This morning as my son and I got ready to face the day, I could hear it happening. I heard the slide of metal against metal as the hair trimming scissors were pulled from the toothbrush holder by the main bathroom sink. I continued to listen as I heard some snipping sounds, all the while remaining completely calm…it was actually more like an out of body experience, as I pictured he was just trimming out another Titanic drawing from a sheet of paper.
No, I didn’t run to the bathroom to stop some impending doom from taking place. I went into his bedroom to see if he had turned off his lava lamp and pulled his blankets up over his bed. He had done one of these. So as I smoothed his robot blanket straight, he walked back toward his room, stopping in shock to find me looking at him with curiosity. “What’s up, buddy?” I asked. In which his response was more peculiar in the body language than the actual word response of “oh nothing…” (that trailed up at the end). He stood stark still on the opposite side of the door jam by the hinges, as if he had never used a door before. I recognized this as classic avoidance…I had played this role many times before as a child.
Once when I was about 9, I got busted for doing something I knew I shouldn’t have done. This was back then my Dad worked graveyard shifts at the mill, and so was just kind of waking up when I got home after school. I asked if I could have a snack and his response was either No, you’ll ruin your supper or you may have a piece of fruit. Whichever it was, didn’t agree with what I had in mind for a snack. There was a box of Wagon Wheels in the pantry that I had been dreaming of getting my teeth into and I was a pretty determined kid sometimes.
Attempting to seem agreeable, I agreed with a sunny Okay! and walked in the direction of the kitchen. As I initiated 9-year-old stealth mode, I silently and slowly opened the wooden pantry door, where there was no fruit to be had but an unopened box of the chocolate enveloped marshmallowy treats. I just had to somehow open the cardboard and the crumply white plastic package without detection, no easy feat!
Somehow with my sheer commitment to making this snack happen, I was able to procure one Wagon Wheel from the pack and rather than taking it to an undisclosed location to enjoy undiscovered, I went back to my bedroom with the crinkly wrapped treat tucked into my waistband?! As I walked past my parent’s room, where Dad still was, he stopped me by asking what I was doing. I froze in the hallway by their bedroom door replying sheepishly much like my son, “Nothing…” (voice trailing up at the end more like a question). At which point I even smiled, realizing it was all over, the jig was up.
My Dad smiled back, throwing me off, asking again, “What’s under your shirt?” Meanwhile, it was like the wagon wheel was squirming in it’s air tight package to be let out, like it couldn’t breathe. It would not shut up, it was totally giving away our snacking rendezvous. Realizing I was backed into a corner with no way out but the truth, I buckled, holding up the square plastic package with its now slightly melted gooey contents.
Dad relieved me of the contraband and I was grounded for lying for a week. This began to be “my story”. I would do something I knew I shouldn’t, would lie to get out of it, get caught, get grounded. It became a joke with my friends, can you come over this weekend or are you grounded again? The older I got the more grounded I was. In retrospect, the grounding was pretty counterproductive, although a respectable, widely-used parenting strategy back then (like other forms of punishment: spanking, intimidation, taking things away, soap in the mouth) it only confused me and I adapted by lying about stuff before it even became an issue or just did stuff without asking (or telling – which is also a form of lying).
Flash forward to this morning with my son. I, Sarah 2.0, have been working hard to keep my upgrade functioning. I used to parent by what I knew, grounding not yet being relevant to my son because he is too young and spends most of his free time with us, but trying out a spank or a yell or taking away his things have all failed miserably.
Over the last 6 months I have worked on our bond and the attachment is solid. I know because I feel it. And because I feel differently with him, I react differently with him. I have had some profound moments of empathy during difficult situations where he is tired, crying or angry or like today, Edward scissor handing the shit out of his “special occasion dress up tie” (that’s a bit too long for his little torso and so he usually tucks in the back part of the tie to his shirt so it doesn’t hang down further than the front).
In the hallway he stood sheepishly, as I had once, but this time with a severed tie trying to hide the butcher job under an awkwardly placed arm. He wasn’t smiling though, he was scared or nervous at how I might react. And fair enough, because in the past I would have gotten angry and it might have triggered some yelling, unkind words and other punishment. This morning though, I just walked closer with a smile on my face, which disarmed him immediately and I reassured him that whatever he did he could tell me and we would work through it together.
He moved his arm and let me look at the tie that had been trimmed by an inch in a jagged line. He asked, “Are you mad?” and I responded honestly, “No I am not mad, I am disappointed you would do this without asking for help.” I then gently removed the tie from under his collar and put it on the dresser in our bedroom. He followed me like a puppy dog on my heels, until we were in the kitchen, again still not trusting how this was going to go, he stood against the wall by the door looking at me in the kitchen by the sink (perhaps he was preparing to make a quick exit?)
I realized that I have conditioned him to brace for the worst because I can have unpredictable responses. I worked really hard to show him through my body language and word choice that anger and disappointment are not the same thing. Once he believed I wasn’t going to have a fit and hang him from his tie, he joined me in the kitchen. We were then able to have a discussion about what to do next. He asked if I was going to tell Dad. I said, “No. You are.” He didn’t like this response either but understood this was part of owning this bad choice.
He then suggested he could maybe do like, “…5 jobs around the house to pay for a new tie”. Upon which my response was also a,”…no, sorry buddy, you will need to do like, 30 jobs around the house to buy a new one”. He registered this financial lesson with an “ooohhhhh.” He then proposed maybe he could ask Grandma to sew it up on her sewing machine. I agreed this might be a good idea, but he would also have to explain to her what had happened, now fully comprehending the poor decision making that went into this fashion fiasco. He again responded with “Oh…but I am embarrassed by what I did.”
I feel like each of these events gives me an opportunity to teach my son about important things in life like honesty, gratitude, kindness, empathy and self-regulation. It is my hope that at the end of any of his days, he will be able to come to me with the currency of trust and mutual respect. He will also eventually have a wide breadth of knowledge on emotional intelligence and the intricacies of how emotions work and why all of them are important but most importantly what we do and how we act when we feel these feelings.
It was a super dumb move to cut his tie; but because of his action, I am grateful for the life lesson of how I am cutting my own ties to what I believed parenting needed to look like. Making up my own approaches that are no less easy, as staying calm can sometimes be the biggest battle, reacting to the specific situation in that specific moment, choosing my words and actions carefully and mindfully to lay the groundwork for a lasting, positive parent-child relationship.
*(Super dumb meaning this is what kids do, if they aren’t cutting their own hair, it’s someone else’s or cutting up things that can’t grow back…at least it wasn’t the neighbour kid’s hair or a finger – both experiences I have had in other times of my life, self and other inflicted).