We're taking a class entitled "Parenting the Challenging Child," that is being taught by our developmental pediatrician. It's interesting, actually, because many of the techniques and philosophies being presented in the class are things that he has already presented to us in our appointments with him, but now we are seeing them presented in a much more methodical manner, rather than in the more bandaid-approach we've been getting.
One of the key philosophies of the course is that techniques like "time-out" and ignoring undesireable behaviors only work effectively if it is time-out from positive attention. So before adding the negative, reactive strategies to our parenting toolkit, so to speak, we are building our strategies for positive, proactive strategies. Last week, we talked about the importance of "Time In."
Time in is much what it sounds like - in many ways it's the opposite of a time out. It is time spent with your child, but it's more than that. It's not just ANY time spent with your child. There are rules, you see. Time in isn't an opportunity to teach. It's not a time to discipline. It's not a time to be a parent, per se. It's a time to let your child BE a child, and for you to spend time with your child BEING that child. You don't answer the phone, you don't do dishes or make dinner in the kitchen while you're half-paying attention to what your child is doing in the other room. You don't ask any questions, you don't give any instructions. Unless your child tries to do something truly dangerous like lighting the cat on fire, you don't issue any reprimands. This time (15-30 minutes a day, ideally) is completely child-led play time. You should try to see the world through your child's eyes for this brief period of time. Instead of asking questions about what your child is doing, you should comment on, or narrate, what your child is doing, give lots of positive praise, and play along, or take directions from your child, but really let your child lead the way. Your child should be the one to decide what happens during this time, you shouldn't be the one dictating any of the activities or the nature of the play. Like I said, hard as it may be, this is not a time for teaching moments, or for interrogations (no questions!! This is the hardest part!), or for reprimands. Make sure that you've got a child-safe and child-friendly environment where your child is free to act like a child free from admonishments to not touch that, or not go there, or not do that, or whatnot.
Get the idea?
This wasn't my first introduction to the concept of Time In. Several books discuss the concept; most recently when I read Russell Barkely's "Taking Charge of ADHD" I was reminded that we should be practicing the art of Time In. Dr. S. had emphasized the importance of Time In during our office visits. But I'm not good at Time In. I'm okay with generally spending time with my kids. But this specific kind of Time In technique? Not my strong suit. Seth? Seth is great at it. He's a natural at this kind of Zen Parenting where you can just let your kid be a kid and let all the parenting instincts and teaching moments and reprimands go. Seth gets in the moment and crawls around on the floor and builds legos and wrestles and lets J lead the way. Me? If you take away my questions, my teaching moments, my ability to lead in any way... I get tense. There's no Zen of Parenting in Time In for me. So the whole Time In thing has naturally fallen to Seth, not really on purpose, but because it's his strength and my weakness. We're a team and we play to our strengths, right?
But that's cheating, according to Dr. S, and we have to learn to share responsibility and share the fun. So last week, after our class on Time In, our homework was to practice our Time In technique. Mommy isn't used to not doing well on her homework, so I was determined to make this work! Thus began my first foray into the world of Time In.
J was playing with Transformers and I started to play with him. He didn't like what I was doing, so he switched Transformers with me. I hate Transformers, passionately, so I was sort of at a loss for what to do or say. "Golly what a nifty Transformer, and gee, how deliciously violent this game is" somehow seemed terribly inadequate. I was tense and fairly miserable. "Grr!" I said. "My guy is attacking your guy!" "No he's not," J said, "My guy has a shield and he blocked your guy! Take that! Kablam! Kablam!" I stifled the urge to remind J that we don't like him making shooting sounds. "Um, well, then my guy has shields too and um, your weapons can't penetrate them!" "No, your guy doesn't have shields, and now I shot him," J countered. This wasn't going well.
"Gosh, J, this is a really neat Transformer! Can you show me how to make him back into the sports car??" Whoops! The Time In Purist would be tapping the table to remind me that I'd just broken the cardinal rule of Time In... not only had I asked a question, but I'd redirected the play. Fortunately, it didn't backfire this time. "Oh yeah, look at this, Eema! It is SO cool! You do it like this, and you move that around, and then you..."
I gradually became more comfortable playing with him, and we chased each other around the living room. I became a giant transformer-eating monster, waving my arms about and stomping my feet in Frankenstein-like movements toward him.
And then it happened. I finally experienced the true moment of Zen Parenting:
J jumped up onto the couch, bounced over onto the chair, jumped to the automan, bounced back over to the couch and climbed onto the back of the couch and declared himself the winner (winner of what? I'm not really sure). J knows that my absolute most non-negotiable rule in the living room is that he may not climb up on the furniture and bounce around on it as if it is a playground. He knows it is a sure-fire way to test what kind of mood I'm in. But just as I was about to remind him to get off the couch, I remembered that would be against the rules. Not only did I not have to reprimand him right then and there, I wasn't allowed to. He wasn't in immediate danger, the cat wasn't about to be set on fire, it was time to just let this one go.
In that moment I felt like all my tension just went out of my body and I was free. Finally I could just let J be J. I could just be with him and see the world from his perspective - perched upon the back of the couch, and you know what? It looked really nifty from up there. I understood what drove him to be up there, for just a moment. For that moment I didn't have to be the mean old mom who has all these rules. I got to be the cool mom who overlooked that relatively minor infraction in the grand scheme of things. And then? The giant transformer-eating monster scooped in, picked him up off the back of the couch, tickled him, and wrestled him down to the floor, giggling madly, with nary a reprimand to be heard. Mission accomplished. No arguments. No fighting. No pushbacks. And without missing even a second of quality time with my son.
Since then, I've made it a point to spend time differently with J, even when it isn't specifically Time In time. I try to be more animated while I'm talking with him, I let him lead the discussions more, I respond to the things that he's saying and I try not to just say, "uh huh" when he's talking about something I couldn't care less about (like transformers). Even if I'm feeding the babies and he's standing there talking to me, I can still make him feel like he's got a few minutes, or even seconds, of my absolute, undivided attention. And it's making all the difference in the world.