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.
I’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.
The 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!