My three-year-old is making a pizza. Not a little Easy Bake Oven kind of pizza. A real pizza. She pulled out a full bag of flour from the cabinet, spread it all over the counter, and poured half a bottle of olive oil on top. Then she managed to open a jar of pasta sauce ON HER OWN and dump it in the middle. (I can tell you’re already wondering why I let all this happen. I promise, I only left her alone in the kitchen for a few minutes while I took a quick shower. I clearly underestimated her ability to put together a complete Italian recipe in a matter of moments).
The only issue? Her aim is still not that great and she’s working on being delicate. So, when the pasta sauce plopped down, it hit the oil full force from the side and the entire concoction catapulted into the air. A goopy cloud of red, and white, and greasy landed all over her shirt and all over the floor.
What do you think happened next? SHE LOST IT. Immediately, tears welled in her eyes and she screamed bloody murder. Next, she really got mad. She grabbed fistfuls of the messy mixture and started hurling them into the air, at the oven, and at me, a look in her eye like, “I don’t know why this is your fault, but it is. Don’t mess with me, woman.” Then, she started throwing kitchen utensils in my direction but, instead of hitting me, they hit her sister.
That, my friend, is how I almost lost it.
My initial gut reaction? To scream, be mean back, and move immediately to punishment. I was mad, mad, mad, too.
That’s not what you expected from a pediatrician? Me neither, but it is the truth because it turns out, I am human. As it also turned out, I thankfully remembered at that moment, so is she. Well, actually, a little song started playing in my head that helped remind me. “People make bad choices if they’re mad or scared or stressed. But throw a little love their way, and you’ll bring out their best. True love brings out the best.”
Sound eerily familiar? Yep, the Frozen soundtrack was my saving grace at that moment (I knew that movie would be good for something one day). Seriously, as cheesy as it may sound, that tune has it exactly right when it comes to early childhood behavior and successful parenting. It’s the crux of emotion coaching and of collaborative problem solving: an assumption that all people want to do and be their best but that traumas, circumstances, skill deficits, and developmental immaturities keep them from it a lot of the time. An understanding that our most important parenting goal should be to coach our kids toward desired behaviors, not to punish them for their ineptitudes.
Think about it this way: if you were in charge of a beginning-level soccer team and one player hadn’t eaten breakfast, leaving him without any energy, and he couldn’t run down the field, would you get mad at him or would you feed him? Missed a goal… would you sit him out of the game or would you work on his kicking skills? If he had an incomplete pass, would you run over in the middle of the game and explain in an irritated voice how he failed or would you use the next practice to build his skills? Storming onto the field in a fit of anger would not only be inappropriate, it would be ludicrous.
Becoming Your Kid's Behavioral Coach
When you are a good coach, you think about where your player is going, not where they are now. You work with them toward the goals you share, and you consider it your role to teach and guide. We have to think about our parenting in the same goal-oriented way if we want to be successful. Does that mean we just let our kids run free and wild, hurting others along the way, with no accountability? Not at all. Does that mean we bend to every unhealthy request our kids make? Not in the least. Do we never get angry or upset? That’s impossible. It does mean that we first think of our children as fellow-people, who usually act out based on feelings and needs, not spite.