Thursday, September 30, 2010

Leading and Being Led

Thursday was a difficult day. For a variety of reasons, I had a negative afternoon. For one thing, I waited too long to process some avocados for Polly, and when I cut into them they had turned soft, brown, and largely inedible. For another, we were dealing with the initial onset of a cold for the kids which always puts me on edge. Then, in the background of all this, our house in Cincinnati has failed to find a buyer despite some very promising possibilities.

Finally, I really made a hash of dinner that night. I was making spanakopita (basically a spinach and cheese mix that you spread into layers between some sheets of pastry dough). To cook it up correctly, you put the finished casserole in the oven uncovered so that as it cooks the top layer of pastry gets nice and crispy. Well, I didn’t do this. Instead, after I made the thing up, I covered it with tin foil and put it in the oven. While this mistake did not ruin the spanakopita, it did create a soft, spongy mess on top that didn’t look very good to me. Now, the right thing to do would have been to admit my mistake and just serve the spanakopita as it was. I, of course, thought I could fix the problem by throwing the thing back in the oven uncovered and broiling it for a couple of minutes. This may or may not be a good idea. I still don’t know because I left the spanakopita in there too long and burnt the top to a crisp.

When I pulled the blackened dish out of the oven, I began to lose it. I started banging around the pots and crashing the silverware together as I went about trying to salvage the spanakopita and fix up the rest of the meal. Hearing an unusual amount of noise coming from the kitchen, Ava stuck her head in followed closely by both Pip and Polly. She took one look at me and, with her ever present wisdom, turned to Pip and said, “Why don’t you go reset your daddy.”

Now, resetting is something I do with Pip when he is mad, overly frustrated, misbehaving, or out of control for some reason. It is a variation on the idea of putting a kid in ‘timeout,’ except instead of sending Pip away to a corner somewhere when he gets out of control, we both go together. Once we find a quiet spot in our house, I wait for him to climb into my lap. Usually this requires some initial coaxing on my part, but once settled Pip remains in place. Then we sit quietly for a while. We don’t have a specific amount of time for this. It is just a matter of feeling out when each of us has calmed down enough. Then we talk about why we are doing a reset and what we may need to do to fix things once we’re done. Then we sit a bit longer until Pip gets ancy. Finally, we go apologize or clean up or do whatever else is needed to get things moving again in the right direction.

I developed this technique during my struggles to deal with Pip’s emerging sense of self. Starting at about eighteen months old, something changed with him. Pip didn’t become a terror. He just wasn’t as happily compliant as he used to be, and I just wasn’t ready to have to negotiate every single thing with him. As such, the process of adjusting our expectations of each other was bumpy. I can see now how parents end up bribing kids, grounding them, withholding desserts, and doing whatever else they can think of to get them to do one thing or another. I also comprehend now how such confrontations between parents and children can sometimes spiral into emotional and physical abuse. There were moments with Pip when I was so frustrated over something (usually innocuous like him taking forever to brush his teeth at bedtime) that the urge to erupt in some kind of angry display was difficult to suppress. Once that urge appeared, I could barely think of anything else to do.

I have found the reset process to be really good for me in this respect. Whenever I feel this kind of urge coming on, the reset process gives me an automatic out. We stop everything and, after calming down, talk through the situation together. It gives me an opportunity to tell Pip why I was frustrated as well as to apologize to him, if necessary, for not handling something correctly. This process of explaining my own feelings to him is more palliative than I ever would have thought possible. Over the long haul it has made me a much calmer and more empathetic parent.

With all of that said, on Thursday I didn’t want to be reset. I am the one who initiates the reset process and, for all the quiet back and forth it entails, that initiating power gives me a certain control over things. In the back of my mind, resetting was still something of a punishment, one that I use to reign Pip back in. But the moment Ava knowingly made her suggestion, that dynamic changed. Pip’s eyes brightened immediately. He slowly and solemnly walked over and took my hand. Then he gently led me back to our bedroom and over to the corner occupied by our big green recliner. After I was seated, Pip pulled out the footrest for me. Then he sat down on the floor and waited quietly while I closed my eyes for a minute or two. I did a long, slow count to ten, taking deep breaths and trying to let go as much of the frustration as I could. It was the thing that I needed to do. It got me back to a place where I could function again.

And, Pip was so proud that he was the one to get me there. When I was ready, he put the footrest back down. Then, smiling, he took my hand again and led me back into the kitchen to present me to Ava. I was his charge, and he wanted her to know that he had successfully completed his task.

Ava and I have a phrase that we use regularly when working with Pip and Polly: “You can’t lead from behind.” We cribbed it from our child-rearing guru, Dr. Sears the Elder, who, given the phrase’s koan like nature, probably pulled it from Winston Churchill or some Zen Buddhist master. For us, the phrase is a reminder. It means that the kids (and people in general) are more likely to do what we show them than what we tell them. But, just as importantly, it also means that sometimes we need to allow the kids to lead us. Independence and self-worth do not come from always being behind.

Pip got an opportunity to lead on Thursday. The pride and seriousness with which he took on this task made me realize how important such moments are. I spend an awful lot of time showing Pip and Polly what they should do. Perhaps I need to recognize how valuable it is to let the roles be reversed a bit more often.

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