Nine-year-old David comes home, throws his backpack on the floor and stomps off to his room. Several minutes later he is lurking around the kitchen while his mom cooks dinner, poking at his brother, whining to his mother. She tells him to go outside and play until dinner is ready. He goes to put on his shoes but can only find the red tennis shoes with the extra-long laces that are hard to tie, and the world comes crashing in. He screams that he hates these shoes, throws them down and then yells at his brother to “get out of his way.”
So, what do we know about David? That he doesn’t follow the rule to put his backpack on the hook? That he is bored and has difficulty finding ways to engage himself in activities after school? That he is “needy” for his mom’s attention? That he hates red shoes and has trouble tolerating frustration? That he lacks empathy for his brother?
If we look at each of these behaviors as singular moments of time, completely unrelated to what may have happened in the previous moments, then these simplistic assessments make sense. But this may be one of the biggest parenting errors we make. We assume that we have all the information. We assume that our children’s reactions and behaviors are based solely on what we can see and hear and feel AT THAT MOMENT. We have a tendency to assume that our children’s worlds are only as big as the information we have.
So in that moment, David’s mom may redirect him from dropping the backpack in the middle of the floor. She may redirect him from poking at his brother. She may redirect him when he is in the way in the kitchen. And then she will redirect him when he explodes over the silly shoelaces. Her frustration grows. She throws up her hands and pretty soon, David isn’t the only one having a meltdown, everyone is.
But, what if we also had this information: Today at lunch, David’s best friend didn’t want to sit with him. At recess, a ball hit him in the head. The math equation he had to do on the board came out wrong and, even though the teacher helped him through it, he still felt like the whole class thought he was dumb. At the end of the day, his teacher told him that parent conferences are happening next week. He remembers that his last conference didn’t go so well and he has to give the letter to his mom tonight. Then, some kids on the bus were teasing another kid and he wanted to tell them to stop, but he didn’t. It made him feel horrible. On top of it all, he is hungry because he gave part of his lunch away and didn’t eat enough. He walks in the door of his house and throws his backpack on the floor….
A kid’s life is complex. They are learning everything about the world. They are not only accumulating information, but social rules, codes, language, physical movement, coordination, body growth, relationships. It’s exhausting. And it isn’t easy.
Kids have stressors that we are unaware of. They move through their day, just like we do, accumulating stress and anxiety and ups and downs. And, just like us, it’s pretty common that when these stressors come along, they just have to pull it together and keep going. They may not have the opportunity, or luxury, of processing through them fully. So they move from moment to moment, doing what they have to do, until they get home and they can “let it all go” so to speak.
We, as parents, are sometimes pretty bad at remembering that kids have a life outside of us. They have peer interactions and expectations from teachers, disappointments, struggles and joys, surprises and fears that we will never know about. Even if they are little and are home all day with us, they have an inner dialogue, aches and pains, thoughts and perceptions that we simply cannot know. In short, they are their own people, from day one.
Being mindful of this can allow us to respond differently to our children’s needs. Rather than seeing each behavior as a singular and discreet moment, we can see our children as people with rich and complex lives. With moments that build on moments and emotions that build on emotions.
We are their safe spot. We are their anchor. We are the place where they can “let it all go” at the end of the day.
Which doesn’t mean that we ignore or tolerate behaviors that threaten others or cross family boundaries and rules. It doesn’t mean that David won’t have to pick up his backpack or check in with his brother or figure out his shoes. But it does mean that we respond differently to each of those situations.
When we are aware of the reality that our children come to each moment with a buildup of other moments, instead of saying, “How many times have I told you not to throw your backpack on the floor?!” we may say, “Wow, it looks like you had a hard day! If you want to hang up your bag, I can cuddle on the couch for a minute before I start dinner.” Or instead of saying, “You’re in the way, go outside and play,” we may say, “Seems like you really want to be close right now. We could talk while I cook or you could help with dinner.”
We don’t really have to know all the details. Sometimes we will, but often we won’t. Kids may not need to, or be able to, process all their experiences verbally. But when we recognize that there is more to this moment than just this moment, when we accept the fact that their lives are bigger than just what we can see, we can offer a wider variety of support to meet their needs and be the anchors they need us to be.
And, just as importantly, we can give them a framework to start to better understand their own complex web of emotions. We often hear that children live in the moment, and it’s true that they do. They can commit more fully heart and body to whatever it is that is in front of them, like a shoe with extra long laces. But they also carry emotional and body stress around with them from moment to moment, just like adults do. Which means in the moment, it is harder for David to separate out school stress from his shoe, resulting in a blow out that seems blown out of proportion. But if we can help them recognize there is more going on, they can develop a deeper understanding of their reactions. If we can empathize with the buildup of stress and emotions, even if we don’t know the whole story, we can help them figure out ways to process. And if we can connect with them as they are, another human being moving through this world, building up moments, we can strengthen our relationships with them in a profound way.
A kid’s life isn’t easy. It’s life.