Inside: If you’ve been wondering how to reinforce certain behaviors in your kids (i.e. putting the toys away, doing the dishes, …) without nagging and coming off as a bad guy, here is a powerful mind shift that will take you there. It will make you a better parent.
The “bra-ta-tat, bra-ta-tat” sound of a machine gun coming from my son’s mouth is deafening. If I weren’t carrying my baby and other things upstairs, I would put my hands over my ears.
Instead, I step closer to my son to get his attention and say, “I know you are playing right now but don’t forget to do the dishes before you go to bed.”
He looks at me as if I have mushrooms growing out of my ears. Deep in the flow of his game, there are no such things as dishes (or moms). “Oh yes,” he finally replies brought back down to Earth by my intense stare. And adds, “I will, mom.”
I hear the return of the bratatat as I trudge up the stairs. He is back to shooting his imaginary bad guys.
In an hour, I’m in the master bathroom brushing my teeth. I can tell that the squirming baby on my hip is minutes, if not seconds, away from a meltdown. Between dinner and getting older kids into beds, I couldn’t get the baby to bed when she needed to. Now I’m about to pay the price.
I feel dizzy from tiredness, but I can see the finish line. It will probably take the baby about a half hour of nursing to fall asleep and I’m done (for a few hours anyway). Then my son walks in with a sheepish grin.
About the Dishes
“So about the dishes,” he starts, “I’m too scared to do the dishes. Everybody is in bed, and the kitchen is too quiet.”
“Well,” I manage to get out before my throat constricts from anger.
When I’m tired, it’s hard for me to be flexible and understanding. I had made a plan to brush my teeth and go to bed. Now, this new situation is pushing my finish line out of my line of vision.
“I’m too scared of the dead men walking,” he goes on. (Thank you, The Pirates of the Caribbean). “You have to come downstairs.”
I don’t have to do anything, I want to say. Instead, I say, “baby is tired.” To back me up she makes unhappy noises, squirms in my arms, and rubs her eyes.
“You have to come downstairs with me,” he repeats with an urgency.
I clarify: “You want me to take a tired baby down to the kitchen and wait there while you do the dishes?”
“Yes,” he says, not looking at me.
You probably can guess what I want to say next: “You are so selfish even to suggest that. You should have done the dishes earlier. And there are no dead men walking. Start acting your age.”
Of course, it would have been useless to say that. No child would ever respond, “Now that you’ve said it, mom, I’m not scared anymore. I’ll go down to the kitchen alone and do the dishes. It was totally irresponsible of me not to do the dishes earlier. I have learned my lesson, and it will never happen again.”
All of this flashes through my mind in a matter of seconds.
I sigh. I breathe.
I’ll tell you in a moment what I end up doing, but first, let me ask you this:
Are you on your children’s side?
I have no doubt you love your children with all your heart. But are you on their side?
Of course, I am, you say. I love my children. How can it be otherwise?
Let me clarify what I mean by “being on someone’s side.” I mean that no matter what you go through with your child, you remain on the same side of the problem. It’s not my way or your way. It’s an intention to take each other’s interests into account.
It’s tempting for parents to assume that if the child doesn’t do what they are asked to do, then the child has won. Our culture and our upbringing suggest that would be the wrong outcome. The parent decides on the outcome. The shots are called by the strongest, the smartest, and the most experienced—the Parent.
If I were to go downstairs with my son to stand in the kitchen while he did the dishes, I would lose. What’s worse, I would teach him that bad decisions don’t have consequences, it’s okay to be irresponsible, and that baby’s feelings are not important. Therefore, according to this logic, I should send him downstairs screaming and kicking to teach him a lesson. He needs to learn who is the boss. He needs to learn to be responsible. And the baby needs to sleep.
I could also take the easy way out and say, “I am too tired to deal with it now. Forget the dishes. Go to bed. Do them in the morning.” In other words, do the Monday work on Tuesday, do the Tuesday work on Wednesday, do the Wednesday work next week. If a deadline means nothing today, how can it mean something tomorrow?
So I ask myself, what am I to do now? What’s the best course of action? My mind is like a tired traveler stumbling through the fog. So tired.
(What would you do?)
When no clear teachable response comes to mind, I recall the words of the Dalai Lama, “Be kind whenever possible. It’s always possible.”
How can I be kind in this situation?
I shift the baby to the other hip.
“Alright,” I say.
I head towards the stairs. I’m on his side.
I don’t say a word.
If I open my mouth when I’m so tired, I don’t know what might come out. Probably angry words. Words to vent my frustration. Words said to teach a lesson.
I stand in the middle of the kitchen with the baby in my arms. She stares at the lights over my head as if mesmerized.
I came here to help him be less scared, but I’m not going to help him do the dishes. Still, it’s tempting to do just that.
The dishes will be done faster. I will get to go to bed sooner. There’s that finish line mocking me again.
My son hasn’t been doing the dishes for more than a few minutes when he looks at me and says, “You can go upstairs, Mom. It’s not as scary as I imagined. I feel SO bad for torturing you and the baby. You go to sleep.” And as he picks up the next plate, he notices me rooted to the spot and adds, “Go! Really. I’m fine. Thank you.”
I silently turn around and go upstairs.
What happened next?
You’re probably thinking that my son repeated this behavior.
But that isn’t what happened.
He’s been doing dishes and other chores without giving me any trouble. He’s been acting even more responsible than he’s ever done before.
If there was a lesson to be learned. A lesson in responsibility. Consideration. Respect. It was learned without words spoken. And, if I’m really honest, with little inconvenience to me: it only derailed my plans for five minutes.
In that one night, he learned that he is serious about his responsibilities (the chores he signed up for were done before he went to bed). He learned that the devil is not as scary as he is painted to be (he survived the night kitchen alone). I hope he also learned that his mom is on his side and she wants him to succeed.
They say people forget what you say, but they never forget how you made them feel. I hope my son will always remember the sense of goodwill between us and know that my goal was never to make him feel bad, put him on the defensive, or win an argument.
And maybe he’ll also remember that I was kind whenever it was possible, and it was always possible.
Does it mean we will never have another disagreement about chores? Probably not. I’m three decades older than he is and I forget the lessons I have learned.
But this is what I want to remember from this experience:
- I don’t have to live my life with an eye out for the negative behavior and pounce on my kids every time I detect it. “Let me explain to you in detail how you screwed up here.” They don’t need that. They already know. And if they don’t, then I have to pick a calm hour and explain clearly what’s expected and when.
- In everyday life, it’s so easy to think in dichotomies: kids are “good” if they do as they are told, and kids are “bad” when they don’t, but in reality, it’s not about him obeying me. It’s not him or me. We’re on the same side.
- Being on the same side means supporting my kids as a matter of fact, through the progression of many days: good days and bad days. I can’t be on their side only on the days when it’s convenient and I feel like it. (Sorry, kids, I’m not on your side today because I am too tired to be kind).
- Teaching my kids a lesson starts with my attitude—the win-win frame of mind that creates the energy of “I can win and so can you.” When I start without a conviction that the only way is my way, I can be more flexible and mindful.
- When I take time before responding to whisper to myself “I’m on your side,” I can keep my goal in mind. It also helps to respond out of love and intentionality, rather than with anger, and drama, and the language of “let me teach you a lesson here for your own good.”
- It doesn’t matter if I get my kids to do what I want them to do in the way I want them to do it. If my kids resent me for this, I won’t get far in the long run. Being on the same side means that when they lose, I lose, too, even if I won the argument.
- As tempting as it is to follow the same script, each situation is different, and the best response would be different. The key is to take a breath and to think first before choosing an answer that best suits the moment and the context.
- It will not always be possible to get a win-win. Sometimes the time constraints or the nature of the argument will prevent it from happening. But as long as I strive for win-win, my heart will be open, and I will be kind.
- Be kind. It’s always possible to be kind.
I want to encourage you to push past the fear of missing out on a teachable moment. You don’t have to turn each negative situation with your kids into a lesson. Just breath and remind yourself that you are on the same side. When we embrace the win-win frame of mind, we are kinder, less reactive, and more intentional parents. At the same time, we empower our kids to seek solutions because they can trust us not to impose our will on them but to work together as one team.
The win-win frame of mind can help us keep the peace in the family AND raise responsible, kind, cooperative adults at the same time. And that’s certainly a win-win, don’t you think?