Checking In

Not Waving by Richard Urban on flickr


One of my favourite poems is an irreverent yet poignant piece by the British poet Stevie Smith.   Not Waving But Drowning examines a single tragic event (a drowning) from duelling perspectives – the perspective of the victim and that of the onlookers who try to make sense of the tragedy.

In the poem, there is some conjecture amongst the survivors as to how it was that the man drowned; perhaps, they suggest, he had a heart attack – or maybe he died of the cold…  But we readers are privy to the truth, from the drowned man himself:  that he was in peril had long been missed by the witnesses to his life and death.

The beauty of this poem, aside from its cheeky use of humour to deal with a dark subject, is in its compelling depiction of the true nature of isolation and misunderstanding of the individual within the social group; but equally this may be an accurate portrayal of someone – a child, perhaps – within a family unit.

These past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about our children’s behaviour and our reactions to that behaviour.  I’m involved in an online parenting forum in which many common (and unique) frustrations are aired by stressed-out Mamas, and if there’s one thing that we all struggle with it is maintaining our calm (and our sanity) in the face of our children’s problematic behaviour.  What that behaviour looks like varies considerably – what one mother considers a problem another mother might dismiss as inconsequential – but the universality lies in our experience of discouragement when our children engage in undesirable behaviour.  The discouragement we feel leads to frustration, and to the oft-repeated question of how can I stop this behaviour??  We’re quick to make assumptions about the reasons behind the misbehaviour and quick to attribute blame for negative actions that seem deliberately chosen by our children with a view to making us crazy.  We search for answers, for the key that we can turn to ‘fix the problem’, for the best way to tackle their unacceptable conduct.

But what if, like those confused onlookers in the poem, our most common reaction to misbehaviour misses the point?  What if the misbehaviour we see isn’t actually deliberate naughtiness that we somehow need to curtail – but instead is a symptom of something for which our children need our help?

I think that, for many of us, our frame of mind about children’s problematic behaviour is set early on.  How often have you heard people counsel new parents that they need to avoid ‘spoiling’ a young baby by holding him ‘too much’/feeding on demand/rocking him to sleep/keeping him close to Mama?  There’s a pervasive fallacy (still espoused by far too many people) that babies are somehow manipulative little villains just waiting for their parents to let down their guard so that the babies can ruin their families’ lives for the next eighteen years.

But there is a gentler and more reasonable interpretation of babies’ seemingly demanding behaviour.  A couple of years ago I was at a midwifery client’s Christmas gathering with my little nursling on my hip, and I overheard an exhausted new Mama telling her midwife about how she’d been up in the night with her grizzly teething baby.  The midwife murmured sympathetically about her disturbed sleep and commented, “Oh, he was checking in with you, was he?  Just letting you know he’s a bit sore…  Poor lamb.”

I loved the midwife’s response – more than lathering on the advice, more even than the salve of ‘poor you’, she offered the young mother the balm of perspective.  That’s right, she was saying, your baby is telling you he NEEDS you.  The midwife was offering a gentle reminder that there was a reason for the baby’s difficult behaviour.  He was just checking in…

It’s easy to focus on the behaviour we don’t like and to leap into action to try to change it; but the challenge is to look beyond the actions to the cause.

Behind all behaviour lies a reason for that behaviour.

As I mentioned in my last post, we are sometimes tempted to just ‘stick to our guns’ and discipline our kids for misbehaving – when actually there are occasions in which we might teach them more through the use of grace than through the use of censure.  Sometimes our children need our assistance to do better; by parenting more mindfully (instead of reactively), we can help them to do just that – because when kids feel better, they act better.

Kids don’t just act out for the fun of it.  They don’t throw tantrums, or defy their parents, or behave aggressively because they enjoy it; in fact, if you see a kid engaging in any of these behaviours, chances are that he’ll have an angry scowl plastered all over his face, or hot tears running down his cheeks. Likewise, when they’re not actually misbehaving but just reacting badly – when they have their Big Feelings and share the drama with the rest of the household – they’re not doing it for the pleasure of community involvement; they’re doing it because they’ve just got Big Feelings and they don’t know what to do with them.  And it’s not going to help anyone if we just dismiss their behaviour as ‘inappropriate’ and impose sanctions without trying to give them labels for their emotions and work at figuring out what’s making them act so miserably.   We can’t just wave back and say, “Oh, isn’t that nice, they’re waving…” when actually it’s a lot direr than that.

We need to be alert to the explanations for problem behaviour that are more complex than, “He’s just being naughty.”  And we need to be willing to exercise patience in teaching and in listening for the benefit of our parent-child relationship as a whole.

Just today I was starting to get snappy at A. over his constant tirade of neuroses – he is a classic hypochondriac, and I find it difficult to be patient in the face of a barrage of symptoms and concerns…  I was feeling frustrated because he was demanding my attention for insignificant things, so I began instructing him about what kinds of things he just needn’t mention – stuff like, my finger hurts when I bend it like this, or, I sort of scraped my shin at games time yesterday, or, I feel dizzy when I blow up balloons…  And I could tell that he was having trouble understanding how it was that I was telling him, as his mother, that there was just some stuff about him that I didn’t really want to know about.  It struck me that I’m writing a blog post about listening to your kids and not just reacting to their behaviour, and I’m not listening to my kid but instead I’m reacting to his behaviour.  I can’t advocate reading between the lines with kids and then just merrily ride roughshod over my own child’s communication with me…  And besides, what if he just gave up and decided that I didn’t want to hear from him at all?

Because, if I dismiss his worries and concerns when I think that they’re trivial, how is he going to trust me to be approachable when he has other worries or concerns – ones that I should know about?

So I apologised and reassured him that if something was bothering him, of course we should talk about it.  He was telling me that he was anxious about what might happen if he fainted when he was blowing up a balloon at camp (as you do…), so I took the time to address his concerns not by solving the problem for him or by assuring him that it would never happen, but by asking him first what he thought might happen and then reassuring him that I choose to only leave my kids places where I trust that they’ll receive loving care and assistance no matter what the situation.  He seemed appeased, and for a little while I didn’t hear any more about it (a small break but a big relief).

The fringe benefit of taking a step back from the behaviour that’s bothering us (instead of swooping in right away to try to change it) is that we’re able to look at why we’re bothered by the behaviour.  Sometimes, by avoiding the knee-jerk reaction, we’re able to examine whether or not their actions are even worthy of our concern.  Tonight, for instance, West was getting D. down for the night and I was tucking C. in when I heard an almighty clatter coming from the older boys’ room.  I rushed in, ready to read them the riot act about making a racket when the others were trying get to sleep – and found them tidying up a pile of castle-parts, chucking them into their storage bin.  My first instinct was to remind them about the noise, but then I remembered not to react; instead, I commended their tidying efforts and left them to it with a friendly addendum about popping the pieces in carefully now that the younger boys were in bed.  Had I spoken harshly, they would have felt justifiably indignant and it probably would have caused us all stress and unhappiness in the long run.

I think a helpful way of looking at this issue is to imagine how it would be if your spouse reacted to your behaviour in the way that we often react to that of our kids.  Play it out in your head for a bit – it’s good for a chuckle…  It’s easy to see, when we do that, how demoralising it would be to be in a relationship in which your spouse neglected your thoughts and feelings and instead chose to focus on your actions.  Imagine if you were upset about something and you were loading the dishwasher a bit too aggressively… If your spouse called out from the other room and cautioned you not to break a plate – instead of coming in and asking to help or finding out what was bothering you – you’d probably be tempted to break that plate on purpose!  It would be hugely frustrating to have your spouse ignore your feelings in that way.  Now imagine what it would be like if all your interactions were like that, all the time.

We can be quick to make assumptions about the reasons for our kids’ misbehaviour and quick to dole out the consequences/discipline.  But if we slow down and listen a bit, we might just find that they’re not waving – what they’re really doing is checking in.







The next time your kids’ behaviour is bugging you, try not to react right away and swoop in to discipline – instead, give the ALF technique a try:

  • Ask – Ask yourself ‘Why would he be behaving like this?’  (Reasons can be as simple as the child being tired, hungry, or unwell)
  • Listen – Listen for or sense the emotions behind the behaviour (and offer your child a label for them)
  • Find out – Figure out how you can help: ‘What can I do to help my child do better in this situation?’ (Remember that your child can act better when they feel better; sometimes just reinforcing the message of love is enough to improve behaviour)

Worth a try?

Thanks for reading!



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