLORE, especially when they were in new environments? And what if you accurately diagnosed the underlying need in each case as EXPLORE?
In that case:
Your youngest is stomping in those flower beds not to kill the flowers (or your good time), but because she relishes how it feels. What if you lifted her out of the flower bed and empathized a bit? “I bet it is so fun to squish those flowers! It probably feels good, too.” Then what if you helped her locate something safe to explore? “Flowers are delicate and will die if we step on them, but I see a big pile of leaves over there — let’s go step on those!”
Your middle child is swiping the frosting not because he’s selfish or defiant, but because the smooth perfection of the frosting was calling to him the way priests are called to the church. What if you empathized with him, and removed the irresistible object from his path? “Oh no! We can’t eat the frosting off the cake. But it looks so soft and creamy, doesn’t it? Let’s put the cake up a bit higher. When you get your slice later, you can touch the frosting as much as you like.”
Your oldest is playing with the elephants not because he is a rule-breaker, but because he wants to see them better. What if you empathized and redirected? “You love holding those little glass elephants, don’t you? I wonder if we could ask Auntie if she has some things you could hold that aren’t breakable?”
To be clear, I am not suggesting that your responses in these moments are the end of the road for you. You’ve brought three kids to a child-unfriendly home. You’ll probably need to take a pass on that beer and maybe pull in another family member or two to help you out if need be. You may need to redirect more than once (for each child). You may need to sit down and play with your children, or set them up in a game or activity of their choosing. You may need to take a lot of deep breaths to keep yourself from losing your shit. You may need to grab your favorite relative and take the kids to the park down the street for a bit, so they can play unencumbered for a while. You may need to promise yourself you will never do this again without a clearer game plan — asking your sister to put away the breakables, of example.
And, yes, if the going gets too rough, you may need to call the time of death on the whole affair. Realize your kids are too young and explorative to handle being on their own at your sister's house for any length of time, and head out.
Just do yourself one favor: Don't shame them for being kids. Even if you’re at the end of your rope and want to crawl under the nearest rock, be sure to explain that they didn't do anything wrong. You might even consider a stop for ice cream on the way home.
Believe me, with three kids under six, you deserve it.
Read the next in the series here.