When my mom was a little girl, she stole something from the store. Her mother found out, and instead of scolding or punishing or dragging her back to the store by her ear, my grandmother picked up my mom and held in her in her lap and told her she loved her.
I don’t think this was the way my grandmother usually parented and yet, in that moment, I think my grandmother did some of her finest parenting.
The other day I read a post about a parent whose six year old child is not being his most lovable endearing self around the parents. One of the commenters referred to a technique called “love bombing“. I googled it and read it and thought it was a bit goofy, but also thought there was something to it. The idea was that you re-set your child’s emotional thermostat by spending a couple specially chosen days just loving and listening and following your child’s lead. By doting on your child during this scheduled event (such as a weekend away from home), you somehow let them know that you are really there for them and that in turn, allows them to reconnect with you. It makes sense in the same way that my grandmother’s hug made sense.
I’ve learned, as an educator and just as a person, that sometimes the people that are the most exasperating are the ones that need the most love. And, once you give them that love and attention and authentic relationship, they sometimes become the ones you love the most. So, as much as I want to respond to kids with consistency and high expectations, I also think sometimes they (me too) just need whatever it takes to feel loved and cared for – and with that in place, then they are able to pull themselves up and continue forth.
All this goes through my head as I grapple with my little boy.
He’s three. He’s got some good language skills. He’s pretty sensitive and amazingly aware of big concepts. He has grieved the passing of the seasons and asked us about death. He makes connections between real life and the books we’ve read. He’s imaginative and often thoroughly immersed in a world of pretend play.
For a while now, we’ve noticed that he incorporates any scary element from books into his play. At first I was concerned. My boy was playing the part of the huntsmen after reading Snow White. Why couldn’t he be a different character. He was trekking through the house preparing to cut open the wolf’s stomach to rescue then grandmother. Then, my boy was the wolf. I want my boy to be the good guy. I want my boy to be the hero – not somebody greedy and selfish and mean and violent.
I googled the reasons kids play the parts of bad guys and came back with a lot of things that validated my feeling that it probably was okay to play the bad guy. It’s play! It’s how kids learn about the world and process the characters. It’s how they can feel big and strong and in control. And heck – it’s fun. I love pretending to be a monster so I can eat up my kids or chase them and hang them upside down while they scream in glee.
Later that week I also had the added realization that when my boy takes on the antagonist and I scream or cry in mock fear as he comes to eat me or cut open my stomach, he gets to see that I’m not REALLY afraid and that things really are okay. It validates that this is a world of pretend and that everything must be okay because, I, his parent am not flustered a bit. I actually think that this is where he does the most shedding of his fears.
Overall, I’m amazed at the amount of self-regulation my boy has to develop to go through these scenarios. Not only is he processing the fearful parts from the story and acting them out and interacting with others, but he is doing so without crossing the line from pretend acting to real-life behaviors. We have talked about how it is okay to wield a pretend axe, but not to really hit someone. It must be very hard to be totally immersed in pretend world, but to hold back enough to not actually do any damage. He pulls it off.
But now my little boy has started something new. He’s helpless. It began after a two week trip. Last year after we traveled, he stuttered for a couple weeks. It was his way of working through his anxiety suggested a speech pathologist. We did not respond to the stuttering and it went away. I expected some type of post trip reaction this time too because I knew my little guy was so “on” while we traveled.
He was aware and curious and concerned about our plans. He took an active role in remembering what we had done and what we were planning on doing. He was a blast to travel with and I expected he would have to decompress a bit.
When we got back home I had a wonderful time with his post-trip decompressing behaviors. It included a delightful giddy whole face smile and leap into my arms when he woke up in the morning – just like he used to run to me when he was 14 months old. Ahhh – it was so sweet to embrace him and cuddle after such a wonderful greeting. This went on for almost two weeks.
But along with that utter joy to see that I was there was also a request for more help doing things he is more than capable of doing. This included laying his clothes out so he could get dressed, requests to fill his water cup, reminders to do things he has been remembering on his own for a year.
We didn’t pander to him, but we did provide the extra little supports. We avoided power struggles by pro-actively helping with clothes, bringing in more water and just being a little busier and cheerier. But the helplessness has been continuing and it has been three weeks and we wonder if it’s getting a bit worse. This morning he wanted us to get him his toothbrush and he spent about 20 minutes trying to make that happen. We had already said we wouldn’t do that and, to our credit, we stick to our words, but still we wondered what this new helplessness is all about and if we should stick to our guns and insist he do what he’s capable of or humor him a bit longer.
Then, this afternoon we received a book order in the mail. In it was Peter and the Wolf with the accompanying music. I began reading the book and soon realized that this was perhaps not okay. My boy gets scared reading Ferdinand and The Three Bears. Everything that has any conflict is stressful these days. He’s fascinated by the books and he returns to them again and again and he incorporates them into his play (always as the bad guy), but none of them have the same scary real life feel as Peter and the Wolf.
The wolf chases after the duck and the duck does not get away. My son, standing up and backing away, horrified and about to break into tears said, “Maybe the duck will come back”. I didn’t think this would be the case so I tried to say matter of factly that wolves do eat ducks and ducks eat other things and this is how it is. He said he didn’t like wolves and wanted me to confirm none live near us. “They do,” I said, “But they won’t bother us or our dog. They’re just out hunting for their food like rabbits and ducks.”
We continued on with the book and as we did, I wondered if what I was doing would be too traumatic for him, but thankfully this version has a kinder ending than the original and the wolf is taken back to the woods and the duck escapes from his stomach after squawking and flapping and causing stomach distress. All’s well that end’s well, but the book was still pretty stressful.
And then I put on the CD, the real reason I bought the book – I wanted to introduce my boy to the stories of classical music. I expected him to get scared while he paged through the book along with the CD, so I sat close watching him, but he didn’t. He inhaled and tensed up a bit, but overall he stayed calm as he looked at the pictures and listened to the story.
And then the second time through the CD, he began to act it out – dancing and running about. His sister said she was the cat. My son said I was Peter. And then my son announced that he was the wolf. The wolf! Just like that. The one animal he told me he did not like at all and now this is the animal he has become.
And that brings me back to his helplessness.
I think my kiddo is doing a supercharged learning curve in the world of emotions and self-regulation and imagination and pretend and real life possibilities. I think he is grappling with so much cognitively that he needs to be reminded that he is still our little baby boy and we are right here to take care of him and keep him safe.
So with that, I will continue to lay out his clothes when he asks and provide extra help getting dressed and extra long snuggles in the morning (that’s never an issue) and just attend to the little boy who is still a little boy while at the same time a big boy grappling with very big boy stuff. It’s kinda like the hug my grandmother gave my mom. When the world is alright, then we can move forward and be okay.