February 20, 2013 by Julia
Every day around five o’clock p.m., Fiona likes to sit at the coffee table in her kid-sized canvas chair, watch an episode of whatever her current favorite TV show is, and eat a can of either Low-Sodium Plenty O’ Noodles Soup or Chef Boyardee’s Beefaroni. (It has to be one of those. No exceptions.) Jack is usually hungry, too, and ends up eating something while watching TV with her. Now, this whole ritual is not something I usually advertise, for many reasons: the lack of variety in my children’s dinner diets, the fact that they are not so hungry by the time we sit down for our “real” family dinner at 6:30, the fact that canned food is not so healthy, the fact that both children have already learned to associate TV watching with food, the fact that I’m serving a minimum of two dinners a night, when I’d rather be one of those moms who serve just one dinner, take it or leave it. Also, the fact that the name and visual of Chef Boyardee’s Beefaroni is so repulsive I can hardly bring myself to microwave it, and yet I’m feeding it to my children.
Anyway, my various failings as a mother are not the point this time, believe it or not! Let me get to my point, already. Last night Dennis was out and I decided to order pizza for dinner (I’m really coming across here as a June Cleaver type, aren’t I?). It arrived early enough that the kids didn’t need their pre-dinner dinner, and they ate enough that I knew they were full. But then – horrors! – around 7:00, Fiona realized that she’d never gone through with her canned food and TV ritual. Cue meltdown. She quickly became hysterical. I was annoyed with the idea of making more food, and I knew she’d already watched enough TV that day, so I fought her on it. Before I knew it, I was yelling, and she was flipping out.
I had to stop and re-evaluate things. This is something I’ve been trying to do every time I find her or I digging in our heels over an issue. It’s so easy to let things become a battle, which usually obliterates any chance for true teaching on my part as a parent, because at that point, we both just want to WIN. But let’s say I get to WIN the battle, whatever it is. Does she say, “You know, Mommy? You were absolutely right. I’ve learned my lesson and next time I’ll understand [why I need to do things whichever way you are telling me to].” Heh. Um, no. If she loses the battle, anger and resentment flood through her, and the lesson I wanted to demonstrate becomes a moot point. She mainly just knows that she feels like crap. And if she wins? I don’t recover so quickly, either. I feel like I’m failing as a mother, I feel beaten, and at a loss, and in too sour of a mood to have quality time with her.
So now that I’ve reached this epiphany, I do what I can to avoid battle, if possible, by asking myself two things:
What does she really want or need here – and how can I feed that need, without feeding the drama? In the case of the canned soup, I doubted that she was actually hungry or that she needed to watch more TV (obviously). But I did know that she was tired, and watching TV can be restful. I also knew that she was craving comfort and routine, especially because our schedule has been a little topsy-turvy.
What do I want to teach her, in this situation, as a parent? I was frustrated by the fact that she couldn’t just adjust to one night of ordering a pizza, and I wanted her to understand that sometimes it’s okay if the usual routine doesn’t happen every time. Also, I’m not thrilled with the whole canned food and TV pre-dinner setup, and I don’t want to be doing this much longer.
But upon further reflection, I could admit that trying to eradicate this ritual when she’s already upset, with no upside to offer, without even a warning, was not the way to go about it. Also, after a moment’s pause, I realized it was more important to me to allow her this comforting habit than it was to keep her from watching another half hour of TV that night.
So I sat down on the couch next to her and told her that I’d changed my mind. She could eat soup and watch one episode of Jake and the Never Land Pirates, but after that, it was time for bed. Her relief was palpable, and I didn’t feel like the “loser,” because I’d decided not to battle.
It felt right. I was able to demonstrate flexibility (by changing my mind without guilt-tripping her about it) better than I could have by demanding that she be flexible about dinner. I modeled empathy by taking into consideration that this was really important to her, and restored her sense of security by not suddenly switching our routine up without a warning. (We can approach change gradually.)
So often, I find myself forgetting to model the very thing I’m trying to teach her. Haven’t we all yelled at the top of our lungs, “STOP YELLING!!!” or even better, “CALM DOWN! RIGHT NOW!!!”? These responses are human, I know. And there’s also something to be said for allowing our kids to see the natural human response to really irritating behavior. But if I ever find myself engaging in a battle of the wills, I want to step back and remind myself of my own core values, which are:
kindness, empathy, goodness, integrity, respect, confidence, and determination.
I know there is no one formula that works for every family. But I do believe that few things will teach children to be kind better than their own parents’ kindness – to them, to each other, to others outside of the family. The same goes for most of those other values. (“Determination” might be the hardest value for me to encourage in Fiona, with the particular dynamic we have together – and I know it’ll be a whole new ballgame when homework comes into the picture. So, I’m gonna have to reflect some more on that one.)
We often hear the phrase, “Lose the battle, win the war,” (from Sun-Tzu’s ancient book, ‘Art of War’) and I think that it totally applies to parenting. So what is the “war” we want to “win,” in parenting? Essentially, we all want to raise good, happy, fulfilled (or accomplished) kids, right? I don’t think daily battles over food, clothes, or differences of opinion are going to accomplish much in the big picture. But when a child’s parent refuses to engage in battle – whether it’s because we know some boundaries are non-negotiable, or because we are willing to let go of less important issues in order to respect and empathize with our child – that is going to make a difference, big picture. I think.
I mean, this is all conjecture. It’s not like I have a teenager, yet. Check back in with me in ten years!