When we fail to teach our children a healthy dose of fear, we disable them.
Many times when I share my tough love approach, the parent with whom I am speaking will reply, “But he’s only five!” I get it. The society in which we live defines childhood as a time to be young and free. And to a certain extent, that is how it should be. However the protection of a child’s innocence can sadly and ironically come at the cost of his safety.
It is Kind to be Firm
I still remember clear as day the first time Yasmine refused to hold my hand in the grocery store parking lot. She was two years old and as feisty as feisty gets. Here’s the thing. There are some battles with our children that we need not fight. We can compromise and bend and adapt and…the list goes on. There are some things however that are non-negotiable. The battle that ensued, I mean dialogue, went something like this:
“Give Mommy your hand,” I said sweetly.
“No!!!!” she asserted as she yanked her hand out of mine.
I did not hesitate to grab her firmly by the arm as she started to take off ahead of me. Of course she cried out as if I was hurting her, compelling strangers in the near vicinity to turn and stare.
“I don’t care how loud you cry, Yasmine. It’s my job to keep you safe,” I said, pretending to not care about what others might be thinking of my firm hold on her.
“You’re hurting my arm!” she continued in a loud voice that I knew had the capacity to catch everyone’s attention in a five-mile radius.
“You should be holding my hand like a good listener. I promise you it hurts a lot more to get hit by a car. It’s not you I don’t trust Yasmine. I don’t trust the cars to be able to see you and to be careful around you. I give you lots of choices, all the time, but holding Mommy’s hand in the parking lot is not a choice,” I replied in a firm, confident voice. Of course, my ego was screaming at me to worry about what people around me were thinking. Instead of focussing on the feeling of embarrassment caused by my child’s behavior, I forced myself to be courageous enough to follow through on my beliefs, all the while hoping that perhaps I would inspire other parents to be just as openly firm with their own children. The turning point for me came when I decided to challenge the common belief that our children’s behavior is uniquely a reflection of our parenting skills. It is not. Children will challenge us. They will test the boundaries and often they will do so in the least opportune of places. Too often I see parents put their pride of worrying about what others are thinking first. I get it. But seriously people, this madness has to stop.
She resisted some more, as most toddlers do, but like I said before, there are some battles you simply must not lose. The choice to hold my ground highlights the deepest and truest meaning of kindness. It is the utmost form of kindness to protect my child from the possibility of getting hit by a car. Therefore, as I insisted on the behavior I expected from her, I was sure to let her know that my love for her was my motivation for being so firm.
“Let go!” she cried.
“Are you ready to hold my hand like the good listener you usually are? When you are ready to make the right choice and hold my hand I will be able to let go of your arm. I love you too much to risk seeing you get hurt.”
Needless to say, this went on until we made it to the entrance of the store at which point we had graduated to a new problem. There was no way I was about to put up with her defying me the entire time we shopped, nor was there anyway I was about to use bribery to get her to listen. Instead, I used empathy and natural consequences as a way to persuade her to cooperate.
“Yasmine, you have a choice to make right now because I am done struggling with you. You have never acted like this before and you are certainly not going to start now. We need food for lunch and supper. This is work that Mommy needs to do for the family and I need your help. I know you know how to be a good helper. I have already planned for us to do some fun things this afternoon like playing with playdough and doing puzzles, but do you think I’m going to feel like playing and being kind with you when you can’t be kind with me?”
The mention of her favorite games caught her attention.
“How the rest of the day will go is in your control right now. We can have a good day or a bad day. Cooperate by sitting in the cart and by helping me to get some yummy food for home and we will get to have a good day. If you cannot be kind and cooperate, we are going to go home and you will sit alone in your room for a long time (keep in mind 10 minutes feels like an eternity to a toddler). I will not want to play with you because I will be too upset about your behavior.”
This form of clear communication works better than you might think. She did as was expected of her and I followed through on playing fun games with her after lunch. Do not mistake that for bribery or manipulation. There is a fine line between bribery and natural consequences, but it is essential we understand the difference if we are to effectively teach through kindness and empathy.
It is the utmost form of kindness to teach our children limits. It is also kind to model natural emotional reactions for our kids. When I explained to Yasmine that I would not feel like playing with her later, that would be true of most people, including our friends. In this way, I am teaching her that when you upset somebody, their feelings are hurt and they may not want to spend time with you. This is not the same as denying love to your child. It all comes down to your approach. If Yasmine had chosen to defy me rather than cooperate, I would have sternly marched her back to the car, returned home in a stony silence and plucked her down in her room. She would have stayed there until she was ready to apologize for the way she had acted. I would have checked in with her every couple of minutes, since she was quite young after all, but the scenario would only draw to an end once she finally gave in and sincerely apologized. (Yes, toddlers know the difference between real and fake apologies.) We would then have devised a plan for how she must behave in the future. She would have had to say in her own words that she was going to listen and be helpful. The act of explaining the plan herself would allow her to feel ownership of it, thereby making her feel like she was in control of the situation, which is all any toddler ever really wants, right?
Now, you may be thinking that’s a serious amount of effort to get your child to simply hold your hand in a parking lot. Is it really worth it? It was a couple of years later when I heard the tragic news that a young girl had lost her life when she was hit by a car in a parking lot not far from where we live. She had slipped away from her mother. I was not there. Please do not misunderstand me. I make no assumptions as to how this tragedy played itself out. Horrible, terrible, unthinkable accidents happen all the time. I speak from my own painful memories when I say: it is easy to say to ourselves, “It won’t ever happen to me,” or “Relax, let’s not over-react.” Call me paranoid, but it when it comes to the scary stuff we need to protect our kids from, a healthy dose of fear can mean the difference between life and death. The courage to discipline my child in front of strangers came from me saying to myself, “I much prefer to see my child ‘suffer’ in the safety of her bedroom than risk losing her forever.” So much in life is a mystery and completely out of our control. That precious child who lost her life at the tender age of three may have completed her soul’s mission. Perhaps it was meant to be. As I said, I withhold all judgement and I pray that her mother has found peace.
When Yasmine and I returned from the grocery store that day, I congratulated her on making the right decision. I was proud of her for using her brain to understand what was best. And I explained to her that parking lots can very dangerous. Getting hit by a car means she may stop breathing, and if she stops breathing, she may never see Mommy or Daddy again. That is an honesty that our children need to hear. A healthy dose of fear can keep our babies safe. Let’s stop being so scared of what others will think of us, and start being more scared of the possible consequences of inaction. Nobody ever wants to think the worst, but prevention and awareness are our greatest tools for keeping the worst at bay.
In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.
– Thomas Jefferson
Photo credit for Safety Pins goes to Emilian Robert Vicol on http://www.flickr.com