This afternoon, I watched my five year old niece swing her two braided pigtails behind her and furrow her eyebrows so that they nearly touched, after a child grabbed a block from her stack. And then another kid knocked over a fence she had been building around two plastic cows. And then a cousin playing a poking game with a younger child poked her in the side, and she turned and swung at him, nearly leaving a black eye in her wake.
She got in trouble- for she had hit another child. She was yanked from the play-area and made to sit in a white plastic chair, alone, until she could calm down and agree to play nicely. She was angry.
But here’s the thing: she really was angry about the block that was grabbed from her (and also frustrated because she wanted to play) and she really was angry about the fence that was knocked (and also, crushed that her cousin didn’t see her magnificent building efforts) and the uncalled for poking (and also, annoyed to be distracted from her play).
The adults around her knew none of this, but they were exasperated because they wanted to catch up with each other, not mediate childhood squabbles. And so, they removed her (less she hurt another child) and stuck her in a chair to think (because you can’t hit, and that’s not the way we act in this family, and think about it until you’re ready to come back and be kind).
The question emerges, did this little girl learn anything from her time out? What if what she learned was that her anger- and all the feelings underneath- were invisible to the adults who love her the most? What if what she learned, was that it didn’t matter that other children knocked over her creations, and that it was OK for older children to poke her because they were poking other children?
Those are not lessons I want my niece or any child I love to learn. And yet- I participated in this- I was one of the adults who wanted to have bread and coffee while the children played over yonder.
What if, instead of letting our desire to be with the grown-ups and our short-fuses for kids who hit other kids get the best of us, we connected with our kids? What if instead, we kneeled down, slowed down and tried to understand what was happening for the child who just struck another?
What if we approached the situation with empathy, instead of exasperation?
Here’s the thing about anger: there is almost always another emotion (or more than one) underneath anger. And when we approach a situation with empathy, what we feel are the feelings underneath the anger.
What do I mean? Let me give you some examples:
For my niece, under her anger about the knocked over fence was frustration that she couldn’t play as she wished, underneath her anger about being put into time-out was perhaps sadness or a feeling of her experiences being invisible to her caregivers.
For you, imagine you didn’t get a promotion you really deserved, and you were angry. But what was underneath that anger? Maybe some embarrassment that you didn’t get the job, maybe some fear that you wouldn’t be able to make it professionally, maybe some disappointment in yourself.
For you, maybe you’re a mom. Maybe your child was dawdling in the slowest way only children can dawdle, while you hurried them along because you really wanted to get them to the playdate because you really needed to talk to another grownup about life. And maybe their incredibly slow way of getting their shoes on was making you mad, and maybe you snapped a little. Underneath your mad was a need to be heard, a feeling of losing yourself to dawdles. See how underneath the mad, there’s something really tender?
Think back to the last time your were angry: what else was there? If you really looked, what might you find?
With that perspective, let’s return to this situation in which my niece has just slugged another child. She did hurt the other child. And yet, she’s only five, and we grown-ups were very engrossed in grown-up things in the time leading up to the slugging.
Perhaps this child could have used some help when the other kid grabbed her block, or knocked over her fence. Perhaps she could have used some empathy instead of a scolding.
So what would that have looked like?
It would have required an adult to sit down in her space, and attend to what was going on for her. We might have asked her “Hey, what are you building? Where do these little animals go? Who is helping? Who is playing something else? How are you feeling? What do you need- do you need helping building the fence again? Do you need more blocks or a little space to work in?”
These are all empathic questions- questions that are centered to her experience. They necessarily understand her hitting as an expression of her frustration- and they assume that she was just trying to be a good, playful child. They assume that something went wrong, and that that something caused the behavior. And, they hold open space for the fact that the something that went wrong was, perhaps, that the parents involved were talking to each other instead of attending to their children or being present in their children’s space. And maybe, the something that went wrong was the fact that the parents’ need time for self-care, too, because we live in a world that affords very little of that. And, these questions hold space for this little girls’ experience without pointing fingers at her, her playmates or even her parents.
These questions assume that underneath the anger that was expressed through hitting, there is something else happening, and they assume that that something else is actually very important and that, if we can tend to it, maybe next time, we can do something else, instead of hitting.
So what if your child looks at you like you have three heads when you ask empathic questions after they express anger (whether they express anger via behavior like hitting or by telling you they’re pissed off)? It’s a good question, and one you might need to deal with if you haven’t approached situations like this in the past. It’s OK to offer yourself some empathy here, and let the kids know you’re trying something new, because the old way (time outs, grounding, whatever it was) seemed like it was hurting more than helping.
Because in the end, what we want the children to be able to do is manage their anger in ways that don’t hurt others, and we want them to be able to try new ways when things don’t work out. And if we’re going to ask that of our kids, you know who has to do it first?
Model that kind of vulnerability, enact that kind of empathy, and we’ll all be better for it.
Who remembers loads of presents under the tree? Who remembers eyeing those loads of presents, and tearing open the corner to see what was inside? Who remembers the joy of sitting with your family and watching the faces of your loved ones light up, as they unwrapped your gifts?
OK, those are the good memories.
Now, for the other stuff: who dreads holiday shopping? Who hates it when the Target parking lot has literally no spaces, and who feels a wee bit resentful when that one relative texts you to inform you their oldest child likes this one sports team and their middle child loves princesses and unicorns and their youngest is developing an interest in the arts and also likes zebras? Who counts up the many other ways you could have spent the money, if you weren't expected to do gifts? Who resents the influx of plastic toys, plastic wrapping, and paper that fills up the recycling in seconds? Who doesn't have space for more toys that are likely to break or be forgotten, within the month?
Yah, you. If you're still reading, here's a bunch of gift ideas that won't break the bank and that will make memories that last longer than a sparkly pink, tap-dancing unicorn. Because at the end of the day, what we- and our children- remember most fondly about the holidays is the giving, the anticipation, the witnessing of each others' joy, the unstructured time together. So put your money and your gift-giving where your values are- and give a gift that facilitates time together, that sparks anticipation, that enables joy.
A Move Night: For the screen-loving family
Cost: $$-$$$ depending on family size
Pack up a movie night- tickets or a gift card to a local cinema can be paired with favorite candies, some microwave popcorn, a bottle of wine for the grownup or a blanket to cuddle under. Arrange them in a festive bucket (which can be repurposed for the popcorn!) and give the whole family a night out at the movies.
A Zoo Membership: For the parent who needs to get out of the house with the kids
Zoo memberships are great for families with little ones, and you can bet a parent who just can't think of anymore crafting projects or tree-house games is going to love taking her kids to the zoo, especially when someone else buys the membership! Grab some animal cookies, juice boxes, safari hats, and toy binoculars, and pack them altogether in a canvas zoo backpack, ready to go to the zoo!
A Tea Party Set: For the grandparents who love fancy things
Make a vintage tea-partyset: go to a thrift-store and purchase mismatched teacups and saucers (enough for the grandparents, grandchildren, and any special stuffies or pets) and arrange them in a basket (thrift-store!) with tea bags and snacks (Trader Joe's has some great teas. Good TJs snacks for tea-party sets are croissants, cookie "dunkers" and berries, but you pick what your people would love). Pop a picnic blanket in the basket, and encourage them to have a proper tea party with their grandkids! (This is a win-win for stressed out parents who could potentially take a nap during the tea-party).
Cooking Supplies: For the relatives who just moved into a new house
Fill mason jars with different colored staples from the bulk section at grocery store. Some good ones include black beans, green split peas, orange lentils, popcorn kernels, almonds, pink sea salt, brown sugar..... basically anything you think they might use! Mason jars can be purchased in bulk for cheap. Tie a ribbon around the top of each jar; bonus points if you can find some sort of basket or crate in which they can store the staple-jars!
Family Scavenger Hunt: For The Kids Who Love To Adventure
Set up a day-long scavenger hunt that begins right when the kids wake up (you can stick the first clue under their breakfast plates!). The idea is to leave a series of clues for them to find, each one giving a direction to the next one, until with the culminating clue, the kids find something special (it can be presents, but it could also be reading a new book with a grandparent, or a big family dinner, or glasses full apple cider with cranberries floating in them). Have them meander through their home and/or neighborhood, and if there is an adult who can drive, it might be fun to leave clues at different relatives homes (works especially well for families that visit multiple houses on holidays, though requires some advance notice!). As they move through the clues, include fun "to-dos" like "Give six people high-fives," or "run around the house four times and find one person who has broken a bone" or "Gather four red food items and present them to the oldest family member in exchange for the next clue." You can hide clues under rocks and behind doors and in bathrooms, and older children can be given clues like "your next direction is where you wipe your feet after a long muddy day" (for under the doormat). Be creative- your "clues" could be tidbits about individual people (find the person who held a snake when they were seven; the holder of the next clue has a secret tattoo; to find the next clue, find the person who can tell you a story about a cat having babies in her dresser drawer, and draw a picture of the story, etc..)! This will engage your kids throughout the day, and give them a solid plan for something to do when you are out and about.