The Risks We Take.

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It’s ok dude, you’ve got this. 

Motherhood can feel risky, there is no other experience where perfection is so encouraged and so laughably out of reach. Every decision I make feels like it has consequences. I can never be entirely certain if I’m doing the right thing in the choices I make both for you and with you. However the hours I spend talking with you, watching you and playing with you make me confident that these choices and risks are right for you. Even the ones that look a little mad. Especially the ones that look a little mad.

I’m watching you climb the webbing in the playground. The sky is above you and the grass is below you and the words ‘be careful!’ are rushing to my lips but I bite them back. I’m watching you and you are being careful, you are being so careful. Your hands are wrapped around the rope so tight and you’re tapping your feet along the next one before resting any weight on it. I know you’re really considering your next move because your eyes have the same focus usually reserved for picking spinach out of dinner.

You are being careful and the last thing you need is for me to act as if you’re not. If you can swallow down your fear and place tiny feet on ropes in the air with such trust then I can swallow my fear too. I can trust you, I can trust that you know the limits of your body and you’re learning how these muscles you own move in the wind. You’re learning that you’re strong, and careful and capable. I’m learning to let you be these things without acting like I have any part in it, because I don’t. I don’t know where your limits are – I can tell you that I’m worried so I’ll just stand underneath you, I can ask if you want help, I can point out a difficulty I think you’ve overlooked; but ultimately it’s up to you and the risks you think you can handle. My yelling out at you would just tell you that I don’t think you’re being careful, that you obviously need to be reminded to be careful when plainly you are devoting every inch of determination you have to conquering this ridiculously bright spider web on the beach – carefully.

You take risks. You are glowing when you jump down. Your cheeks are red and your smile is wide and you are loving yourself sick.

‘Did you see me? I went up to the top!’

‘I was watching you the whole time! You chose the places to put your feet so carefully!’

You nod, a sage in this small lanky body, ‘it’s tricky and I wanted to be careful.’

I take risks too. But not with your heart. Sometimes it feels like I’m swaying in the wind, choosing where to put my feet and hoping for the best. I can see the sky above me and the ground below me, and I feel the risk in being your Mama. I take risks with you every day – crossing the road, figuring that a sandwich that fell on the floor is probably alright because I’ve seen you lick dirt and the only after effect was my own sense of nausea. But, I won’t risk your heart. I choose my words. I think about your point of view. I explain things. I hold you when you’re having a bad day. I tell you you’re my favourite in the whole wide world. I ask you what you would like to do. I follow your lead.

You drive me crazy. You make me laugh. It should not be possible to talk all day. I gave you three biscuits so I could relish silence for a few minutes. You sprayed crumbs at me while still chatting and it sucked. The sugar gave you enough energy to tell me all the things you’d already told me, but louder. You ask questions and walk away just as I’m getting really involved in explaining the answer. You insist that a tea-towel is all that’s needed to dry your pants when you were fully submerged in a puddle. You walk slower when we’re running late. You have a pathological attachment to weird-ass t-shirts and a crocodile onesie.

I’m careful. I make decisions that feel right for you, not for any other child – just for you. I may grip the ropes tightly and close my eyes for a second, and I may question these decisions a thousand times but the end result is the same – I’ll keep climbing to the top because this works for us. I want you happy, and healthy, and safe, and confident, and ridiculous, and caring and I want you to never doubt for a second that you are valuable.

Maybe, when this is all over (I know it’s never over) I’ll also look back on the risks I took and think ‘It was tricky, but I was careful.’

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Raised By Wolves.

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Clearly capable of caring for Small Children without chewing on them.

I’m watching you play out the front with your Daddy, he’s gardening and you’re pretty sure you’re gardening too but technically you’re pulling the heads off those flower/weed things. You are super proud of your flower head collection. It’s quite a chilled little scene, which is nice because I got so angry with you earlier. I had my reasons, and none of them seem quite good enough now. I regret the way I sat you down and used my Creepy Whisper Voice to tell you how disappointed I was. To tell you that I had expectations and you had patently failed to meet them. You crossed your legs and hid your head in your lap and I thought ‘oh good, he understands how upset I am.’ Look at me, providing discipline and boundaries, except I’m not at all confident that’s what I was doing. Sometimes I think I should just find a nice pack of wolves and be like ‘Hey guys, wanna give this parenting thing a shot?’ Wolves seem pretty confident in their choices, and they have a strong sense of family, which is nice. You’re already a pretty fast runner, so they’d have some basic material to work with there. It could go well. Romulus etc.

I’m trying so hard to walk this line of intentional parenting and not go fucking crazy with being empathic all the time when occasionally I just want to scream ‘IT’S ACTUALLY MY TURN TO MELTDOWN NOW. MY. TURN.’ But experience has taught me that you’ll look at me quite seriously and hold my hand as you say ‘Mummy, we don’t yell at each other in this house.’ Yes, you are immensely capable of being calm when other people are losing their shit and it should be testament to the fact that I am a better mother than the pack of wolves but in those moments it kind of feels like you’re being aggressively sweet on purpose.

We haven’t made up yet. Which is sad, because usually we’re really good at going back to being a team. I’m not quite sure I can walk out there yet, not quite sure I’ve recovered enough to deal with another round of ‘everything wrong with the world is Mummy’s fault’ even though I have consistently explained that I am not in charge of the world. Everything is changing for you at the moment. Our life is changing and I forget that of course you’ll react to that. I forget that I don’t have a monopoly on anxiety and instead of downing chardonnay or rubbing lavender hippie shit on your temples you demand control in other ways.

You don’t fit into the spaces around you at the moment. You’re edges and angles and everything rubs up against you and is cut to ribbons, including me. You have no patience and no time and you’re so quick to get angry and you hold onto it and I can’t get you to share it with me so instead you’re throwing it at me in these short, sharp bursts that take my breath away. I need to find you, to find a way past these edges, edges that I’m sure are cutting you into pieces too. They say all behaviour is communication and you are bursting with pain right now. You’re still so little.  I’m watching you count your decimated flowers and I’m counting up the times I’ve lost my shit with you recently vs the times we’ve cuddled and laughed and read books about terrifying animals that you love so much you big weirdo. I’m remembering the late nights you’ve had and how you begged me to play with you earlier today and I said ‘later’ which we both knew meant ‘no.’Maybe I can take the bits of anger you’re throwing around right now and turn them into something else, something that feels less like me vs you and more like the team I know we are. I can hold you close and remember that hurt and anger are so close together and you’re using every tool you have to let me know how you feel; and some of those tools suck but you are trying so hard to tell me things you don’t have words for. Maybe we can figure out what hurt feels like together, because you’ve been doing it on your own so far. I’m so sorry for that.

In the meantime, you’re carrying in handfuls of decapitated flowers and I suspect the wolves have enough issues raising their own young. I’m thinking I won’t start researching handy places to find wolves just yet, because maybe I can do this. We can work out how to blunt sharp edges and how to move through hurt to healing, together. If I see a pack of wolves, I’ll just tell them that I’ve got this, they can move along because I have books about terrifying animals to read to a Small Boy who gives me flowers. Well, bits of them.

That Child Needs Consequences: What You Don’t See.

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No-one is born scared or ashamed, it is something we are taught – that there are bits of ourselves that are bad, worthless and should be kept hidden. We are told to give our children consequences, but what about the unintentional ones? What about the consequences that teach them they’re incapable when they’re still learning, or the ones that teach them they’re bad and disrespectful when they’re still figuring out what respect looks like. Children learn from consequences, yes, but not all consequences are equal.

I loved books as a child. My parents would buy ‘life lesson’ books, and with hope in their hearts they would place them on the shelves and trust that eventually their children would stop jumping on the furniture while they napped on Saturday afternoons. I remember reading about Susie, whose Mummy thoughtfully made biscuits one day. Susie climbed up on a chair to reach the cooling biscuits and CRASH! Biscuits and Susie were both crushed. Susie was contrite, she apologized and was forgiven. These books always ended with the same sentiment ‘and Susie NEVER disobeyed her Mummy and Daddy again.’

I always disobeyed Mummy and Daddy again. Then I was given consequences. Those consequences hurt.

Even at the tender age of five, I recall listening to those books and feeling a mixture of shame and awe at these children who demonstrated such majestic self-control, while I obviously possessed none. I would make up my mind to do better, and I would fail. Particularly when there were biscuits involved. While these books are clearly from another era, the sentiment still exists. Children should learn appropriate behavior quickly and effectively. Otherwise, there will be consequences!

Consequences are not linear, we cannot control what children learn and what they don’t. There is no direct relationship between spanking or yelling at a child (a commonly held strategy for ‘teaching children’) and subsequent behavior. Children are emotional beings and they throw their own interpretations around. We’re not handing them resilience and respect through spanking or yelling, we’re teaching them how to be violent. Altschul, Lee & Gershoff (2016) found that spanking was associated with increases in child aggression over time, above and beyond initial ‘expected child aggression.’ Parents weren’t trying to control an aggressive child; they had created an aggressive child, and the more they spanked the angrier the child got. When children get pushed out of the way for being slow or tutted at for running in public, we’re not teaching them how to behave in public spaces – we’re potentially teaching them it’s ok to push people who annoy you.

Words, unsurprisingly, can be worse (*heavy sigh*). Grille (2002) found that phrases thought to be relatively harmless (eg, You always do this! You’re so lazy!) have long lasting consequences to a child, often showing up as shame and low self-esteem years later. The words we use to describe children often become the words they use to describe themselves. Shellenbarger (2014) found that yelling was damaging when it was a personal attack, calling attention to a child’s faults rather then the situation. There is always a difference between a child’s behavior and who they are, and understanding this distinction can be the difference between shutting down a conversation by saying ‘Bad Boy!’ and opening one up with ‘Are you sure that was the right decision?’ Shaming children is particularly insidious, because unlike anger or fear, shame doesn’t have a physical emotional outlet (Grille, 2002). We can’t cry shame away, or shout it away, it doesn’t go out – it goes in, into our minds, into our hearts and there it sits. Waiting.

My autistic son has consequences, but I don’t always get a say in them and this breaks my heart. We went on holiday a little while ago, and on the last day we were lining up, waiting to collect our luggage and go home. Everyone was tired and a bit grumpy. My son climbed into a woman’s chair after she left. His back was to the world and he’d curled his head down as far as it would go, blocking out as much of the noise and the light as he could. Self-regulating. But she came back. She asked him to move, it was her chair and she was tired. Ok. I put a hand on his back and whispered to him. ‘No!’ he yelled. ‘Hurry up’ she said. He curled tighter. Then he climbed into my arms, pushed his head into my neck and screamed and screamed and screamed. ‘What a bad boy,’ she said, ‘he needs consequences.’ Later, he whispered to me ‘Am I bad? Everyone was looking at me.’ So yes, he has consequences, he has shame, and it’s my job to take these unintentional consequences and turn them into something approaching resilience. My job to shatter them without shattering him.

I am not a perfect parent, some days not even an ok parent, I fail, and I make mistakes. I have bribed and yelled. I have three loads of laundry to do, a freezer full of oven chips, a habit of recklessly throwing things labeled ‘do not put in dryer’ into the dryer, and an unshakeable belief that baked beans are a nutritious dinner. However I try to be aware of the unintentional consequences I hand my own children and those other children we meet as we go about our lives. I will not describe any of them as naughty, or bad, or selfish. I will not make predictions regarding their future because I do not own a crystal ball and if I did the cats would knock it off the table anyway. I know what shame feels like; I know how it sits heavy in your heart and the lies it tells you about your worth. I will not contribute to that. Fear and shame don’t have to be a part of consequences, only learning does.

Altschul, I., Lee, S. J. and Gershoff, E. T. (2016), Hugs, Not Hits: Warmth and Spanking as Predictors of Child Social Competence. Journal of Marriage and Family, 78: 695–714. doi: 10.1111/jomf.1230

Grille, R. (2002). Good Children – At What Price? Retrieved from http://www.naturalchild.org/robin_grille/good_children.html

Shellenbarger, S. (2014). Talking to your child after you yell. Retrieved fromhttp://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304691904579348773978001590

Yes, My Child is Entitled. To be a Child.

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OMG I can’t believe I just did that in public. Wait, yes I can.

Sometimes my kids look like ‘those’ kids. Those rampaging, loud, possibly naked and undoubtedly dirt encrusted kids. The ones that shout ‘No!’ and flat out refuse to leave the park, even if I pretend to walk away (which I read somewhere is actually ‘withholding love’ so I felt super guilty about trying it out, and then just annoyed because it didn’t even work and if you’re going to do something as heinous as withhold love it should jolly well work right?) I worry that not only does my daughter not always share but occasionally she actually picks up all the toys her teeny arms can carry and runs away, possibly cackling. The concern here is that I might be raising what looks like an entitled child.

The thing is though, children are entitled. They’re entitled to be adored when sticky. They’re entitled to have bad moods and be outrageously grumpy for no obvious reason. They’re entitled to be learning, continuously and constantly learning. They’re entitled to make mistakes. They’re entitled to have fun and be impulsive. Their brains are still developing, and there are concepts they just cannot grasp, and what they truly need is time and understanding (Best & Miller, 2010).

This can be tough.

My daughter does ballet. I say ‘does ballet’ when realistically she romps around in a dinosaur shirt and rainbow tutu and follows *maybe* half the instructions. She also has a complete blast. On Ballet Days she has her chosen dinosaur shirt on hours before class starts. She races into the building and greets her classmates (who are always dressed in pink with brushed and ponytailed hair and I have no idea how that even happens). When the teacher says ‘OK Dancers, time to trit-trot like ponies!’ my daughter says ‘No, I’m a bunny!’ and hippity-hops around. The first time she’s asked to ‘March in line!’ I realise she has never lined up in her entire life. She has no concept of lining up and her subsequent zooming around the room was unsurprising. She practices a version of ballet that is not taught in the ballet class.

This was challenging for me. It was testing to see her so obviously going against the norm; she was putting her preferences into action (preferences we’ve encouraged her to have) in a situation where compliance was expected. No one was outright telling her she was wrong, her teacher would gently ask her to join the other dancers and eventually she would. However, I still struggled. Two sessions into the term, I pulled her aside mid-lesson: ‘You need to listen to the teacher! Do what the teacher does!’ ‘But why?’ she asks, ‘Because you’re here to learn ballet!’ I whisper. Her head drops and she walks back to her friends. She does not trit-trot like a pony. She does not hippity-hop like a bunny. She lowers her head and drags her feet like an unhappy puppy and occasionally throws wounded eyes back at me.

I feel like shit. I have stolen Ballet and replaced it with Sad. She’s just turned three. She’s not really there to learn ballet, she’s there to learn how strong her body is, she’s there to listen to music and pay attention to how it makes her feel. Most of all she’s there to have fun. I did not teach her about impulse control by telling her to follow instructions. All I did was hissy whisper at my kid and teach her that I don’t delight in her obvious, incredible, ridiculous love of Not Quite Ballet.

Children are entitled.

Punishment makes no difference to impulse control (Straus, Sugarman & Giles-Sims, 1997). Yelling at a child or getting physical with them for running in the opposite direction when you call them to the car will not make them less likely to high-tail it away from you next time. I was told to sit outside many times as a child, and not once did I use that time to ‘reflect on what I did wrong,’ instead, I reflected on how misunderstood I was and plotted quiet revenge. Sometimes, I even drew a diagram.

Research found punishment is more likely to result in distress than learning (Straus, Sugarman & Giles-Sims, 1997). What does work is talking, it’s our ‘inner voice’ that teaches us impulse control (Kemick, 2010). Our inner voice needs to be helpful, positive. It needs to tell us we’re good people, we can do this; we can keep going when things are hard and we make great decisions. While they’re little, kids aren’t great at seeing the big picture. But they listen to what their parents say about them, and they believe it.

Trust your child. They will be capable, maybe not yet though. Maybe they just need to practise Not Quite Ballet, maybe they need ten-minute reminders of when it’s time to leave the playground, maybe they can’t share because first they need to know what not sharing feels like. When their brain is ready they will follow instructions and they will share. More than that, they will know they are good people, people who are learning and making mistakes and learning again.

My daughter and I resumed ballet – the other children imitate arm actions and my girl is looking at me and jumping around furiously. I blow her a kiss, ‘Look at you jump!’ She jumps faster, smiling. Ballet is back.

When the time comes for her to learn why we follow instructions, she’ll be there. But right now, she’s learning about herself – her skills, the things that make her happy and crucially – the way people she loves view her. I will try to always be a safe place for her, my acceptance of my badass girl isn’t based on how compliant she is. It’s based on her: her strength, curiosity, bravery and ability to rock a dinosaur t-shirt and tutu with the best of them.

References

Best, J. R., & Miller, P. H. (2010). A Developmental Perspective on Executive Function. Child Development, 81(6), 1641–1660. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01499.x

Kemick, A. 2010. Inner voice plays role in self control. Science Daily. Retrieved April 13, 2016 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100921110956.htm

Straus, M. A., Sugarman, D. & Giles-Sims, J. (1997). Spanking by Parents and Subsequent Antisocial Behavior of Children. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 151, 761-67.

Linking up with The Annoyed Thyroid here

Things I want you to know: A parenting mantra for no f***s given.

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It’s the bubble! By all that is cruelty-free and fair-trade do not leave the bubble!

I’ve been outside the bubble this week. It was awkward and I didn’t like it. However, it forced me to rediscover my inner gentle-parent-freak, and she fucking rocks. So in case you didn’t realise, this is me waving my weirdo flag high and proud. It has sparkles on it bitches.

These are the things I want you to know about why I parent the way I do. Newsflash: Not one of them is because I’m over-protective and anxious. Shocking, I know.

I’m clever, and so is everyone else doing this. You don’t decide to go against the grain of mainstream parenting on a whim; we have all carefully researched and considered the various aspects of our parenting. There is a lot of science backing up what we do. From non sleep training, to breastfeeding, to a star-chart free house and explaining to incredulous relatives could they please not call my daughter a ‘good girl’ when they were praising her compliance. We always have a reason. If you check out an attachment parent forum there are a whole load of book recommendations and research studies flying around. We read things. We read ALL the things.

Having said that, I parent based on feelings too. When my son was 9 months old he did that thing where he was absolutely certain that the cure for being tired was staying awake for as long as he could. We tried to teach him that the cure for tired was sleep, but he remained unconvinced. One night my partner and I were sitting on the couch and talking about trying ‘crying it out’ – should we just give it a go? This not sleeping business was difficult. My eyeballs were burning and everything was fuzzy except the outline of the coffee cup. Then the Boy woke up wailing and we both muscled each other out of the way to get to him first. Clearly, we were not crying it out material. There are no comprehensive research studies conducted on the safety of crying it out (AAIMHI, 2013) and there never will be because no-one would touch that with a 10ft pole. If evidence of harm was unconfutable the baby sleep industry would be open to all kinds of litigation. The closest thing we have to evidence is a study by Middlemiss et al., which found elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the absence of crying (2012). Quiet babies were still sad babies. Instincts exist for a reason, follow them, follow them, follow them.

Confession: I’m lazy. I like things to be easy. There is a lot of research on the benefits of breast-feeding and co-sleeping (McKenna & McDade, 2005; Leon-Cava, 2002). Honestly, all I needed was its easier. I was asked once how I differentiated my babies cries. I don’t because the answer is always the same. Tired = boob. Sad = boob. Hungry = boob. Bit confused about the talking puppy in the book = boob. Co-sleeping is magic. Getting up and walking down the hallway takes extreme effort, and even if the light of your life does fall back asleep, do you think you can drift off once your back in bed? No, you can’t. You are awake now. The only time you will fall back asleep is three minutes before your kid wakes up again. It’s practically a rule.

I like children. Even my own. Parenting this way means I can connect to them more easily. I value connection to others, fostering empathy and all those other things that hippies like. I think kids are hilarious and adorable and I’m in awe of their fizziness and their insight into the world around them. With attachment parenting I get to talk to my children like they are people with feelings as important as mine, a powerful form of connection (Miller & Commons, 2010). I practise seeing things from their point of view and it shows me what’s significant to them. I know their hearts and minds, and how just being heard is often what they want from me. I had to use 123 Magic in a professional capacity recently. That shit freaked me out. You shout a number at a child and they’re required to stop doing the thing they were doing. There is no talking. There is no acceptable motive. There is no empathy. If you get to 3 then the roof collapses. The worst part about this system is that without a conversation – without looking in a child’s eyes and seeing their pain or anger close up – without that experience and understanding it was easy to dissociate from them. It became about me. A child would do something inappropriate (because, they’re like learning and shit) and I would shout the number and think ‘I can’t believe they’re doing that to me! The connection wasn’t there. Connection is essential; it stops you being a dick. When everything else is stripped away it’s the only thing that matters.

I don’t think my children are made of porcelain. I’m not interested in protecting them from everything, including your child who just pushed my kid out the way. That stuff happens. I don’t mind if someone grabs my daughter’s toy out of her hand at playgroup, we can work it out. Being upset is not the worst thing that can happen to a child. I won’t label other children as naughty just the same as I won’t label mine. I differentiate between the choices my children make and who they are and I teach them to do that for others too, crucially – it works (Miller & Commons, 2010). Resilience is the goal, I want my children to look for the motives in other’s behaviour and have empathy for the people around them. Plus, everyone is kind of a jerk when they’re hungry. If I run around going ‘omg your kid hit my kid’ then I’m not teaching my children resilience. Children aren’t violent, that’s a label adults put on behaviour when they’re looking at the world through a lens of fear. The world is not scary, and kids will surprise you with how they work things out when you let them. Let them strut, and give them a high five when they’re done showing you that they can navigate the hard stuff too. They’ve earned it.

I don’t think people who don’t parent the way I do are crap parents. I see how much you love your children, I see you ruffle their hair as you walk past, I see compassion in your eyes when they get hurt. Of course I have questioned my choices. There are hard days, days when I’m fairly convinced a pack of wolves could do a better job than I am. However I do what I do because I can’t imagine doing it any other way. This is visceral for me, and I firmly believe it’s good for my children. On good days, even the pack of wolves would agree with me.

(I know these make you as happy as they make me.) References.

Australian Association for Infant Mental Health Inc. (2013). Position Paper 1: Controlled Crying. Double Bay, NSW: AAIMHI.

Leon-Cava, N. (2002). Quantifying the benefits of breastfeeding: a summary of the evidence. Washington, D.C.: PAHO.

McKenna, J. & McDade, T. (2005). Why babies should never sleep alone: A review of the co-sleeping controversy in relation to SIDS, bedsharing and breastfeeding. Paediatric Respiratory Reviews, 6, 134-152.

Middlemiss, W., Granger, D., Goldberg, W. & Nathans, L. (2012). Asynchrony of mother-infant hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep. Early Human Development, 88(4), 227-232.

Miller, P. & Commons, M. (2010). The benefits of attachment parenting for infants and children: A behavioural developmental view. Behavioural development bulletin, 10, 1-10.

Linking up with The Ultimate Rabbit Hole here

Meltdowns: What I’m doing when you think I’m doing nothing.

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Connecting to your child requires constant work. Not all of that work is visible to other people. But it’s the invisible stuff, the deep down acceptance and tolerance of your maniac child that truly matters.

This is usually how the judgment from others goes. You’re out, in public, doing wondrous public things with your beloved cherubs. You have an exchange with your partner, chatting merrily. You may even get to finish a sentence. But then there’s a cry and you see your child in a puddle on the ground. You go over and you parent your child the best way you know how. You kneel down beside her, this grubby tear-stained cherub whose chest is doing those big gulping breaths and you hold her as she processes the trauma of sharing the slide. And then some complete wanker goes ‘Her kid won’t share the slide and she’s not even doing anything about it!’

Keyhole Judging – (you know if it has a name then it’s clearly a thing). You see a snapshot of someone’s life and draw wild conclusions, generally negative. For example, my child won’t share the slide so I may as well buy her first switchblade now. She can get menacing boots for Christmas.

Keyhole judging very much upsets me.

Hey bystanders! It is not that I’m doing nothing, it’s that you are seeing nothing!

If you want to correctly label the exchange it goes like this ‘So, she responded to her child with respect, and listened to her emotions and point of view and considered the context and any triggers that were around and she knew that she couldn’t listen at that point in time so she stayed close to her and connected in a meaningful way that didn’t send her into flight or fight. That Bitch!!’

I am so tired of having ‘peaceful parenting’ referred to as ‘doing nothing’ There is an insane amount of energy and effort expended in taking the road less travelled with your kid. The one that requires you to constantly label emotions and negotiate, and say shit like ‘It’s ok to be sad’ and ‘I can hear how upset you are’ as you are loving your child through their insistence that a broken cookie is the end of physics, geometry and the world as we know it.

My son is Autistic. This is not news. Sometimes it creates news because he’s also bloody hilarious, but I digress. We have been shopping with him (an excursion which I am one hundred percent positive has led to child puddled on floor scenario’s for every parent ever). We bought him an ice-cream. It was the wrong one. He wanted the orange one. He dropped to the ground like a goddamn stone, wrong ice-cream discarded and face crumpled like an accordion. He crawled into a corner of the shopping centre and curled up like a kitten. A sad, sweaty, wronged kitten. I sat down beside him.

People in shopping centres have opinions. They really do. A stranger saw the sad Boy and the melting ice-cream and inquired as to what was going on. ‘Wrong ice cream!’ I replied with a shrug. ‘And you’re letting him get away with it? You’re doing nothing?’

Fuck off I’m doing nothing, I’m managing my own emotions and modelling fucking emotional development. I’m filtering the looks from other people and constructing a social story in my head. I’m judging if it’s the right time to put a hand on my son’s back because it’s sometimes comforting and sometimes not, I’m making sure I’m beside him instead of in front of him because that can be confronting. I’m giving rage face to anyone that looks like they might intervene and fuck it all up and I’m getting the occasional you bloody well rock glance from other people who know exactly how much work goes into doing nothing. I’m providing a safe space, physically and emotionally for a sad boy and I’m doing it while sitting on the cold ground someone has probably walked on with poo shoes. I’m modulating my tone and I’m choosing my words carefully, I’m offering him a way in instead of shutting him out. I’m matching my breathing to his to help him slow shuddering breaths into deep peaceful ones. I’m looking for exits and figuring out the best way to present moving to a scared child who was doing excellently well in dealing with the lights, noise, movement and confusion of a busy shopping centre and who unfortunately was given the wrong ice cream.

There is no amount of tough love that can convince a child whose body and brain is telling him he’s in danger, that he is not in danger (Nason, 2016). What is this obsession with doing something? Sometimes nothing is magic. Sometimes it’s required. Sometimes it’s the only thing you can actually do. I have broken previously and bowed down to pressure to pick up an overwhelmed child and move them, or yelled at them when what I really wanted to do was crouch down beside him and say ‘let me know when you’re ready.’ The result is inevitably worse. Plus it was really only done to demonstrate to onlookers that I’m controlling my child, the worst parenting choice I can make. Doing nothing will never be a bad choice, even if you just use that time to sit quietly with your child and calm your own mind while you figure out what to do next. I have sat on shopping centre floors. I have held whispered conversations underneath cinema seats. I have described the action in a circus to a child hunched over in my lap who desperately wanted to see it, but couldn’t bear to watch it. I have climbed trees and stayed in parked cars. I have sat on steps outside classrooms and hidden in beanbags at family gatherings.

I DO NOT regret a single second of this.

I am trying to raise people who will not be like those bystanders, or other mothers who whisper when I whisk my child away to quietly talk about ‘appropriate behaviour’ instead of the public flagellation they consider their due. I am no longer interested in pandering to the feelings of bystanders when my children, my (occasionally) angelic children are crying their hearts out. This is the long haul, when we accept all emotions and actually process them then the work eventually gets less. Labelling and accepting provides an extra link between feeling and doing, that link is thinking (Lieberman et al., 2007). It stops knee jerk reactions and helps us consider context and consequences when making decisions (Lieberman, Inagaki, Tabibnia & Crockett, 2011). It helps us know why we do things, and prevents scenarios like looking around at the broken dishes and thinking ‘crap, I actually liked that set.’

With each practiced time, doing nothing during a meltdown gets easier. The fear is less, the trust is more. The doing nothing leaves space for so many other things to happen. More important things than demonstrating control over a child. So if you see a parent doing nothing with their child, just know how much effort that nothing is taking up. I guarantee it’s more valuable and worthwhile in the long term than doing something.

References (oh hush I know you love them).

Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S., Pfeifer, J. H., Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18, 421-428.

Lieberman, M. D., Inagaki, T. K., Tabibnia, G., & Crockett, M. J. (2011). Subjective responses to emotional stimuli during labeling, reappraisal, and distraction. Emotion, 3, 468-480.

Nason, B. (2016). Autism Discussion Page: Don’t Punish Meltdowns! Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/autismdiscussionpage/?fref=ts

Linking up with The Annoyed Thyroid for Down the Rabbit Hole here