Wednesday, September 23, 2009

teachable moment

I used to tell people that I am a great mom for 12 hours a day -- I can work non stop from 7 am to 7 pm. If my day with the kids starts before that or ends after, however, it gets dicey.

Well, bedtime has floated to 8 o'clock or later over the summer, and I find that I am at my worst just when, in some ways, my kids need me most. Today was a particularly rough day for me, short on sleep and long on sugar, an entire plate of food and glass of milk were dropped on the floor during dinner, but still I managed, by grace and effort, to keep my cool until bathtime.

Then came the big test:

My oldest walked into the room where I had three little boys in the bath. "Mom, the light bulb in my bathroom broke."

Me, testy: "What do you mean, it broke?"

"Uh...I was spraying it with my water bottle and it exploded."

Deep breath, quick call to the Holy Spirit.

"That was a poor choice, buddy, please go clear up the dinner table while I get these guys into bed, and then I will come in and talk to you."

This was amazing -- I bought myself time to regain some composure. He went off to do something that would help me, but also time to think about what Mom might say or do and how he felt about it.

When I came out, the first thing he said was "is there anything else I can do to help?" I asked him to sit down in Dad's big chair. He looked terrified.

In a totally calm voice, sitting right at his eye level, I said "I think you know that it is really dangerous to play with water and electricity, or to touch light bulbs at all. I don't know if the fixture is going to be damaged as well. I suspect you knew that this was a bad idea when you were doing it, and now you see that there are consequences to your actions. You made a good choice, though, to come and tell me right away, and to tell the truth about how it happened. I am going to clean up the glass now, and then you can take your shower. I don't feel safe replacing the light bulb in a wet fixture. Dad will take a look at it over the weekend. Until then, your bathroom will be a bit dark."

After I had cleaned up the glass I sat with him while he, with my prompting, cleaned up his entire dressing area and bathroom, which had gotten a bit out of control over the last few days.

Once he was all cozy in his pajamas, he came to me and quietly said "Mom, thanks for helping me sort out my stuff, and for not being mad about the light bulb."

I gave him a big hug and I said "P, you are going to make some mistakes in your life, but I want you to know that you can always tell me the truth. I will try hard to control my temper and to help you sort things out."

This was a significant victory for both of us.

P is about to be 8, and I see that we are coming in to a different phase of our parenting. Slowly, he will have more freedom in order to learn self control. He will be tempted. I remember in those pre-teen years how tempting it was to "experiment" by melting crayons on the radiator, falling out of my bunk bed, all kinds of stupid stuff. The truth is, they are testing themselves, they are testing boundaries, and they are testing us. If I come to Mom with a problem, will she explode? I want to be strict with my kids, and there will be consequences for not doing your work or chores, for lying, for sneaking around, but I want them to know that I am here with love if they want to talk something out, or if they arrive at a place where a really bad choice has been made and they need help getting out of danger. I want them to learn these lessons before the teen years, when the natural consequences get too big, too fast.

This is a balancing act, and temperament comes into play as well, I am quick to anger, and this particular child takes things really hard, so I have to be very careful with him. In the next few years, I think we'll both have a lot to learn.


Kat said...

Thank you so much for sharing this story, Mary Alice. Your wisdom in parenting a boy just a couple years ahead of my C has been very valuable for me - I have learned a lot from your stories! I especially like that you asked the Holy Spirit for help, that your consequences for P were firm yet constructive and loving, and that you shared with him what you were thinking at the moment. Sounds like the perfect response to me!

texas mommy said...

I must echo what Kat said. I learn so much through your humbleness in sharing the good and the bad in raising your children and being a wife and mother. Thanks for taking the time to share this.

B-Mama said...

Oh Mary Alice, could you just hold a workshop for all of us and wrap up these wonderful lessons in a few hours? Mine would be the first name on the list. :)

I love seeing your patience in action here. It is mind warping to think how differently this situation would have looked if you had flown off the handle immediately. You were, instead, able to turn this situation around very much to a positive. Also, what a great scenario for your little ones to witness from the sidelines. You blessed your family all around. Way to go, mama! You inspire me.

Right Said Red said...

I think the most important thing you did here was ask him to give you some time AND that he went and did something productive during the wait. This allowed you both time to reflect--especially you--and I'm sure you were at least a little less angry because he had accomplished some work while you were bathing the boys. Cool off time is SOOOO hard to remember when mad, and I'm really impressed that you reacted this way at the end of a long day!

Like you, I usually feel like a good mom for a certain number of hours a day, but unlike you, my patience starts to wear thin around 5pm, several hours before bedtime! I'm hoping this is something that will change once our new baby is born and I have more energy.

I also appreciate you sharing the mistake P made tonight. I sometimes have very high expectations of Gianna (5.5), and I get overly disappointed when she makes a poor choice like P made tonight (for example her recent decision to write on the walls?) I overreact, think about where I went terribly wrong with my parenting, and then wonder if she has some lurking issue that is causing such poor decision making. But the truth is--great kids her age, and P's age, will just make poor decisions--that's just a normal part of childhood. What a good reminder it is to hear other mothers share about these childhood mistakes. Thanks for the post.

Helen said...

Wow! That is a great story and you handled it perfectly. What an inspiration you are for those of us who struggle with our temper, especially at day's end. Good for you!

Kate E. said...

I'm so impressed because knowing both you and P I know how easy it would have been to be angry and how right you are that you would have taken it really hard...way to go.

I think one of the best things to help with parenting is try and remember what some of those things felt like at that age (and P is now old enough that you have more memories of that time). How it felt to be embarrassed by something, and like you said how tempting it was to experiment (I remember a jar of vaseline that I went to bed with on my hair so it would shiny in 3rd grade...not good). I think having those memories can make us feel empathy for our child...which is not to say they can then get away with things, but that you can react in a way that is appropriate and constructive which is just what you did!

Mary Alice said...

Thanks all for your kind words. I think that praying, taking time away from him and locking in the empathy were all important, and I did find that the fact that he had done a significant chore for me made it much easier to take the time to deal with it well. I am using chores more often for consequences lately -- we have a basket of stuff from the car that needs to get back to it's place, and today every whiner was sent to put something away.

Juris Mater said...

MaryAlice, wow, what a powerful moment, what a beautiful response by you, and bless Peter's good heart. His response is impressive for a boy his age.

Kristen Laurence said...

Beautiful mothering, Mary Alice! The end of the day is difficult for me as well. Thank you for the encouragement to stay calm and focused, and loving!

Bridget said...

Thank you for sharing this with us and reminding us to stay calm and loving! I really love this parenting style - the Love and Logic book I've recommended before advocates for this type of parenting exactly. It's so wonderful to hear such a positive example of it. You're an inspiration!