16 Aug Parenting Practice of the Month: Wait and Wonder
Last month, in the midst of an extended heatwave, on the cusp of his turning three-and-a-half, our son Roo’s behavior took a dramatic turn for the worse. For one long week in late July the quiet, sweet-natured boy we knew was replaced with a stranger who filled our home day and night with the kind of power-hungry, limit-seeking behavior so frustratingly common in preschool-aged kids. (If you’ve heard the term threenager, you know what I’m talking about.)
“Why is this happening?” I cried one night, exhausted.
Which is when I remembered to ask: why is this happening?
I knew from my many years as a childcare provider that kids who act the way Roo was acting aren’t purposely misbehaving—they’re asking for help. Many of the behaviors we’ve come to think of as natural to the threenager or the fournado (the sassy attitude, the demands, etc.) are actually signs that our children have been thrown off-balance and don’t have the emotional resources or language to tell us that they’re overwhelmed, overtired, or long overdue for a meal.
Young children who are under stress will not tell us (in words) that they are under stress. Young children need an adult to be observant and curious—to ask: what does this child need? What is this behavior trying to say?
I knew this. I did. But it’s easy to forget. It’s easy, when we’re struggling, to view our children as collections of difficult behaviors to be managed. It’s easy, in the heat of the moment, to focus on our own frustration and not on the person in front of us, the child we love.
But if we commit to practicing curiosity in our parenting—if we’re willing to watch and wonder about a behavior before we act in response to it—we give ourselves a chance to see difficult interactions for what they are: our child’s continued attempts to connect and communicate.
WATCH AND WONDER: A FIVE QUESTION CHECKLIST TO HELP YOU DISCOVER THE REAL PROBLEM
When I can remember to rely on it, the practice of curiosity starts for me with an internal checklist of questions that can help get to the source of any difficult behavior. A YES to even one of these items can throw a child off-balance (or into what child development nerds like myself call disequilibrium):
1. Is something about my child’s immediate environment overstimulating or bothersome?
2. Is my child thirsty or hungry?
3. Has my child been sleeping poorly at night? Is he overtired and in need of a nap?
4. Have we strayed too far from our normal routine? Has my child’s daily life gotten too unpredictable for him?
5. Is it possible my child is getting sick?
This detective work serves three purposes: it allows me to separate the behavior from the child (how he’s ACTING from who he IS.), reminds that all behavior happens for a reason, and encourages me to respond with calm instead of anger or frustration.
Working my way through the checklist back in July led me to discover that my child was under a perfect storm of stress. The weather, our lack of air conditioning, and a new, unusual routine meant that Roo was overheated AND dehydrated AND and very low on sleep—triggers for disequilibrium all.
My child’s behavior was telling me he had problems he could not solve by himself. He was asking, in every way possible, for help, guidance, and limits.
THE LIMIT-SETTING SCRIPT
Remembering to wait, watch, and wonder before responding helped me see what Roo’s behavior was communicating, which made it easy for me to fix what was wrong. But much of his behavior was still out-of-bounds. What next?
When my son or any young child I’m caring for starts to communicate through difficult behavior, I use what I’ve just learned about him from the checklist above and insert it into what I call “the limit-setting script”: five simple sentences that help ground me in a place of patience and problem-solving rather than anger and punishment…and that clearly communicate that the behavior in question is not allowed.
A sample script might look something like this:
Sentence 1 names the behavior, calmly (for example: “You hit me.”)
Sentence 2 reaffirms rules about the behavior (for example: “We are not a family that hits; hitting is not allowed.”)
Sentence 3 names, with empathy, the problem that caused the behavior (“I can see that you are too tired right now to stop yourself from hitting.”)
Sentence 4 names a solution to the problem (For example: “I am going to help you by bringing you upstairs to take a nap.”)
Sentence 5 explains the action you’re taking to solve the problem as you’re performing it. (For example: “I’m picking you up now; we’re going upstairs for a nap.”)
For one week at the end of July, my son had a hard time. Now, in mid-August, he’s back to his regular, calm, cheerful, polite self. Why? Because, after a struggle, I finally remembered what he needed: a curious, calm, responsive parent. Because I was able to use the practices I’ve learned, over time, to be that person.
You—yes, you—can be that parent for your own children. Stay curious. Stay connected. It pays off.
None of us is perfect. Neither are our kids. We all lose our balance sometimes—and our temper. But when we make the effort to practice curiosity, we can connect even in the most frustrating moments: we can show our children that we will always pay attention to how they feel and how they act. We can show them we care enough to set limits, to guide them and show leadership. We can show them that we love them no matter what they do.