A minute after my nine-year-old clomped up the stairs, exasperated over a failed toy repair, I heard a small crash.
“Darn it!” he muttered. I could almost hear the tears of frustration pricking his eyes.
Unfortunately, I had a huge to-do list at work and I needed to get in as soon as possible. Time was of the essence. My easy-going kid had picked an inopportune time to experience irrational anger.
“What’s up, Jack?” I called up the stairs.
“Nothing!” A second later I heard the sound of his electric toothbrush.
“Okay, dude. We’ve gotta get going,” I prodded, as soon as the toothbrush was silent.
Jackson dutifully descended the stairs, picked up his backpack, then headed out to the car. He wasn’t happy, but he wasn’t being a total jerk either.
“Seriously, what’s bugging you?” I asked, after I, too, had climbed into the car.
“I was mad about the glue not fixing my plane, and then the floss flew out of the medicine cabinet onto the floor!”
Let me be clear, this kind of thing doesn’t normally bug him. But everyone gets annoyed now and again. So, I seized the teachable moment.
A teachable moment
“First,” I said, as we backed out of the driveway and into the street, “it’s not that big of a deal about the toy. If it’s so important to you we’ll either get the right glue or you can ask for a new one for your birthday. Second, do you think the floss would have fallen out if you hadn’t been frustrated? Did you maybe get a little rough with the door?”
Jackson admitted he had.
“So, the thing is, when we get frustrated sometimes we make it worse instead of better. When you were too rough with the cabinet, the floss fell out. You thought it would make you feel better, but instead it made things worse. Is that about right?”
“That’s pretty normal, kiddo. That happens to me too. Sometimes I do or say things that end up causing more problems, and then I get frustrated all over again! Instead, try and calm down. Focus on what’s going right instead of wrong. Ask yourself if it’s really that big of a deal and what you can do to manage the situation better.”
By now we’d reached the intersection and were stopped at a red light. I looked at Jackson in the rearview mirror. He seemed thoughtful for a second. Then he looked concerned all over again. “Darn it! I forgot my coat. I was so mad about the floss. . .” His voice trailed off.
Now it was my turn to be frustrated. We weren’t too far from home, but we’d already had a late start and I needed to get to work.
“Can you manage without it today?” I asked hopefully.
“No, I was cold yesterday,” Jackson sounded miserable. He hates to upset me, and he was already feeling kinda yucky about the morning.
“Okay,” I could feel my irritation rising. My foot pressed the accelerator harder as I made a right turn towards our house.
And then the thunderbolt of parenting-practice-what-you-preach hit me.
Visions of hidden police cars ready to pull me over for zooming down a residential street danced in my head. Wasn’t I doing exactly what I’d just admonished my son for?
I picked my foot up off the accelerator and started to share the thoughts running through my mind out loud.
“Okay, Jack, here’s the deal. You leaving your coat at home frustrated me. I’m going to be later to work than I’d like, which is disappointing. But, I have a choice in this moment. I can speed down the street and risk a ticket (and maybe worse) or I can remind myself that this is not a life or death situation. Even though I’m not happy that you left your coat at home, you didn’t do it on purpose. I love you, and I want you to be warm today. We’re lucky I have some flexibility at work. For all of these reasons, I can let my frustration go, and just move on.”
At this point, I wasn’t talking to him; I was talking to myself.
“So,” I continued, “remember how we were just discussing what to do when you feel frustrated? This is me showing you what to do. If I can do it, so can you.”
I’m sure he said something to me then–some acknowledgment that he’d heard what I’d said–even if he’d only half-listened.
During the remainder of our journey, my brain was busy thinking over what had just happened. As my irritation rose at Jack’s missing-coat confession, I’d gone into default mode exactly as he had, ready and willing to lash out. I’d only short-circuited that reaction by the skin of my teeth.
It’s remarkably easy to TELL my child the right way to manage tough situations; it’s another to SHOW him. I can only give him what I already own.
Namely, I have a conception of myself as a kind, hard-to-upset person. Yet, in that moment, I’d been more than ready to let my frustration get the better of me. Only by noticing how I’d really behaved in the face of petty annoyances could I have learned I’m far less imperturbable than I thought. On the one hand, this might seem like bad news. But, in truth it’s a tremendous gift; I cannot change what I cannot see. This frustration-fueled fandango, and a healthy dose of self-awareness, gave me the opportunity to quickly adjust my behavior to better align with my values.
In this “teachable moment,” I learned as much as I taught–and maybe more.