January 26th, 2020
Yesterday was Australia day. The 26th January is celebrated by many with barbecues and picnics and there is much talk of what it means to be Australian. In Sydney people flock to the harbour to watch a fly past and a ferry race. It looks like a joyful day. But appearances can be deceptive. It is not a joyful day for the first peoples of Australia for whom the 26th January is known as ‘invasion day’. That day marked the end of their free existence in close harmony with the land they loved and began a period of conflict and loss of culture.
This period began with an assumption. When British people arrived in Australia it was called ‘settlement’, not conquest, because there was a legal assumption that the land was unoccupied, that is the peoples who lived there were not recognised as people. Black people in many parts of the world have been assumed by whites to be ‘less than’; less intelligent, less cultured, less morally principled, less worthy. These assumptions deprive us of real connection with our fellow human beings. When we ditch our assumptions and get curious we find out about others. Inevitably we find we have more in common than we had thought and even something to learn from each other. In the recent Australian bush fires traditional methods of land management were shown to be particularly effective.
Closer to home perhaps we find ourselves making assumptions within our own families. We assume our children are blank slates for us to imprint upon, but they are born with their own personalities and develop their own ideas. We assume that as their parents our job is to control and to teach them, but they have much to teach us. We sometimes assume that their behaviour is a deliberate attempt to ‘get us’. This week I had a great conversation with Bonnie Harris for our podcast where she talked about the assumptions we make about our children’s behaviour that pushes our buttons and causes us to ‘lose it’. We often think it is their behaviour that makes us see red and react poorly. But in fact it is what we think about our children, and ourselves, that gives rise to the feelings that prompt our regrettable reactions. If my six year old refuses to get dressed and it’s 7.45am and we’re going to be late for school and work and I feel like I’ve tried everything but he WILL NOT cooperate, I might shout and threaten the cancellation of the promised outing to Legoland for his birthday…. If I assume that he should do what I ask, straightaway, and if he doesn’t it means he’s a bolshie, difficult child …and that I am an incompetent parent…then no wonder I feel powerless and react by trying to seize control through threats and punishments and maybe shaming talk! And we start the day with unpleasantness and we’re already exhausted before we get to school and work. And we’ve lost connection and maybe my words have chipped away at his self-esteem. And all of that came about because of my assumptions.
Let’s start with a new assumption. If things aren’t going well it means my child is having a problem with whatever I’ve asked him to do.
He is having a problem, not being a problem.
It may be simple: my six year old son gets distracted playing with his games. He doesn’t mean to defy me but he has different, six year old, priorities than mine. He has a hard time giving up on his play agenda and bending to my adult clock-dictated agenda. He struggles to curb his impulses because his higher brain which regulates emotions is undeveloped.
Or if we dig deeper it might be more complex: he might be feeling very controlled. It’s Friday and he’s already had four days of adults telling him what to do. After school he either goes to after school care or an organised activity and when he gets home it’s tea time and then reading practice and worksheets and bed. He doesn’t get time to play with his Lego and he doesn’t get any say in what happens.
We can hold on to our parenting skills and respond in ways we’ll be proud of if we ditch the assumptions and get curious. When our children are behaving in ways we don’t like let’s ask ourselves why. Sometimes it takes superhuman reserves of patience to be a parent, so forgive yourself if you do lose it but then ask why did that happen, apologise and repair the relationship.
I might speak to my six year old like this: “I’m sorry I shouted at you this morning when we were leaving the house. I said you were behaving like a baby and that wasn’t right. Nobody deserves to be shouted at or called names. I was feeling anxious about being late so I need to try and find some better ways for us to be ready on time. Now that I’m calm and thinking about it I guess you were feeling bossed around. You wanted to play your Lego and you don’t get much time to play your own games. I’m wondering what we can do about that. Do you have any ideas?
This kind of conversation restores connection. With older children you can ask them what they were feeling but they won’t always know or feel able to express themselves. It’s fine for the adult to take a guess at the child’s feelings and suggest it to them. But wait to see how they respond. You’ll know if you’ve accurately identified their feelings. That is how they develop both a vocabulary of emotions and the ability to apply the words to their experience. It is how they grow in self-awareness, a key part of emotional intelligence. If we listen to our children, both to their words and what’s behind their words and actions, then we can learn. This way you are modelling for your children an approach based not on assumptions but on curiosity and connection.
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