Helping My Kids By Helping Myself

Lessons from a recovering control freak

I was at Target this weekend with a former student, his mom, and his younger sister — let’s call her Jill. Jill was really excited and jumping up and down in the parking lot. As we walked toward the store, a woman in her car took it upon herself to scream out the window at Jill. It was an extremely unfortunate experience for all of us — myself, the mom of my former student, my former student, Jill, and my two kids. This woman was using nasty language, screaming, and appeared seconds away from getting out of her car…This woman was having a tantrum. 

The mom of the family I was with is not confident in her English, so if anyone was going to respond to this woman, it would have been me. But rather than responding, calmly or crazily, I decided to keep my mouth shut. I knew I didn’t want to look/sound like this woman, but I also couldn’t formulate my thoughts quickly enough to respond in a calm way before she sped off.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this scene in the parking lot since it happened. Somehow, I was able to stay calm and not inappropriately verbalize how I felt on the inside. I exhibited self control — the very same self control I have been working with Keener on recently. And this was a good reminder of how hard it can be to exhibit self control. It also had me thinking — why was I able to stay calm during this encounter yet flip out on my own children earlier that day when they wouldn’t put their shoes on?

Last’s week post has had my wheels turning nonstop. Staying calm in the face of misbehavior, high energy, disobedience, and noncompliance is hard. On paper, it’s completely obvious:

  • I don’t want to act out of control
  • I won’t actually feel better by acting on my emotions
  • I want to model for my children how to appropriately handle big emotions (anger, frustration, disappointment, etc.) 
  • I do my best thinking/problem solving when I’m calm

So why, in the moment, am I overcome with emotions? Why do I resort to “GET IN THE CAR!! How many times have I told you? STOP!!!” Because it’s just not that simple. Emotions and feelings are strong and real and keeping them in check is a real challenge, whether we are interacting with our kids, with co-workers, with strangers, or with ourselves. 

Top 10 Strategies for Developing Self Control

So where do we go from here? After spying on myself, I realized I have been trying the following ways to maintain, and model, increased self control:

  1. Being more aware of how I want to react. My goal is to stay calm. I certainly don’t always attain it, but having it as a goal has been a productive first step. 
  2. Taking a pause/deep breath before saying anything.
  3. Biting my tongue. Sometimes less is more. Saying only I’m disappointed and then waiting can be more powerful than overloading my kids with rambling language.
  4. Stating how I feel, without displaying heightened emotions. What you just did makes me feel angry. I am extremely frustrated.
  5. Modeling how I am using self control. I am feeling angry. Instead of yelling, I’m going to take a deep breath and take a little space. I’m going to take 5 deep breaths before I respond to what you are doing. (Can you imagine how incredible it would be if your kids said and did that?)
  6. Noticing patterns. Is there a particular time of day that I am frequently feeling frustrated with my kids? Or is there a particular event that is continuously challenging? (i.e. getting shoes on, getting in the car, taking a bath, etc.). I want to focus my time and efforts on situations that happen often, not one off events. In our house, Keener has been spiraling at bedtime since dropping his nap. I will be sharing more regarding changes we are making but let me say, we have been throwing lots of cotton balls!
  7. When emotions do strike, changing my goal for the moment. The “heat of the moment” is not a productive teaching time (have you ever learned an important lesson when you were exhausted/crying/hyper?) Instead, my goal is for my kids and me to return to a calm state, not impose my wisdom in that moment.
  8. Finding other peaceful times of the day, such as in the car, while playing, or at meals to brainstorm/teach/discipline (see post about discipline as heart training) about the challenges we are facing. Keener, I noticed that at bedtime, you have a harder time controlling your body. Mommy was really disappointed when you threw all of her pillows onto the floor last night. I know you are tired since you have stopped napping. Let’s brainstorm some other options of things you can throw before we take a shower. 
  9. Reminding myself that all behavior is communication. When my children misbehave, I’ve been thinking about what my children are trying to communicate to me. Recently for Keener, it has been a combination of looking for a thrill, seeking connection/attention, wanting to be physical, and trying to communicate that he is exhausted.
  10. Understanding the difference between being calm and being passively accepting of behavior. Being passive is accepting or allowing what is happening without active response or resistance. Being calm means not showing strong emotions. I am not “allowing” the behavior by staying calm. I am reacting to what happens without showing strong emotions so that I can model “big feelings” while maintaining a clear head.

For the record, I just told Keener he had 15 more minutes of quiet time and he responded, “OK Stinky Mommy…” Stay cool mama. Stay cool.

Teaching Kids To Share

Considering Development and Encouraging Theory of Mind

I often find myself asking Keener to share. You have to share is also one of the most common phrases I overhear at the playground. But what am I really asking Keener to do in this situation? What does it mean to share?

As adults, we decide for ourselves when and what we want to share with others, whether it’s  our food, car, or home. But rarely, if ever, do we ask another adult to give up something that is theirs at the drop of a hat. Can I have your car? I want it.  That just doesn’t happen.

When we are asking our kids to share, we want to be realistic in the ask. I personally don’t like sharing my food. On occasion, I am fine going out to dinner and sharing food with friends and family, but if we are being honest, I really prefer not to. Yet, when we ask our kids to share and they don’t want to, we often make them.

There are a few problems embedded in the way we usually ask our kids to share. First, I don’t think kids actually know what ‘share’ means. They hear us say the word share over and over, but most of the time they aren’t exactly sure what we are asking of them. Second, often when we ask our kids to share, they really don’t want to.  So how do we help our kids understand what this world of “sharing” is all about?

Before launching into what has helped recently with Keener, it’s important to note that we need to keep a child’s development in mind when talking about sharing. ‘Theory of mind’ is an important social-cognitive skill where a child can not only understand their own thoughts, feelings, and wants, but but can distinguish them from what others may be thinking, feeling and wanting.

A good example of this skill involves the following scenario. Take a bag of pretzels and put toys inside the bag, and then ask a child what is in the bag. That child will say pretzels, and be surprised to find there are toys inside the bag instead. Then ask the child “what do you think your friend will say is in this bag?” If the child is three years old, he will say toys, because the child is only thinking about what he knows about the contents of the bag. But if the child is four years old, he will say pretzels, because the four year old can understand that his friend will be tricked just like he was. The four year old is better able to distinguish his thoughts and see that they might be different from his friend’s thoughts.

According to Child Encyclopedia, theory of mind develops without specific teaching, but there are ways to help it develop more quickly by:

  • engaging in rich pretend play;
  • talking about people’s thoughts, wants, and feelings, and the reasons why they act the way they do;
  • hearing and talking about stories, especially those involving surprises, secrets, tricks, and mistakes. These stories invite children to see things from different points of view (Red Riding Hood doesn’t know that the wolf is dressed up as grandma).

Language also plays a big role, and below is some of the language I have used to help Keener develop theory of mind and build his understanding about why I am asking him to share:

I know you love playing with the lawn mower. Do you know who else does? Your friend Clark. When he is over, he also loves playing with the lawn mower, just like you do! That’s why it is important to let Clark have a turn, just like you love having your turn.

You have to look with your eyes to see if a toy is available. Sometimes, someone will have something that you might want. If it is in their hands, they want it too! You can either use your words and ask them for a turn or you can play with something else and look to see when they put that toy down. When you don’t see anyone’s hands on that toy, you know it is available for you to play with.  *This one has worked particularly well with sibling based squabbles. Keener will now say to me, “Grace put it down. It’s available — I didn’t take it from her!” with a sense of pride that he now knows exactly when a toy is available for him to take.

What did you play with at school today?  Who else in your class likes playing with that toy? Sometimes toys can be shared, like playdough. There is usually enough playdough for anyone who wants to play with it. But sometimes there might be only one of something, like a truck. I know you love playing with that green truck at school and I’m guessing Will and Thomas also love playing with the green truck! Because that is a fun truck!

Lastly, deliberately model sharing. If Keener or Grace has something, I will make it a point to say Can I play with that toy please when you are finished? Can we please build with blocks together? The more they hear it, the more likely they are to use this language themselves. Give them the words you want them to use.