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Architect of Demise

A year or so ago, my sister-in-law gave me a copy of Raising the Emotionally Intelligent Child, a method of child rearing—or more accurately a suite of tools to employ in child rearing—with clinically proven results. The notion behind the book is that kids need to learn to identify and understand their emotions if they are to be expected to manage them. So if your kid is having a meltdown over, say, a broken toy, you can ignore it, you can tell them it’s no big deal, you can yell at them to quit crying, or you can teach them to recognize and manage their feelings of frustration, anger, or sadness.

I read the book long before it was practical to put to use with Simon. But around the holidays, shortly after Simon turned three, we hit a burst of stubbornness and acting out in the house. I sensed it might be time to haul the book back out, refresh my memory, and put some emotion coaching to use.

On the whole, the results have been dramatic. Picture the following scene: We’ve just told Simon he has to do something he doesn’t want to. He gets mad and yells “no” or runs away, we admonish him or catch him, and in a fit of anger he throws a toy or, worse, a punch. (The punch thing happened only a very few times; I don’t want to misrepresent Simon here.) Sadly, my instinct is/was to say, “Oh honey, it’s OK, just forget about it” if I was feeling sorry for Simon or “Listen here, buddy, you have to do what we say because we’re the boss and if you throw that toy again you are in hot water!” if I was feeling frustrated or angry myself. What I learned to do instead was something more like this:

Jessica: It’s upsetting when you have to stop playing a game you really like, isn’t it?

Simon: Yeah….

Jessica: Does it frustrate you? Or make you kind of angry?

Simon: Yes, I’m angry.

Jessica: Well, I understand. I’d be angry, too. But you have to do X/stop doing X anyway. Let’s talk about things we can do to make that better. If you do X/stop doing X, we can Y…

When I read these dialogues in books, I confess to rolling my eyes and thinking, “Yeah, right, that will work.” But it has! I have seen with my own two eyes an escalation of emotions be completely diffused by a few carefully chosen words. I’m a believer.

I also have read the discipline sections of The Difficult Child and the book Positive Discipline, both recommended to me based on Simon’s temperament. The latter had the better title, but I think the former is the stronger book, even if your child is not particularly difficult. These books have taught me much about having reasonable expectations and about how to avoid power struggles. As a result of these books, I do a lot, and I mean a lot, of counting. As in:

“Simon, I know you know it’s time to get into the car. I’m going to count to three, and if you don’t get into the car after 3, I’ll have to help you get in.”

This, too, has worked well for us. Matt and I saw immediate improvement in family relations when we began to count and emotion coach. We were even beginning to feel a mite smug, when Simon turned it all around on us. One day, whilst being admonished for struggling during a clothing change, Simon looked up at Matt, waved a finger in his face, and said,

“No Daddy. Don’t you yell at me like that. I don’t like it; it hurts my ears and makes me feel bad when you yell at me.”

Matt was sort of proud of the little guy for standing up for himself and expressing himself so clearly, even as he wanted to throttle him for being so uncooperative in the first place. (This was before we realized Simon wanted to dress himself.)

Then, just last night, Simon really didn’t want Matt to play his guitar while he was playing with his Thomas set. So he asked. Nothing. Then asked again. Still nothing. And then finally, totally exasperated, he looked up at Matt, raised his voice, took on a stern tone, and said:

“Daddy. Put the guitar back. One. Two. Three. I’ll put the guitar back for you.”

We then did exactly what you are not supposed to in these instances. We laughed out loud right in front of him. Later, a bit chastened, we realized that we had given Simon the tools not just to express and defend himself, but also to defeat us. We are, in other words, the architects of our demise.

2 Responses to “Architect of Demise”

  1. blg says:

    Funny story on top of some great insights. Simon is a lucky boy.

  2. goldsteinrita says:

    Absolutely one of the funniest things you have ever written about. I laughed until I literally cried.

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