Broken Cookie Discipline
In about 2001, I went to a workshop led by Patty Wipfler of the Parents Leadership Institute, now Hand in Hand. It was about dealing with children and their emotional outbursts. Two things have stuck with me over the years.
First, that one of our goals as parents should be to raise children, including boys, who are not afraid to have an emotional life. I don't mean that I expect my children to continue having temper tantrums indefinitely; that would be an immature emotional life. I want them to recognize their emotions and express them appropriately. Including sadness, anger, fear, wonder, and the whole range of happiness.
This meant that I had to think about what are appropriate expressions of anger. Hmmm. If I’m teaching my child, “no hitting, no yelling, no cussing,” what else is there? My husband and I had to talk about how we express anger and about what we would tolerate in our children. We have two sons who are very different. One of them has to be encouraged to express his anger in any way besides tears and the other has to be restrained from hitting.
We try to help them take turns talking when they're upset. We try to help them use words to explain how they feel. We try to model and encourage asking for what you want or need, not just giving orders.
We try to offer acceptable-to-us solutions: kicking your brother is not okay, kicking an empty paper grocery bag around the kitchen floor is. (Ok, I didn’t think that one up, but I recognized it as a good option when my younger son tried it out.)
We have come to tolerate a certain amount of yelling. It’s a middle ground that can relieve angry tension without hurting anyone. Now, in the elementary school years, we are working on letting them work it out between themselves, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s peaceful enjoyment of life. Mine or our neighbors.
We also recognize their need to go out and throw rocks off of hills and kick balls as far as they can and run, run, run. These can be expressions of a whole variety of emotions: anger, joy, and wonder. Learning to physically express your emotions (appropriately) is important for boys and girls.
The second thing I remember is what Wipfler called the Broken Cookie scenario. You know, when you offer your child a snack, say milk and cookies, and you pour her a glass of milk but she doesn't want milk, so you pour orange juice, but she doesn't like the floaty things, so you say then just eat the cookie, but she doesn't want that cookie because it's broken, so you try to push the cookie back together and show her that it’s still a whole cookie but by now she's in tears and flailing on the floor.
Has this happened to you?
You think to yourself, “What am I supposed to do? I can’t fix the cookie; and besides, a broken cookie is just not that big a deal!”
Wipfler's insight? You're right. Don’t fix the cookie. It's not about the cookie.
It’s really about something else that your child probably can’t identify for you. It’s about all the other things that went wrong today (or this week, or this lifetime), from your child’s perspective. He’s been holding it together through all the times he was told no, or the legos wouldn’t fit together, or the block towers that fell down, or the big brother who wouldn’t play with him. And now the broken cookie is just the straw that breaks his composure completely.
The answer isn’t to get him another cookie. It’s to let your child have the tantrum as long as it’s safe and private, and let her cry it out. Tears have some chemical property that carries stress hormones out of the body, which is one of the reasons we feel better after “a good cry.” The key is to not get caught up in your child’s emotions, but to remain calm and slightly detached but still visibly present. Listen to what your child is saying. Don’t take it personally. Be prepared to offer a hug when it all winds down. But don’t offer another cookie.
The discipline part is learning that you don’t get another cookie just because it’s broken. Discipline includes learning when and where it’s okay to let it all out. You don’t have to let your child cry it out every time. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, it’s okay to jolly them out of it or remove them from the situation. You don’t have to let them just cry it out in the grocery store or in front of your mother-in-law who already thinks you’re too permissive. But the emotional health part is that we all need to let it all out from time to time.
My husband and I still occasionally look at each other when our children’s reaction to something is completely unreasonable and say “oh, broken cookie.” Then we can take a deep breath, step back and look for solutions to the bigger problem, like trying to go too many places in one day or not enough outside time, or hunger/tiredness/whatever.
For religious parents, I think it’s important to draw the connection that God’s unconditional love for us doesn’t mean we always get another cookie. Shit happens. Cookies break. So do hearts, cars, and careers. It’s okay to cry long and loud sometimes, even if we don’t know exactly why.
Do we remember and can we teach our children that God will still be there when we’re done? Calm and maybe a little detached, but present nonetheless? And just sometimes, God offers a hug when you need it.
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