She was standing in her partly-open doorway, leaning slightly forward at the waist, fists balled, arms locked and sticking out a bit behind her, yelling.
“You never want to do anything fun! Only boring stuff! I HATE YOU!!! YOU’RE THE WORST!!! MAYBE IF YOU COULD BE GOOD AT ANYTHING FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE, THIS WOULD BE EASIER! ”
Her mouth was open wider than I thought possible and spittle was flying forth as she raged at top volume.
It was so cartoonish I actually laughed out loud. (I’ll let you imagine how that might have gone over.) This was only last Tuesday, but I honestly don’t remember what I did about it. I’m sure I did something.
The whole scene is swallowed in the hilarity of her Shrek-like anger. Is this good parenting? I have no idea. If someone had described this situation to me just a few years ago, I would have had two thoughts: first, I think I’d die if my child said something so hurtful to me, and second, that’s SO disrespectful! My child will NEVER do that. Or if she does, she won’t do it twice.
News flash, Younger Robin: you won’t die and yes, she will do it twice or really a lot more. Actually, both my big girls have told me they hate me and I’m “the worst,” and the smaller two picked up on it and started mimicking, so I’ve now been “hated” by a three-year-old. And of course I address disrespectful and hurtful comments, but addressing it any one of dozens of ways won’t necessarily make it stop.
Jenna moved from a bassinet in my room to a crib in her own when she was about six months old. I bought a little clock that changed from yellow to green when it was time to wake up and faithfully came and got her at 9:01 every morning, so she could see it turn green and learn to expect me immediately. When she was ten months, my husband and I would giggle at her video baby monitor in the mornings as she would stand, arms crossed and leaning on the rail of the crib, staring at the little yellow orb, knowing morning would come and with it, Mama. As a first-timer, this reinforced my conviction repetition really is the key to behavior modification. Easy-peasy.
Preschool added challenges to this formula: growing independence combined with more (and more and more) babies meant my attention was divided even as consistency became more important. Even so, when we decided the big girls were old enough to clear their places after being excused from the table, it took relatively little effort—mostly periodic reminders and maybe one or two predictable toddler “You’re not the boss of me!” standoffs—to make it our reality. Changing their behavior was still well within my grasp.
Preschool behavior modification still works for me… for the two children still in preschool. As the bigger two leave that phase increasingly behind them, I have to find new tools. It’s still jarring to remember, unlike the early years, I can actually make them do very little. When I try to use basic “carrot and stick” behavior modification with them, well… I wind up with a seven-and-a-half-year-old screaming in my face.
I’m learning. Slowly, imperfectly, I’m figuring out how to connect with them so I have a place from which to speak to their emotional outbursts and the inappropriate behavior that comes with them. I’m trying to respond with compassion and guidance rather than completely-understandable offense. I realize now that “YOU’RE THE WORST” is actually the best compliment my kids can give—it means I’m doing my job holding them accountable for their actions, and they don’t like it but feel safe enough with me to voice their displeasure, however wrongly.
None of my children learn well when they’re in HULK SMASH! mode. If my girl is dysregulated enough to be behaving this badly, she’s reacting from an out-of-control amygdala. (We call it her “feeling brain.”) My first job is not to address her misbehavior or disrespect. It’s not even to make her stop yelling. Job one is to calm myself so I don’t add to the problem, then help her regulate. The “How can we do better?” chat can happen once her “thinking brain” is calling the shots again.
And I’m learning this anger doesn’t tell the whole story. When my kids are doing hurtful things and I’m questioning every parenting choice I ever made to cause this madness, I need to remember the whole truth: I have influence, but not as much as I used to believe. I could modify their behavior pretty effectively when they were littler, but the older they get, the more obvious it is: they are who they are, sin and all. Just like me. No amount of my parenting can take their sin away—that’s why Jesus had to die.
But that’s not the whole story, either. The rest of the truth is they’re created in the image of a God who loves them, and they reflect that glory. Imperfectly, but as surely as they sin, they reflect His nature.
My second grader’s rage doesn’t have to crush me. Sometimes laughter is the correct initial response. We’ll be okay. The same child who was raging at me last Tuesday spent all her money (earned a quarter at a time) to get her siblings gifts on her own birthday. She’s growing into a delightful, imperfect human. We all are.
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Robin Chapman is a part-time writer, editor, and birth photographer and a full-time imperfect mama, wife, Jesus follower, and normalizer of failure. She’s trying hard to learn how to do motherhood in a way that doesn’t land the whole family in intensive therapy. She has a heart for helping other mamas buried in the little years with hope, humor, and solidarity. You can find her hiding out in the bathroom with an iced dirty chai, writing and editing and making spreadsheets for Kindred Mom where she is a cheerleader for mamas, or online looking for grace in her mundane and weird life. She lives in Fairbanks, Alaska with her four delightful (crazy) kids—some homeschooled, some public schooled, some too young for school at all—and her ridiculously good looking husband, Andrew. Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and on her blog.