Recently I took care of my three grandchildren, Crystal (almost six), Carson (five) and Jordan (three) for the day. Crystal and Jordan are siblings and are used to having me take care of them two to three days a week. They know the routines and expectations. They are comfortable in my home and with me and my husband, Jer.
Carson is an only child and is usually watched by his maternal grandfather. He sees us occasionally; once a month at most. It takes him most of the morning to settle in to the routines of our house and to our different way of grand-parenting. He started off his visit by trying to tell everyone what to do and what not to do in a very bossy tone. He’s very smart and at first tried to deflect responsibility for his behavior by crying, running into another room and saying, “You scared me!” whenever Jer or I used a stern voice or tried to correct his behavior. This worked once. I apologized for my harsh tone and tried to explain why I was correcting him.
The second time he used this you-scared-me ploy, I again apologized but insisted he stop his negative behavior. The third time I ignored his “you scared me” routine completely and repeated my correction to his behavior. He stopped using this ploy.
If Crystal or Jordan didn’t do what Carson wanted them to do, he would say to them, “You can’t be my cousin anymore!” This statement seemed to mystify Crystal and Jordan. They looked puzzled, then shrugged and continued on about their play. Later on Carson hit Crystal for changing his train set-up and, when I sat him on the couch for a short timeout, he said to Crystal, “Look what you did. You got me in trouble!”
“No, Carson,” I said, “You got yourself in trouble when you hit Crystal.”
Through all the pushes and pulls of Carson trying to fit in to the routines and people – grandparents and cousins – I watched the reactions of Crystal and Jordan. Whenever Carson started bossing them around or even hitting them, they got very quiet and did not retaliate. They instead seemed to withdraw emotionally and at times physically from the confrontation. They would sit quietly while I dealt with the situation, but they never tattled on Carson or even complained about his behavior. One or the other would wander off to play with a different toy or play in another room. Whenever Carson appeared in their new area, they would welcome him as if nothing had happened.
I started pondering my reaction vs. their reaction to Carson’s behavior. I did not like his behavior and I was unable to let go of my anger and frustration. Crystal and Jordan did not like his behavior either, but they were willing to let go of it as soon as it stopped and to happily include him in their play when he wasn’t being mean to them. Jordan let Carson be the leader and tell him what to do. Crystal treated him with kindness and acceptance.
I realized that I had forgotten my own adage of ignoring bad behavior and rewarding good. I was starting to scan for anything I could construe as negative. My own rhythms were thrown out of balance by the addition of this third child and I was not as graceful and resilient as my almost six year-old and three year-old grandchildren.
Once again, my mentors turned out to be the people I was supposed to be teaching. I have learned many things from my children when they were in my care and now I am continuing to learn from my grandchildren. Carson was trying to fit into a relatively closed system. Used to being mostly with adults, he now had to relate to his cousins and the grandparents he saw infrequently. He was uncomfortable and his behavior was his way of trying to feel secure and at ease. The other kids were cutting him some slack. Why couldn’t I?
It is natural to assign motives to a child’s behavior. He bullies a smaller child, therefore he is a bully. She hits another child therefore she is cruel. He says things like “You can’t be my cousin anymore,” therefore he is mean. What we must try and avoid is labeling the child rather than labeling the behavior. There are many reasons why a child may bully or hit or threaten verbally. Can we take the time to figure out what need is not being met for this acting-out child? Can we see from her vantage point? Can we walk in his shoes?
All children – all people – are looking for the same things. We ALL want love and security and acceptance. A child may not be able to articulate those needs in clear sentences. Most adults have trouble putting them into words! Instead, a child will act out his feelings and hope that the adults around him get the right message.
What worked for us that day was to move into a neutral territory – the outdoors. We took a walk to see the excavators digging up the earth where some new houses were going to be built. Then we decided to walk further into the nearby village (Fairhaven) to get some Gelato. All of us enjoyed the process of walking along, looking both ways before crossing streets, choosing our flavors, sitting at the little table, then walking home again. Crystal and Carson held hands happily as we walked. We had become a group of five people, not four people and Carson.
The rest of the day was not without its challenges, but I was more able to deal with whatever happened among the cousins without over-reacting. The children settled into shifting combinations of two together and one alone. I wandered in and out of their play spaces, watching, encouraging and sometimes participating.
Crystal and Jordan went home earlier than Carson, and Jer went off to run some errands, so Carson and I had some special one-on-one time in the late afternoon. I was able to focus solely on him and further repair our relationship. We had a lovely time together, completely of his choosing. When his father came to pick him up, he didn’t want to leave.
After the kids all went home, I reflected on the day. I realized I had learned something important about my own rush to judgment. I can get stuck in resentment and anger. I need to learn how to forgive “bad” behavior and let go of it as soon as the behavior stops. I am full of appreciation for my three young teachers and their ability to live, love and let live.