I was flipping through Ellyn Satter's "How to Get Your Kid to Eat - But Not Too Much" the other day, and ran across something really important she said about normal versus disordered eating.
Normal eating includes all varieties of eating, good, bad, and indifferent. It's doing things one way one day, and another way another day. It's eating the entire plate of cookies just because they taste so good - but not always doing that when one encounters cookies. It's sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes too much, sometimes too little. Normal is varied.
And disordered is often an absolutely reliable and consistent approach for every situation, or for each type of situation. Always controlling the amount, always controlling the time, always too much, or always too little, or even always just the right amount. Never giving in to the urge, or always giving in to the urge. The hallmark of a problem, she said, is that only one method is okay and allowed. The sign of a problem is lack of variation. Sameness is a warning sign.
This has been bouncing around in my head. But not regarding food.
It's regarding the parental tool box.
Most people I know have encountered the idea that different children need to be parented differently - that what works for one isn't optimal for the next, ad infinitum.
And many people are probably cool with the idea that for one child, the parenting may need to differ over time - different developmental level, different needs, different methods. Makes sense.
But what I'm seeing with my kids is that they do best when I use different parenting methods on them AT ANY GIVEN TIME. The situation varies. The emotional burden varies. My condition (emotional, physical) varies. The dyad is dynamic, ever-changing, moment-to-moment.
Which would mean that different parenting methods should probably be applied as needed. Which totally flies in the face of the standard myth that the only successful approach will be CONSISTENT application (the more perfectly applied, the better). On the up side, it matches the neurobiology research that shows greatest sturdiness of emotional function when parented with ... um, normal mucking up. And also with two different degrees of 'in there supporting up close' - kids do better when they've got multiple parenting methods applied.
I'm finding that even when they don't change much, when I'm pretty stable and they're not in total flux, parenting the same way all the time seems to lead to more issues than mixing it up does.
Not that I'm advocating swinging wildly from corporal punishment to gentle discipline and back. But that within one range, many things to try, and do, over and over.
I'm seeing this with Miss M, our child-of-challenge du jour. I realized that when she was getting emotionally upset, I was doing and saying the same things over and over. And she was lining up with the things I was doing and saying, being shaped by them. And unfortunately, they weren't an absolutely perfect response - very good, empathetic, kind, in tune. And imperfect. Because I cannot see inside her mind, and she inside mine (close, but not quite!), I cannot spot what she isn't getting when I do that. And that leaves a hole, and the hole leaks negative behavior. I could try to be perfect, all the time. But that also leaves a hole, ends up with kids growing up thinking they're expected to be perfect, or not knowing how much work is involved in parenting (or life in general), and ending up discouraged or traumatized by the reality. It's useful for them to know how to do this well, but it's also useful for them to discover it themselves, and get some scraped knees along the way.
So, I have been mixing it up. Not willy-nilly, but responsively.
My methods of achieving calm so we could work out a problem had (in the case that got me thinking recently) set her up to think that her feelings were SO IMPORTANT that everyone else should stop and pay attention. (lessee, any tie in to the fits over sharing here? naaaah.) I was always attending to her feelings carefully. And forgetting that research shows that having only close attending to the feelings leads to increased fragility, not decreased fragility. They need both regard and a little distance and allowing them to handle it themselves so they can learn to trust that they are able So, a bit of a tweak over the last few days - as we've worked through the sharing issue, she's not been flipping out on that. Instead, she's moved to flipping out over choices, over having her way with other aspects of the day, over how her oatmeal is made.
So I've moved to asking her to go be in the peace corner until she's calm enough to solve the problem. I trust you to be able to calm down. Time to practice calming down. Gently plop her onto the cushions, and step away. Or rather, step back, as she tends to fling herself bodily out of the peace corner, wailing in outrage. Whereupon I gently pick her back up, reiterate that she needs to calm herself down and she can come out and help solve the problem when she's done and ready. And place her back on the cushions. And then step away again. We're down to only one recycle on that, in two days, I think. No sucking me back in, thanks. Just stepping away now. (Note that this has to read as 'I have things I need to attend to' rather than 'I'm going to IGNORE you now!' - being busy and relaxed, and not rigid and waiting makes a HUGE difference here - for my kids the message must clearly be that the handling yourself is just part of the flow of things, understood and assumed as just 'things that happen,' and not something I'm standing here demanding of you while I express my outrage with my body language. It is non-punitive stepping away, not ignoring. Also note that with my kids, different distances function differently for each - Mr B needs me to find something to do nearby while he works himself through, my presence tends to read to him as 'she feels safe around me when I'm feeling this way' and my distance reads to him as 'this is too scary for her, therefore it is too scary for me'. I'd tried the staying nearby with Miss M, and it just cycled her up worse.)
So there she is in the peace corner, and I'm attending to something else - still being aware, just attending elsewhere. She cries as loudly as she can for about 2 minutes. Then it gets very quiet (from experience I know she's playing cat and mouse, 'here, Mommy Mommy Mommy, come see what I'm doing, I'm all quiet now...'). I remain attentive to my other activity, though at this point I can cycle through the space so she can observe me being calm and not rigid and angry. And then she sniffles and moans for a bit. Then quiet again.
I can hear the wheels turning. I've seen her thought process go by before - it isn't manipulative, so much as responsive to her beliefs. She believes that she needs to be with someone to be safe with her feelings. And then she believes that her emptiness will draw me in to fill her up. And then she stops and feels her own feelings herself. From there, she expresses them to herself (not to me - the sniffles and moans are not pitched to carry). Once she allows herself to feel her feelings to herself, she gets a grip on herself, and calms down. At that point, she'll either rest and think, or poke her head (or voice) out of the peace corner ("Mommy, I'm ready"), or pick up a book to read, or I'll wander by and ask if she's ready to come out. and she'll reach for me. At that point, it's cuddle and comfort, and commiseration, and then problem-solving time.
So that's a new way of handling the issue (or rather, and old way I'm remembering to use again). But at the same time, I haven't let go of sitting down next to her and commiserating utterly, receiving her pain as a gift, and offering back my understanding of it. I haven't tossed aside the idea of asking her to calm down right where she stands (or sits). I haven't let go of starting with the problem-solving right off. I haven't let go of giving her a skeptical look and declining to play along with the tantrum (even though this isn't usually useful for all situations, for some it appears to be perfect). I haven't let go of asking her to please take herself somewhere else until she's ready, or of asking her to keep her voice to a level that is non-punishing for everyone else. I haven't let go of asking if she's hungry, or tired. I haven't let go of trying to figure out if she had a bad dream, or is feeling off, or ate something she shouldn't. I haven't let go of being playful and discharging the energy with laughter. I haven't let go of stopping and telling her I love her in the middle of a fight. I haven't let go of acknowledging that I'm having trouble with a problem and need to excuse myself from the situation until I'm more able to cope.
They're all in the tool box.
So this time, I could handle one upset one way, and another another way. The 'I must be first, I was ready first' conflict with Miss R (who was first at the table, so thought SHE was ready first) was handled with humor and silliness and problem-solving (ending up with her opting to be the first to put brown sugar on her oatmeal while Miss R was first to put syrup on hers - I can't even remember what solution made them laugh so hard, but that was in there, too). And then the fit over whether I even made her second bowl of oatmeal right (oy) was handled by gently depositing her in the peace corner until she was full of feeling cranky about it and then could release it herself. Second bowl of oatmeal was then properly assembled (with orange juice on top of cinnamon roll ... which just sounds gross, but the sticky kiss I got good-bye didn't taste bad at all), and she was happy.
OJ and cinnamon, though... okay, whatever. Hey, apparently the other day she put cinnamon sugar on her chicken at lunch. That's, er, Mexican, right? Or is it Moroccan?
Normal is varied. Different methods, all the time. Not being stuck in one thing. Not only using one tool. That's normal. Healthy normal. Seems strange to call myself normal, I've spent so long not even knowing what that was.
Granted, sometimes my brain hurts, too. Or maybe that's the sleep deprivation? (not even just the littles... Mr G has been reading The Hound of the Baskervilles, and climbed into our bed after getting to the story of the hound's first appearance, wrapped his arms around my arm, pillowed his head on my shoulder, and then was finally able to sleep... it was quite sweet.)