Thursday, June 3, 2010

Parenting Toolbox: The 3 Rs of Recovery

(from Reepicheep's Coracle)

When I pulled out this card* today, looking for a tool to write about, I knew it was the right one. I love the cards that tell me how to behave because often, that's all it takes for Livy to behave. Amazing how big an effect it has on her when I act like the responsible, mature adult I should be. This card also explains a tool that I can pass on to Livy as a life skill, and I love those too. And last, but not least, I had to use the steps on this card recently in my daily life.

The card reads:

"Making mistakes isn't as important as what you do about them. Use these steps after you have had a chance to cool off.

"1. Recognize the mistake with a feeling of responsibility instead of blame.

"2. Reconcile by apologizing. Children are so forgiving.

"3. Resolve the problem by working together on a respectful solution."

So, in case you guys were not aware of this, I mess up all the time. I set limits that are unnecessary. I yell at Livy. I boss her when I ought to mind my own business. I treat her unkindly or like I'm superior or like she is a bother. I hurry her up when I don't have anything in particular to do. I let lesser priorities get ahead of her.

And, in case you guys were not aware of this, if you generally treat your child with respect and allow her to voice her opinions, she will let you know immediately when you do any of the bad things above. :)

I try to always keep in mind that I am forging a new path, parenting in a new way (not the way I was parented), and mistakes are to be expected. Not only expected, but welcomed as new chances to learn how to behave myself. Not that I want to yell at her. But when I do, instead of kicking myself (mentally or physically), I can be glad that I have seen a flaw in my behavior or thinking and that I have a chance to work on it.

Therefore, my motto: YIPPEE MISTAKES!!

But what to do when you make a mistake with your kids? Here's a list of some of the ways I have seen parents handle mistakes.

1. Hide them. After all, if we want our kids to respect us, we had better appear to be infallible. Everyone who has ever worked for a jackass boss knows that we don't respect people who cannot admit that they are wrong and make amends. We see them as insecure and rigid and dishonest, and they are.

2. Don't even acknowledge the mistake to yourself. They are only kids, anyway, and we can treat them any way we want. We are the adults; we must be right. This is even worse than the first one. At least if you only hide your mistakes you can improve secretly. If you don't even allow that you could be wrong, there is no possibility of change.

3. Blame them on the kid. "Well, I may have yelled, but you shouldn't do that and make me so mad." Also the M.O. of spousal abusers, though at least their victims can leave. Once again, dishonest, but also just mean. And what a terrible lesson to teach, that a child is responsible for other people's feelings and behavior. This means he is his brother's keeper, and even his mom's.

So, as usual, positive discipline has another approach: the three Rs. When we screw up, we can accept responsibility, apologize to the wronged person, and make a plan (ideally, involving the wronged person in the planning) for working on this problem in the future.

Here's an example of how this might work with me and Livy. I can't think of a recent situation when I've used this with her, so I'm making one up, but it could easily happen this way for us.

Imagine Livy happily playing in her room, absorbed in some important and yet invisible (to me) project. I walk in and say, "Okay, I need some help with the dishes." She says, "I'm busy. I'll help later." I say, "Look, I cooked dinner and grew these vegetables and the least you can do is come and help me clean." We end up in a fight because she doesn't want to disengage from her work, and I am stubbornly refusing to butt out. When I realize that I didn't take her work into account or try to be at all flexible about the help I needed (everything had to be on my time schedule), here's what I would do.

1. Recognize the mistake. Thinking in my head, "I hate to be interrupted and bossed too. Her work is just as important to her as mine is to me, and there was no reason those dishes could not have waited 10 or 15 minutes. I should have been more respectful of her time."

2. Reconcile by apologizing. To Livy: "I'm sorry that I just came in here and demanded that you stop what you were doing and help me RIGHT NOW. I should have told you that I needed help and then worked out a time for doing it that was good for both of us." After this, Livy would definitely need to talk with me about it and probably cry a little bit, if it was an intense fight. I wouldn't move on to step 3 until we were actually reconciled, and she felt heard.

3. Resolve by problem solving. Me: "I don't want to act like that in the future, so I'll need to work on it. Any ideas?" Livy: "Don't boss me anymore." Me: "That's my goal, but I need a plan to help me practice and remember. What if you hold up your hand if I start rudely interrupting you so that I can remember not to?" Livy: "Or I could close my door if I am working on something important." Me: "Okay, that sounds good. Then, when I stop to knock, that will help me remember to respect your time. I'll still want to tell you I need help and work out a plan for when you can take a break and help me." Livy: "That's fine. Now can I get back to my project?" Me: "Sure. When can you help me with the dishes?" Livy: "10 minutes?" Me: "Okay, I'll set the timer."

Now, what did I get out of this? First, I got to make amends for a mistake and repair the relationship with a person I value very much. I got to show her that I want to treat her well, which makes her feel better and makes me feel better too. I got to be virtuous; I used honesty (because looking a mistake square in the face is looking at reality), integrity (because I chose to act in accordance with my values), productivity (because parenting is a career and this is the kind of work I want to do in my parenting), and pride (because I was looking back over my behavior to see if it was virtuous). I also got to teach Livy some important lessons, and that is a big goal of mine.

Here's what I think she got out of it: She learned that adults make mistakes, even parents, and that when she is an adult, she will make mistakes as well. She learned what to do when she makes a mistake. She learned that when we bring a mistake to the forefront instead of evading it, both people (the mistake-maker and the victim of the mistake) get to feel better. She learned about how to be virtuous by watching me use honesty, integrity, productivity, and pride, even if she doesn't know their names yet. She learned that it is not okay to boss people around and to misuse power. And she learned that I love her and don't want to treat her badly, even when I sometimes do it by mistake. That's quite a lot from one little mistake from me and a conversation.

Because it is so applicable to every single person in the world, I think that this tool should be considered a life tool or a people tool, rather than just a parenting tool. I used it myself recently with another adult.

I lost my temper and wrote an unfair blog post. Once I cooled down and realized what I did, I used these 3 steps to handle the situation. They took a long time because it was a big confusing mistake, but in the end, they worked in the same way they do with kids.

First, I acknowledged to myself the mistake I had made. And not just that I had made a mistake, but exactly what I had done and why. This first step is really a kind of introspection, where we figure out what happened and admit, to ourselves, exactly what the error was. Next, I apologized to the person I went off on. I explained my mistake to him and told him how sorry I was.

Finally, I made a plan (This time, I did the problem solving alone, since the victim of my mistake was a stranger and not someone I was likely to go off on again.) for how I was going to cool off before publishing blog posts in the future. I thought of what I could do to made amends to him (apologizing publicly and taking down the post) and of what I could do to prevent these kinds of mistakes in the future.

By dealing with my mistake this way instead of one of the other ways I mentioned, I got to be virtuous and feel better and work for my future improvement. My victim got some justice and acknowledgment from me and got the feeling of reconciliation too. This way of handling the mistake was a win for both of us.

Admitting mistakes openly makes some people feel embarrassed and humbled, but I don't think we have to see it that way. When I behaved so badly, I was not acting virtuously. Nothing else I could do afterward would erase that. My choice was in how to handle the aftermath of the mistake, virtuously or not. When we use these 3 Rs, since we are acting virtuously, we can feel the dignity and honor that virtuous action brings us. I may have been a jackass on the day I wrote the post, but I can be proud of the way I handled it afterward, at least.

This is a big lesson I want Livy to take into adulthood: when we handle mistakes rationally, using these 3 Rs, we are help ourselves (the virtues lead to happiness, after all), and we maintain healthy relationships (treating our loved ones with respect). And I think owning up when I make mistakes is the best way for her to learn it.

*You can see Jane Nelson's Positive Discipline Tool Cards here.

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