Today I want to offer you the opportunity to be a shameless voyeur — of our parenting methodology. I’ve written a fair amount already about what I have read and understand, what I suggest, our general approach, and what we avoid in our parenting, but I haven’t yet given you a solid example of our process in parenting our girls (and ourselves) through any particular situation. That is what I’d like to do now.
To begin with, regardless of the situation, there are two places we check as we wade in to help any one or any number of the girls. First, we look at the feelings. Doing so tells us the general tenor of the interaction itself. We are looking for anger, frustration, fear, sadness, etc. — anything that will tell us the current state of the emotional terrain of the situation. We may at this point dive right into giving empathy to whomever is upset.
“Are you mad? Oh you’re really sad? (hugging if it is welcome) Darn, you just wanted….”
Even if we know there is one participant who has acted unkindly we will still check the feelings first and give empathy where it feels necessary. So for example, if we see Echo hit Xi, our first reaction is not to shout at Echo, or chastise her, or explain why we don’t hit. Our first reaction is to assess Xi’s state. Is she mad, is she sad, is she totally unfazed, or laughing hysterically. If she is upset, then we make space for those feelings without dramatizing them, and we give her some love — all while Echo watches. If need be, we can even hug both of them. Maybe Echo has some feelings she wants to talk about, too, so we make room for that as well.
The second thing we assess is the needs of those involved in the situation. If they are obvious, or if (as with our girls) the parties can discuss their needs, then we begin to address those. If we aren’t sure, or (as when they were younger) they can’t tell us what they need, then we begin testing various options to see what gets at least a semi-affirmative response.
“Did you want to join her in the game? Oh. And (to the other) you didn’t want her to play this with you right now?”
Then, and only then, do we begin to address anything about how to handle the situation, or what might be done differently next time, or begin any type of negotiation. The more we have practiced this method, the faster we have become at the first two steps, but they aren’t ones to step over. It is important to remain mindful of first assessing and allowing the feelings and needs in any situation because, as we have found, by the the time we are involved in the interaction, the girls are already having powerful emotions about fulfilling a perceived need and those emotions have to be given validation before the girls are able to move on. If (and when) we cut that space short, and try to begin the process of sorting things out before they feel that we have honoured their feelings, then we all get stuck. They can’t hear what we are saying, and can’t take in any information about how to resolve things, they can’t rationally negotiate, and they can’t acquiesce or agree. We are then libel to get diverted into justifications, or ramped up versions of the original emotions, because at this point the girls are actually arguing for their feelings not about the issue.
So we occasionally double back for more empathizing (which is really the key throughout), but then do proceed to seek mutually satisfying arrangements for everyone involved. This may require a simple bit of information:
“Xi, Echo was just scared that you weren’t going to let her play,” or “Bella, Xi was just saying she didn’t want to wear the veil in the pretend, not that she didn’t want to do the pretend…” or “Echo, I’ve got the book for you right here…”
Or it may require some back and forth negotiation between the warring parties. We facilitate this in whatever ways we can. Sometimes this involves translating for them. Sometimes it involves brainstorming a new solution. Sometimes it involves helping them to empathize with each other (which is really easily facilitated by the Feeleez poster we have hanging in the kitchen — and that isn’t just shameless self-promotion). All of these methods are designed to move the girls back into a cooperative space with each other, so pretty much anything that accomplishes that is helpful.
Additionally, there are times when the girls aren’t having issues with each other, they are having issues with us, or vice versa. If they aren’t liking something we are asking of them, or asking them not to do, then we go back to the first step. We honour their feelings, and empathize with them.
“You don’t want to stop this game to go get lunch, huh? You’re having so much fun and you don’t want that to stop, is that right? I know you love playing this with your sister…”
Again, we don’t rush this interaction. We don’t try to hurry them back to feeling better, nor shove solutions in their faces before they can hear them. The fact is, this is the juiciest part — this is where connection happens, where bonding is nurtured, where identification is strengthened, trust deepened, and relationship verified as the natural balm that it truly is. Furthermore, the feelings our children are having are necessary, and processing them is neural, psychological, and emotional development in action. It doesn’t always take long at all (and certainly takes less time in the long run than any other approach), but we give it as much time as it does take, if for no other than reason than because it makes everything that comes afterward easier. Once the feelings have been addressed, then we can proceed to assess and attempt to meet needs.
“Can we bring these dolls with us, so you girls may continue playing the game?” or “Can we pause the game until we get back?” or “How can we help you feel good about going to lunch now?”
Note, here, that we aren’t ignoring our own needs — we are still going to lunch, we are just honouring their feelings, and helping them have their needs met along the way. Of course, if going to lunch right then isn’t a necessity for us, we might negotiate a different option.
“Ok, well we don’t have to leave this second. How about in five minutes — will you be able to pause the game then?” or “When will you be ready to stop the game and come with us?”
If we are having a problem with something they are doing or not doing, then we take a similar approach but turn it in the opposite direction. We may give them more information first, but if that doesn’t work then we start talking about our own feelings.
“I am really getting frustrated here. I am ready to go. I told you we were going to be heading out in 10 minutes, and then let you know when it was 2 minutes, so that you could get prepared or finish the game you were playing. I am really hungry, and I also want to be on time to meet our friends…”
The vast majority of the time, this line of discussion is enough, but sometimes we have to go further. Let’s say we have been asking them over and over to play a little quieter and they just keep screaming and hurting our ears. We’ve explained why it isn’t working for us and even told them it physically hurts, and still they continue. Maybe we’ve even told them we were frustrated by their continuing to be too loud. Then we get more adamant about relating our feelings, describing our own needs, and requesting something different.
“Ok look I am feeling very angry about this. I have told you what I preferred. I asked you to play quieter. I have told you that you are hurting my ears. And you just keep doing it. And now I am so mad about it. . . I know you feel like you need to yell, and I need to my ears to be safe from pain. Do you want to go outside so you can yell without hurting anyone?”
There are times when they go along with a request, but then forget and require lots of reminders — which is extremely difficult for us parents — but not a malicious act on the girls’ parts, and we feel that another reminder or additional discussion is more appropriate and more effective than threats, punishments, or bribes. Of course, by “effective” I mean both in getting them to cooperate with the request(s), but also in care-taking the relationship we share (which is of paramount importance to compliance for us).
The above methodology has worked for us from age 1 to almost 10, and in all situations. We have found that dealing with the emotions, and empathizing (or facilitating empathy between the parties) diffuses the majority of the situations we run into with our girls. What is left is addressing the needs, and if we bring our creativity to the situation, it is often quite easy to come up with a solution that satisfies all of us. And if we feel like we need to give them more information, we do our best to wait until we have done all of the above before we offer that information because we want it to be heard, and we want to make it easy for the girls to accept it. We have sometimes waited until an entirely different day to discuss what happened and explain some detail or suggestion to them. We have also chosen from time to time to keep our “information” to ourselves, so they can get their own.
I hope this gives you some sense of the dance we are doing in our parenting. And I hope it will inspire your moves with your own kids.
For more on using the Feeleez poster to facilitate empathizing between kids, check out Natalie’s post here.