“That was the best parenting I’ve ever seen,” someone commented to me in the library last week. Despite several warnings to the contrary, my son had run across the carpeted floor of our library to the children’s books. I calmly strode up to him, reminded him that I just asked him to walk and that he had deliberately ignored me.
“Now you need to go back to the entrance and show me how you walk,” I said, pointing toward the entrance. He did it grudgingly. But I was mostly satisfied.
Though I may not be a great parent, I cannot say that I was even a mediocre one as of two years ago. When my son hit his ferocious fours, I actually found that I didn’t want to be in the same room as him. He had always been difficult. From day one when he had been failure to thrive, to the early months with his allergies and eczema, to hitting 18th months when his tantrums left my husband and me reeling and in a constant state of dread.
But somehow, when he hit four, my underlying feelings of failure for what I assumed must be my terrible parenting began to bubble up. What kind of awful person raises a child whose every word takes the form of an insult or a taunt? How can I be failing in my life’s purpose of raising a solid family of good, upstanding people? How terrible must my parenting be for this behavior to rear its ugly head in my home?
I had agonized over it. I was teaching a first grade class at the same time, and found myself asking many of the same questions in the classroom as I asked at home. Why don’t my students listen to me? How can I get my children to do the things they need to do?
My life, it felt, had been wrenched from my control by my children. In the wake of their births, I had gradually lost all respect for myself as I found myself reduced to an animalistic state of survival – feeding them, cleaning them, and living surrounded by a constant state of mess and disarray that grated deeply on my own neat-freakish character.
Trying to buoy my ever-declining spirits, at some point, I placed an affirmation on my wall. “Right now, I am learning tools to deal effectively with my students’ and children’s misbehavior.”
I was confident that there were answers to my needs. Still, I felt locked out of them.
I watched my fellow teachers address students and marveled at how the students paid attention. How did they do it? I noticed other parents’ addresses to their children, often as ineffective as my own, but sometimes, sometimes striking a chord. What was it that person just did? Why did it work?
It was the process of discovery — that stormy, dark thing which surrounds us with truths we cannot understand, while we claw at them, feebly, in the hope that something, at last, will fall into place.
I must understand how to deal with my children. I must. It was the only thing that drove me onward.
Light began to break through. I observed teacher after teacher, trying to define the techniques that made them effective. And small realizations hit me. They were in pieces still-disconnected fragments of understanding that I could barely apply. But there was some hope.
One day, I had escorted two students to the principal’s office to discuss some misdeed. The principal calmly spoke to the girls about why what they had done was wrong. In the middle of her speech, one of the students turned on her heel and skipped out of the office.
She walked out on the principal. I was aghast.
The principal looked at me helplessly. The girl was a tricky student to deal with. The principal was as much at a loss as I was about how to respond. Yet, respond, I knew I must. The lack of respect could not be countenanced.
I marched across the courtyard to my classroom, where another teacher was allowing the students to play Heads Up 7-Up.
My disappearing student had found her way to her seat and had surreptitiously put her head down on her desk to play with the others.
“Sarah will not be playing Heads Up 7-Up,” I said authoritatively. “She needs to finish a conversation that was started with the principal. When she is ready to finish that conversation, she can let me know.”
Accountability, one of those deep truths of behavior management, had found its way into my instinct. I could hardly believe the words coming out of my mouth.
Then, I performed the next feat. I sat down quietly and petitioned her no further. This was the art of letting go – making the child responsible for correcting her own behavior. When I had started out, I made that fatal mistake. Hovering and pestering and never handing control over to the one person who can possibly do anything with it. But I had learned. I had learned when to speak and when to keep quiet.
Before recess, the child approached me.
“I’m ready to go back to the principal,” she said meekly. We walked back to the principal and I asked her to apologize for her previous disrespect. She did. The principal looked awed.
As time passed, I learned to apply more principles of behavior management in my home. One day, I scanned the old affirmations across my wall, curious what I might find. I came across the old affirmation. “Right now, I am learning tools to deal effectively with my students’ and children’s misbehavior.”
I chuckled, Well that’s outdated, I thought. I don’t really need to have that up anymore.
And then, remembering the agony, the darkness, and the desperate search, I paused to appreciate the miracle.