One Saturday four years ago, I hit a new low. I was home alone with Orla, struggling to change the sheets on her bunk bed that has awkward corners and a tangled mosquito net. Orla kept climbing on the bed. I asked her to get off, but she rolled around on the un-tucked clean sheets. I shouted at her (I was shouting a lot in those days), but she continued to mess around. Part of me thought, “I’ll just show her how mad I am.”
So I took an angry breath and said to my five-year-old daughter, “Fuck you!”
Then I got exactly what I had coming: she said to me, “Fuck you.”
We both cried then. I apologized, but I couldn’t unsay it. We had been struggling with the girls, and at five, Orla had naturally been pushing back against us as hard as she could. She whined, fussed, and threw fits. She still sat in a high chair and wouldn’t eat unless I fed her. If she didn’t like the food, she’d throw her plate on the floor. Orla would push and push until I’d lose my temper and shout. Then she would laugh and I felt she was taunting me. I had begun to lose control with her faster and more wildly. I felt our relationship careening off the tracks. As I lay on the half-made bed crying with Orla, I thought, “If I can’t figure out how to get it together now…what disaster is awaiting us in the teenage years?”
Then Mary Poppins came to visit and our lives took a 180 degree turn.
You know how Mary Poppins just magically flies in with her umbrella and fixes that family? How she doesn’t give the parents catchy phrases, or foolproof lists: “10 Ways to Deal with Tantrums” or “The 3 R’s of Discipline,” but you know how everything she does with those kids just seems like common sense once you see her do it?
Well, if my brother-in-law Brian had an umbrella and pointy shoes, he’d be a dead ringer for Mary Poppins. Brian is a tattooed kindergarten teacher in Germany who’s not only had professional training, but also five kids of his own. Lucky for us, he came to visit right when our frustrations with our kids were reaching a critical point.
Paul and I were parenting on faith that if we plodded along and suffered through, we’d eventually get there. We were pitting our will against the girls’ will, dragging them along behind us; they were digging in their heels, kicking and screaming.
As soon as he walked in the door, we asked for Brian’s help and though he couldn’t tell us what to do in each situation, he gave us a touchstone against which to test each of our actions:
My job as a parent is to help my children become independent and capable of making their own decisions.
Over several weeks, Brian helped us to frame our relationship with our kids differently, and slowly we began to change the way we were with them. I began to see that everything I do should help my children get closer to being independent. If it doesn’t, then I’ve got to revise what I’m doing. Period.
One day I saw this change clear as day. I went into the bathroom and found it entirely covered in talcum powder. Eibhlín had been the last one in there and I felt my blood pressure rise. I sternly called her to me, preparing myself to send her to time out in punishment for what she’d done while I cleaned up the bathroom. As I began to feel resentful for the mess I would clean up, I suddenly thought, “Wait, why am I cleaning up?”
Eibhlín arrived and admitted to making the mess. I calmly told her there were two problems with the talcum powder all over the bathroom: 1) It wasted the powder and 2) It now needed to be cleaned up. So I set her to cleaning and went on my merry way…no longer dragging her kicking behind me, but going with the current and helping her learn as we went.
Brian helped us see that kids need to learn to communicate from us. Orla was communicating with whining and crying: I would respond to that by doing things for her, like feeding her and carrying her. Paul would be so embarrassed by her behavior that he would take her away from others who might be bothered until she calmed down. Because of this, most nights Paul spent a significant amount of time outside during dinner. He was removing Orla from the situation and Orla then had alone time with Dad outside until she decided she wanted to go back in.
Brian watched this and explained Orla was not being manipulative, she was just being a kid and learning from reactions and results.
“It’s up to you,” he told us, “to respond in another way, to be the adults.”
When Paul was taking her outside, he was keeping her from disturbing others, but also keeping her from feeling everyone else’s irritation at her fit-throwing. Brian said, “Let her cry and let her feel the negative reaction she gets.” After a couple of fits with no reaction from Paul or me, regular tantrums stopped.
It still feels hypocritical to talk about these successes because for every success there was another hard moment. During Brian’s visit we began regular chores where the girls wash dishes and set the table each day. I remember one Saturday when Orla spent 210 minutes crying about doing 10 minutes of dishes. That same day, Eibhlín got to play a game with us because she had finished her chores but she got frustrated and flipped over the game board…Not exactly moments of parenting triumph.
But watching them in their own interactions with other kids has helped me to see how our work now may help our girls throughout their lives. Over the past four years, we’ve spent a lot of time helping them learn to identify their needs and communicate them clearly. A year and a half after Brian Poppins flew away again on the wind, I heard the following conversation between Eibhlín, who was eight, and a three-year old:
3-year -old: “Uuugggh.”
Eibhlin: “What is it?”
3-year -old: “Uuhh! Uuuuhh!”
Eibhlin: “What do you need?”
3-year -old: “Uhhnn…ooonnn.”
Eibhlin: “Oh, do you want the jacket ON?”
3-year -old: “Yeeessssss.”
Eibhlin: “Okay” [helping her put the jacket on] “Now that I know what you want, I can help you do it.”
Eibhlín’s tone, inflection and vocabulary mimicked what she’d heard from Paul and me a hundred times before, and for the first time I saw that Eibhlín also found communication useful. Now at nine and eleven they are more mature and we see the girls using their communication skills all the time: to seek help from us, to diffuse fights with each other on their own, even to analyze a situation that didn’t work out the way they’d wanted – they’re often able to identify what went awry and take away lessons to help it go better next time.
There is no foolproof recipe for raising kids up right, and every family has to find its own way. There is still plenty of shouting and frustration at our house, but it feels like we can now muddle our way through it together and come out the other side not only intact, but maybe even a little wiser for it. – Becca