When people talk about school, they often think about the basics: reading, writing and arithmetic. For me, school brings back memories of science. As a child, I could not wait to find out what we would be learning in science each year. There was something about the topics and the experiments that always intrigued me. Maybe it is the way scientists undertake the challenge of their job, the way things seem so organized. They have systems in place for making predictions, planning experiments, observing, recording data, and drawing conclusions based on those observations.
It all seems so logical – and quite contrary to my current life as a parent, when more often than not, my days seem to be filled with chaos, confusion, and way too little time to sit back and even think about recording the data.
Science and parenting can seem like they are worlds apart, but through some careful observations, one can soon discover that actually there are a lot of similarities. Think about it – science is about questioning, proving, analyzing, and solving the uncertainties and unknowns in life. Not many things are filled with as many uncertainties and unknowns as parenting. For instance, who could have ever predicted before they were born what your children would look like, what their temperaments would be, or that they would not sleep through the night until they were six? As a parent, you spend countless hours questioning, explaining, proving, and trying to solve the uncertainties of your children’s behaviors and lives. So how is it then that scientists appear so calm and in control when they do their job while parents are often emotionally stretched beyond their limits while doing theirs?
Put on Your “Observer Hat”
In school I learned that one of the keys to success in science is being a keen observer. Guess what? I have since discovered that being a keen, objective observer is also a key to successful parenting! The problem is that observing takes time, and it is sometimes really hard to remain objective when your children are screaming at each other and incessantly demanding things of you. You can feel an almost immediate need to jump in and stop your children’s behaviors without really taking the time to “see” what is going on. You may quickly reach conclusions about who did what and why, even as your children yell back at you, “You just don’t understand!” Chances are – you don’t.
So how can you understand better? One of my favorite quotes comes from child psychologist Haim Ginott. In some situations with children, he says, “Don’t just do something. Stand there!” How could that be? What could you accomplish by just standing there? The answer is: a lot. It is absolutely amazing what happens when you take the time to put yourself in the role of a scientist (parent) who is observing the subject’s (your child’s) behavior. When you consciously put yourself in the observer role, there is not that frantic need to have to do something right away. You can give yourself permission to take your time and to gather information about the situation – instead of responding immediately, sometimes irrationally, and often unnecessarily.
Just as a scientist would do while conducting research, you need to think about the information you are gathering. Your observations become more meaningful if you take the time to learn about who your children are temperamentally, where they are developmentally, and how all of this fits in with what’s going on around them. Sometimes, then, things seem so much clearer and make so much more sense.
For example, being the parent of almost-teens, I have been able to put on my scientist/observer hat in order to step back and watch their behaviors. I am fascinated by what I see. It has allowed me to consider how the changes in their behavior fit with the maturational process my kids need to experience in order to reach the next stage of development successfully. I have gained a better understanding of why my emerging adolescents seem so angry at times, why they disagree with me so often, why their friends seem so important to them, and why they don’t want to spend time with the family like they used to. They are growing up and doing the job of a teen, just like the “experts” in the books I read say they must. And even though some of the behaviors are not so pleasant, I am not feeling threatened by their behavior, nor am I taking it personally.
By being an observer and not reacting impulsively, you can maintain an emotional distance from your children’s behavior which helps you avoid taking on their anger and problems as your own. It is this emotional distance that will allow you – for the most part – to remain calm so that you can think more intentionally about what is going on for your child, what he or she needs at that moment, and whether or how you should intervene. You can learn to recognize when a scream is just a cry for attention, when the bickering is really just your children’s way of connecting with each other, or when the slammed door means something not so great happened at school today. You see your children working on the developmental tasks of their age and stage as they grow socially and emotionally. It’s fascinating to watch this process unfold before your very eyes if you just take the time to see it without feeling compelled to do something about it.
While I am the first to admit that it is very difficult not to jump in with my own assumptions and conclusions about my children’s behavior, I realize that by becoming an objective observer, you can actually become a more effective participant in your children’s lives. Ultimately this can help you to build better relationships with them. And that is one of the greatest challenges for you to undertake.
By Deanna Bosley, Certified Parenting Educator
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