On a wintry January morning, I stood transfixed in the lobby outside the gym of the Jewish Community Center while a twoish-year-old had a temper tantrum. It wasn't the toddler I was watching, though. It was his mother. She was a few steps behind him when he threw himself on the floor, crying and thrashing, and I was a few steps behind her. Without a word, she dropped her gym bag and baby pack to the floor and lowered herself down next to him. She didn't talk to him or touch him, she just got lower and lower, first squatting, then sitting, then lying on her stomach, until her head was at the same level as her son's and their noses were practically touching. Pedestrian traffic was unusually heavy that morning, but no one broke stride as they sidestepped the pair, and the mother seemed as nonplussed about them as they were about her.
The mother's single-mindedness struck me as remarkable. Wasn't she worried someone would step or trip on her or her son, hurting one or the other or all of them? How could she be so oblivious? How could she not be embarrassed? How could she be so focused?
That was what really got me. I envied her selfless devotion to her child's needs, her unwavering sense of purpose and her patience. I couldn't take my eyes off her. Her face was almost expressionless. No matter how hard I searched for a sign of anger or frustration, I couldn't find it.
Her son's face, on the other hand, was registering a gamut of emotions, from shock and surprise to anger and, eventually, a kind of calm. His crying turned to a whimper and then stopped altogether. When he finally rested his flushed face on the dirty floor, his mother did too. (Ohmigod, I thought. I could never do that!) They stayed that way for perhaps two or three minutes. If he looked at the feet or legs or eyes of the people around him, she did too. If he stared into her eyes, she returned the look. Then, on some wordless cue, the boy sat up and so did the mom. He stood, she stood. She picked up her bags and offered him her hand. He took it, and they walked through the rest of the lobby, out the door. I followed them into the parking lot. The mother didn't stop to put on their coats and they broke into a run in the cold. At the car, she lifted him into his car seat, buckled him in, and settled herself in the car. As far as I could tell, she still hadn't spoken to him, but she had smiled as she snapped his seat belt and kissed him on the forehead.
As I got into my car, I wanted to applaud.
For weeks, the image of that mother stayed with me. Whenever I struggled with my son, I thought of her serenity. If I felt myself succumbing to frustration, I thought of her patience. I imagined she was a nurse or a preschool teacher. Who else could show that combination of restraint and insight? I wondered how much practice it had taken her to achieve it, if she had mastered this strategy on two or three older children.
Boy, did I get it wrong. Weeks later, I bumped into her in the locker room at the gym. I couldn't help myself; I plunged right in by asking if she worked outside the home. "I'm in marketing," she said. My mouth must have dropped. Marketing definitely did not fit. Now I was even more curious.
Did she remember that morning? I asked.
"Oh, God! Did I totally embarrass myself?" she said. "He'd had two temper tantrums already that morning and I had vowed to myself that the very next one, I wasn't going to try to reason with him or yell, I was going to try to see the world the way he does. That was why I did that," she said. "I had never done it before."
She also hadn't done it since. There hadn't been the need. Her son had not had a temper tantrum since that day. "I probably totally freaked him," she said.
"So what's it like, putting yourself in his shoes, looking at the world through his eyes?" I asked.
"It looks really
different," she said. "It made me much more sympathetic to him."
When I told her how impressed I was by what she had done, she was surprised. "I have no idea how to be a mother," she said. "I'm brand-new at this. I was desperate."
So much for my theory. But was it any less admirable that this mother's success was due to luck, love, and intuition? She had broken a pattern of behavior by responding in a new and different way, and even though she didn't realize what she was doing, it was a stroke of genius nonetheless. As parent educator Linda Braun would say, there was a touch of humanity in what she had done. By wanting to gain her son's perspective, she let him know that she was friend, not foe. "When a kid senses you are with him, he has a feeling he has an ally," says Braun. "It makes all the difference in the world."
The idea of trying to look at the world as your child sees it is something I thought about even before I became a mother. Of all the women I know who are mothers, I've always been most impressed by my sister. She has three kids, 16, 13, and 11 at this writing, and, so far at least, she's always had a good relationship with each, no matter their stage of development. Whenever I've asked her, "How do you know what to do/say/think?" her answer is always the same: "I can remember what it feels like to be the kid. I can remember being there." Needless to say, her children have benefited from her exceptional memory.
For most of the rest of us, putting ourselves in our children's shoes does not come so easily. When we think of events that might be stressful for our children, we tend to mention divorce, unemployment, a move, illness or death in the family. These aren't wrong answers; those are stressful events for children. But ask children what they
think of as stressful and the answers are not just life's megastresses.
I put that question to a fifth-grade class. Here's a sampling of what they consider stressful: lunch (who sits where); the bus ride (if there's a bully on the bus); being sick; staying alone after school; going to a boy-girl party; grandpa dying; the science test. In other words, Everyday Stuff.
In the ten years I've been writing a weekly parenting column, not to mention the ten years I've spent as a parent myself, I am continually struck by how the everyday stuff in a child's life is typically what causes the most difficulty for parents and children alike. I'm convinced part of the reason parents have difficulty is because not only do we lack a memory like my sister's, but we also aren't getting down and dirty on the lobby floor. We are looking at our children's lives from our perspective, not theirs.
It's no wonder, either. Taking our children's perspective is hard. It involves concentration and focus. It takes a certain amount of guts; often what your instinct tells you your child needs is not what your best friend and the mothers in your playgroup are doing for their children. It also takes an understanding of where a child is coming from and how she views the world. How she takes it in not just intellectually, but also emotionally and developmentally. It means understanding why the last day of school may be as stressful as the first, why sleeping at a friend's is not as simple as packing a few stuffed animals.
The issue for parents is twofold. We need to recognize the often small, concrete issues that cause our children to stumble, and then we need to know how to help them before they actually fall. There are four ways in which this book helps you accomplish this. The first is that, unlike many parenting books, this one does not use chronological markers to identify issues; age is arbitrary and not always a valid description of a where a child is. Every child's actions are grounded in a developmental context and so is this book. It gets you inside the head of your child so you are able to understand how he or she is thinking, which enables you to understand why she might have done what she did. Someone once told me that children move constantly between the stage they're coming from, the stage they're going to, and the stage they are at--and we're supposed to figure out where they are at any given moment!
Because it is developmental in approach, this is a book that talks about children of all ages. Parents of a 3-year-old will find it just as valuable as parents of a 7- or 11-year-old. Parents with questions about sleep problems at the beginning of the school year will get information that will help with a kindergartner as well as a third-grader. The parent who wants to know how to talk to his child about AIDS will get advice on what to say to a preteen and to a preschooler. This book gives you one-stop shopping!
The third distinguishing factor is a natural consequence of the first two. The events described in the book are, indeed, the Everyday Stuff of real people's lives. The anecdotes are not concocted, composite, or hypothetical. Although real names are not always used, the people behind them are real. While we're tangentially on the subject of names, also please note that throughout the book, he
are used interchangeably.
That this book represents ten years of journalistic effort brings us to the fourth reason it's so valuable. In an ideal world, when there's a parenting problem, parents approach it like a term paper--research the topic, read the literature, interview sources--and then come to conclusions based on the research. Nobody has time for that today, unless they're getting paid to do it. Since 1987, I've been researching the issues parents bring to me, as well as those that crop up in my own life as a parent, and giving readers a consensus of opinion that enables them to take what information they need and come to conclusions that are appropriate for their family and their child.
Invariably, when parents describe situations they're experiencing with their children, what comes through time and time again is how they, the parents, have inadvertently dug deeper and deeper holes for themselves by highlighting the wrong problem. As parents, we tend to go for the mega issue. When our daughter is having a hard time concentrating in school, we think eye problem or learning disability, whereas she's simply worried because she hates blueberry pancakes and that's what her best friend's mother promised to make for them when she sleeps over for the first time Friday night.
For a number of very understandable reasons, we often don't realize how stressful day-to-day events can be for our children. It may be that we're desensitized to them or that we're too busy even to notice them. Perhaps we miss the source of the problem because what's causing the anxiety is something we view as pleasurable. "Children feel safest and most comfortable when there is routine and familiarity. Whatever changes that, whatever is out of the ordinary in any way, good or bad, is potentially stressful for them," says child and adolescent psychiatrist Mary Lynn Dell of Children's Hospital in Philadelphia.
I lost count of how many calls I had from parents after I wrote a column about sleep difficulties in school-age children at the beginning of the school year, but I can tell you what most of the parents said. It went something like this: "It never occurred to us that our child, who never had sleep issues before and has successfully begun school in other years, could be having difficulty sleeping at the start of school." Consider the child who ruins a family vacation because he won't leave the cabin to go down to the lake. Turns out, the problem is the mud: It feels so squishy. A twelve-dollar pair of water shoes or old sneakers could have salvaged a thousand-dollar vacation. But who knew?
This book has three goals. The first is to identify life events that children typically need help with. Some of them are the truly traumatic, such as the death of a parent or birth of a sibling. Others are milestones that are harder to spot, but milestones nonetheless: tattling, telling a secret, stealing. Some, such as the impact of media violence, the Internet or children's access to the news, are scary for us because we are breaking new ground in our parenting.
The second goal is to help us understand how and why a child may be reacting in a particular way. At each stage of a child's life, there is a threshold for what he or she can handle cognitively and emotionally. This is called developmental appropriateness. When life is presented within their developmental range, children thrive. When it isn't, there is discomfort that has the potential to get out of hand. Put Yourself in Their Shoes
gives you a developmental map of real life. That, in turn, leads to the last goal: providing parents with strategies for coping. Having fingered events that are likely to cause difficulty for children, having offered a critical window into what a child may be thinking and the skills he or she brings to a particular situation, all that's left is for parents to respond in a way that feeds into a child's strengths rather than into his or her deficits.
Both the good and bad news about parenting is that there is no right or wrong way to do any of this. Just as there is no blueprint for us to follow that makes our job easier, there is also no such thing (short of abuse) that's a "mistake." Parenting is a cumulative effort. What it all adds up to counts more than any one isolated moment. So many of us think we are failing because we didn't say or do something according to a prescription. But any advice about parenting, including what's contained in this book, is only a guide. The ideas represented here are the result of years of interviews with hundreds of researchers and clinicians, teachers and parents, but they cannot and do not substitute for the intimate knowledge you have of your child. They are intended as a window, a way to get past the wall our children so often erect. But just as in architecture, the style of window that works in one house may be awful in another. As much as I hope there will be many ideas in this book that you can use in the life of your child, do so only after holding the idea in your hand. Does it fit with your child? Does it make sense for your family?
More often than not, my research makes me a wiser and, I hope, better parent. But whenever I wonder, which is often, how well I'm doing as a parent, my son is always my best guide. When he was 6 and I was applying (apparently rather transparently) a new strategy to our family's approach to chores, he told me I was taking my column too seriously. "I don't think you need to learn any more stuff, Mom," he said. "I think you're a good mother just like you are." It was a sweet message, even if his motives were a tad on the self-serving side.
Excerpted from Put Yourself in Their Shoes by Barbara Meltz. Copyright © 1999 by Barbara Meltz. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.