Thursday, January 12, 2012

Have you looked at yourself through your child's eyes?

 I went to another parent counseling session yesterday, which again has me believing I might know something about parenting. In this case, I think I actually do.

As I listened to another discussion about how to discipline children, a light bulb finally clicked. So much of this stuff - the stressful, exhausting existence of a parent - could be mitigated if we occasionally saw things from the child's perspective. I'll give an example I shared with my wife last night.

I asked her, "What do you hate about when you come into my office, you want to talk to me, and I'm working on the computer?"

"I hate when you don't turn around and look at me and make eye contact," she said.


"What do you think we do to our kids all the time?" I asked.

Picture the scene in the house pre-dinnertime: we're running around the kitchen, in the refrigerator, at the stove, reaching into cabinets, the phone's ringing, the dog's barking, the toddler is grabbing our legs demanding attention, the second-grader is climbing on the counter to get a CD and the kindergartner is politely trying to tell us a story from school that day. What do we do?

The last thing we want to do is stop getting dinner ready and listen to the kindergartner. Because if we stop, all the trains derail. If we stop, dinner will be delayed, homework will be delayed, bathtime will be delayed, storytime will be delayed, teeth-brushing will be delayed, and bedtime will be delayed. And if bedtime is delayed, the boys have a shorter night of sleep and that's the last thing we need on a school day ...

So we keep going. We try to listen to the kindergartner, with our back to him most of the time, occasionally sharing an "uhu" as we dart around the room. So we've just done to him the same thing we hate ... Can we really blame him if he gets frustrated and expresses it in a totally unrelated way, like refusing to eat dinner or yelling at his brother or being rude to everyone around him?

I'll give another example that popped into my head when I was thinking about this. A couple of months ago, our family plus my parents went to Disney World. We had just arrived at the airport and were waiting for our bags in an extremely crowded terminal when our oldest son, Josh, vanished. A ripple of panic spread through the four adults, but about 30 seconds later, I spotted him near the entrance of the baggage carousel, where the suitcases emerge from that dark, mysterious cave. My mother immediately shrieked his name, startling those around us, and the rest of us scolded him for wandering off.

Two months later, it occurred to me what Josh might have been doing. Jenn, a former flight attendant, has seen about 10,000 baggage carousels. My parents and I have seen hundreds. Josh had never seen one before, and it must have been fascinating. This bizarre, twisting machine with an endless train of luggage was like nothing he had ever seen before. Maybe he was just curious, and he wandered off to explore it.

I'm not forgiving him for wandering off without saying anything, but I forgive him for the natural curiosity that led him to explore. And I'm ashamed it took me two months to realize what he was doing. You see, as an adult, I was so wrapped up in my own anxieties about getting all the luggage, getting on the right van, getting to the hotel, so we can make that night's dinner reservation, without losing any of the kids and avoiding fights with all the adults ... that it was difficult - hell, it was nearly impossible - to see things from the child's perspective. But we'd be better parents if we could.

If we could look at the world through their eyes - even a couple of times per day - we might have an easier time understanding why they do some of the horribly maddening things they do. We might see that they're not always being bad kids; sometimes they're just like us.

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