“Mo-om, he’s not sharing the goggles!” “I’m hun-gry!” "They're not being fa-ir!"
My friend and I are talking by the pool while our kids swim and play. It’s my friend time as much as theirs. Then comes that almost inevitable intrusion of a child whining for arbitration or seeking immediate gratification. They are looking for a parent to play referee and/or rescuer. These pleas are often quite effective in grabbing our attention and pulling us into these roles, and away from our own friend time. But they do more than just disturb our pool-side tranquility. Let’s look.
I may initially say, “You kids figure it out” but then get the desperate retort, “But they’re not sharing the goggles! It’s not fair!” Probably not - they’re kids. This is more common than crisis in the kid world. Our kids totally know that, even if we forget it for an adult moment. While it’s probably really annoying to them, it’s really it’s not our problem, though of course they’re hoping it will be. They persist. What path do we choose? (Choose Your Own Adventure parenting books would be an interesting subgenre.)
What could this poolside scene look like?
It could look like our kid coming over and I stop mid-sentence with my friend to turn and say, “What’s wrong?” I could take on the role of referee and tell the offending child to give the goggles back or say something like, “You guys have to share or no one gets goggles, you hear?”
“I’m hungry!” they say, and I turn and reply, “I’m talking right now - what do you want?” I really mean I was talking, but that’s clearly not as important as their sudden hunger is to me. The child and I could go back and forth about lunch or snacks and where to eat them around the pool, and... what was I talking about just now with my friend? I can’t remember. “Kids! Right?”
Even if I scold them for interrupting my conversation, it was a highly effective interruption. I’ve shown that even though I said I was annoyed by the interruption, I’m clearly not too averse to since I did stop talking and let them take the stage. Win win win for the interrupting kid! Sounds too harsh to call it a win? Just watch, it won’t be the last interruption. It was much too effective.
What if it could go differently? I finally became wise to how else the scene could play out.
My kid, or my friend’s kid, comes over to interrupt and I say, “Just a moment, please,” without breaking eye contact or attention from the friend who rightfully has it to begin with. I’ve found with some friends that this makes them a little uncomfortable. They may think it’s our adult job to be at attention for every want and whim and they get anxious that they’re keeping me from the important task of attending to my children. I am attending to my children at those moments. I’m attending to their very important need to respect boundaries and practice self-regulation.
If I attend to every wish immediately I do them a huge disservice because instant attention and gratification will become their expectation and they will never have the chance to build up the muscles of frustration tolerance. They will actually become more miserable the faster I rush to their emergent non-emergencies (I do move quickly for real emergencies, still aware that even in those moments my sense of calm or panic will be my children’s cue for their own reaction).
Newer friends may say, “No, no, go ahead,” to which I have to say, “Actually, it’s important to me to finish our thought here. And it’s important for them to wait a little. It doesn’t sound like an emergency.” I’ve learned not to be panicked by my child’s sense of urgency over goggles and tummy rumblings. While it feels like a really big deal, I know they eat regularly enough not to pass out from feeling peckish. Goggles are fun but the lack of them is not life threatening.
It’s annoying and unfair for anyone to demand help for something like it’s an emergency when it really isn't. I’m not saying it’s not really important to them (It can feel like the end of the world); I’m saying that their emergency, while important to them, is not an actual emergency requiring my immediate jump-to. Sometimes I quickly ask, “Fire, flood, or active bleeding? Is this an emergency?” and if the answer is “No,” which it usually is, then “Ok, I’ll be with you in a moment” - without breaking too much eye contact or friend conversation thread so as not to make it an actual, effective interruption.
They wouldn’t like me cannonballing into their pool play or demanding they fetch me something right away on my caprice. I’ve asked that question specifically, and they’ve emphatically agreed they wouldn’t want that - makes sense. Respect is learned in both directions, and that matters.
I can say to my truly beloved, boundary-testing child, “Just a moment, please” and finish my train of thought or let my friend finish theirs. I can then ask my friend, “Please excuse me just a moment, it looks like there’s a question. Yes?” If my kiddo attempts the “Moooooom!” before I’ve turned my attention to them, I actually wait longer - I want to make it ineffective to demand my attention so forcefully for nonemergencies.
Information to the rescue
Can we apply the principles from last post about providing information instead of directives?
I have learned how to give information at these times and try to leave it at that. I am confident they can figure out what to do with the information. With the goggles, when I’m ready to give them my attention, I might first say, “Thanks for waiting,” and then upon hearing the goggle grievance, say something like, “Oh that’s so frustrating” or “It really is hard to share. I’m sorry it’s such a struggle” (feelings do matter).
But then if pressed with, “Well, aren’t you going to do something about it? It’s not fair!” I can give them information along the lines of, “Sounds like you want me to figure this out for you, but they aren’t my goggles or my friends. I’m sorry it’s so difficult but I really do trust you’ll figure it out or choose something else. You make good decisions. I’m going to keep talking with my friend and this is the end of my attention for goggles. I’ll let you know when I’m ready for us to leave.” And then I smile and return my full attention to my friend. At times I can feel the indigence burning behind me, but holding my position cheerfully but firmly can help everyone move on.
If this is the first time a child is experiencing these kinds of boundaries and information sharing instead of refereeing, they likely won’t immediately accept it, but they may, and eventually they will. If I hear more “Please!!!” from the goggle justice league directed at me, I know I’ve already stated my position and need to be completely done with it. If there’s any hope that I will break down and mediate the situation, they will likely persist. On the other hand, without adult attention it’s way less exciting to squabble than to play and honestly they usually figure it out, or sulk and then realize, again, without adult attention to the sulking that they’d probably rather play.
“I’m starving!” My information: “We are heading out to get lunch in about 30 minutes. I’ll let you know when” (if they ask, “Is it 30 minutes yet?” in five minutes, I don’t have to respond at all because I already told them I’d tell when). Or I might say, “I’ll let you know when I’m ready to put out snacks.” I’ve actually found that the whinier the whine, usually the less serious the actual distress. They’re checking for the effectiveness of persistence. We will teach them how to treat us by how much we acknowledge their badgering or we don’t.
Liberation through information and boundaries. If I stick to it, they eventually give up and then both parties can enjoy the time. It’s no longer a kid-led hostage situation.
Then there’s our own issues that come into play. While we may know we are empowering our children to make their own decisions and work out their own problems, some of us may be carrying around an invisible backpack of guilt weighing us down from the kind of parental freedom we’re talking about. The contents of the backpack are unique to every parent. It may have souvenirs from our childhood that have us worried about our children feeling neglected or abandoned. It may have the weight of social pressure to feel like an “attentive parent.” It may have scraps picked up here and there from things we see and hear that have us worried we must mould our child into the wonderchild of all wonderchildren (super wunderkind!) and we must be actively moulding in a hands-on way at all times.
All of these backpack items are intangible and yet all of them affect our lives as people and parents. Many of these weights will want to counterbalance the idea that we can gift our children the closeness of trust built by the space we give them from our intervention. Perhaps we felt we had to be too strong in our childhoods and want to show our love through our assistance. None of us are suggesting we throw our children to the wolves, but that we recognize what are real wolves and what are other children stealing their goggles. We can strengthen them by not lifting a finger most times.
None of us emerge from childhood unscathed and some have deeper scars that heal more slowly. We all live in societies and are subject to peer and media pressure. These are all valid issues and hopefully we are all investing in ourselves enough to unravel them with a good therapist and other healthy supports.
Experiments in Caring
As previously stated, these suggestions are not simply in order to allow ourselves to kick back and chat while our children struggle. While they do allow us to be actual people and not simply the adults at the service of the children, they also allow our children to learn to be at their own service - how to settle their own differences, deal with minor hunger pains, and respect their parents and their parents’ friends. These are the practical ways they learn strength and caring.
That said, it is actually pretty important for our children to watch us enjoying our adulthood. It gives them something to look forward to. If adulthood looks like a life of slavery to one’s children, there’s not much enticing them to march onward. These gentle but firm boundaries that we set to respect ourselves as people deserving of time and space give them a model of expectation for their own similar boundaries.
I encourage some experimentation, whether poolside or parkside, in the grocery store or at a family gathering. Take a moment to think of past episodes of non-emergency desperation you were called upon to resolve and maybe brainstorm some kind, creative, and clear responses that communicate to your incredible child that because you love them so much, you are going to empower them to handle the situation. In turn, they can learn to love you so much that they will appreciate your feelings as well.
MAIN Author: CHRISTEN PARKER-YARNAL