My friend Anna used the phrase “intentional parenting” once when we got our kids together for a play date, and I think it describes the type of parenting I aspire to. I know that I am not perfect and that I have my struggles, and that my daughters will be imperfect and have their own struggles, but most parents I know want to give their kids a running start, and this is the way I know how to do it. When it doesn’t come naturally, this hypervigilance can be tiring, but my hope is that it makes a difference where it counts.
For instance, lately I’ve noticed that I’ve been threatening my kids, that there has been a re-emergence of sibling rivalry that I thought I’d diminished, and that I’ve found myself backed into a corner with desserts. Instead of saying to my two-year-old, “Don’t swallow that toothpaste,” I say, “Don’t swallow that toothpaste or you will have to go back to your other toothpaste.” I also say things to my four-year-old like, “If you eat your sister’s food, I will have to put you out of the kitchen.” I also sometimes add the word “please” at the end of a command, which might seem like the polite thing to say but, in actuality, may result in them feeling "mom is not in control because she is pleading with me." Instead, it’d be more effective if I just left the second part of the sentence off and if I avoided saying no altogether, as saying it too much can lead to feelings of frustration, cause my kids to become desensitized to the word, and result in future rebellious behavior. A better idea would be to say, “Let me show you how to use this toothpaste,” or, “I see you are still hungry. Would you like some yogurt or an apple?”
A while back, I read Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. There were a number of takeaways that I feel I’ve done a (mostly) good job of implementing. I try to not use the words “too” or “also” when talking with my girls, as in, “I see you are cleaning up the toys, too,” so as not to compare them. I also avoid saying that I love them equally (instead telling each one, in private, the things I love about them) so that they can each feel special and have a unique bond with me that acknowledges their individual personalities. I avoid comparing them or giving them a label, as in “Harper is my good eater,” or, “See how well your sister eats?” I also have been doing a better job of letting them problem solve (not making them share) without intervening. I want them to develop their own relationship and give them the chance to be kind on their own (without me making them do it, which causes them to feel angry or hurt instead of feeling empowered), and I don’t want to cast one child in the victim role and one in the villain role. It’s hard to do because Violet is so much faster and stronger than Harper and can get to a toy first or take a toy from her so easily. I often think it’s unfair, but when I do leave them to their own devices, I get a chance to see, when Violet gives a toy back and comforts her younger sister or apologizes, how generous and empathetic Violet can be. I also realize that Harper doesn’t care as much as she initially lets on. She will often just pick up a different toy and begin happily playing with it.
Where I think I’ve fallen short is that I am sometimes demonstrative with one in front of the other. This happens frequently in the mornings. I sit down with my coffee, and Harper will come and lay her head on my lap. Without thinking, I stroke her hair. Violet, seeing that, immediately asks to sit on my lap. When I put her on my lap, Harper then demands to be on my lap, too. If I’ve done it and then realized my mistake, I will say, “Okay, I can give you both big hugs, and then you need to go back to your seats.” Unfortunately, by that point, it’s already too late, and they are both crying. Part of me just thinks, “Oh well. Life isn’t fair.” But I know, from experience, that when I create this dynamic in the morning, it often (because of the feelings of resentment that it causes) has repercussions throughout the day.
I also fail to acknowledge both sides when it’s gotten physical. I have been good about just attending to the wounded child and acknowledging the feelings of the wounded child, but I’ve forgotten to address the feelings of the aggressor. The aggressor, let’s be honest, is usually Violet, who is very articulate and can easily explain why she did something, so it’s worth it to just get to the root of how she feels.
In terms of the affection, I think I can just thank them for the hug they’ve given me and set a boundary that there will be no cuddling right now. I can tell them that I look forward to some special time later. Later on, I need to make a point to read a book or play with a toy privately and cuddle with them then. As long as I know they get plenty of affection throughout the day, I don't need to feel guilty about not giving it right in the moment.
Recently, I wrote the post Stress-Free Meal Times. However, I’ve still had some situations come up that I've needed to address. One of them surrounds dessert. As I wrote in that earlier post, I’ve taken care to not bribe by saying that they can get dessert when they finish their dinner. However, sometimes they see the dessert sitting on my counter, whether it’s banana bread or cookies or something else, and they, of course, want some. Obviously, I don’t want them to have dessert instead of dinner, so I’ve lately begun acknowledging what they want and reframing: “You see dessert and you want some. I said you can’t have any now, and that makes you upset. When you finish your dinner, if you are still hungry, you may choose something else to eat.” They will always choose the dessert, but at least I am not mentioning it or dangling the promise of dessert like a carrot.
Another option is a tip I got from Anna, which is to say, "You need to have your healthier foods first," or, "You need lots of nutrients and vitamins in your body in order to process the sugar." I especially love the second response.
No one is as hard on me as I am. The problem is that I believe, for my children’s self-esteem and for their development, that these methods are the best (also because bribing, distracting, and threatening don’t work, and, if they do, it’s just because the child is trying to avoid punishment or because she wants the reward, not because she is making a good decision), but even though I know that intellectually, it doesn’t always happen in practice. I have to keep reminding myself how I’d like to handle things going forward so that I can at least lessen the frequency of my automatic, more negative responses.