When people listen to me communicate with my children they generally comment, if at all, that I’m very patient. I’ve come to understand this actually means, “You should probably be meaner” because that’s the way they interact with their kids. They don’t think of themselves as mean though; They’re mean because they “have to be.” These parents see no other alternative than to “let their children get away with it.” I find it fascinating that these are the same parents who will cheer the loudest and longest at the most mundane of achievements.
My favorite example, because it seems the most absurd, was a mother who watched her child climb into a toy tractor. He said, “Look mom!” as he began moving the steering wheel and she exclaimed, “Good job!” I was confused because I didn’t even realize the judging of child steering capabilities was a thing. These sort of hot and cold interactions are exhausting to watch. The tone of voice very quickly moves back and forth between elation and frustration. I’ve come to generalize this pattern of interactions as, “Disappointment Parenting.”
The way it plays out is basically whatever the child does that they’re not supposed to do is met with a certain level of disappointment from their parent. Jerry Seinfeld demonstrated this style very eloquently in his bit about how “everything is down” for grown ups.
You may be thinking to yourself, “It’s funny because it’s true.” But, is it helpful? Does it help our children develop empathy? I don’t think so. The parents I see use this pattern of communication have kids who seem agitated, uneasy, unhappy, and deflated. The kids have moments of joy, and often have good lives, but the approval of their parents teeters on a delicate edge. When I hear those parents talk to or about their kids, there’s always a layer of disappointment. Their face is too dirty, clothes are too dirty, the voice is too loud/too soft, won’t calm down, won’t go play, won’t play independently, won’t socialize, won’t talk to others, talking too much…need I go on? Why is it so difficult to let our children be the exact age and developmental stage they are. I think parenting would be so much easier with just a few more boundaries. Like if you tell them, “no,” then mean it. Same for telling them, “yes.”
But it’s not true for me and my kids. Harshness or disappointment is something I make a regular choice to avoid. Janet Lansbury’s work has made a big impact on the way I talk with my kids but I came to the realization only recently. I still correct my kids a lot. I set boundaries. I say, “no,” and I mean it when I say it. We have very regular meal times and bed times and my wife and I take the time to be by ourselves too. The main difference I can identify is the lack of disappointment in my voice. I can’t think of any time recently that I said something in a way that implied that my child’s behavior offended me. I don’t use a dad scowl or point to a paddle to remind them of an impending punishment. You know why? Because we all make mistakes and the big skills in life like compassion, kindness, patience, and understanding take a long time to develop. I’m not sure they even can develop if my kids never see other people use those skills.
There’s a general consensus that toddlers are irrational. I just don’t buy it. We may be lost as to what their rationale is, but that doesn’t make them irrational. Our toddler’s reasoning skills are merely limited by their experience. They aren’t able to weigh years of nuance and situational ethics yet. I’ve rarely had a time when I don’t understand why my son feels a certain way or behaves in a peculiar way about the situation. The only thing I can think of right now is that he won’t tell people his name when they ask. He’ll look at one of us and say, “You can.” And then he’ll proceed to carry on a very normal conversation.
I guess all I’m saying is to drop the disappointment. We’re all better than that. It doesn’t mean you have to be excited about everything your child does. Try some indifference actually. Try to recognize that the activities they do may be fulfilling enough and don’t require a good job for them to continue. Let them figure out how to find things to do that make them happy. You don’t have to understand why it makes them happy, just that it does. I hope that will be enough for me in this parenting journey.
Choosing kindness isn’t always easy. There were times when my son would steal toys from my daughter and he would snatch it from her with such force that it would knock her down. The kind of anger that builds up when I see that always catches me by surprise. But, I communicate the rules, I place myself as a barricade if need be, and he eventually backs down. And, I’m pleasantly surprised at the level of peacefulness in our home. I hope it will continue through all of their childhood. But even if it doesn’t, I’ll still choose kindness over the disappointment.