Parenting with Empathy – Getting Past the Trying Behaviours

Aristotle was a difficult baby and toddler but once he passed the three year old mark, I found that he became a lot easier to handle. I could understand him and I knew how to handle him. Although he sometimes pushes my hot buttons, he is generally really pleasant to have around. He’s the kind of child that makes you look like an amazing parent.

Hercules was an easy baby but as he grows older, I find him pushing all my hot buttons almost all the time. Remember when I said that Aristotle is a really good kid? Well, the combination of Aristotle and Hercules is an explosive one. I’m sure I’m about to lose all my hair because I pull it out on a daily basis. And if I don’t lose my hair first, I’ll probably pass out from banging my head against the wall so frequently. Sometimes, I think I could throw up blood. I think that if I had Hercules first, I probably would have stopped at one child.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore Hercules. He’s the sunshine in my life. However, like the sun, he can also give you a sunburn. Unlike Aristotle, whom I feel I have a handle on, there are times when I feel like I have no control over Hercules. Having him as a child has been humbling. I look at other parents with crazy kids in the restaurants and I feel for them because I finally know what it’s like. Whatever I did with Aristotle doesn’t work with Hercules. I’m still looking for the formula that works with Hercules and it is eluding me. Now that Hercules has weaned, I have lost my one single secret weapon that has helped me handle him all this time.

I have realised that it is easy to look at parents with kids like Hercules and judge us for being permissive parents. I’m sure it looks that way. I know it because I used to think it. I put Hercules in timeout but he comes out of it remorseless. He promises never to bite his brother again but five minutes later… In my moments of weakness, I have succumbed to corporal punishment only to discover that he does not fear it. In fact, his reaction to it would probably be akin to the equivalent of “bring it on!”. Not only has he no fear for corporal punishment, but it has encouraged him to hit back. So yes, I’m still a believer that corporal punishment doesn’t work (and I’m ashamed that I gave in to it).

I have been trying so hard to understand Hercules’ frustrating behaviours but it has eluded me until recently when I was talking to my SIL and we were reminiscing about the days of our childhoods. Suddenly I realise that Hercules is me.

Hercules climbs the grills and leaps from the couch onto the beanbag, narrowly missing the sharp corners of our coffee table. I used to climb the gate of our house and the tree in the park in front of my cousin’s house.

Sometimes I see smears of blood in the playroom but heard no cry or sound of complaint to indicate that anyone had been hurt. Sometimes I see bumps and bruises on Hercules that seem to appear from nowhere. As a child, I fell down in school and skinned my knee but told no one. I hid my bloodied knee under my uniform until I got home from school.

The relationship between Hercules and Aristotle is not really very different to the relationship I had with my brother when we were the same age. Even our personalities are reflected in my sons – Aristotle is very much like my brother, and Hercules like me. One evening, Aristotle stormed out of their bedroom with Hercules fighting to hold him back. Hercules had hurt his brother (again) and Aristotle was dobbing him in.  I saw the fear in Hercules because he knew he was about to be in big trouble. I remembered a similar incident when I was about the same age as Hercules. My brother and I were fighting about something (I cannot remember what it was) and I took a swipe at my brother. My nails broke skin and it caused a bleed on my brother’s arm. I remember the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach with the realisation that I was about to be in big trouble. I also remember begging my brother not to tell our parents.

There are good things, too. Just like my brother was very protective over me and loved me very much, Aristotle, too, does wonderfully sweet, brotherly things for Hercules. Just as I looked up to my brother, I can see how much Hercules admires his brother and aspires to be like him. Given the way that my brother and I have turned out, I hold a lot of hope that Aristotle and Hercules will be just as supportive of each other as they grow up.

Sometimes I find it incredibly frustrating that Aristotle is so needy. He can do things for himself, but he must have me do them for him. He feigns helplessness which is annoying, especially since I know he can do it by himself. Then I remember a time from my childhood when I, too, feigned helplessness so that my mother would do something for me that I wanted her to. I remember the awareness of knowing I could do it myself, but I don’t know why I just didn’t do it. I needed her to do it for me. When I think about the times when Aristotle displays “helplessness”, it is usually the times when I don’t have time for it. It’s a cry for attention because I’ve been too busy to give it to him. Although it’s frustrating when it happens, understanding the reason behind it helps me manage my own irritation and response to it.

I also remember childhood disappointments that led to my temper tantrums. When I think back upon it, it seemed like such a small thing to get upset over, but at the time, it was a big thing. Now, whenever Hercules gets upset over seemingly small things, I try to remember that in his world, they’re big disappointments. So as much as I want to get angry and annoyed that he’s making life difficult for me, I know I have to be a little more patient and understanding. As much as I just want to tell him to snap out of it, I know that it’s my job to help him manage his emotions and overcome his disappointment so that he can learn how to handle them in future.

Taking a walk down memory lane every now and then to remember what it’s like to be a child again is a beneficial exercise. The more of my own childhood I remember, the more parallels I see. Being able to recall my own childhood helps to put into perspective a lot of the frustrating behaviours I see in the boys, especially Hercules. When I can remember, I understand them better. When I understand, I like to think that I parent better.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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