We can all choose to respond to life from one of three places: strength, love and playfulness – or so hypothesises a friend.
It struck me that when parenting, especially when disciplining, we often rely on strength.
Strength looks like me glaring or growling at my toddler to indicate with my body and sounds that he had better choose to do as I say or I will find a way to dominate him. Strength sounds like my husband raising his voice at our toddler, hoping to cower him into submission. But strength can also sound like a commanding voice in the face of a dangerous road.
We often turn to strength in the face of fear, stress, anxiety, panic, insecurity…which can all be different ways of defining our parenting at one point or another… It’s incredibly useful in the face of real danger, but not so useful if it becomes our default setting for engaging our children…even if they are two…
Alternatively, love is tender, kind, warm and uncompromising. Love should sound like empathy, even when we’re firm. Love should look like shared tears and hugs. Love should taste like soft kisses.
Love was when I crouched down low to the ground and extended my arms out to enfold my toddler in a warm embrace, followed by words of understanding the moment after he threw himself down onto the dinning room floor, screaming in front of dinner guests because he did not want to go to bed.
My baby was so upset at having to go to bed, versus staying up to play with his Uncle and Auntie, that he threw a “tantrum” – a spectacle to end all spectacles. And, amazingly, instead of responding from a place of strength, as I have on other occasions, grabbing him and firmly placing him in bed, I was able to respond from a place of love…
“I’m sorry you’re upset that you have to go to bed,” I embraced him.
“I want to stay up and play!” he screamed.
“You want to stay up and play. I understand. I’m sorry that you’re not able to do that.”
“Mami, I’m so sad!”
“I’m sorry you’re so sad. But you need your rest now. You can play with Uncle and Auntie another day.” Sniffle, sniffle, sob, sob pitter-pattered himself to bed.
I wish there were more of those moments in our repertoire.
Playfulness, on the other hand, seems much easier for us to access and provides incredibly fast returns.
“Stop it!” this serious scream escapes my toddler from the bathtub and then moments later is followed by fits of giggling. I smile, realising that my husband responded to our boy’s defiance with playfulness, diffused the situation and likely accomplished his aim at the same time.
“No!” our son narrows his eyebrows and leans his body towards my half of the kitchen, threateningly.
“No?” I feign shock, gasping and placing my hand over my chest. Peter looks confused and uncertain.
“No?” I ask again, seemingly bewildered as I fall to my knees and am now closer to him in height. Peter straightens his body, pleased with himself and begins to smile.
“No?” I begin to raise my voice in a challenge as I draw him near.
“No!” he screams triumphantly.
“No!” I scream back in defiance and begin to tickle him as he squirms, laughing.
After a few minutes of wrestling, I give him a kiss and a hug and try asking again. He happily complies.
Sadly, I worry that strength is still very much my default setting, “Do what I’ve asked or face the consequences”, which is usually to go sit down in the bathroom or hallway and think until he is ready to do as I’ve asked.
But slowly, as I make more time and space for myself so that I have more energy and presence of mind, I find that I am able to take a deep breath before responding to my toddler and in that time make a choice to empathise or play. And fortunately, both still mean that I guide him towards making good decisions.