I have three kids.
One is ten and she is loud. She is inquisitive, voluble, passionate, intelligent, creative and… the oldest.
One is two and every time he eats porridge he says “mmmmm delicious”, proving that he still doesn’t know what the word delicious actually means, as porridge has the flavour of mucus.
They are the oldest and the youngest. Which leaves one more. My final child is six and she really is our middle child.
My six-year-old can’t actually compete with her older sister because of the four-year age gap, but even if she could, there would be no point in trying to compete or compare herself with her older sister, because my two girls are just so different.
My six-year-old is kind, warm, quiet and then hilariously loud. She sees the word as an enchanted mystery, she loves everyone, she has a huge smile, she always shares, always cares and is SUCH an easy kid to love.
And yet, even though it would be pointless for her to compare herself to her sister, this was precisely what she was doing over summer. But it took me a wee while to work that out.
See, over summer, my usually easy-to-love, easy-going kid became… well… less easy to love.
She started stealing her little brother’s toys and running away with them and laughing. She would hit her sister and laugh – which was kind of funny, but I can’t condone that that type of behaviour. And she started being really annoying about what food she would and wouldn’t eat. This resulted in what I have unaffectionately named “The Dinner Time Wars”, and no one was laughing.
Now naturally, because I work for a parenting organisation, I reached into my oversized toolbox of parenting strategies, chose the appropriate approach, implemented it flawlessly and my daughter is now a successful lawyer in London.
What I actually did was ramp up the consequences. We started having heated arguments and eventually the majority of the attention she was getting was negative.
It wasn’t fun for her and it wasn’t fun for me.
Then one night I went for a run. I have learnt a lot of things from running, but the most important thing has been this – I am a much better person when I create space to think, reflect and pray.
So I was running and thinking about my middle girl, and
I remembered something that one of the psychologists
I work with had said. She said that “All behaviour is communication”. And as I remembered that, something clicked for me.
Our kids – especially our younger kids – don’t have a diverse lexicon of emotional adjectives.
Our kids have big feelings all the time, but they often don’t have the language to be able to communicate what they are feeling, or even understand why they are feeling it, or how they feel about how they are feeling.
All they have is their behaviour.
When our kids are ‘behaving badly’, it hardly ever means that they are manipulative, or that they have nefarious intentions, or that they are malevolent human beings who are intentionally trying to destroy the peace and harmony of our lives.
It is almost always an attempt to communicate something else, like frustration, sadness, fear, anger or disappointment. And when we rush in to ‘deal’ to their behaviour, we can easily miss what is actually going on for our kids. We can totally miss what is causing their behaviour in the first place. Sometimes, we might unintentionally contribute to how they were feeling in the first place.
So. After this transcendent moment of insight while running in the hills, I went home and went to bed because it was late. But the next day i got up and I asked my six-year-old if she wanted to go to one of her favourite places, Rolikin Gelato. She was super keen because it involved ice cream and no siblings. It was just us. I bought her a milkshake. And then I said this:
“Babes, I have been thinking about it, and I am wondering if the reason that you have been finding it hard to do the right thing at the moment is actually because you are feeling upset about something? I am also wondering if you think that your older sister is getting more attention than you since she has been learning so many new skills, and people keep telling her how smart she is?”
And my girl sat there with her milkshake and started crying.
And then she said, “Sometimes it just feels like you love my sister more than you love me.”
It was super sad and super beautiful and we had a big cuddle and a big talk about how much I love her, and we ate our ice creams. And now, because of my parenting, she has joined the UN peace corps and is volunteering at a homeless shelter in her spare time.
I jest again.
When I think about this from a parent’s perspective, it just seems so crazy! How could she ever think that I would love my other kids more than her?
Seriously, my six-year-old is the easiest kid to love. I love her soooooo much. But in the busyness of life she was starting to wonder if my love for her could be trusted.
I am so glad I took her to the ice cream shop.
If there was something that I would love you to reflect on, it would be this:
When was your last ice cream shop experience? Simply put – when was the last time you tried curiosity instead of consequences?
I am not saying that consequences are irrelevant and you just need to be curious. However, if we enforce consequences without taking the time to connect and to be curious about where our child’s behaviour is coming from, we can so easily miss out on the really important stuff that is going on in our child’s heart and head.
Sometimes we need to slow down and ask ourselves a question like, “I wonder what is actually going on for them right now?” Or, “I wonder what it would feel like if I was in their shoes right now?”
We all do strange and occasionally unhelpful things when we are feeling sad, lonely, unloved, insignificant or frustrated.
I know that in my life I have spent heaps of time chasing things like love, approval, significance. And when I think about all of that, I am reminded of how important it is that our kids feel deeply known and deeply loved. It is that type of love and connection that truly provides the basis for human flourishing.
Written by James Beck.
Looking for more personalised strategies and solutions for your family?
Our Family Coaches bring their extensive training and experience to help uncover new insights, ideas and practical solutions to parenting and relationship challenges. Through one-on-one support (in person, via Skype or email), you’ll be provided with take-home strategies to bring about the positive changes you desire for your whānau.