Whoa, this particular morning was a doozey. It took me a while to recover enough to write about it. Still not sure . . . but here goes.
Part 1: Siblings Fight Over Piano Books
Thursdays are piano days for two of my kids. Their babysitter picks them up from school and goes straight to piano lessons, so they need to pack their piano books in the morning and take them to school.
This particular morning, it was time to head to the car and the piano books were not yet packed. I reminded my kids to pack them.
Jessie complies without complaint. Serena, however, thought her backpack was already too full and so asks Jessie to pack her piano books for her.
Jessie says no, “Today is art day and I want to leave room in my backpack for my art projects.”
Serena protests, “Your backpack is empty. My backpack is super heavy. See?”
Serena tries to put her backpack onto her sister, Jessie. Jessie steps away and says, “Stop it, Serena. I want to leave room in my backpack today.”
“Come on, Jessie, don’t be so mean,” replies Serena. “You have lots of room in there. Also, I always forget my piano books. If I put them into my locker at school, I’ll forget them.”
Jessie does not respond. She begins walking down the stairs from the kitchen to the garage.
“Jessie, you have to take my books.” Serena says. “I’ll forget them if you don’t take them! Just take them!”
From the top of the stairs, Serena throws her piano book bag down at her sister, hitting her in the head. Jessie begins to cry and rub her head.
You may be asking, “Where’s Mom?”
I’m at the bottom of the stairs, watching all of this in wide-eyed horror.
Part 2: Mom Intervenes
Me: “Whoa, there! What was that about? I’m pretty sure I heard Jessie say no! OK . . . now I just need to be quiet for a minute because I’m SO angry right now!”
After a few seconds of breathing deeply, I say, “I’m sorry that happened. Jessie, do you need an ice pack?”
Jessie shakes her head ‘no’ through the tears, and makes her way to the car. Everyone is silent (or crying quietly) while entering the car.
But as soon as we’re in, Serena says, “Jessie, why can’t you just take my piano books?”
I was doing pretty well calming down until then. And then, I lost it: “Are you kidding me, Serena? You just hit Jessie in the head with your books and now you’re back to badgering her? How can this still be about you?”
“But Mom . . .” Serena tries to interrupt.
“You just hit her in the head, maybe the better thing to say right now would be, ‘I’m sorry I hit you. Are you OK?’ How about that?” I offer (with frustration.)
Serena, with robotic monotone voice: “I’m sorry I hit you. Are you OK. Now, will you take my books?”
Exasperated, I intervene again, “Serena! I heard ‘no’ several times now. It looks like you’re going to have to come up with another solution. Can you do it? Or do you need some help?” We pull out of the garage and start driving to school.
Serena says, “I know, Jessie could just take my books.”
Boiling inside, not quite believing what I’m hearing, I ask calmly, “Any other ideas?”
Jessie offers one: “How about you write yourself a note?”
“That won’t work,” replies Serena.
I offer one: “How about you put your piano books into your backpack after you unload your binder?”
Again Serena refuses it: “I carry my whole backpack around to my classes. That won’t work.”
Then with a deep breath, I say, “Serena, I know you are creative and resourceful. What could you do to make sure you remember your piano books?”
And Serena replies, “Jessie could take them.”
“OK, that’s it,” I say. “I’m pulling the car over and will wait until you can let that idea go, Serena.”
I pull the car over to the side of the road, fuming, but silent, and wait. After about 2 minutes, Serena says, “Fine! I’ll smoosh my piano books into my backpack! Let’s just go.” (She is welling up with tears now.)
“Thank you, Serena,” I say, and pull back onto the road.
And then, I tried, but could not resist . . . THE LECTURE: “You know Serena, sometimes you just need to take no for an answer. I’m not sure why this is so hard for you. You don’t always get your way in life, and you’ve got to move on anyway. Blah blah blah blah blah.”
We finally get to school and I pull over to let my kids out. I turn around to say goodbye but Serena is already halfway out the door, looking hurt and angry. She turns her back and walks into school.
Part 3: Mom Learns an Unexpected Lesson
I pull away from the curb feeling pretty crappy, and proceed to re-think the whole episode while driving to work. What could I have done differently? Why didn’t Jessie want to help? What made it so hard for Serena to cooperate? Why couldn’t I think of something more helpful?
I called my friend and Positive Discipline colleague, Lisa Fuller, to get her perspective. After hearing my story, she told me I’d done a really good job under tough circumstances, and couldn’t think of much to do differently.
There were, of course, a few things I could have done better:
- validate feelings / empathize first (e.g., “Your back pack is really heavy and full today. You really really wish Jessie would help you out.”)
- skip the lecture in heat of the moment (would she hear it then? no chance!) and find a quiet, calm, private time for the two of us to talk about what happened later.
But there were also so many things I did well:
- biting my tongue and taking a breath when angry – HUGE!
- giving the kids some space to work it out on their own
- inviting problem solving by asking “what” and “how” questions
- encouraging Serena by showing faith in her ability to find a constructive solution
- being kind and firm and modeling self respect by pulling over the car
And then Lisa said, “You know, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
Whoa. Excellent point.
Here I was, examining everything I did right or wrong, thinking that I have control over the outcome, but in fact my kids owned the way this morning turned out, too.
I tried to help them find a constructive solution to the problem, and keep relationship all the while, but in the end, I cannot make them “do the right thing.”
The morning didn’t work out very well, but as with everything, this experience was a life lesson for all of us.
And here was my lesson: I can’t make my kids be understanding, kind, or respectful. I can lay the groundwork, teach them, and model the best I can.
And I also have to be OK with them failing, and have faith that they are learning something in the process, just as I did, for the long term.
Post Script: After school that day, when we were both calm, Serena and I debriefed on our morning. She was clearly embarrassed by her behavior. I validated her feelings and she apologized. We gave each other a hug. The learning was happening, after all.
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