Did I ever Mention This?

July 20, 2010 at 4:58 pm 7 comments

This is my girl today. Eyes ablaze, striking first, screaming second, pissed.

My logical, solution-seeking brain wants to know why? I scan through the last twenty-four hours. Did she get enough sleep? Food? What the bleep is wrong? Eventually I come to my senses, it doesn’t matter. I feed her all the time and we strive for as much sleep as possible. There aren’t days where I let sleep slide, or forget to offer nutrients, so even if I found a culprit to blame there still wouldn’t be anything to do differently in terms of physical needs.

After flailing about in this direction, I remember that I can still address emotional needs and quickly pull out empathy and information.

Empathy: Oh Echo. I see you’re really upset, really mad.

Information: When you scream at Bella like that she turns away from you and doesn’t want to play. Can I help you talk to her and figure out a solution?

I use my face to show understanding, I make myself physically available in case a hug or snuggle is desired, and I keep listening, searching for deeper feelings that can be empathized with. This is our formula and it works. It is time-consuming, at least in the moment, (although I’d argue that time-outs, threats and bribes take more time out of your life in the long-term), and quite verbal, but our children thrive under this system.

That being said, I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned the fact that I also use physical restraint. Today, empathy is reaching Echo’s ears, but not before she lands a few blows. Once I caught wind of her fierce temperament this morning I have been quick to slide my body between hers and her adversary. When the safety of others is involved I follow the same formula, while gently but firmly holding Echo in my arms.

Empathy: Oh Echo. You’re really mad. You want to hit her, huh? Oh you’re sad too? You wanted to play with that toy and she picked it up before you had a chance.

Information: You want me to let you go so that you can hit her and scratch her? Well, I think I’m going to continue holding you so that your sister stays safe. When you hit her she feels mad and probably won’t give you the toy. Do you want help figuring something else out?

It’s a safety clause but you have to be very mindful when you use it. It’s tempting to convince yourself that you are keeping others safe when in reality you are looking for ways to justify controlling your child’s movements. It’s better for your relationship to assume the best and be mistaken than to continuously and thoughtlessly jump in and use restraint. In addition, blocking a blow to spare another child harm is very different from grabbing an arm as an expression of your own anger. Empathic restraint is a short-term, temporary measure to protect others, the real, effective work is being done by your words, expression, and empathy.


Entry filed under: discipline, empathy, parenting principles. Tags: , , , , .

Keeping With The Theme The Power of Words

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Myers  |  July 21, 2010 at 10:14 am

    Thank you … I was actually just wondering today how one meets an upset, lashing-out child with empathy … this is helpful. Does Echo ever fight to break free from your arms when you’re holding her? Or protest that it’s not what she wants?

    I was also struck by how you worded the statement “I think I’m going to continue holding you to keep your sister safe.” — it was so positive, rather than “I’m going to hold you so you don’t hit your sister” or “so you don’t hurt your sister” or similar things along those lines.

    It reminded me of an earlier post I believe you wrote (it may have been someone else, but I think it was you) about how to speak to children about safety in positive terms rather than the (unfortunately) commonplace, knee-jerk, negative terminology that most parents use. I remember you saying that, for example, you’ll say, “We stay on the sidewalk in order to stay safe,” rather than “Don’t run into the street; you could get hit by a car.” I was with a friend last week who has two toddlers, and, boy, did I hear a lot of negativity, which, again, I don’t blame her for — because it’s the normal stuff you hear all the time: “Don’t jump on that! You’re going to fall!” “Don’t sit on that bench! The wood could give you a sliver!” “Don’t run into the street!”

    I was thinking about this as my son was exploring some mulch (bigger wooden chunks that he could choke on) in our tomato plant pots — he wanted to eat it, and I held myself back from saying, “Don’t eat it!” and instead said, “Let’s leave the mulch in its pot. That’s where it lives.” and variations on that theme.

    Again, I appreciate your words!

    • 2. nataliechristensen  |  July 21, 2010 at 1:22 pm

      Yes, Echo fights to break free. I use only as much restraint as is needed to keep the other kid safe. Sometimes it’s just placing myself between, or blocking an arm. When she struggles to free herself I let her go, then re-place myself to protect the other child again.

      And yes, I think it is very important to use words that describe what you want to see happen instead of what you do not. It sounds like an exaggeration, but our whole world changed when we switched over to “Will you point that toward the floor so that you stay safe? Will you swing that bat over there so that you have lots of room to swing freely? Let’s put the doll inside the purse so that we are sure to keep it with us. Will you put shoes on when you walk through the clover? I want the bees to be able to keep doing their thing and I want your feet to be comfortable.” Language like this is like a rainbow. The other form, full of fear and images of the worst case scenario, is like an ever present thunder cloud.

      • 3. Myers  |  July 22, 2010 at 8:04 am

        I loved those beautiful similes you used at the end — a “rainbow” versus “an ever-present thunder cloud” — I definitely felt that “thunder cloud” feeling with my friend with the two toddlers the other day. At one point she described him as “timid,” and I wondered if part of the reason for that is due to the fearful language and warnings that are being trumpeted in his ears. I think it takes some creativity and a real shift in thinking to switch to “rainbow” language rather than “thunder cloud” language — but how valuable, how important to work at this!

        I also noticed that she placed a HUGE premium on her 3-year-old obeying, and he was punished for not obeying. Any thoughts on where obedience fits in to an empathy model of parenting, or how you’ve handled that particular topic with your girls?

      • 4. nataliechristensen  |  July 22, 2010 at 8:22 pm

        Obedience is one of the most sought after “qualities” isn’t it? Well… I think one should never seek straight obedience. For the best argument against enforcing mindless obedience I must direct you to Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, and I myself am putting together a post to respond to this question more thoroughly.

  • 5. fillydesigns  |  July 21, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Gosh, you could just post pictures of Echo and not write and word! I love looking at her.

  • 6. carrie  |  July 21, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    sometimes i believe it’s important to articulate that certain behavior is not ok—–in a really great moment i may have the patience and the energy to talk it out but sometimes i must make it very clear that eg…biting is not ok
    do you totally disagree with this?
    I consider myself a conscious mother –attachment mamma of 3

    I can’t tolerate violence—–
    I sometimes notice in our particular world of parenting the most aggressive children are the ones who’s parents set no boundaries and talk about the feelings so much that the children seem on auto pilot around it

    what do you think?
    totally respect your blog and you and gleen so much from it
    would love to know how you see this
    much respect Carrie

    • 7. nataliechristensen  |  July 21, 2010 at 9:51 pm

      Hi Carrie,
      I do end up saying, “Echo! That’s not okay!”, or “I do not want you to hit her. If you need help, I can help you.” a lot. But I was reluctant to say so because I never present it as a “golden rule”, there are far too many exceptions, such as hitting that is part of rough housing, (There is a video on the blog called “Hitting Isn’t Nice” that demonstrates this.), and regardless, we always, always, always follow up with empathy and information.
      In addition, our style of parenting errs on the side of over-involved, never do we throw words out there and then watch our children strike others. Most of our exchanges take place long before hitting occurs, when we see anger flash across a face for instance, thereby avoiding phsyicality entirely.
      Modeling is also crucial in these scenarios, if we model violence in order to demonstrate that violence isn’t okay, it doesn’t matter what words we use.
      Permissiveness is real and we see it a lot, but I think it is separate from empathy.


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