Lessons in Parenting: The Power of the Parental Response

I’m far from a perfect parent. Far from a perfect human, really…and I learn lessons about parenting pretty much every single hour of every single day. And every time I stop and reflect on a lesson I’ve learned I think: damn, that is the most important thing I’ve learned about parenting ever!

Until the next time, an hour later.

And this happens pretty much daily. So, I’ve learned a lot. And they are all important.

I don’t write about them all, though perhaps I should and maybe someday I will. I do write and share regularly about the journey of parenting, not as an expert, but as one parent learning as she goes and wanting other parents to not feel so alone in any aspect of this crazy wild ride we are all on. So, recently, I was blessed with another learning moment, and I felt compelled to write about this one – another most important lesson I’ve learned about parenting – because I know that this situation could have, and often does go a very different way, and I thought it was important to note, and take stock of, the difference.

So as of this moment, I think the most important lesson I have learned in parenting is how important it is how you respond to situations with your children. Now, this might not be news to anyone else, and truth be told, it isn’t actually earth-shattering new news to me either – but sometimes the reminder, in the moment, is important.

Which brings me to the events leading up to the lesson…

Kiddo was outside finishing up some #oahurocks painting so we could distribute our rocks for other local hikers to find. Dollops of paint on a plate, paper down as a protective canvas. Water for cleaning her brushes. Rocks to paint designs on and hide all over Oahu and, when we move back to the mainland, some of our favorite places there too. You know, ‘curated fun’ with the hope it staying sort of manageably clean (c’mon mom, are you serious?) but with the expectation it was going to get very, very messy.

The painting was fun. And then I walked inside to finish cleaning the kitchen and washing the dishes (which was less fun). And within a few minutes of relative “more than quiet, quiet” I peeked out onto the back-lanai (patio in Hawaii) to our make-shift artist studio and, not fully surprisingly noticed, our wonderful little kiddo had proceeded to paint her hands. And not just paint her hands, but full-on, immersed herself in paint, paint her hands.

Of course she had. There was paint. And she’s four. What else would she have done once the rocks were finished? Anyone with a brain in their head would think the obvious next step from the rocks would be the hands.

And even though I wasn’t expecting it, I wasn’t immediately angry either. But, she hid from me as I came out, worried, I know, how I might react so she was definitely thinking my immediate reaction would be anger.

Now, let’s pause here for a moment to acknowledge that HER immediate worry was that I would be angry. I’ll get back to that in a moment.

For sure, with this unexpected little detour into messiness, I could have yelled, or been angry, or huffed and puffed with frustration.

I could have rolled my eyes and made her pick everything up, showing my disapproval.

And then, with each of those responses, her creative spark would have been extinguished and she would have felt like she was in trouble for being creative.

In parenting, you have like a split second to decide in most cases how you are going to respond to any situation. If you are tired, frustrated, in a hurry, exhausted (all the things IMG_6799we are as parents, all the time), you may, like me, end up acting or reacting in a way that is probably an overreaction and, within a few minutes of relative calm and clear headedness, you wish you hadn’t done.

No, I’m the only one? 

I doubt that….but, I’m not writing to guilt anyone – including myself – about how we sometimes probably likely wish we responded differently to situations with our children.

This is the typical situation (tell me if this sounds familiar): Your child does something you really wished they hadn’t, or, sometimes, you expressly told them not to. You get angry. Then you yell or lose your temper. And then your child reacts to your reaction, often in ways that have been escalated due to the upset parent reaction.

Often we enter what parents know well as “full on meltdown mode”. No fun for parent, or for kiddos.

It’s a viscous cycle. And not an uncommon one. But sometimes we lose our shit, and we have to give ourselves a little grace about that. Parenting is hard, and all we can do is take a step back after those not-so-ideal moments and realize we could have handled that differently, and think about HOW we could have handled that differently, so that next time, maybe we can.

So, in this one particular moment of the rock-turned-hand painting moment, I had the micro-second to realize that 1) she had not made too huge of a mess 2) it was water-based paint 3) she’s four AND – and this to me is the most important part here 4) she was TOTALLY waiting on my reaction.

And I had, in this tiny moment, the realization that any frustration I had was about ME. And having to “clean up a mess”, about time out of my busy day that I wasn’t planning on – – but when I looked at the face of my daughter, I realized very quickly, she didn’t see a mess. She saw fun, and creative play, and art, and beauty.

So instead, I broke what may be a more typical cycle or response and instead I said: “Thank you for not touching the door handle with your painty hands! Do you want me to get you some paper so you can make some pictures?”

IMG_6795Ok. Stop the presses here for just a hot minute. Friends, I gotta tell you, the smile that lit up her face was almost too much. Realizing that I had gotten this one right (sometimes I don’t, if I’m being totally, brutally honest), her happiness and relief and even her excitement and pride – it was beaming from her whole little body and I quite seriously got tears in my eyes.

Now, just for a moment, let’s go back to the response she was expecting from her mother. And, if I’m being totally honest with you all, the response that I just as easily could have given – anger, frustration, annoyance. Based on her reaction, this was the response she was expecting because, I am certain of it, I have responded enough like this in the past to make her expect that response.

That breaks my heart. In that moment, I vowed to continue to try to do better, every moment.

Loads of research exits that can help us understand the behavior of children and as a parent who is always looking for advice to be a better parent, I’ve read the research. A lot of it. I have books like Scream Free Parenting and The Conscious Parent on my bookshelf, well-worn and dog-eared. These books and all the research talks to us about those behaviors that can drive even the most calm parent among us to our breaking point, and how and what we are supposed to do in those moments.

That research reminds us in a lot of these situations, it’s not that kids are “being bad” but that, children often respond with emotional outbursts, hurtful words, or tantrums because this is the only way they know, in the moment, to show us how upset they are. When a child does something upsetting, and we respond with heightened emotions and being upset, we often escalate the tantrum situations (not always, but often).

According to Psychology Today, “children don’t yet have the frontal cortex neural pathways to control themselves as [adults] do. The best way to help children develop those neural pathways is to offer empathy, while they’re angry and at other times. It’s ok — good, actually — for child[ren] to express those tangled, angry, hurt feelings. After we support kids through a tantrum, they feel closer to us and more trusting. They feel less wound-up inside, so they can be more emotionally generous. They aren’t as rigid and demanding.”

But those books, and all the research, they aren’t there with us in those moments, are they?

And sometimes, our own emotions get the best of us, don’t they?

So, again, as parents, we are on the long-road journey and if in some moments we react before taking a moment to breathe and change our reaction, we can always remind ourselves to do better the next time.

And there’s always a next time. Parenting is a never-ending gig.

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 8.41.00 PMMy next time came just a few moments later when my daughter looked up at me and said excitedly, “mama, can I do a footprint too??” And I really wanted to say ‘no’ and I started to say ‘no’ but just asked instead “well, how will we make sure we don’t get paint from your feet all over the lanai?” And she said “you could bring me a paper towel?” with a hint of a little uptick in her intonation…wondering, hoping…


Yes, yes baby I can.

So, she made gorgeous, messy hands and feet art this weekend. And I let her. And it was messy and the world didn’t end.

And I honestly cry at the fact that I almost missed this moment. To capture her perfectly adorable 4.5 year-old footprints in paint. I look at these pieces of paper, and I get all teary-eyed again.

This could have gone so differently. What if I had yelled or gotten upset or let my frustration get the better of me?  What if the cycle of my response and reactions had been different?

I imagine I would have had an upset daughter, I wouldn’t have these beautiful footprints, and she wouldn’t have the memories of enjoying this play and creativity, and we’d both be upset for no good reason.

Instead, she is proud of her art. She even helped clean up without me asking. And I am sitting at the table writing this with tears in my eyes looking at a tiny footprint memorializing a moment of a parenting win.


Sources: Markham, Laura. “When Your Child Gets Angry: Here’s Your Gameplan.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 11 Apr. 2017, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/peaceful-parents-happy-kids/201704/when-your-child-gets-angry-heres-your-gameplan.