Do you fall victim to other people’s opinions and judgment? Do you go out into public and cringe every time your child doesn’t behave? Do you get tenser and tighter and lose track of your best parenting self?
You’ve probably heard that quote (or something like it) that says, “Between stimulus and response there’s a space. In that space is our power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
Let’s consider that quote.
At your best—when you are well-rested, calm, in love with your children—you make good parenting choices, don’t you? As your best self, they do something naughty or rude or irritating, and you are warm, firm and creative. Whatever the problem was, you smooth it over and reengage them in something constructive and fun.
But let’s think of some of those agonizing parenting moments when you are tired, stressed and at the end of your rope. Maybe some stranger is ready to tell you exactly what you should be doing. Their comments are like an arrow in your heart and you are ready to die of mortification
Who I Am at My Worst
I know what I am at my worse: I’m bossy, insensitive, hyper-aware of who’s looking at me and overanalyzing my every parenting move. I snap, I grab, I glare, I threaten, I bribe.
See if you recognize yourself in this scene:
[Scene: grocery store]
Me: Stop that! Don’t touch. Put that down. Julie, I’m warning you. Put that down. Put that down right now.
[I grab Julie’s arm, glare at her, and pull her away roughly.]
Me: Put that down right now or we are going to march right out of this store with nothing for dinner tonight. Come on, dear. Put that down and you can have a cookie.
And here is what the internal monologue would be:
Me: You are such a bad mother. Why can’t you control your child? Look, look over there. That toddler is just sitting quietly in the cart. Why can’t my child be like him? I am so mad at you, Julie. I am going to die of shame.
And here is what I would be hearing around me:
You should take that child outside!
Stop yelling at your child. That is not going to help anything.
When are you going to teach that child some manners?
If a child of mine behaved that way, she’d get a swift swat.
Shifting from Our Worst Selves to Our Best Selves
So how do we shift from being our worst selves to our best selves? Let’s go back to our quote: Between stimulus and response there’s a space. In that space is our opportunity to make a choice. The bigger the space, the more likely we are to reject our own fight or flight response.
The million dollar question becomes, what can we do to stretch the time between stimulus and response? My answer? Rehearse! Yep. I spend a lot of time rehearsing conversations/scenes in my head. For example, as I am driving from work to picking Julie up knowing we are going to have to nip into the store, I rehearse how I am going to handle my daughter’s inevitable whiny crankiness.
In my mind the scene looks something like this.
[As we walk towards the store entrance and get a cart]
Me: [warmly squeezing Julie’s hand and infusing my voice with excitement]
Are you ready to help Mommy in the store? You can help me put things in the cart. You can help me count things. You are such a big help to Mommy. Here we are. Can you find the apples?
[Julie cries out and points to the bin of caramel candies.]
Me: Not today, darling.
[She squawks louder and bangs on the cart.]
Shopper: That child should be taken out!
Me [to Julie]: I know, sweetie! Those candies do look good and you’d really like to have one. Hold this apple while a get a bag. Thank you! Are you ready to count? Into the bag! There’s one. Here’s two. Last one. That makes three!
The Cheerfully Calm Parent
Feel the power of that scene. Are you rolling your eyes going, yeah, right, like that would work. It does!
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Parenting is a confidence game. The cheerfully confident and calm parent can smooth over a host of dicey situations.
Remember that Rogers and Hammerstein line from The King and I: “And when I fool, the people I fool, I fool myself as well.” That’s the trick.
When you rehearse scenes in your brain ahead of time over and over, you are laying down the neural pathways for that response. That means that in that moment—that space between stimulus and response—you have a pre-rehearsed script for your brain to retrieve and apply. As with anything you practice, this tip will help you react as your best self. More and more, calm and confident will become your ingrained, automatic response.
As with so much in life, effective parenting starts with setting a positive intention, but it is habit-forming practices that will see you through when the going really gets tough.
Putting It into Practice
To get started, take one of your worst parenting moments and go ahead and rewrite it. If you really want to fix it in your mind, take the time to literally write out the scene by hand. Then anticipate when you are going to next need your revised script and be ready to pull it up. You can do it!
Rewriting scenes is the kind of exercises in each of my chapters in my book Parenting as a Second Language: A Guidebook to Joyfully Navigating the Trials, Triumphs and Tribulations of Parenthood. The book provides excellent opportunities for reflection and coming to know yourself better as a parent. Or if you'd like help directly, sign up for a 20 minute Rewrite Session.