Don’t push your sister down the stairs

The other day, Keener turned a shopping bag into a robot. He was proud to be reusing, just as his class had talked about leading up to Earth Day. Grace was doing her own thing and things were calm. Then, they weren’t.

It’s unclear Grace’s true motive, however, she reached for the bag which naturally ripped. As a result, Keener lunged for Grace. There wouldn’t have been much to report except for the location where this happened — at the top of the stairs.

Grace is and was totally fine. She stumbled backwards and caught herself one step down.

The more I reflect on this experience, the more I realize what discipline truly is, why self control is everything, and just how hard it is to not lose it on your kids.

Self Control

My previous mentality when one of my kids misbehaved was to think right away towards punishment. You didn’t listen, broke a rule or hurt someone, you must be punished. If this was an effective strategy, I would still be using it. However, it wasn’t working for me or my kids. For me, immediately thinking about a punishment left me angry, out of control and hijacked by my fight or flight system. I would try to quickly think of a consequence while I was still emotionally charged. This meant the consequence was generally not realistic, disconnected from the crime, or worst of all, never changed future behavior.

This is not to say that there are absolutely some instances where a consequence still flies out of my mouth without thinking. And consequences/punishments can be extremely effective for influencing future behavior. Take getting a speeding ticket. Chances are, you are more likely to watch your speed…for at least the rest of that day. Will you ever get one again? Maybe? Probably?

All this to say, I have tried to teach over punish. Instead of leading with a consequence and the I got you this time approach, I try and think about lagging skills. What do I need to teach you so that that behavior doesn’t happen again in the future? More often than not, it’s about self control.

Surprise over anger

Of course self control must start with me. When I let my kids’ behavior dictate my self control, I lose every time. You didn’t have self control when your robot ripped and now I don’t have self control because you didn’t? This has been a major motivator for me in helping to change my own habits. We are always modeling for our kids, whether we intend to or not. Keener’s lack of self control is no excuse for me to lack self control as well.

One strategy that has helped me in the moment is expressing surprise over anger. A child psychologist mentioned this and it has been incredibly helpful. Instead of losing my cool and getting angry at Keener when he pushed Grace, I instead expressed my surprise. Oh my gosh. That was so scary. Wow, my heart is racing. That really surprised me because I know you would never want to hurt her. I am so glad Grace isn’t hurt.

Teaching when kids are available to learn

One of the hardest things about teaching is the timing. I wanted to teach both kids in that moment the error in their ways. In reality, neither child was available to learn. Keener was too upset about his robot being broken and Grace was too upset about being pushed down the stairs. Me trying to impose my wisdom and logic was completely lost on both of them. I quickly realized this and stopped trying, making a mental note that I would circle back when all of us were calm.

Keener knows it’s wrong to push his sister down the stairs. Spending time when he is dealing with feelings of disappointment to harp on this is anything but helpful. In the moment, I reminded him, It’s OK to feel angry. You’re upset your robot ripped. It is never OK to push your sister, especially at the top of the stairs. His feelings of disappointment were real. I validated the feelings first, then reminded him that his actions were extremely unsafe.

The heat of the moment used to feel like, This is my chance to shine. Whether privately or publicly, I needed to impose my wisdom, logic, and punishments right then and there. However, the more I tried this, the more I realized it was not effective. I was too charged, my kids were too charged and all of my brilliant wisdom was completely lost on them. Keener doesn’t need to be taught that pushing his sister down the steps is unsafe. He needs to be taught how to better handle disappointment. And while he is disappointed is unlikely the moment he is going to learn new strategies.

Especially with small children, timing is important. Taking dessert away for hitting your brother at breakfast is unlikely to change behavior (another post will look more closely at the punishment matching the crime). However, teaching right in the heat of the moment is also unproductive. Keener was too upset about his destroyed robot to apologize right away for pushing Grace. For this particular instance, I waited a few hours and revisited the incident at bedtime. Everyone was calm, including myself, so we could all brainstorm alternate choices both could use next time, review why stairs are so scary, and provide space for both kids to apologize.

Imperfect humans

Lastly, I also frequently have to remind myself that my kids are human. As Dr. Eger reminds us, “Human, no more, no less. Human, like me.” While I would love for Keener to say, Mom, I forgot to exhibit self control when I pushed Grace. Next time I am upset when she ruins something, I will demonstrate perfect self control — I’m not going to hold my breath until that happens. If I’m struggling with self control at thirty-five, how could I possibly expect my almost five year old to handle disappointments better than me? Progress, not perfection. And just the reminder I need to model the type of self control I am expecting from my children.

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