10/03/2012

Know Thyself

Some weeks ago a friend asked me what had surprised me most about parenting. Well, here is one thing: it surprised me how important it is to know your children better than they know themselves, and to teach them self-knowledge.

Babies enter the world as balls of raw emotion, completely unmediated by any restraint. Parenting an infant is comparatively easy: if they are unhappy they are either hungry or tired or sitting in poop, and you only have to figure out which of the three it is. Of course an infant can't tell you which it is. But I was surprised to discover that even as they grow older and become better at communicating, they still have a very difficult time telling you why they are upset, and this is because they do not know!

An unhappy toddler who appears to be throwing a fit for no reason may be tired, or he may be hungry, or something else may be wrong - but he really has no idea which. This holds even as children get older. When my oldest son was 5 or 6, he would sometimes give a different answer for why he was upset every time we asked him. His distress was a constant, but his reasons fluctuated wildly - sometimes it seemed like he was just picking a fight with us, but I think he was really just trying to find something to attach his pre-existing distress to. It was very confusing.

Children know what is immediately present to them - their emotional distress, but connecting that to the actual cause of distress is surprisingly difficult for them. In fact, it's difficult for a whole lot of adults too.

This has huge ramifications for parenting! It means that you have to know your child better than they know themselves, which is hard. It means that you should not believe your children when they tell you why they are upset! It explains why children can still be upset even when you give them exactly what they're demanding. And it means there is way more to parenting than just punishing your children when they don't do what you tell them to do. You need to understand, if you can, why they are disobeying. You need to provide, as much as you are able, an environment conducive to obedience (which means trying to take care of their needs for food, sleep, alone time, etc., and providing some extra lenience and compassion when you know they are being stretched). And you need to help them understand, when they are upset, what the real problem is.

Children do need to know that proper behavior is important even when they are feeling overwhelmed, of course.  Even if we could provide perfectly for all of our child's needs, that would not prepare them for living in the real world. But ease them in to it. A two-year old needs more slack than a four-year old, who needs more slack than a 7-year old. Every child is different and has different limits. And empathy is important: "I know I'm asking a lot, and I'm sorry you couldn't have a nap today", etc.

All of this is impossible (welcome to parenting!). But it is a direction to shoot in, at least. I have a lot of conversations with my kids about why they are feeling upset, and I do a lot of guessing. Early conversations went something like this:
* Do you know why you are so upset?
* It's because I can't watch a movie!
* No, I don't think that's it. I think you've spent a lot of time around other people today and need some alone, recharge time
* No, I just want to watch a movie!
* Well, I don't think that's it and I'm going to put you in your bedroom to play alone for 15 minutes now.
I could be totally wrong, of course. But if you pay attention to your children and experiment, you can usually get a much better picture of their needs than they have themselves. With my oldest I've been able to transition from telling him what to do ("you can't go back outside") to giving advice ("You're tired and those kids are being mean, I think you'll be happier if you play inside now"). And we're starting to be able to actually have conversations about how he's feeling, what might have contributed to it, and how we can help him feel better.

And it is such an incredible feeling when they nail it - when my quiet and broody middle child expresses exactly what he's upset about, or when my outgoing eldest shuts himself in his room for half an hour to listen to music.

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