Do you remember the film 3 Men and a Baby? Remember the scene where Tom Selleck is reading from a sports magazine as he coos the little girl to sleep (“…the boxer was bloodied and bruised, a piece of his left ear hung by a small flap of skin ready to fall into the ring, but he danced around his opponent, hands protecting his face, in the ready stance…” or some such nonsense)? Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson stand in disbelief at his choice of bedtime story, but he reminds them that it’s not about what you say, but how you say it. It seems Tom and I have similar beliefs about talking to our children.
Since coming back from Tanzania and return to work (in an office) full time and putting Eleanor in day care, it has become clear to me how, and why, parents and their children often begin to have battles over getting to work and school in the morning. Eleanor is ever curious and engaged in her surroundings, which I love, but which does not often serve to facilitate speedy departures as she is easily distracted by other, more interesting activities than, say, getting out of her pajamas. What’s more, she wants to do things on her time frame, NOT yours. What this has meant for me lately is planning a few steps ahead: 10 minutes before we need to be leaving I ask her to “please chose the shoes she’d like to wear to school and put them on.” Then I go about the rest of my preparations. Every few minutes I swing by her (where ever she is at the moment) and see if she’s done that. If not, I repeat, gently but loud enough that she can hear, “Eleanor, please chose the shoes you’d like to wear and put them on.”
Sometimes this happens on the first request- she’s eager to see her friends, or to draw with chalk before we get in the car- but sometimes her crayons, or doll, or the simple act of running around the house is much more appealing and my requests go unheeded.
When it really is time to go, however, I change my tactic. I stop everything else I’m doing, I get down on her level and look her in the eyes. “Eleanor,” I say more firmly than I have before, “it’s time for us to leave. I need you to please put on your shoes so that we can get in the car.” I might then walk over to her shoe collection and provide her with a choice and ask if she wants help, or might I just let her do it all herself. Either way, the key to making the request work this time is that I change my tone. She knows I’m serious. She knows that I need her help.
So often I hear parents asking their children to come have a drink of water in the same loud (somewhat) aggressive tone that they would use to stop them from running into a parking lot. Imagine how confusing that would be as an adult- to have directions to the nearest bathroom given in the same tone as the reprimand from the IRS agent that just learned you owed 10 years in back taxes. And then imagine that this was the way all of your daily encounters sounded…wouldn’t you be confused by which ones were really important to listen to? I don’t mean to sound hyper-critical of such parents; we are all just doing our best. But it’s been a real source of relief and lightening for me to realize that there are times when a serious tone, to communicate a serious situation, is really needed, and there are times when it’s just not that important. And when I use my serious tone I get a serious response- so I chose to save it for the really important things.
And, although it’s not always easy, I have also learned to be a little more flexible. After all, if I’m 10 minutes later to the office than I planned but I have 10 more minutes to enjoy a leisurely walk around the neighborhood, it is totally worth it.