How can I stop my son’s collapses at the pool?
The dawning awareness of my limitations as a parent came as a result of (another) pre-swim collapse. My son was approaching four at the time but still swam like a baby. It might sound harsh, but I literally mean it – he was always in the “parent and bub” class splashing around alongside six month olds. In addition, his stubborn resistance to the class was increasing week by week.
We had apparently tried everything. Lots of hugs, comfort, rewards. Then one day, out of desperation more than anything, I tried something drastic: listen to him.
“Why don’t you like swimming comrade? ” I asked. “I just don’t like it,” he said. And so we set there on the living room floor, where I had tried to cuddle him in his boots, and instead I spoke. For once, I managed to resist the urge to hit my standard chorus (“you’re okay, mate”) and instead, I just empathized. We talked about what it means to feel nervous. About situations that make dad nervous. And it’s good to feel nervous, but that doesn’t have to stop you from doing something. It was her best swimming week in months.
This whirlwind moment quickly led me to take an online course in emotional coaching for children. The first lesson was humbling as Associate Professor Sophie Havighurst explained how you can be a warm, practical parent while being emotionally dismissive of your children. Ways to be emotionally dismissive include rushing too quickly to come up with solutions, using distraction to deal with unpleasant emotions in children, or force-feeding children in an attempt to prevent them from dwelling on negative experiences. Essentially, it’s about not recognizing or acknowledging the emotions that, like all of us, determine behavior.
Like a stereotypical man, I tend to instinctively seek solutions to difficult emotions. As a natural tendency, this makes sense: I don’t like to see my kids upset, so I try to allay negative emotion as soon as possible. This, I realized it, made it me feel better, but it’s not necessarily the best approach for my kids. Although I may wish otherwise, anxiety, anger and sadness will be a part of their life. It is important that they come to recognize these emotions and, in particular, know that it is normal to feel this.
Havighurst defines emotional intelligence as “being able to understand your own emotions, to recognize the emotions of others, to be able to regulate your emotions and to manage them when they arise so that they do not overwhelm you”. She emphasizes that they are essential parts of a child’s development. “Children with good emotional intelligence are the ones who are best able to deal with their emotions when they have difficulties in school, conflicts of friendship, other really intense experiences that they might have. “, she says.
As I learned while sitting on the living room floor, the main thing is to validate your children’s emotions. Of course, this seems blatantly obvious in theory, but in the mad rush of workplace parenting, it can be deceptively difficult. (Not to mention during Covid-induced home schooling!) It doesn’t help that children’s worries can seem so trivial by adult standards. We know there is nothing to worry about, so forget to stop and consider how real they might feel to our kids.
Probably the easiest (and most difficult) advice from Havighurst is to slow down – don’t rush to judge, find solutions, or even step in and stop sibling arguments. The latter in particular, I found extremely difficult. Nothing disturbs my parental equanimity more than the noise of my children arguing. Havighurst takes a different point of view. “In fact, children learn a lot by fighting; that’s not a bad thing, ”she says, while of course setting limits on physical aggression. “It’s their training ground for how to be assertive, how to listen, how to take someone else’s point of view, how to negotiate.”
Perhaps my biggest loss of the course was realizing how much of my parenting was on autopilot. Instinctive reactions are inevitable, and also necessary if you want to do something else every now and then. But it helps to learn how and when to slow down, to stop automatic reactions inspired by a lack of time or your own upbringing, and instead to empathize and reflect your children’s emotions. first and foremost.