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When our neighboring Mount St. Helens recently started to rumble, one of my children asked, “Do people who live close by get mad when the volcano erupts?”
“Do you get mad at the rain?” I asked.
While he was pondering my question, his brother said, “Being mad at the rain or a mountain erupting is as insane as being mad at another person.” Indeed, we live at peace with nature because we have realized that it doesn’t change to fit our ideas. Yet too often we expect humans to change according to our thoughts and children to develop according to our plan. Such expectations leave us frustrated and powerless. How do I know it’s raining? I observe. I don’t try to change the rain; I respond by taking an umbrella. Likewise, how do I know what my child should be? I observe and respond without trying to manipulate.
“But,” protests a caring father, “How do we respond kindly when a child is hitting, grabbing or making a mess?”
In the normal course of events, most of us are looking for a way to manipulate and stop what we define as “wrong.” Yet, if we stop to question our own assumptions, we discover that the child has a very valid reason for her actions or words, or that nothing is really wrong. Once we realize that our per- ception is not truth, we can notice the child’s inten- tion and offer help (if needed) rather than judgment.
The reason for a child’s behavior is often emotional, and not always obviously related to what she does or says. Stopping her expression does not stop the cause. I can stop her from scream- ing or hitting, but the reason for her anguish is still there and will erupt again. In fact, my stopping her will induce a sense of separation and fear, compounding her anxiety and driving her into more aggression. In contrast, once I understand the child, I can respond kindly, regardless of whether she can have what she wants at the moment.
In my book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, I offer a communication formula, SALVE, to help parents find the way back to their wisdom and love:
S - Self-inquiry: Gaining freedom from the tyranny of unexamined thoughts
A - Attention on child
L - Listen
V - Validate
E - Empower
The following is an example from the book. It shows a father who was able to avoid his initial upset. His response would have normally been anger, but he used the SALVE formula to stay con- nected and kind.
While Adi worked in the yard, his 4-year-old daugh- ter, Ruthi, went inside and poured herself a glass of milk. Some of the milk spilled on the table and the kitchen floor. When Adi came into the house and saw the spilled milk, he was ready to burst out with, “Why didn’t you ask me to help you? You know you can’t do this by yourself.” Instead he took a deep breath; he noticed these words pass by silently in his head (S of SALVE) and took time to notice that they were not true or useful to him. He then turned his attention (A) to Ruthi. He noticed that she had been trying not to dis- rupt his work and was pouring herself a glass of milk without his help. He came closer and said cheerfully, “I see you had some milk all by yourself.”
Ruthi responded, “Yes, and some of it spilled.” She looked up at her father with a questioning heart while he listened (L) with a kind and open heart.
“That happened to me the other day at Grandpa’s,” he said (V for Validating). “I spilled juice. I felt clumsy but Grandpa smiled and gave me a towel. It’s easy to clean up.”
Ruthi ran from the kitchen and brought a towel (E, she feels Empowered), which she handed to her father. It was not the kind of towel Adi would have used to clean up the floor, yet he accepted the towel with gratitude.
The S of SALVE is the most powerful (and sometimes challeng- ing) part, because it asks you to deviate from a lifelong habit of obeying your thoughts. In this article I will only focus on the S: Self-inquiry. The rest of it will become crystal clear once you in- quire into your own thoughts, though I go into more detail about the entire process in Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves.
We fool ourselves into believing that our upset is caused by the child. But is it? Notice how you feel when you believe your own thoughts: angry; upset; wanting to scold, threaten, punish or withdraw. Would you be upset if you didn’t have the thought that goes against the child? Without that thought, the upset is replaced with peace.
You might think, “She should listen to me.” Really? Why? Who dictates so? How can you know that? Observe: Is she listening? If she isn’t, wouldn’t it be more useful to find out why, so you can understand her and stay connected? Notice her as you would notice the rain: She is not listening. There must be a good reason why she is not able to listen. If, instead, you listen to her (under- stand her behavior), you will discover why she cannot hear you. (Some possibilities: She is too young, she needs physical com- munication, she is scared, confused, insecure, disconnected, she needs something that you don’t see, etc.)
Our purpose is not to stop the child’s expression (unless it’s unsafe), but to understand why he must be doing what he is doing, so we can care for him. Often we discover that we see a problem where there is none. Even if the action has to be stopped, once we understand the need or cause, we can feel calmer and respond kindly. I invite you to assume that everything the child is doing is perfectly right. Such realization will wake you up from your confusing thoughts so you can respond rather than manipulate.
The Power of “Yes”
One way to quickly bring clarity to yourself is by saying “yes” when you want to say “no” (when safe). Once you are “boxed” in your positive response, look for a way to fit with the “yes.” Your child is painting on the wall. “Yes, I can see how you would love to cover the wall with colors,” and then cover the wall with paper or offer an easel. Or, “Yes, I see that you love to make your sister scream,” and if little sister is not enjoying herself (she might be), you can offer some other game that gives the child a sense of power. (See more on power games in my book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves.) “Yes, I see that you like to tear books,” you might say, as you offer her old magazines to shred.
The “yes” is a way to turn around your opposing reaction into cooperation with your child. “I see what she needs. How can I assist her?” This will open your mind to peaceful solutions. If my child needs to bug her sister, I look for the reason, listen and offer validation and caring solutions.
One mother told me how she used this approach when her 4-year-old was sitting on the window sill of their fourth-floor apartment. She was ready to scream “no” and scold “how many times did I tell you...?” Instead she said, “Yes” and promptly knew how to go on validating his intent: “I see how much you love to look down from the window. Here is a stool you can use safely.” She brought it to the window and moved the child over.
The boy said, “But Mom, I was safe on the window too.”
“I know,” his mother responded, “but I was scared.” She spoke honestly about her needs and the boy was therefore happy to use the stool. She told me he has kept using it ever since.