Becoming a Pleasant Mother

Many of us moms may be picturing the nine weeks of summer before us with equal parts excitement and apprehension. Having our beloved children home all day is an “awesome” opportunity – we get the freedom to plan our own adventures; but we also have to, plan our own adventures. We have to entertain our kids for 13+ hours a day and face the guilt of potentially doing it wrong. In past summers I have found myself getting snippy with the kids by the end of the day – too much noise, too many fights, too much chaos. I am often disappointed by my irritability with my children, I never want my children to doubt that I truly enjoy their company. When they are grown, I want them to remember me not as just a good mother, but a pleasant mother. My own mother raised seven children and learned a lot of difficult lessons along the way. I asked her to relate her experience in improving her own interactions with her children and making her relationships with them pleasant – even through the long days of summer.

George Herbet and his Mother, Charles West Cope

From our Guest Blogger, Jana Flake

When I was in the trenches of young motherhood, I noticed that I had turned into a negative person.  I had read a book by psychologist, John Gottman, which described the necessity of the 5 to 1 ratio for a happy relationship.  For every negative statement towards your spouse, or child, you need five positive ones, to keep the relationship flourishing.  I realized that I probably had that ratio flipped.  I became weary of the sound of my own irritation. I often spoke to my children in annoyance, telling them to do something, to hurry up, to fix something they had done incorrectly, or to stop doing something. One day I had a conversation with my eldest daughter who was deciding what to do about college and her future. I asked her if she wanted to be a wife and mother and she quite assuredly said, “Why would I want to do that? You aren’t having any fun at it.”  That response really woke me up to how I was being perceived by my daughter.  I loved my children; they were everything to me, but the daily communication of that love was getting lost. I had come from a long line of negative, worrying women and I didn’t want to pass those traits onto my children. My daughter’s statement was the catalyst that put me on a path of educating myself on parenting and communication, which resulted in a happier life for me, my husband, and children. Here are a few of the most important things I learned and applied in my parenting which I believe helped me to be more pleasant.

It’s the relationship that counts

I noticed that whenever one of my children needed discipline, I was always very negative and often created distance between us by the way I talked to him/her. William Glasser, a psychiatrist and author of Choice Theory recommends that whenever we are facing a difficult situation with our child, we should ask ourselves, “If I do or say this, will we be closer or farther apart? You need to do what you can to keep close to your child. The relationship should take precedence over always being ‘right’. Establishing trust means that there is nothing the children can say or do that will persuade you to reject them.” I decided to think before reacting in stressful situations, to reflect on how I could help my child solve the problem in a respectful way. I realized that if I was intentional in my parenting, I could discipline my children and not hurt the relationship. They might not be happy with me, but because we had worked out potential problem areas, solutions, and consequences in advance -they would not be sulking in their rooms thinking I had treated them unjustly. When it came right down to it, most of my annoyance and harshness came because I was thinking of myself and not my child. William Glasser said, “Few of us are prepared to accept that it is our attempts to control that destroys the only thing we have with our children that gives us control over them, our relationship. Don’t choose to do anything with a child whom you want to grow up to be happy, successful, and close to you, that you believe will increase the distance between you.”

Create a No-Problem Area with each unique child

When I was working with at-risk high school students, I would often have their parents and student in my office trying to figure out how to help the teenager get serious about their deteriorating behavior. After assessing the problem, I would ask the parents what they did with their son/daughter in the “no problem” area. This is a philosophy of Dr. Philip Osborne (Parenting in the 90’s) that has the potential, if implemented by parents, to change their students’ lives as well as their relationships with them. There are four problem areas of interaction between parents and children: parent’s problem (“Clean your room”), child’s problem (“My friend won’t speak to me”), mutual problem (“You need to study so you will pass this class”), and the no-problem area (problems are not the issue – relationship is). I would ask the parents to create a safe space where they could relate to their child in an enjoyable and meaningful way where no areas of conflict were discussed. I noticed that most parents knew they needed “bonding-time” with their kids like going fishing, fixing a car, playing sports, going shopping, etc. but most of the time they would be talking about their child’s problems. I would encourage the parents to find some time when they could just enjoy being with their child. It needed to be a mutually enjoyable experience so the child didn’t feel like a “project”. As a mother I would often take one my children with me when I had errands to run, just to talk. My husband could overcome a dispute with his sons just playing sports with them – never talking about the issues of conflict. It was almost magical to watch. We have interests and talents which bring us great joy. Choose one of these interests that line up with your child’s nature and make this your way of playing and bonding with your child. If you love cooking – teach your child to cook. If you love reading – read with your child. If you love travel – plan a trip with your child. These areas of common interest will be the important “no-problem” zones. These moments with your child will be a safe haven in your relationship when hardships come and you and your child can share your joint-love of this interest throughout your lives.

Look to understand what is behind their behavior

While pursuing my Master’s Degree in Psychology I did an internship in Germany with Dr. James Barton. He explained to me that all behavior a child exhibits is normal if you just understand the world they are living in. That idea has stopped me short many times in my life when I have a knee-jerk reaction to another person’s negative behavior. To help understand the child’s world, Dr. Jane Nelson in Positive Discipline maintains that most negative behavior in children can be understood if we look at their world and what needs they are trying to meet. The goal of a child is to belong and to be loved. Sometimes they will do behaviors that seem to be the opposite of that but if we look beneath the behavior, we can understand their world. Dr. Nelson puts these behaviors in four categories: negative attention (No one is paying attention to me, I will get their attention); misguided power (No one listens to me around here; I have no voice or control; you can’t make me do it); revenge (I’ll get even, I will make my sister cry); and assumed inadequacy (Oh, it’s just not worth it, things will never change; I am just not worth it). I would ask myself when a negative behavior would come up: “Does he need some of my time?” “Is she feeling like she has no control over her life?” “Why is she trying to get back at me?” “Is he feeling like he is not good enough?” If I looked beyond the behavior to what the child was really saying, it helped me calm down and use my problem-solving skills rather than my negative emotion to respond appropriately. Again, getting myself out of the picture helped. (Link to a helpful chart on what drives our children’s negative behavior by Dr. Jane Nelson.)

As I became more mindful of how I spoke to my children and learned to apply these concepts, I began to be a more pleasant mother.   I started to look for opportunities to bond with a particular child and spend just a few minutes one-on-one with them and enjoy their companionship.  Before I began this re-education, most of my interaction with my children involved speaking to them about a problem. I started to have more fun with them. I had been too serious and over-focused on the tasks of running a household. I had missed much of the joys of relationship.  As I look back at the pictures of myself and children before my “awakening” I regret the good times I missed. My daughter’s blunt rejection of the prospect of being a mother was my motivation to change. It must have worked, she now has a large and happy family of her own.

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