I recently came home from teaching the final class of a four-week Positive Discipline series, and fell on the couch in a heap of tears. I blew it. I screwed up. I started to tear into myself about how I could mess up something I do so often; and until that moment thought I did pretty well.
My brain immediately went to analyzing what went wrong. Reflection is helpful, reflection brings growth, but rarely in the heat of the moment do our brains stop there. Nope, mine went right to judgment. How could you get in to a power struggle with participants when you have just taught them how to unplug power struggles with their children? How could you let yourself get emotionally engaged in a way that caused you to step out of facilitator and in to debate mode? It was pretty much a “how could you” festival in there!
Somewhere deep inside, the voice of reason kicked in and said, “go to bed and take a fresh look in the morning.” The other voice fired back, “No, you must deal with this right now! If you don’t, you will never learn!”
Do you ever have that feeling around parenting? “If I don't teach my child a lesson right now, they will never learn.” “If I let them get away with _____ , they are going to be doing _____ their whole lives!”Sound familiar?
So here I was, having this panicked feeling about my class: this has got to be dealt with RIGHT NOW. That was the big clue that I was in no place to solve the problem and here is why: That voice, the “right now, or else” one? That’s the anxiety talking. It may look like anger; it may feel as if your life depends on it. But it’s actually our own fear and anxiety urging us on.
How Did I Get Here?
I woke up the next morning ready to find the learning opportunity here and was immediately drawn to the parallels in parenting. I frequently hear the RIGHT NOW panic from parents: “What do I do right in the moment? What do I do to them to make them learn?”The key word here is DO. When emotions are high, when our buttons have been pushed, when we are frustrated, a voice inside screams, “DO something right now, or else.”
While we may convince ourselves the DO in that moment is about disciplining our kids so they can learn, its actually about ourselves. We are hitting fight-or-flight mode and our brains are telling us this is about survival here: either I am going to drill this in to you (fight) or I am going to make you go away so you know what you did was wrong (flight). The problem is, neither of these are about our kids. They are about us, and they teach our kids nothing but fear, shame, and that when they mess up, they are not worthy of our connection and respect.
I think we could all agree that those are not the things we are trying to teach our children. So how is it that we end up there with our kids, or in my case, my class? Here's the kicker: our brains are hardwired for it. Fight-or-flight is extremely functional in real emergencies. Our eyes become laser focused, distractions are tuned out. Adrenaline starts pumping to get us ready to run or ward off attack. Our breathing becomes more rapid, and our instincts quicken. We are on high alert for danger. This process is driven by the most primitive parts of our brain.
As the self-preservation system fires into high gear, our prefrontal cortex goes offline. The prefrontal cortex is the newer part of our brain, and it is responsible for rational thought, problem solving, communication skills, morality, judgment, insight, and several other advanced reasoning skills. In a real emergency its pretty useful for it to sign off. No one wants to be stuck in the endless loop of inner dialogue and deep thought when what you really need to do is defend your life.
Here’s the problem: Our brains hit fight-or-flight even when presented with imagined threats to our safety. Because of the highly social nature of human beings, we hit fight-or-flight when our kids are in perceived danger. Even if it might be an imagined danger, such as, if I don’t get this kid potty trained RIGHT NOW, they will go off to college in diapers, no one will like them and they will end up with no friends and a life of isolation. Or maybe the imagined danger is “if I don’t make my kid respect me and have manners RIGHT NOW, they will be disrespectful to people their whole lives and never have a job and end up living at home where I will still be forced to put up with this unacceptable behavior.” Hmm, there’s that RIGHT NOW again.
While we may be ready to ward off a threat, we have a real problem when our brain thinks that threat is our children. We feel that surge of adrenaline and before we know it, we are lecturing, yelling, blaming, and doing all sorts of things that damage our relationship with our kids.
We know the urgency and panic we feel in those moments does not lead to our best teaching. So why do we hit fight-or-flight when no real threat exists? That's the question I asked myself today as I tried to understand what went wrong in my class. The answer that popped to mind was fear. The threat our brains are so strongly fighting against is fear of failure. “What if I am doing this wrong? What if I mess up? What if I can’t do it?”
When it comes to parenting, the real fear we struggle with is, “What if I fail at parenting?” Wow. That’s a big one. For most of us, it’s just too scary of a question to even acknowledge. Instead, we defend our perspective at all costs.
What If We Did It Differently?
I spend a lot of time thinking about the culture of parenting today, and I am pretty convinced that while parents have always had fears and doubts, parent anxiety has reached epic proportions. It’s hard to escape the influx of “do this or your child will fail” messages we receive daily. And sixth months later, we’ll likely here the opposite advice. This constant noise makes it hard for us to hear ourselves, let alone trust ourselves. If we really want to move forward, we are going to have to ask the question that paralyzes us: What if I fail at parenting?
What would it even mean to fail as a parent? My guess is that the answer differs for each of us, and depends on how we define our job as a parent. If our job is to move through each day with ease and perfection, and never make mistakes with our children, we may find that feeling of failure rearing its head regularly. If that feeling leads us to parent from a place of fear, avoiding mistakes at all costs, we risk passing that shame right on to our kids.
What happens if we shift our job description to one based on what we know in our hearts: that people do better when they feel better? What if we envisioned ourselves as coaches and guides, escorting our children through the ins-and-outs of being human? What if we acknowledged that mistakes and failure are as much a part of life as success, and we rarely reach our goals without some stumbles along the way? What if we let go of the fear of failure and trust that our mistakes are actually our greatest learning opportunities?
The truth is, it's not our mistakes as parents that define us. It’s the meaning we make of them, the lessons we learn from them, and the resilience we model as we choose how to act the next time around. This is what our kids are learning from every single day. This is what allows them to recover from their own mistakes and trust that they are part of the learning process. Knowing mistakes are normal is highly encouraging for kids!
So lets embrace that scary question. When that,“Right Now!” panic kicks in, let’s breathe deep in to the fear, instead of fighting or fleeing. Let’s remind ourselves often that failure and mistakes are a huge part of becoming the best parents we can be.