Sunday, March 13, 2011

Day 69: Change of Heart, Change of Plans

Consistency is all you ever seem to hear parenting "experts" preaching. So much so that it's all you hear from other parents now too. In my default state, I thrive on this because it's so black and white. You make a statement, you follow through. You set a boundary, you enforce it every time. This kind of consistency should make life pretty simple.

But relationships aren't simple, and parenting is nothing of not a relationship.

This morning Jackson crumbled his favorite "sour bread" (soaked goat kefir bread) all over the counter. I was in no mood. So without asking him why (or caring) I just barked the order, "Clean it up, please."

Recently he's picked up on his own that offering an explanation, even when I don't take the time to ask, is really helpful for our communication, so he does this pretty regularly. He must have realized that when he explained, I was more receptive and appreciated his creativity rather than simply getting annoyed by the mess.

So he took the time to respectfully tell me that he was crumbling salt on the sidewalk so Pooh (aka Jackson) and Roo (aka Maxwell) didn't slip. Unfortunately for him, my response wasn't consistent with much of his past experience. Instead of offering him the same respectful communication in return, I patronized him with, "That's great, honey. But it needs to get cleaned up right now, please."

Now as any mother of a two-year-old knows, "right now" can have any number of definitions. In hindsight, I'm sure he was doing it "right now" at a much slower pace than I expected. In my heightened state of annoyance and reactivity, I threw out a threat (disguised, of course, as a natural consequence, but a threat nonetheless): "You can't have any smoothie until the bread is cleaned up."

And as threats always do, it blew up in my face.

He felt my resistance and anger even though I wasn't "yelling," and he decided he didn't want to participate. So in a sweet voice he said, "Okay. I don't want any smoothie." Then he hopped off his chair and headed for his playroom.

You can imagine how pissed off I was standing there by myslef staring down the bread crumbs all over the counter. Not that it would take more than a second to clean them up, but the principle...the principle!

And when I say the principle, what I really mean is that I had set up a competitive backdrop for this interaction and he had won, which of course meant I had lost. I don't like losing.

Obviously I wasn't in a good state of mind leading up to this, so for a while I clung to "consistency." But when I had a chance to cool down and gain some perspective (bread crumbs...really? And you're withholding a seaweed smoothie? C'mon...), I realized that I want my children to experience a different kind of consistency.

I want to be consistently loving and respectful and to consistently meet their needs, and this requires me to be consistently flexible. This doesn't mean becoming a doormat or caving each time I've set a boundary - somethings, like gentle touches and respectful words are non-negotiable. But it does mean being willing to honor a change of heart.

If the boundary I set wasn't respectful to both of us or if it becomes unnecessary or inappropriate, a midstream change of plans is absolutely called for.

After cleaning the crumbs myself, I eventually joined Jackson upstairs and apologized. I explained why I reacted the way I did and how it should have been different. And I acknowledged that the boundary I set was a mistake and no longer in place. A hug, a kiss and "I forgive you, Mommy" and we were on our way downstairs to share a smoothie. And when we got to the kitchen he noticed, "Mommy, you cleaned up the bread for me. Thank you."

What he learned with this change of plans was so much more valuable than anything cold, hard consistency would have shown him. I'm thankful for my son's willingness to accept a change of heart and move on.

1 comment:

  1. I consistently show my kids that I am willing to listen. I don't need to let them know that I'm the boss all the time. Sometimes I do have to take control of things, much to their chagrin, but usually we can come to an understanding. We have to go to the store, but we'll finish playing first.

    Oh, and the ultimatum thing doesn't work with my kids either. They'll gladly forgo whatever it is in order to prove that they don't have to listen.

    But usually parents use consistency to mean that they apply the same punishment (like time-out) every time. Consistency is crap. Not really, but it's something to which parents adhere when they don't want to actually think about their kids' feelings or acknowledge that their kids even have them.