The truth is, we all care deeply about people's responses to us. And we
should. If a person truly didn't care what type of response their actions
created, then they wouldn't be a cool cat worth admiring, they'd be a sociopath
worth fearing. The trick is to find some sort of balance. It's not easy, but it
is possible...sometimes. Let me give you an example.
A few years ago, I broke down and bought a basketball goal for our driveway. After five years of promises (and one year of my son's begging), I finally bit the bullet. I had no idea how much construction time this purchase would involve, but looking back, I'm glad that I got to spend nine wonderful building hours with my 6-year-old son, Brandon. We examined the directions together, wrenched the bolts together, and even called each other "sir" the whole time. It was very cool.
We finished as dusk approached on Sunday night, so our playing daylight was limited. But we did play. We celebrated accomplishing achieving our "goal" with several neighborhood kids, all shooting (and mostly missing) with exuberance. As I watched my son's pure joy, I reflected on our weekend together—man, I loved just spending time with that kid. As I then stopped playing and began picking up all our tools, I realized that the least of what we had built that weekend was this basketball goal. I felt like I had given him a great gift.
That was when I felt the thud - my adorable, maturing son had just rifled his basketball at my head. "YOU SAID WE WOULD PLAY FOR A LONG TIME!!!" he whined through ungrateful tears.
How quickly the cherished moments can pass. I was, needless to say, angry. And hurt. Literally. This was not the response I wanted nor the success story I envisioned. Even though I had done everything "right", my son was not responding the way that I wanted him to. It's paradoxical. Whenever we need a particular reaction from our kids, it actually decreases the chances of getting it. The truth is, whenever we're more concerned about their response than our own, we come across as manipulative, controlling, and needy. And this actually serves as an invitation for them to defy us, just so they can retain their own individuality.
It took everything in me to breathe deeply and pause before reacting. In that moment, I had to remind myself that ScreamFree Parenting does not guarantee anything about our kids' responses. After all, it is not really about your kids' responses. It's about your own. So, I had to focus more on my behavior rather than my kid's to give myself the best chance to be the type of parent he really needed: A parent who can handle any outburst without taking it personally. One who can address misbehavior, not in an effort to control, but in an effort to influence.
It was really hard not to focus on his reaction and take it personally. To be honest, I was tempted to launch the ball right back at him and sentence him to a lifetime in his room ... without food or water!! Then I remembered that it was my job to keep my cool and teach him how to handle his anger appropriately. Mirroring his immaturity back to him probably wouldn't do the trick.
Thankfully, I was able to calmly inform my son of the consequences, enforce them, and move on. My memory of the day is not about how he may have misbehaved, or how he didn't respond entirely as I may have wanted him to—no, my fond, cherished memory was about our wonderful Sunday afternoon that we spent building something together.
And, as for my son, he got to taste the price of a lack of integrity. In caring more about getting the response he wanted (me to play longer with him) than about how he behaved, he experienced the consequence of losing his basketball for two days and watching his new goal go unused. Hopefully, I ended the day giving my son an even better gift than I intended. I gave him a dad who he could count on to keep his cool and stay in charge no matter what he throws my way.
So here's the challenge for all of us: to care deeply about people's responses to us, and yet to care more about our own responses to those responses. That's what it means to act with integrity. And I believe that's what creates great relationships.
Hal E. Runkel, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the National Bestseller ScreamFree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool, from Waterbrook Press. Visit http://www.screamfree.com/ for more information.