Parenting Outside the Box

This year’s theme for AP Month, “Parenting Creatively: The Art of Parenting,” gives us all an opportunity to look a little closer at the ways in which we are (or are not) fostering creativity in our parenting approach. It’s often easy to play creatively, but it’s a bit harder to find our creative flow in more challenging situations, like when the little one is starting to crumble in the cereal aisle. But if we can see past our adult rules, social pressures and parental blinkers, a little creativity can go a very long way in such situations.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the doctor’s face when little Bean started jumping, arms outstretched, and singing, “Laaaaaaaa!” because she wasn’t allowed to leave the room until our appointment was over. Or perhaps more memorable was the doctor’s expression when I said to my now calm and giggling toddler, “You felt frustrated so you jumped and sang! What a positive outlet for a difficult emotion!”

I should probably explain … when little Bean was about 18 months old, I noticed that she, like all toddlers, was starting to feel frustrated when she couldn’t do what she wanted when she wanted to do it. While in most situations I follow her lead to an extent that frustration is rare, there are times when we really must do something, like sit through an appointment. So I started to think outside the box: when I feel frustrated, what makes me feel better? I came up with exercise and singing, basically “letting it all out.”

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I applied this to little Bean. I figured that while she can’t exactly go for a run in all situations, she can always use her voice, and she can usually jump on the spot. So I simply let her know that when she feels frustrated, jumping and singing is a really positive outlet for that very normal yet difficult emotion. Oh, and I started to jump and sing a lot, too. I jumped when I forgot my shopping list or dropped my keys. I sang when I broke a glass or was running late. I was the all-singing, all-jumping, crazy mama bouncing her way through her more difficult moments.

Once all of the jumping and singing was over, and the onlookers had moved on, little Bean and I would talk it out. On the occasions when there was an underlying issue to resolve and the mini endorphin kick hadn’t wiped out the frustration, it was so much easier to remedy, to explain and to work through the situation with a calmer Bean.

I’m not saying that our method is foolproof; there are times when no amount of jumping will prevent a mini-meltdown. But it slows the landslide and helps little Bean to start to recognise the emotion herself. She often sees me pre-mama-meltdown and says, “Mama, laaaaaa!” Ingeniously perceptive? Well, obviously. But bias aside, I believe that all toddlers understand these emotions and can recognise them in others–they just don’t know how to deal with them. And for how many of us adults does that statement still ring true?

Our sing-alongs help little Bean to deal with these difficult emotions. I wish these tools came more naturally to me, and I hope that by opening them up for little Bean while she is still a toddler, her toolbox for dealing with life’s emotions will be jam-packed full. Even if that means her toolbox is thought of by passersby as “outside the box.”

Listening

On the way to Playschool the other morning, I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw tears sliding down my 21-month-old’s cheeks.

“Ruby, what’s wrong, honey?” I asked, concerned and surprised – she’d been talking excitedly all morning about visiting her friends at school, where she spends two mornings a week.

“Oww, mama,” she said, tapping her nose with her forefinger, her eyes welling up even more. She’d just gotten over a nasty cold that had kept her out of school for a full week.

We pulled into the drop-off at school, and my daughter’s favorite teacher was waiting to take her inside. Ruby started really crying as I unbuckled her. “Oh, she’ll be fine,” her teacher smiled at me. “We can handle it!”

“I’m sure you can,” I smiled back, “but let me have a minute with her.”

I held Ruby tight and looked in her eyes.

“Ruby, do you really not feel good?”

“No, mama.” (sniff, sniff)

“Do you want to go to school today?”

“No.” (sniff)

“Do you just need to come home with mama?”

“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.” (nod sniff nod sniff)

In a split second, I mentally ticked through all my work plans for the morning – and then brushed them away. When it comes right down to it, there’s just not a thing more important than doing what my daughter needs. So home we went, much to the consternation of Ruby’s teachers. I think they thought I was “giving in” to her, or “spoiling” her. But I like to think I just chose to listen to my child. My daughter, who, just like all of us, has her very own needs and emotions, her good days and bad days. I know her well enough to know when she is truly upset and uncomfortable, and when she needs a break. Whatever the reason, she very clearly did not want to be at school that day.

When I was growing up, my parents occasionally let me take what they called “mental health days” when I got too stressed out about school. That time away was invaluable to me, an over-achiever who worried too much from a very young age. I remember those days so clearly, how they’d help me calm down, re-focus, and feel more connected to whichever parent I spent that day with.

I want my daughter to be able to have those kinds of days. I want her to trust that I will listen to her and take her seriously. That when she has an emotional need, I’ll do everything I can to meet it. I think part of my job as a parent is knowing her well enough to see those cues, to know when “My nose hurts” actually means “I need some time with you.” So that morning, instead of working as I’d planned, I cuddled with my daughter. We read books, ate snacks, and danced to her “silly music.” And truly? That time together was more valuable than anything else I could have been doing.

Has there been a time when truly listening to your child changed your plans or your approach to a certain situation?

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