Parenting Outside of Your Comfort Zone
My fiancé and I have four children between us. I have two boys from a previous marriage and she has a boy and a girl. Typically this is where people say something like "Ohhhh... that's a lot". But, there's more. You see, the four of them are close in age, in fact as I type this, our home is the living space of kids ages 8,7,6,5... and if the words BLAST OFF come to mind, you're starting to see my point. When all four of them are together the house vibrates with energy like a shuttle threatening to explode off its foundation. It is not uncommon to hear laughing, crying, screaming, doors slamming, and suspicious silence (what are they up to?) all in the span of one hour. As a group they are quite a force. However, as parents we have to approach each of them as individuals in discipline, encouragement, teaching, and even in how we show them love.
None Of These Things is Quite Like the Others
It would be impossible for me to give a breakdown of each of our kids in the space allotted, but here is a quick snapshot. I will call them The Professor, The Princess, The Joker, and The Genius. They are all amazing and complex in their own way.
At 8 years of age, The Professor is the oldest child. He is considerate and thoughtful. He loves to read and have lengthy discussions about history or random scientific facts. He's the kid who will actually watch a documentary on World War II from start to finish. A typical night of fun for him is watching Star Wars (any of them) and discussing who would win in a fight between The Incredible Hulk and Yoda. For those who care, we both give the edge to Yoda. As Yoda would say, "Too much anger, the Hulk has."
The Professor is very much an idealist which can lead to him getting upset when things do not go as expected. He is also a people pleaser, so for the most part he is extremely obedient. He's the one we rely on to give us the true story about what caused the loud bang in the basement; or why one of the other kids came upstairs crying hysterically. He seems like a parent's dream. He also happens to be the only one of our kids who is in my comfort zone. He and I are very much alike. I know what makes The Professor tick. To be fair though, his personality is not without challenges, even for me. Because he is a people pleaser, he isn't always honest about how he feels. This is particularly true when it comes to negative emotions. Sometimes that can lead to him having, what I view as, an overly emotional response to simple situations.
What I've Learned: That emotional response is very real and not excessive to him. To dismiss the way he feels will only serve to keep him in the pattern of hiding his feelings. Therefore, when these situations arise, I try to take him somewhere quiet to talk one on one about why he is so upset. This requires a delicate balance of persistent but gentle questioning. He needs to know that he's not disappointing me by being upset. I've also learned to give him space. Sometimes the professor needs time to be alone after he gets mad or hurt. The conversation is almost always better after he's had time to process the situation.
The Princess is an extreme extrovert. She is the bubbly social butterfly of our group. She has never met a stranger. I mean NEVER. It's not uncommon for her to strike up a conversation with classmate's mom as they arrive to pick them up from school. The Princess loves to ask questions because she is curious about everything. She has an awesome memory. It's nothing for her to remember who gave her a birthday present from 3 years ago. She is excellent at figuring out ways to get what she wants. The other night she walked away from an outing with a $20 souvenir that we didn't have to pay for. No, she didn't steal it.
A typical evening of fun for her would be going shopping with her mom, going out to dinner with her grandparents, going to visit her BFF next door, going to the park to play with the boys. Are you seeing the theme yet? She's a girl on the go! She loves new experiences, new people, new toys. The Princess lives for the special event, the big show, and the next party.
The princess is definitely out of my comfort zone. I'm a natural introvert, and though I know how to operate like an extrovert it can drain me. I run into challenges with her when she asks too many questions. That is not to say I have a limit on the number of questions a kid can ask. But, I do prefer to be allowed to answer the first question before the next 8 pour in. She's not being rude, it's just the way her mind works. The princess also becomes bored very easily. She could spend the whole day out having a girls' day with her mom and within a few minutes of being home you'll hear the dreaded, "I'm bored." The Princess must be entertained.
What I've learned: Be patient. Occasionally when I'm asked too many questions, I will respond with sarcasm. My fiancé has reminded me that it's not fair to respond that way. The Princess only does the rapid fire questions when she's excited. I have to take my time with her and remind her that I can only answer one question at a time. I've also learned to join her in her favorite activity, going. Just the other day she asked me to go for a walk with her. Normally, I would have been tempted to make an excuse about being tired, or say it's too late, but I just went. It was only about 30 minutes of my time, but it meant so much more for both of us. I got out of my comfort zone and into hers and we tightened our bond.
Match the pictures to the nicknames.
He's a clown as his nickname suggests. He always wants to make people laugh. He consistently puts his own unique spin on even the simplest task. He keeps us laughing, although sometimes we have to hide it from him, like when he makes unintentionally inappropriate comments at the dinner table. I'll leave those to your imagination. The Joker is very high energy physically, he loves to wrestle, run, and jump. He's also one of the most affectionate in the group. The Joker is the one who will climb up on my lap though he's getting too heavy to sit there. If he's sitting next to you, chances are his thigh is touching yours. Sometimes it's like he just can't get close enough. His ideal evening would be full of video games and movies, as long as there is at least one other person with him.
The Joker often finds himself on the wrong side of trouble because he's not a fan of order. He's the kid who will push the limit until he finds the absolute breaking point, sometimes he still doesn't stop. He's persistent even in the face of threats. He loves to have the last word. That doesn't sit well with daddy. The Joker is also very, very sensitive. He gets his feelings hurt easily. This often results in angry outbursts and that door slamming I mentioned earlier. Unlike his older brother, The Joker will openly share his negative emotions. He does this with dramatic flair. He's been known to shout, "Nobody likes me!" through hot tears rolling down his cheeks.
What I've Learned: The Joker has been the hardest for me to figure out. One thing I've found to be true with him is you cannot fight fire with fire. When he gets angry or hurt and does something clearly unacceptable, it does me no good to fly off the handle and yell at him. Although, that's typically what I feel like doing. Instead I have to approach him calmly. He gets anxiety when he realizes he's in trouble and that leads to him making it worse by continuing to say or do unacceptable things. So, I minimize the idea of punishment and try get him calmed down before I explain what the consequences are. It's a work in progress.
The youngest kid at age 5, The Genius has an amazing memory. He especially loves letters and numbers. He can spell the word xylophone (which I just had to look up) and countless other words. He, much like The Joker, has high physical energy. Sometimes in the shower, he literally bounces off the walls. He does cannonballs in the bathtub, he climbs up the fridge by the handles, and his bed is his personal trampoline. The Genius will also watch hour after hour of educational shows like Leapfrog on Netflix. He is very affectionate with his family. He can be found on his mom's lap, or with his cold feet on a my leg, iPad in hand swiping away. He loves the iPad and all electronics. The Genius is also on the autism spectrum. I didn't write that first because I wanted to be sure he wasn't immediately categorized.
I know that autism has much to do with The Genius being out of my comfort zone, but the diagnosis is not the whole of his personality. Like his sister, he knows how to get what he wants, but he doesn't always communicate what that is. This creates obvious challenges for us as parents. He can also be quite unpredictable. One moment he's happy and laughing, the next moment he's crying because for example, Steve from Blue's Clues went to college. His biggest challenge is transitioning from one activity he enjoys, like iPad time to doing something else like taking a shower.
What I've learned: The Genius is capable of following the rules and transitioning just like the rest of the kids. It just takes more effort and consistency from us as parents. For example when he's on the iPad, we have to set a timer and when the timer goes off, we have to take it away. Initially this was met with some HUGE tantrums, but now he hands it over when he hears the timer. Occasionally he'll still cry and protest a bit but it's short lived. The Genius requires us to plan ahead. I need to be able to anticipate how he might react in a given situation and prepare accordingly.
Don't Beat Yourself Up
As I write this, I am keenly aware of how much work I need to do to improve. With every kid, I'm falling short somehow. I imagine that other parents may feel the same way as they consider how they raise, or have raised their own children. It is not my goal to make anyone feel bad. Parenting is the most critical job we have. We are literally responsible for shaping these little human beings into productive, reasonably happy members of society. They will be the ones to choose our nursing homes, our future presidents, they will own companies, and even shape little human beings of their own. With that in mind it is worth taking a moment to evaluate how we relate with these kids.
Ask yourself, am I only doing what's comfortable for me? Maybe that's the reason for the tension in your home. Making little changes like some of the ones I've described can result in big changes in how your little humans and not-so-little humans view the world. There is no one-size-fits-all parenting guide. Even in the same house, with the same rules, different approaches are required. I encourage all of you to do something small today that will get you out of your comfort zone and into the zone of your own professor, princess, joker, or genius.