The Art of the Underreaction

Years ago, Mom and Buried and I learned a parenting lesson we’d never forget: keep calm and parent on!

A woman and her son were walking around Fenway Park, the little boy happily toting a Red Sox balloon. All of a sudden, the balloon popped. We steeled ourselves for a meltdown. But his quick-thinking mother defused the situation.

She responded immediately with a wide smile and a big laugh, brightly exclaiming, “Your balloon popped! Who cares, right?” In no time, her son was laughing along with her. She’d thwarted his natural inclination towards getting upset by treating the whole thing as no big deal. When he saw that Mommy didn’t care, suddenly neither did he.

Even without kids, I knew it was a brilliant move. Years later, with a two-year-old of my own, her underreaction seems just as brilliant, even more essential, and a lot harder than it looked.

10471928_926484374099917_1113899412_nI’m no parenting expert (there are no parenting experts!), but I think we can all agree that little kids take their behavioral cues from their parents. If you yell all the time, your kid is probably gonna yell a lot. If you’re affectionate with your spouse, or with him, he’ll likely return the favor. If you’re high-strung and tend to freak at the smallest things, guess what? He will too.

Your kids copy everything you do and say, for better or worse. Most parents learn pretty early on that in order to properly train your kid, you have to first re-train yourself. That not only goes for obvious things like swearing and tone of voice and what you watch on TV and the music you listen to, but for ingrained behaviors like how you instinctually react to mistakes and accidents and the other unexpected events that make life life.

Kids are affected by their environment, and in the earliest years of their lives, nothing looms larger in that environment than Mommy and Daddy. Eventually we’ll have their friends and their favorite shows and movies and music to contend with, but right now? It’s pretty much us and Elmo. And Elmo doesn’t scare me. (He sure as hell annoys me, but he doesn’t scare me.)

It didn’t take me long to realize my responsibility as my son’s role model, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, especially when it comes to those natural reactions I was talking about. These are reflexes that I’ve been honing for the thirty-plus years of my own life. Curbing my language and waiting until he’s asleep to watch Justified and not listening to DMX when he’s in the car is one thing. Staying calm when he falls down or he accidentally breaks something or his balloon explodes is entirely different. That kind of behavior isn’t so easy to alter with a swear jar. But it’s necessary.

Little kids trip and fall and bump their heads and skin their knees a lot. There’s no way around it. And it happens so much – and will continue to happen throughout their lives – that it’s not going to do them any good to fear it. Sure, if I’m around and I see him take a digger or run into a wall, my first inclination is to yell “You got JACKED UP!” let loose some sort of “Oh!” or “Oof!” but I am learning to temper that instinct. Because I know that my reaction is where he gets his cue.

If I get scared, he gets scared. If I freak out, he’s gonna freak out. But if I stay calm, or laugh about the situation, there’s a better chance that he’ll take the whole thing in stride. And that’s why an underreaction – as opposed to an overreaction – is usually better for everyone. Both in the short-term (less screaming, quicker recovery) and the long (constantly panicking and being scared is no way to live). I want my kid to roll with the punches. God knows he’s gonna take a lot of them over the years. Not everything’s gonna go his way: balloons are gonna pop, milk’s gonna get spilled, mistakes are gonna be made. Dealing with setbacks without going psycho is an important thing to learn.

underreaction, parenting, dad and buried, mike julianelle, kids, children, fatherhood, moms, dads, mommy bloggers, dad bloggers, funny, humorThe trick – and what the balloon mom did so seamlessly – is to train yourself so well that the right reaction just happens; it becomes instinct. A parent’s response to even the smallest incident can validate or repudiate a child’s behavior in any number of ways, but actions speak louder than words. I can tell my son how to behave all I want, but he notices everything I do, whether I’m aware of it or not, and that’s often more meaningful to him than any prepackaged lesson I can teach.

That’s why being a parent is so hard. It’s not just about having to teach your kid right from wrong, it’s having to live those values yourself so that he sees them in action. It’s not just about teaching him how to behave appropriately, it’s about tweaking your own behavior to benefit him. Everything you do becomes their template, even the way you react to an exploding balloon. Overreact and you breed overreaction. This makes the art of the underreaction an essential parenting skill.

It’s pretty much a nightmare. No one told me that in order to raise a good person I’d have to become a better one!


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12 thoughts on “The Art of the Underreaction

  1. I miss the phrase “take a digger.” Haven’t heard that since we moved out of NH! Go Red Sox. Wait until your kids actually call you out on your flaws and hypocrisies. My 5 year old is especially good at this and can mimic me perfectly. I still have a leg up though because he thinks all I know how to do is cook and clean but for now I am still smarter than he. Great post!

  2. The old “do as I say, not as I do” approach never works. I know. There are times when you need to stop and console your child, but the lesson of the popped balloon is very true. With so many kids running around in my house, there are so many falls and tumbles, if we made a deal out of them nothing would get done.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. We actually say, “Good job!”, or clap when our little ones bite turf. If you do it in that magical window when they look up to assess your reaction, it’s golden. But it is not easy to overcome your own worry or fear, and model the wrong behavior.

    I had a test of this a couple weeks ago when my son (4) broke his arm. I have nightmares of seeing him stand up with his arm hanging oddly. He was crying, but something helped me know, even as hurt as he was, he needed me calm.

    He’s fine. He remembers almost nothing, and I barely remember any of it. But the one thing that really helped in that crisis was exactly the advice you are blogging.

    I’ve been worried about anxiety of fear that might linger because of the experience. But he’s doing well. And amazingly, what he and his sister seem to remember each time that something, be it big or little happens, is that Dad’s there with the Star-Wars band-aids if shit gets real. That’s certainly one of the ways that I want them to remember their childhood.

    Thanks for your blog. It’s good advice.

  4. Great post! I struggle daily with this trying to raise two boys ages 6 and 8. I’m a yeller, and now so is one of my son’s. We’re both working on it:) Your last sentence should be made into t-shirts, put on coffee mugs and key chains, and on the back banner of one of those planes that fly over the beaches–I love the insight. It’s so true and damn hard. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. This is so freaking true. I’ve had to look long and hard in the mirror because the kids, they do, see and sense everything. They are much more keenly aware of the nuance of situations, attitudes, tones, and feelings that me and, I reckon, many adults who’s heads are filled with a zillion other things all at once. I would say what I thought was something okay, but I’d say it with a sigh or with a tinge of annoyance and THAT, not the words, the emotions behind the words, is what my daughters pick up on and react most strongly too. It puzzled me for years, and some days still does. I want to be a great parent, and so I never stop trying to be a better person to hopefully someday get there and do right by them.

  6. So true and it reminds me of Cesar Milan and his dog-training – so often he focuses on the owner’s behavior not the dog’s. There is a very close parallel

  7. This was a hard post for me to read, mostly because I had to look in the mirror (which I always hate doing!). Very true. I see my two boys mimicking my tone of voice and what actions and it scares the hell out of me. The talks that I have with them about being better than me do not work…at all. I’m not too old to change, not by any means, but I’m worried that I’m just a little too crazy. Here’s hoping that I turn things around so that they truly can be a better person.

  8. So so true!!! You can’t tell a child “do as I say, not as I do” because they literally LEARN how to be functioning people from their parents and other close caregivers. My 7 yo has done some things that at first make me angry and then the light bulb goes off and I have to realize he is being exactly like me or his father and it’s not his fault but ours. They truly do teach us so much about life and who we are in a short amount of time and truly teach us how to be better people. It’s NEVER to late to make needed changes to our characters as we will do that our whole lives. And when you see your kids reflecting your bad behavior, it’s the perfect time to teach them why it’s wrong and show them through your own changes how to correct it and they will follow suit. Don’t give up now and dads because our kids need us to be our best!! Great post!!!

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