“From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.”
~ Cat Stevens
Those of us who practice respectful parenting will, on occasion, get told that our children are misbehaving or being rude because we’re not strict enough. We may even get scolded and told to control our children. This sort of thing happens most often when your child is behaving in a way some other adult deems inappropriate.
A child who is labeled by others as being “out of control” can cause a range of emotions for his parents including embarrassment, anger, shame, defensiveness, aggressiveness, even self righteousness. In our efforts to handle our confused emotions we aren’t always our best selves.
Perhaps you would never tell another parent to control their children. But I wonder – if we were all to be very honest – how many of us have moments when we are actually trying to control our own children.
Don’t do that.
Don’t touch that.
Stop singing so loudly.
Sit still until we’ve all finished our meal!
If you don’t stop bothering your sister you won’t get to go to the park later!
Give Henry that toy, he’s been waiting a long time.
And even though we may use different words, what we’re conveying is, “Control yourself! Or, if you can’t, I will do it for you!” There’s a difference, of course, between controlling a child and setting firm boundaries for him or her – but many adults who practice a more old-school way of parenting don’t always see this. Instead of offering their understanding when a child is having a hard time, they can opt, instead, for loudly admonishing the offending parent to make sure their children behave more appropriately.
Some months ago I took my son to a children’s museum while we were on vacation together in San Francisco. After a few, long hours moving from one display to another and a giant tantrum about a dropped lollipop (through which I managed to remain remarkably patient and connected) I told him we would be leaving shortly and he should pick one last area to visit. He decided on an area where the kids could make huge soap bubbles.
He was tired and still grumpy from the lollipop episode. I was worn out from holding space for him during the lollipop episode. I watched as he played just a little too excitedly, splashing others with bubble liquid. I could feel my stress rising. I asked him to be careful. He ignored me. I got a little more stressed. Then I noticed a couple of other kids waiting for him to finish so they could take their turn. Without thinking, I called out to him to remember to share the bubble wand and he totally blew a gasket.
“I JUST STARTED PLAYING!” he screamed at me. I was embarrassed, angry and surprised. In a better moment I would have gone over to talk to him gently. But I was wiped out and fed up with speaking gently so instead I stomped over and grabbed the bubble maker from his hand. Actually, I had to pry it out of his hand (while, I am certain, everyone in the museum watched me parent in this totally disrespectful way).
Fortunately, I realized what I was doing and was able to take a deep breath and step back from the angry feelings. I sat with him and talked about it all. He cried a little, I hugged him, I apologized. So did he. We were OK. If only I had said it was time to go then.
Instead, I let him have another 5 minutes with the bubbles. As I sat watching him from a few feet away, I saw him stand next to some people who had a little girl. He looked over at her and then reached for the bubble maker laying in the soap in front of her and began playing with it. An older woman (who looked as if she had been sucking on a pickle the way her face was so pinched and sour) immediately gave him an irritated look, roughly grabbed the bubble ring out of his hand and gave it to the little girl while directing some sharp words at my son.
Granted, I couldn’t hear her, but I could see her face and body language. I walked over and said to her that I would appreciate it if she would not speak so rudely to my son. She immediately got angry and told me that he should not have taken the ring from the little girl (who I assume was her granddaughter) and that I should Control My Son.
With blood beginning to boil, I managed to calmly say that I don’t control him, as he is a human being. Yeah, that was a good one, right? Score one for me! Except I felt like such a hypocrite as it came out of my mouth because I had done almost exactly what she did just 5 minutes earlier.
She turned her back on me, walked away in a huff while Grandpa gave me a parting shot of “Yeah! Control your kid so everyone else can have a good time!”
Well, it didn’t end there. Next, a younger woman (who I think was pickle lady’s daughter) walked over to me and said that she had seen the whole thing and pickle lady did nothing wrong; the little girl was only two and how old was my son after all (all with a look of “really, you should know better”). Then the kicker: “you should model better behavior for your son!”
My brain was starting to malfunction because there was a part of me that couldn’t argue with her. Yes, I should model better behavior, but not in the way she meant. In this moment I was standing up for my son and not letting outsiders attack him. But hadn’t I just tried to control his behavior a few minutes earlier myself? Yes, I had repaired that, but did everyone else know that – had they all seen me acting so aggressively?
What I wish I could have responded to her with was, “well, he’s 5 1/2, how old is your mother? Don’t you think she should model better behavior to both my son and her granddaughter? If it were me, I would have bent down, so I was looking him in the eye, and nicely pointed out to him that this little girl was still using the bubble maker so would he please give it back? I wouldn’t have grabbed it out of his hand and scolded him. He’s as much of a child as the two year old.”
Of course, I was so shocked that these crazy people were attacking me left and right, and calling me a bad parent, that I couldn’t think straight. I just wanted to hide and get out of there. But the other reason I didn’t say all of that was that a part of me felt that doing so would have been totally dishonest because I was simultaneously beating myself up for being a bad parent.
I mean, I think I would have bent down and spoken respectfully had I been in pickle lady’s shoes, but when I was triggered by my son’s yelling at me, I treated him just as disrespectfully as this woman had. I treated him as if it wasn’t OK for him to have those big feelings, that because I was bigger than him I could simply take something away from him and scold him. I tried to control him.
I was so angry, embarrassed and mostly frustrated that I hadn’t made my point. I knew that family had walked away feeling as though they were totally in the right and were probably talking about “that crazy mother from the museum” all the way home. As I bent down to zip up my son’s jacket, tears started coming down my face. He asked what was wrong.
I told him I was upset because those people had been mean and because they told me I should control him. He asked what that meant and I said it means that some adults think children don’t need to be respected as people and that kids should just do what they’re told.
Just do what you’re told.
You don’t have a voice.
You don’t have to be treated as an equal to me because you’re a child.
If pickle lady had connected with him, he would have told her, as he told me, that he thought the little girl was done playing with the bubble maker. Had she talked to him he would have easily given it back and played somewhere else.
Respectful dialogue makes all the difference. Of course we all may all forget from time to time, and we don’t always have perfect control over our own emotions or triggers. Somehow it strikes me that pickle lady and her family never gave a moment’s thought to treating children in a respectful way – their reaction to my son smelled of the sort of response people give who believe children are to be controlled and corrected until they do things the way we adults think they should do it. Never mind what the child may think.
This incident upset me so much that I obsessed about it and cried for more than half the day afterwards. I tried to write this post at the time but it has sat in my computer for nearly a year since. At first I ignored it because I was too angry to have it make any sense, then because I couldn’t quite figure out what I was trying to say about the experience. What was it about the incident that had so bothered me even all these months later?
There’s a part of it that has to do with my nakedness in that moment. I had behaved in a way I was embarrassed about. And in my humiliation it was as if every other moment of connected parenting was erased. I hate being “seen” in moments of weakness or error. There was a part of it that ate away at me because of the sense of not being listened to – by my son at first, then by the crazy family – always a very sore spot for me.
And then it struck me that what I said about my son at the beginning of the altercation with this family is all there is to say: I don’t control my child because he is a human being. Respecting him in his wholeness as a person is all I have ever tried to do. All I can do is to do my best to recognize his triggers, set him up for success by scaffolding for him and then be there to support him if he fails.
And I have to do the same for myself. There are times when I will be far from a perfect parent. But I know I am an aware parent and I am willing to admit my shortcomings and my mistakes. I still need to learn not to be so concerned about what others think of me, but every day I get a bit better at being mindful of it all. And because of this, my son is developing, among other things, a sense of self-control and awareness of his surroundings. And most importantly, he knows he is worthy of respect.
So next time someone speaks unkindly to him he may just be able to respond and stand up for himself with a little less help from me – even if it is a cranky old pickle lady scolding him. And maybe all of this modeling for him will teach me how to stand up for myself as well.