Empathy, trust and learning

A longer and more considered replacement post on discipline, etc. 

Today was my last day at the office. I finished off a few lose ends of actual work then tidied up my desk, deleted my personal emails, gave my hard copy files to other people, and did the goodbye rounds. 

The lose ends of actual work involved reading the sentencing notes of some manslaughter convictions for cases where parents have killed their children. Harrowing. The Leuta case. The Witika case. Too many others. Four year old Liotta Leuta was whipped with a cut-off strip of fan belt, his body covered in bruises, until his internal organs were ruptured. He was whipped because he hadn’t wanted to eat his dinner. He died. I’d heard of this case before, it had been all through the news at the time. Reading it as a mother felt different (of course). Parenting a small child involves such physical intimacy, changing nappies, drying them after a bath, getting them dressed. You become familiar with the scale of their bodies. The little dude likes to run around the house after the bath yelling “nakeded! nakeded!” He is so small, so compact, so vulnerable, so endearing. I read the description of the bruising in the case and couldn’t help imagining Liotta’s small body. When the little dude leaps, naked, onto the couch, I follow him with a towel and tickle-rub him dry. I say “I’m gonna get you!” and make it a game. Sometimes I flick the towel at the backs of his knees to tickle him and say “whip you dry!”, and he giggles and says “more whip dry mummy?”. Whipping him dry. It’s a game. It’d never occur to him that I might hurt him. 

Another lose end at work involved tracking down the statistic of how many adult prisoners have a history of child abuse or neglect. Estimates vary – between 60% and 80%. 

My parents never hit me as a child. I remember when I was maybe seven years old, my dad had taken me and my brother to the playground and it was time to go but I was dawdling and whining, and my dad grabbed my wrist and pulled me along. This was the closest they ever got to physical discipline. I was outraged. I think I yelled and he let go and I went to the car in sullen silence and we both sulked the whole trip home. He probably apologised. I even remember which playground it was. That’s how much it has stuck in my memory. I was shocked because it was a loss of control on his part. Ironic, given that physical force is often associated with asserting control – but that wasn’t my impression at the time. I knew even then that grabbing my wrist and pulling me along was not a proud moment for him.

And I thought of that today, after writing last night about the time six months ago I flicked the little dude on the cheek with my finger when he bit me and wouldn’t let go. Partly why it was a shit parenting moment is because doing something in a moment of desperation always feels shit. 

Discipline. Correction. Training. Punishment.

They’re just horrible words, eh. I’m not sure I want to use them in relation to raising a child. 

A little while ago one of the creche staff said to me “where does he get his strong will from?”. It hadn’t occurred to me that he was strong-willed until the question was posed. I don’t expect him to always want to do what I want him to do. Simple really: he’s a person. People are like that. 

It is of course challenging when there’s something we need to do and he wants to do a different thing. He wants to play with the cds in the glovebox, I want him to sit in his carseat in the back so I can buckle him in. He wants to stay at the park indefinitely, I know we need to go home because he’ll be hungry soon. That sort of thing is tricky. At the risk of saying something I might come to regret, maybe we just need to change our attitude and see it as not a big deal. Allow more time for trips to the park, so he doesn’t have to be rushed. 

I had an accidental lesson in parenting a little while ago. I was having a conversation with a guy in his late 50s, whose kids are in their early/mid 20s. He was reminiscing about how cute they are when they’re two, and then he said something that made me need to stifle a laugh. It started with “there are always problems and challenges, even when they’re past 20…” and it went on to mention requests for petrol money.

I found it hilarious because I can’t see the problem or the challenge. Your 22 year old asks you for petrol money? You can either hand over some money or you can say “What? No! You’re an adult. I’m letting you borrow my car, the least you can do is put some petrol in it.” Saying no is an option, saying yes is an option, and the parent has 100% of the power. 

Maybe some of the toddler issues are also total non-issues, we just don’t see it when we’re in the thick of it. There are workarounds to most challenging points, and it mainly comes down to time and patience and remembering to keep the long-term outcomes in mind. Saying no is an option, saying yes is an option, and the parent has 100% of the power. It can feel like kids are hard if you expect them to do what you say – but if we let go of that expectation, and instead expect them to have their own views even when small, it’s obvious that we have all the power. All they can do is ask or protest. They can’t take the reins. If you give them a dinner they don’t like, they can refuse it, but they’re not able to go and make themselves an alternative – poor things. Behaviour that appears demanding or annoying more likely reflects the difficulty they face in being people who want to be independent, but really can’t do all that many things for themselves. That’s gotta be so frustrating for them. One day a few weeks ago I arrived at creche and the little dude was clearly too hot, he was wearing his jumper outside but it was sunny, and his face was all flushed. He can’t remove his own jumper. I took it off for him before we left, and wound the windows down in the car, and when we got home I gave him some frozen fruit and a cup of water, and he snuggled up to me on the couch and said “peach idebock spedcial treat! Yaayyyyy!” I wonder how he sees us adults, with our magic abilities to make things better.  

Parents mainly focus on how frustrating it is for the parent that kids want this or want that – and it is, yes, “only want Peter Rabbit cup!” is an annoying thing to hear when the cup is in the dishwasher (ffs it’s a cup kid) – but I really think it’s much worse for the kids. Hell, I like to have my particular mug at work, one that is the right thickness to hold comfortably without burning my fingers, one that is a good size. I’m a grown adult who knows that a cup is a friggin cup. When he’s upset about something like getting shampoo in his eyes, or being forced to be in the same room as a vacuum cleaner while it’s making “big noise”, or being accidentally knocked over by an older child at the playground, or having the cat pop his balloon – those are real things for him. If we try and be empathetic towards our kids and transfer the experience into adult terms, their silly little upsets aren’t really so minor. A vacuum cleaner is half his size and the noise is right by his face! His balloon was his precious special thing. 

Sometimes I sing Elohai Neshama as a lullaby to the little dude. It was was the prayer I memorised for my beit din. It translates “Oh lord, the soul you have given me is a pure one…” I think it’s important for parenting to be informed by a trust in the child’s innate goodness. And I want him to trust me too – because that’s the most powerful possible influence. And he does trust me, he trusts me even when he’s sceptical of something, he runs up to me when he’s not sure and he looks at me with big focused eyes when I explain something new.

Hitting a kid, deliberately, as punishment – it’s anathema the whole world view of parenting based in empathy and trust. How do they get their little minds around the idea that the person they look to for protection might hurt them? How do they reconcile that? 

I also reckon that tuning in to the kid’s feelings and needs, figuring out what the world looks like to them, helps answer the other thorny discipline questions: how do you make sure they’re not overindulged? How do you build resilience and strength of character, especially for a privileged little Pakeha boy with two highly educated parents? Saying “no” gratuitously isn’t the answer. Imposing your view instead of theirs isn’t the answer. I think spoiling is actually an outcome of a lack of attuned parenting, because if you’re identifying their needs properly you’re also distinguishing between needs and wants. Building an empathetic relationship is good groundwork for teaching them that other people have their own needs too, and that sometimes we can’t get what we want. As parents, we can’t prevent bad things happening. We can’t always fix it. It’s ok for them to learn this early. We can use an empathetic parenting style to teach them how to cope with minor problems without trying to fix things all the time. For example, when the little dude’s balloon popped, he picked up the pieces of floppy latex and brought them to me and said “mummy fixt it?” and I said “oh, no darling, once balloons are broken they can’t be fixed” and he bawled his eyes out. I didn’t say “we’ll get you a new balloon”, because that won’t always be an option. I didn’t want to minimise his upset though. I tried to give words to his feelings, validating them, and tried to explain what happened in a way he would understand. “It’s sad when things we like get broken, isn’t it? You liked your balloon and now it’s gone and that makes you feel sad. You had so much fun playing with it yesterday. But Freddie didn’t mean to pop your balloon. He was just playing with it too and he popped it by accident. He got scared when it made the popping noise and ran away.” I have no idea how much of that he took in. Maybe some of it? The intention was to teach him that when things go wrong, we can’t always fix it, but it’s ok to feel sad and we can always talk about it. Talking about it helps. Talking about things is what we do, it’s how we connect to each other, it’s how we help each other face the world with all it’s complexities.