In 2005, I received a late Christmas gift—the best Christmas gift there could ever be. It was December 26th. The gifts from the day before still needed sorted and put away. The lights still twinkled on the tree. My feet were bare and cold on the bathroom floor, and my hands were shaking as I held a digital pregnancy test, watching the hourglass spinning ‘round and ‘round. When it stopped, my life was forever changed.
I spent the next 40 weeks talking, singing and reading to the baby growing in my womb. As I read the book Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney, I would rub my tummy in circles and pat whatever little body part poked up. I didn’t exactly know who was growing in there, but—oh!—how I loved him so. I prepared a beautiful nursery (which he never used) but was symbolic for welcoming into our lives a new family member. His name was on the wall. He had a place here already. He belonged.
He was placed in my arms in September, the most beautiful and perfect little boy I’d ever seen. The following two years were nothing short of magical. We played peek-a-boo and watched Thomas the Train. I clapped when he learned to roll over, to sit up, to crawl, walk, and run. I marveled at each new word he spoke. We were completely and beautifully connected, this little boy and I. In his eyes, I saw trust.
We welcomed another son 26 months after the first had joined our home, and I was once again totally and completely in love. I thought we’d carry on our days in perfect harmony until they went off for college in the far, distant future. But no. Slowly, things began to change.
My firstborn, struggling with this overwhelming change in his life, began acting in ways I’d never seen him act. Back then, I called it defiant. I now recognize it as disconnected. In order to get a handle on this defiant toddler, I began putting him in time-out. I thought this was simply the way of things. It didn’t feel good, but it’s just how it had to be, I thought.
Eventually, the days turned from being filled with playfulness, joy and laughter, to being filled with tears and time-outs. His behavior only worsened during that time. I tried all of the tricks. Counting to three. Behavior charts. Nothing made things better. In fact, every time I put him in that little green chair at the end of the hallway, separated from me as I held his baby brother in my arms, he seemed to break just a little more.
I just wanted to teach him, not break him.
One day, when I saw him sitting there, eyes downcast, chin quivering, tears rolling down his still-baby cheeks, I stopped cold. Suddenly my eyes were opened to what I was doing, to his grief, to his loss and to mine. I looked into his eyes, and I no longer saw trust there. I saw sadness. My little boy who used to sleep with his hand up my shirt sleeve no longer trusted his mommy. Not completely. Not like he had before.
My son wasn’t defiant. He had his world turned upside down, and he didn’t know how to cope. I was the center of his world, and suddenly at least half of my attention, if not most of it, was going to another little baby that he’d never asked for. He felt strong emotions, and he couldn’t process them. He couldn’t explain them. All he could do was feel, and it felt really bad. Bad feelings drive bad behavior, so I then punished him for his bad behavior, compounding his bad feelings. It is such a messy cycle, but it’s possible to get out of.
When I finally understood that what he needed wasn’t a time-out chair in the corner of the hallway but to feel connected to me like he used to, I completely changed my approach. I trashed the green chair and brought him into my lap. I held him and read him books. We colored together. We hugged stuffed animals and talked about better ways to deal with frustration, anger, fear and sadness. I told him I loved him just as much as I always had, and that my love for him would never, ever change.
To some of you, this may sound like I reinforced bad behavior, but that’s not true. I addressed the root cause of the bad behavior–disconnection–and in doing so, his behavior improved.
The brokenness was healed.
We built block towers and forts. We painted with our feet. We had water balloon fights. We danced. We sang. The trust returned to his eyes. He and his brother became best friends. There was laughter again. There was joy. There was connection. No more time-outs—just teaching, heart-to-heart and hand-in-hand. What I learned when I saw him sitting there that fateful day was that it wasn’t my job to make him feel bad enough that he’d act better, but to help him feel valued, accepted, validated and wholeheartedly loved so that he could be his good, compassionate, kind, true self.
Children are good. They are filled with amazing potential and secure attachment unlocks that potential and allows them to grow beautifully into who they were made to be. We don’t need to break them to teach them.
Today, my boy stands at nearly 5 feet tall. Last night he threw his long, gangly arms around me and said, “Mom, I love you.” In my mind, the book I read to him when he was yet in my womb came to the surface: “’Guess how much I love you,’ he said. ‘Oh, I don’t think I could guess that.’ ‘This much,’ said Little Nutbrown Hare, stretching out his arms as wide as they could go.”
“I love you this much,” I replied, as I stretched out my arms.