I’m not sure how this exercise is going to be for you — possibly entirely pleasant, or maybe a little uncomfortable — are you willing to come with me for the ride? When you’ve finished reading this sentence, close your eyes for a moment, and visualize in as much detail as possible the last two minutes of the most recent interaction you’ve had with your child.
Don’t read further if you haven’t done this yet.
Now I invite you to go back to that same scene and see if you can picture it from behind the eyes of the child. Take your time. See if you can get in touch with what it was like to be that child, in that moment, on the other side of the interaction with you.
Please, give it a go.
Your last interaction may have been that kiss on the forehead, tight squeeze, and warm goodnight. Or it might have been the moment you exclaimed “WHAT?!” as your child demanded something of you whilst you were busily catching up on your phone. Whatever it was — that’s how it was. That’s how it played out for you, and for the child.
There are gold star moments in my parenting when that exercise above would leave me warm and fuzzy, knowing that I’ve had a gorgeous moment of connection with my kids, when they’ve felt valued, treasured, safe, and secure. And there are moments in my parenting where that exercise would leave me in tears — where I know the message I’ve communicated to my kids is that they’re unimportant, a nuisance, an annoyance, a frustration, a bore. How about you?
If I’m looking at the world through my kid’s eyes, I want them to experience me as loving, reliable, loyal, available, compassionate, caring, and interested (non-exhaustive list) at times when they are living within the boundaries I set, and at the times when they are experimenting with pushing outside those boundaries.
Here’s the thing — from the perspective of the child, we often send the wrong message at the wrong time.
When our kids do the “wrong” thing, we are compelled to take action — they have plenty of our (angry? frustrated? annoyed? worried?) attention and loads of our energy. Parenting is a busy job, competing for time among everything else we have to keep on doing. Often in the moments when our children are doing the “right” thing, the behavior we desire the most, we are busy doing something else off that never-ending to-do list. We can lose sight of being available, connected, loving, interested right in that moment, RIGHT THERE.
Do an experiment.
Try one (or all) of these:
- For one day (or part of a day), track your communication with your child. Rate each communication as “affirming,” “critical,” or “neutral.” Check out what your ratio is.
- Record a two-minute interaction with your child. Watch it back and notice how the two of you are relating to each other. Is there any new information here?
- The next time your kids are playing well without you, notice what your natural inclination is — is it to move in close and share in the moment, or to withdraw and get busy with the things that need to get done?
We can get caught up in spending a lot of our time policing our boundaries — but what if we put more effort into making it worthwhile to be inside the boundaries?
How might that look?
- When our kids are playing well together, we might stop and comment: “I love the way you two are playing together. It warms my heart to see the way you can share and create as a team. I have to get the dishes done, but I’m going to pop back in five minutes to check out your beautiful playing again.” (And then set the timer to make sure we do it.)
- When we put our kid to bed and he’s feeling a bit uncertain, we might say “I’m going to come back in 10 minutes to see how beautifully you’re sleeping.” (And then set the timer again.)
- When our kid follows an instruction straight away, we might “high 5” her, or swing her into a cuddle, and follow it up with: “It helps me out so much when you do something I ask straight away. Thanks for following through on that.”
- At dinner time, a family could go around the table sharing things they appreciate about each other from the day.
- When we’re talking to other adults within earshot of our kids, we can make a point of praising them up, sharing the moments that we’re so proud of (and keeping the stuff we’re struggling with private, or at least waiting till they’re out of earshot).
- When we tuck them in at night, we can spend a moment telling them all the things we’ve appreciated about them during the day (once this resulted in my kid responding “and I really appreciate the way you’ve parented me today, mummy.”)
- When they come to us when we’re busy/frustrated/tired, we can take a breath to connect with the parent we want to be, to see ourselves through the little eyes looking back at us and respond as the parent we want them to see.
- When we’re setting behavioral expectations, we can take a moment to look through their eyes — do they understand what “being good” looks like? Do we have a clear idea ourselves? How can we make it clearer for them? Can we provide a visual reminder? Do we need to focus more on skill development? Do they need more prompts right now?
- We can take time to be fully present with them, and if this is difficult for us, we can prioritise learning skills in being mindfully present rather than tangled in our own internal experiences
Parents are forever struggling with how to manage when kids push outside the boundaries. But here’s what decades of research into human (and in fact animal) behavior tells us: We will do far more for things that are good than what we will stop doing because things are bad. Put another way: if we spend more energy making it worthwhile to hang out with us within our boundaries, they have far less reason to push outside. It’s a lovely way to parent.