I’ve realized that my kids tend to challenge me in areas that I need growth. The behaviors that bug me the most or the things I react most to, have more to do with me. My fears. My concerns. My insecurities. Those are the things I react to. Lately this has been around “risky” behavior.
No where is this more apparent than with my youngest Liam. He is a daredevil. At 18 months, he already loves climbing and going fast. He is always trying to keep up with his older brother and then even tends to take it one step farther. I love that about him. It also terrifies me.
I find myself reacting instead of responding. When his actions trigger fear in me, I react. My mindfulness goes out the window. I find myself stopping him, moving him, or yelling out the ever helpful “BE CAREFUL” which typically is more likely to startle him and cause a fall then actually be helpful.
About a month ago, Liam took a big topple off of an indoor climbing structure when we were at a local museum. He ripped his labial frenulum (you know that thing that attaches your upper lip to your gum). Lots of blood. Lots of tears. Lots of reactions from everyone. It became really easy to just keep him off of the climbing structure. It calmed my fears and made my life easier. It did nothing to help him grow though. With practice and patience he is capable.
When I get overwhelmed with the day to day chaos of parenting toddlers, these reactions become more frequent. With that, comes an increasing need to feel in control. So stopping his climbing. Keeping him in the stroller. Controlling the risk so I have less fear. These things feel good because these decrease my own fears and anxieties. Yet these things are counter to my actual goals as a parent. I want him to be competent. Take calculated risks. Try new things. I don’t want to stifle his personality.
So how can I respond instead of reacting?
The first step for me is always to practice mindfulness. Practice pausing. I have found that the pause is one of the most impactful and powerful aspects of parenting. That 3-5 seconds from an action to my response or reaction. The deep breathe that says what does he really need here? Instead of a generic “Be careful” I can ask thoughtful questions and help him problem solve his own dilemma. Instead of swooping in, I can give him the option to make a different choice.
Another practice I have found really helpful is not to put him into positions he can’t get into himself. There is plenty to explore and no need to rush. For example, he can do the slide when he can master the stairs. Giving him the time and space to figure it out, keeps him safe. He figures out what his body can do and moves to the next level when his body is ready. So often we want to skip the journey and get them to the fun. When we move them through spaces, they are less capable of staying safe. They don’t learn their own limitations when we skip the steps of an activity.
Not rescuing him immediately helps too. This is null and void if the danger is immediate but I do find that I need to assess my thoughts about what immediate danger is. More often than not, less reaction is beneficial. I resist swooping in. When he’s stuck, pause. Describe what you see. “It looks like you are having trouble moving up the ladder. Can you move your body down instead?” When they really need help offer it freely but give them the chance to get out of it themselves first.
Ultimately, our kids will get hurt. It’s part of learning. Small hurts now in appropriately risky scenarios, helps to protect them as the risks get bigger. It gives them a better understanding of what they are capable of. When they do get hurt, we can always facilitate growth in our response as well. For Max & Liam, I’ve found neutrally stating what happened and asking them to self-reflect is really helpful. “You fell down. Is your body okay or do you need help/a hug/a kiss.” The invitation for self-reflection gives them practice of paying attention to their bodies but also lets them know I am here if you need me. It doesn’t fall into the trap of telling them they are okay when we can’t possibly know what they are feeling. It also doesn’t cause a reaction by reacting for them. I’ve found it to be a really good middle ground. I start this practice long before they are verbally responding. The tone is familiar and they know what we are saying before the can verbally respond.
With Max who is a little older (3.5) if he is showing fear after a fall, we talk through what happened, anything he could do differently, and then I will offer to spot him while we try again. While I never force him to, he is frequently receptive to trying again.
These practices are aligned with my parenting goals. They help facilitate growth for my children. Ultimately, they can only be accomplished when I focus on my own responses though. Over and over again, I find that my parenting is much more impactful when I focus on my own actions and responses. When I control my fears, they grow. When I show trust, they are more trustworthy. What I model sets the tone for our relationship and who they are becoming.