I was walking through the door of a restaurant and it happened. After I walked through and my four year old was forced in by the closing door, he, totally uncharacteristic of him, stopped, looked around bewildered, and yelled, “I HATE YOU!”
I probably should rewind a bit. My four year old was being a bit bossy. The restaurant had two different entrances. He told us that three members of our family should go to one entrance, and he and I should go to another. A bit annoying and to the dismay of his six-year-old sister especially, but we did. We did that, and we met at the next set of doors. Which, well, we went through. Which, indeed, was despite his growing protests. And then he shouted at me.
I need you to imagine a restaurant, especially near the doors. It’s always a bit hectic. People are going in and out. It’s where most of the literal business of the place takes place. And I’m standing there with a four year old screaming “I hate you” at me.
I somewhat felt it. I felt that thing that drives other parents to take to social media asking for alcohol. That thing that makes them demand, “Why can’t my child listen!” My six year old at this point nearly lost it. She had already compromised and went through the other door, and now her brother still was “being annoying.” I felt how, in the split moment, a parent might swiftly, quietly reprimand one child or another. (And, actually, it wasn’t really a feeling. It was a cold, dark thought.)
You see, but I didn’t do any of that. That’s not who I am or what I am about. This boy is my “Bo Booty.” He is the chummiest, most easy going kid you ever met. And here he was, standing there, chest heaving, bewildered, for the first time ever telling me he hates me. Something in me knew: go to him. I motioned to the rest of the family to go get a table and went back outside with him, which is near a spacious fountain area that my children like to play at.
I have repeatedly been amazed by how, even in intense situations, I tend to know what to say and do. I am now the mother of a nine, six, and four year old. The four year old will soon be five. My days of being the parent of a little kid are coming to a close. I’ve felt rusty lately. Those “little kid” parenting skills seem lost. I haven’t had to use them. I wondered if I would ever get them back. Well, I did.
Now here’s the thing. Here’s the little bit of magic in it. When my child is screaming “I HATE YOU” at me, or any other emotionally volatile situation, if I turn towards them and not away, the completely magical thing that happens is that energy manifests itself. Out of nowhere, I burst with creativity. My attention is caught. My empathy goes up. My ability to speak “four year old” becomes miraculously honed. It’s almost like I am a lioness on a hunt. That lioness is at her worst. She’s starving. And yet somehow she musters up the energy of a lifetime to make a kill. When we are starving, flustered, pushed–let’s call it ruffled–we come up with some of our best ideas. This is the magic that is lost when we think our children should automatically listen, that we should maintain order, or that our job is to remain “unruffled.”
After we got out to the spacious area, I got down on one knee. I figured it out pretty quickly: my son wanted to play a game with me and only me. I don’t remember what all I said. I pitched a few ideas. But I realized: that’s what it was. He wanted to send his father, brother, and sister essentially away, so he and I could play a game in the fun area. When we previously met up and the rest of the family was waiting for us, it ruined his plans. So, I asked if he wanted me to chase him. That was a resounding yes. Then he wanted to chase me. As I’m slow, he caught me easily. I asked if he wanted to take me to our table as a prisoner. Also a resounding yes. And so that’s how we marched into the restaurant this time, me as the captive of my four year old son.
Dinner was, for the most part, a smooth joy.
I’ve been working an idea lately. I call it “moral bias.” It’s when a person’s “should” prevents them from seeing the “is.” Major moral paradigms aside, there are all sorts of “shoulds” in life. That we “should” be able to walk through a restaurant door relatively smoothly is one of them. You would be amazed, if you were to start thinking about it, by how many “shoulds” we have in Western society. Another example is that our house should stay standing. In truth, historically, this is asking a lot. In tribal cultures, if a house blows over, it’s funny to them. That’s because they band together and just build a new one. We don’t have that disaster-friendly mindset in “civilized” cultures. (By civilized, I mean, “attempts to live in one area without moving.”) We have shoulds.
when a person’s “should” prevents them from seeing the “is”
It’s the should that’s the problem. The “should” that anything should happen–at all. It gives a sense of entitlement. Yes, even over simple things, such as walking through doors without complication. In fact, if the sense of entitlement is to something seemingly small, it sometimes makes the problem worse.
Most of all, however, moral bias shuts down authentic feedback. It doesn’t allow us to stop and see what is actually going on. It’s easy to roughshod over genuine problems when you think you are on a morally justified mission. History is filled with such instances, in which a person’s Utopian or moral ideal allowed them to do horrific things. They tend to see any ruffling of the system as a threat, to be squashed. And this is the exact opposite of how I think life should be. You see, I think things are MEANT to “ruffle” us. We should listen. This is where most change and growth happens.
The idea behind Misbehavior is Growth, my book series, is that children’s developmental stages are an instinctual call from children to come to them at developmentally critical times. I document the age-related “stages” children go through. It’s those times they get more aggressive, demanding, or yell “I hate you” at restaurants. But, per the theory of many, on the other side of this behavior is amazing new mental growth. My argument is this behavior is meant to reach out and grab us. Apparently, going right up to a parent and kicking them in the shin catches a parent’s attention more so than children simply being cute. My argument is that this behavior should be like a Bat Signal in the air, “Pay attention! Pay attention!” Go to them, nurture them.
And, routinely, Western culture sends the exact opposite message. We’ve gone from “Children should be seen and not heard” to “Ignore the cries for attention.” And now we have, “We must desist from thinking we are responsible for solving all of our children’s emotional problems.” I propose it’s the same damn thing. It’s a desire to ignore these important, albeit irritating, clues.
My approach to children is deliberate, intentional, and focused. I don’t think children grow in a healthy way in any way except through quality, one-on-one time, with a loving, supportive adult. My bigger philosophy is that when you see this demanding behavior, you go to them, intentionally, with ways to nurture the growth. I’ve watched my children thrive under this approach. Going to them doesn’t mean going to them with the latest set of math worksheets or dry textbooks. It means coming up with something you think will spark them. Typically I find this means games, exciting books, science experiments, cooking, field trips, etc. If I ever find myself “off” with my kids, I come back to this. I carve out more and better one-on-one time, and serenity in the house is again restored. Quality. One-on-one. Time.
And then I log into social media and it’s one long rant that we spend too much time with our children. “Backing off” is seen as wise. Letting children play endlessly on trees (which is a physical impossibility anymore) is seen as the cure-all to all parenting problems. Teaching your child anything at all is equated with emotional abuse. I propose it’s one gigantic excuse, one gigantic rationalization: it’s an attempt to somehow justify that we can be effective parents without putting the massive time and effort it is. There’s just no way around it. This is custom work.
If you find wisdom here and there from any particular guru, I’m not here to stop it. But when I see advice like, “We must desist from thinking we have to go to our children every time they have an outburst,”… sorry, but this is antithetical to the Misbehavior is Growth approach. (It is also antithetical to attachment parenting.) I loved the way someone described my message, “in-depth responsiveness.” And it was said as, “Seeing the rewards of such in-depth responsiveness now.” That’s … what it is. I would never “set my boundary and walk away” with a child. That’s not what I do. Ever.
I know what I am saying isn’t popular. Like, I get it. But remaining popular really doesn’t mean that what you are doing is healthy. Humans have utterly proven they’ll try to remain so popular and shame-free that they’ll run right off a cliff.
I have also found in my work on moral bias that we can’t “out positive” bad ideas. I have LOTS of proactive, positive ideas of how to handle children. But, I fear, it sometimes pales in comparison to confident, ready-made responses. To push better ideas, you have to take on some of the bad ideas. There’s no real getting around that.
In truth, I think most parents want to be sensitive and nurturing. I think they feel enormous pressure to do things. They feel enormous pressure to walk through the door without a kid screaming “I hate you.” Their elders roll their eyes that their kid “gets to do whatever he wants.” They are mortified if their kid swears or pulls another child’s hair. You see, but this is the stuff of childhood. This is the stuff of life. Whenever something like this happens, I often go talk to the other parents–and it ends up forging a better relationship. I don’t want to be on a mission to drive out all “bad” behavior. This behavior–and these emotions–have work to do.
I hope to somehow directly train others on my methods and also how I analyze child developmental behavior. I think it’s what it will take. In the mean time… well, I do write. I have my Misbehavior is Growth series. I do take comfort in knowing how many I’ve helped. I have notes from all over the world. We do exist. We quiet ones in the back who just want to sensitively raise our children.
Maybe if I give them the occasional shout out, it will awaken something in them.
Amber is the author of the Misbehavior is Growth series. She documents the age-related stages children go through. She believes these rocky stages are clues to us that something developmentally critical is going on. Send your friends to The Observant Mom.