As mommy, you have good days and bad days. Today was a learning day. I should start by saying that I should have known better. I totally set us up for failure and not success. I took the risk and I paid the consequence. That being said, I learned a pretty significant lesson too.
For those of you reading who don’t know, Abbie (girl) just turned 4 at the beginning of April and Jesse (boy) just turned 18 months. Today I was alone with the kids and I wanted to go to the mall to shop for myself for about half an hour. That is what I thought I could get away with knowing the reward would be that the kids could play in the mall playground. We had a late morning and finally left the house around 1:00 pm. No one had eaten lunch and no one had had a nap. Like I said, not setting anyone up for success with this plan.
We stopped at Sonic and took our lunch to the food court at the mall. After everyone was seated and eating I realized I had meant to bring in the stroller. So after lunch we went back out to the car and got the stroller. Abbie was beginning to show signs of fatigue as she began wanting to be in charge. It was not too obnoxious, just wanted to push the stroller herself in the busy parking lot and wanted to open the doors herself, push the elevator buttons herself. Normal 4-year-old stuff. We went to the section of the department store I wanted to shop in and of course had to pass through Abbie’s size to get there. With a promise that if she behaved we would look at her size when I was finished Abbie was doing pretty well, and so was Jesse. As I picked out a few items to try on both of the children started to get antsy. Abbie started getting loud and jumpy and Jesse started following her lead. As I headed to pick up one more item to try on I got a phone call. Unfortunately, it was not something I could just deal with later and it took my attention for about seven minutes. This was just long enough for Abbie to get so bored that she bit her brother.
I was distracted enough that I didn’t see what happened, but I knew that cry and it was Jesse’s “I’m hurt” cry. As soon as my phone call was over (which was almost immediately after Jesse began crying), the conversation went like this.
Me to Abbie: What happened?
Me: Then why is Jesse crying like he’s hurt? Did you hurt him?
Right about then I noticed that Jesse’s finger was red and slobbery. I looked closer and noticed teeth marks on his finger.
Me to Abbie: Did you bite him?
Me: Alright. We are going home.
Abbie: (complete melt down) No Mom, I don’t want to go home. I want to go to the playground. (And so on and so forth. Then later) Mom, are we going home and I’m going in time out forever? (Okay, that was a little cute.
I put back all of the clothes I wanted to try on. Then holding the hand of a screaming four-year-old while pushing the stroller of a crying toddler, we became the scene for everyone to watch as we crossed the floor to the elevator, and after getting to the first floor became entertainment there as we crossed to the opposite side of the store where we exited to the parking lot.
What I realized in the car on the way home is that in the midst of all of this happening, even though I was angry and disappointed that Abbie had bitten her brother, I never lost my cool. I did not yell. I did not grab her or show my power over her. I simply used my voice and my actions to respond to her bad behavior. I was confident in my actions and that sound came across in my calm voice. I knew what I was doing was the right thing to do and that came across in the look on my face and the gentle touch as I held her hand. I simply stuck to my response and followed through. I was the non-anxious mom.
Certainly, there was a moment when I was tempted to compromise with her. But then I remembered, she BIT her brother. That deserves swift and confident discipline. While we were in the store I explained that we were going home, but I did not explain the punishment until she was in her car seat and we were able to discuss why we were not doing the fun things we had planed and instead we were going home for nap time.
As a seminarian and as a minister I learned about a way of being leader called the “non-anxious presence” first termed by the family systems theorist Edwin Friedman. In fact a quote from his book Generation to Generation which deals with Family Systems theory says, “Family Therapy suggests that leadership is itself a therapeutic modality. What is vital to changing any kind of family is not knowledge of technique or pathology, but rather the capacity of the family leader to define his or her own goals and values, while trying to maintain a non-anxious presence within the system.” This same idea applies to leadership. Being a leader who can define goals, values, and priorities and who can remove the anxiety from their leadership is much more effective and successful in their endeavors. Even when we don’t set ourselves up for success, if we can maintain our sense of “non-anxiousness” our leadership will be direct, clear, and well thought out.