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“Daddy, You Are an Intense Human”
Kid finds father sometimes overwhelming
I was stern with Kina yesterday. She’s been, for lack of a better term, bratty to the people who love her—in person and on the phone—and I just got fed up with it. “This is not acceptable,” I told her. “When you act this way, you make other people feel bad. The next time you behave like this, you will need to spend some time in your room.” As I said it, I realized instantly what would follow: Kina glared at me for eight long seconds, dropped her head slowly, and finally dissolved in sobs.
In situations like this, it is often the case that I make the ultimatum, and Laurea comes in to offer comfort, but we had agreed that Kina needed to really contemplate what it meant for her to be cruel to those who care about her. I’m not a fan of the “good cop / bad cop” concept—mostly because I’m not a fan of introducing cops into parenting—but I can’t really say that we’ve actually gained much from the (to pick a different analogy) “honey / vinegar” approach to child development. Even as Laurea sat by impassively, Kina clung to her, looking for absolution, and we calmly reiterated that this was not the kind of behavior that our family could demonstrate to others. Dejected and weeping, she marched into her room and plopped down on her bed.
This has happened a lot lately, and it’s been frustrating for all parties involved—not least for Kina herself. I don’t want these moments for her any more than I want them for myself, and so I went in to offer a “let’s start over” (Laurea’s brilliant phrase), once she was calmer. I walked into Kina’s bedroom and got down at eye level with her, dipping my head just below hers. “I feel like you’ve been extra sad and frustrated with me lately,” I told her, “and I want you to tell me why that is.” She blinked a bit, then grabbed one of her blankets and draped it over our heads, as if to create our own little confessional. She looked me in the eye and said, “When you talk like that, you don’t tell me ‘I love you,’ and it makes me sad.”
I often learn about how best to do a thing by first doing that thing badly, but I hate that model of personal growth when it makes my kid cry. I could feel my guts suddenly drop out of my body as I sat there and nodded mutely at Kina in the pink-hued air underneath her blanket. I’ve been reading a lot about feedback for work in the last few months, and one of the things that comes up again and again in the research is that feedback only really works when you decouple a behavior from the person who’s doing the behaving. You can, in other words, love a person even as you abhor what they’re doing, and it is often best to remind them of it; it’s easy to forget one side or the other of that equation when somebody you love is being nasty, because the cognitive dissonance feels too hard to wrestle down. It’s powerful, though, to recognize the sanctity of your love and the specificity of your rebuke in the same breath. It reminds us that we can choose, and we can change; we can make mistakes in the presence of grace.
Kina has my grace. Different authorities in the area of child development have divergent views of how that grace is meted out, but I think most reasonable experts would agree that grace serves as the foundation of how we discipline our children. Sometimes, I think, I can be a little intense. I try to be clear with Kina, because I need her to know how I feel, but I am ultimately flawed and sad and human; and so is Kina, in whose presence every breath I take is first suffused with my love (even when that breath is followed by an exasperated sigh). Her quiet rebuke to me, in that moment, was to keep my grace in mind, and it inverted the entire dynamic of our relationship in those five minutes. It was some real brain judo.
I will certainly have words with Kina again. She’s four, and some part of her is still a little monster. I wish we didn’t step on each others’ toes, though it seems inevitable that the toes will be forever underfoot. She will push my buttons in ways that I won’t see coming, and I’ll have advice for her that she won’t see coming. I don’t know that we we’ll see eye to eye next time, and one of us may end up crying, but I do know now what I’ll say first, and I hope she’ll know I mean it.