Finding equilibrium in a family of 6 – we’re including the dog – is – wait for it – a balancing act.
Sometimes it means listening to who’s crying the loudest –
“Yes, Olivia, I understand that you want to eat my pizza, but at 9 months your gag reflex is still kicking in which means that I will soon be wearing everything you’ve eaten for the last 3 days. Now eat your carrot-lentil-rice puree.”
Or who’s being the quietest –
“Gabe? Gaaaabe? Where are you…..GABE!!!! What are you doing behind the couch? We do not eat Playdoh! Yucky yucky!”
At its core, family dynamics is about power – who wields it and who wants it. For the first few years of Nick’s life, Lori and I ran an oligarchy…and now we are reaping all the “benefits” of that model. Although we would like to think of ourselves as benevolent, more often than not we were directive, with little in the way of explanation except, “because I said so.”
“Nick, put your shoes on.”
“Nick, go get your backpack.”
We had never treated each other like that, nor our friends or family, nor anyone we respected for that matter. But somehow, with the arrival of a completely dependent infant, we let power go to our heads.
Is it any wonder that we hear this same tone when he addresses Gabe? And should we really be shocked that he’s now flexing some of his own power muscles as he tries to assert his Alpha Male status in a family run by two Alpha Females.
Jonah Lehrer wrote this 2010 article where he talks about the effect power has. It doesn’t so much corrupt as it does corrode. Contrary to Machiavelli’s recommendations, nice guys and gals do finish first, but then something funny happens once they get to the top.
Turns out that the corner office with a view becomes a loony bin. You actually go a little crazy, like damage to the orbito-frontal lobe crazy where you’re less empathetic and more judgmental. You rely on stereotypes, you make less eye contact, and you are less likely to agree with ideas that conflict with pre-existing beliefs.
Egads! Sounds like me on my worst parenting days – the ones I look back on and cringe, convinced that whatever false assumption or sarcastic aside I made is the one that’s going to send the kids into years of therapy.
So how do we move from our matriarchy to a democracy? How do we equally distribute power without devolving into a Battle Royale?
Three simple steps:
1. We shut the hell up.
Really. As chicks we talk non-freaking-stop to our kids – warnings, explanations, teaching moments – we never met a quiet space we couldn’t cram with talk, talk and still more talk until their eyes glaze over, their jaws hang slack…and then we’ll talk some more. We want to make sure that they fully understand the ramifications of every choice, danger or opportunity that is presented to them to ensure that they…
Yeah, you get the idea.
But now we’re at a point where we observe and listen. There are times when I literally bite my tongue as I wait for Gabe’s 2-year-old brain to work through the question I’ve just posed to him:
“Would you like to share your Cheerios with Olivia?”
Sometime between my 9th and 10th diaphragmatic breath, he will unfurl his sweaty hand and offer a crushed “O” to his sister.
Totally worth it. And breathe…
2. We see the world through their eyes.
Whether it’s sitting on the ground to make eye contact, or listening to their entire explanation as to why the bathroom floor is slippery and the soap dispenser is in the sink (“I wanted to make the soap last longer, so I poured some of it out to make room for water, but it spilled.”), we try to follow their internal logic. It’s always there. We just need to give them the time and space to share it with us.
3. We channel our inner poker player.
We gotta know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away…
Lori’s sister has 4 “spirited” kids who make our kids look comatose. The best piece of advice she has given us is to just let the kids be. Period. Want to stand on the chair repeatedly after we’ve briefly explained the likely outcome? Fine. In our house, we call that “assumption of risk.” We won’t keep nagging you about the fact that you might fall. If you do, we’ll kiss your booboos. And if you don’t, we’ll say “good job” and strike another milestone from the list.
Even with these guidelines? ( laws? statutes?) we’re still trying to find that “perfect” form of family governance, where every voice is heard and every special interest represented, amidst the order and chaos that defines everyday life.