Just finished screamfree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool by Hal Edward Runkel. The verdict? I was frustrated by some of the areas that felt a bit like Runkel was revving up to his main points and took a while to get there—a ruthless, er…talented, editor could have done him a great service.
BUT by the time I finished it, I felt like I’d really learned some things that would help with the scream-y, yell-y culture we’ve fallen into around here at Chez Kookamunga (as I write this, three of the kids are yelling at each other. I’m sure they’ll work it out, right?).
So, what did I learn? One of Runkel’s primary premises is that we need to be responsible to our children rather than responsible for them. Say what? What does that even mean? My eyebrows are starting to hurt.
Okay, I’ll take a crack at thinking it through. To be responsible to our kids, we have to start by managing ourselves, i.e. we need to be responsible for: our actions, our decisions, our emotional responses, and our part in our relationship patterns. We are accountable for these things.
What we aren’t accountable for are the decisions of other people, which makes sense—but here’s the part that blew the top of my head off—this is even true of our kids. We are not responsible for our kids’ decisions. This sounds heretical, but I came to believe that the idea is brilliant actually. And I don’t mean that we parents are off the hook. It’s just that it’s a different hook than we tend to think it is.
The old responsible-for hook means that anxiety is a driving force in our parenting. We respond emotionally to minor incidents for a couple reasons: one is because we’re in a hurry or are stressed out about something else and need immediate compliance. Another reason we overreact is because we extrapolate beyond the moment and the reality of the situation and let it trigger all of our bigger fears for our children.
For example, if I find my daughter in the pantry, otherwise known to her as “the eating closet,” snacking on marshmallows and Nilla Wafers right before dinner, it doesn’t mean that we have raised a disobedient, thoughtless child or that she’s developing habits that will fling her straight off the upper end of the weight chart at the doctor’s office or even that she can’t be trusted. That’s all anxiety talking, and anxiety is what’s behind us being so distrustful of our kids’ abilities, motives, and future prospects.
But if I do find her in the pantry stuffing marshmallows and Nilla Wafers into her pie hole before dinner, she will definitely be in trouble. I just don’t need to freak out about it. She will be in trouble because she knows she shouldn’t be doing it (expectations have already been clearly communicated) and because she needs to experience consequences for her actions. A ban on Halloween candy for a day or two should do the trick, especially since she’ll have to watch her siblings enjoying theirs with heightened pleasure, driven by their knowledge that she can’t have any. Yes, kids are cruel (but wrapped in such sweet packages, darn it).
The important thing is that I don’t start flinging Nilla Wafers at her and yelling about how she KNOWS she’s not supposed to do that and she can’t disobey us because then we can’t trust her and someday when she really needs us, we won’t believe her because she’s been so sneaky in the past, and sneaking is a deceit which basically is a lie and nobody likes a liar so then she won’t have any friends except maybe criminals and other lying liar-pants and once she starts hanging out with them, it’s just a short step to some really serious mistakes, and she could end up getting really hurt or in jail. And another thing, she’s not going to be healthy and strong if she eats that way, and doesn’t she want to be a strong person and healthy and able to do all kinds of things that kids who only eat sweets will never be able to do? And did she ever consider that I am TRYING to make dinner, and how can I do that if I have to deal with kids doing bad stuff like sneaking treats IN BLATANT DISREGARD TO OUR RULES? And she’d better damn well feel bad about this, because now we’re going to have to eat late since I’ve had to spend so much time dealing with her misbehavior.
Wow. How did we get there? I just need to calm the hell down and deliver the news of the consequences. Yes, this might involve crying and stomping around (her, not me I hope), but I DON’T HAVE TO PARTICIPATE. And what a relief that is.
The deal is that people are simply decision-making animals; we’re wired that way, so our kids are going to make decisions, and often different decisions than we want them to, whether we like it or not. We just have to decide if we want to provide the psychological space to allow them to do that within the supportive environment of our care or if we’d rather they just comply with whatever we want them to do/think/believe, because it’s so very much faster and more convenient at the moment for them to do that.
Another example of our screamful parenting—this time my husband:
Don’t take so long deciding which jacket to wear! Just throw one on! Come on! Are you listening to me? We have to GO! NOW! Do you understand that? Are you hearing me? Do you have ears? You need to be in the car right now. I don’t care if it doesn’t fit. Just put it on. Let’s go, go, GO! Out the door. GO! NOW!
Runkel’s point is that what the kids hear is: “I’m not in control, and I need you to calm me down with your compliance. My anxiety is your responsibility.” The whole idea is about who’s in control. The obvious answer is the parent, but the reality is that when we lose it and freak out at our kids, whether we freak out big or small, we’re really letting them know that we’re not in control, and that they, these wee little folks, have the power to make us lose control, and therefore the responsibility to help us keep ourselves together. Ugh, what a horrible notion.
The objective of parenting is to prepare the little people who pass through our homes to become big people who are independent and capable and likable and generally good and successful people. And we think we need to do that by standing on top of them and shaking our heads at their missteps and wagging our fingers at them when they (especially publicly) do what we don’t want them to.
Some of us also try to scamper around them, shooing away anything that might be uncomfortable, confusing, or tempting, so they don’t get into trouble in the first place. Exhausting! And wrong-headed, as it turns out. Because the less we allow our children to discover, to make mistakes, fail, flounder, suffer—all those things we parents hate—the less independent, capable, and likable they will become. Oops.
So the antidote is to strive to remain calm, to communicate the household boundaries and rules, to allow our kids to make decisions and experience the consequences of their decisions and actions, and to do so without losing it and screaming, literally or figuratively, at them. It sounds quite lovely. I’ll need to rearrange my brain to make this happen, but it might just be worth it.