I’ve said before that parenting gets both easier and harder as our children get older.
Things get physically easier. Just think how much time you get back when your children become capable of wiping their own behinds!
My 7-year-olds can shampoo their own hair and M is starting to want to dry herself after her bath! If they hate the meal I’ve prepared, they can fix themselves something to eat. I can even stay in bed when they’re awake because they’re fully capable of pouring a bowl of cereal. I spent 4 hours (4 hours!!!) in a rehearsal this afternoon, focused on music while my girls sat quietly-ish on the other side of the room, reading, playing on their tablets, drawing and making new friends.
Things get emotionally harder. We have to teach our kids to be okay without us there to protect them. We have to help our children learn to tackle peer pressure, perhaps even bullying. We have to advocate for them at school with their teachers and administrators. Our kids learn about injustice and hate and we must teach them to live and fight for acceptance and love. Today, J said to me, “You and Sissy have perfect eyes and I have little lines.” She’s only 7. Age 7 appears to be when girls, at least, begin to criticize their own appearance, and my heart hurts. J happens to currently have eczema under her bottom eyelids.
The constant thread through parenting, the one that doesn’t let up until many years from where I am in my parenting journey, is the quest for self-control.
A Bit of Context
M and J were given Samsung Galaxy tablets for Christmas when they were 5 years old. They’re the only grandkids on the paternal side. My ex-in-laws are actually very good about respecting our rules and expectations for the kids, but they channel all their grandparental spoiling powers into over-the-top gifts.
We don’t really watch TV at our house. We’ll watch a movie together every month or two; I’d actually been living in our new house for about 3 months when I unpacked the TV remote and realized we hadn’t noticed that it was missing. Screen time is, instead, time spent on the girls’ Galaxies or my iPad.
We have a loose policy of no screen time during the week, although I will occasionally allow J and M to use their Galaxies for research or as Spanish-English dictionaries in support of homework. On weekends, I may give them an hour or two to play games, watch movies on Netflix, or research various topics. The most recent Google search was “Is magic real?” which led them to a Youtube video of a stage performance by a magician that they thought was, “Awesome!”
Before they can have Galaxy time, I usually require that the M and J have dressed for the day, brushed their teeth and hair and eaten breakfast. I’ll also ask them to pick up around their room, help me with chores, and take care of any other responsibilities that are relevant. They are not allowed to download anything new without my permission and they need to be in a room where I am within earshot. Any inappropriate behaviour results in the immediate loss of screen privileges.
What Happened Yesterday
J and M requested Galaxy time yesterday morning after we got home from the gym. They had taken care of the basics already. I reminded them that I would be going to choir practice in the afternoon and asked if they would rather save their screen time for then, and they both elected to cash it in in the morning at home instead. I agreed.
J went over to the charger and grabbed the tablet off it. M screamed at her. “Why did you do that? Get your own Galaxy!”
J tried to explain that she’d failed to read the name on the tablet and had thought it was hers, but M was too shrill to hear her. She snatched her tablet away from J and stomped off. I considered intervening, but J seemed to have things under control.
While I was taking my post-workout shower, M came into the bathroom to ask what J’s name was in some game they both play. I told her I didn’t know. As I was drying myself off, I heard her growl something at her sister. I quickly dressed and asked M into her room for a private conversation.
Me: M, I’ve observed you talking rudely to your sister twice today, both times over your Galaxy. What’s going on?
M: I asked J what her name was! And she didn’t know! And I asked her was it XXX. And she said no! And then I asked you and you didn’t know. And then J said it was XXX. I asked her that. It was so frustrating!
Me: I understand that you were frustrated, but your tone of voice was completely inappropriate. You also got upset when she mistakenly picked up your Galaxy this morning, and weren’t very gracious about accepting her apology. She just made a mistake and thought it was hers.
M: I didn’t know that.
Me: You didn’t know that because you didn’t listen to J’s explanation.
At this point, M began to cry.
M: This is not fair! J’s getting more Galaxy time than me.
Me: I understand that you feel that this time is unfair, but we have to have this conversation because of choices you made. I need you to speak more politely. It would also help if you listened to me and sis the way you would like us to listen to you.
M: This is not fair!
Me: I agree. It’s not fair that J is getting Galaxy time right now and you’re not. You can go back to your Galaxy after we’ve discussed what’s causing you to be rude to your sister. Is something bothering you?
M: I don’t know. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. She sobbed and fell into my arms.
Me: Oh, sweetie. I can help you try to figure it out. It’s a big step for you to acknowledge that something is wrong. That’s the first step.
M: Gritting her teeth. This. Is. Not. Fair. Getting louder. I. WANT. MY. GALAXY. TIME!
Me: When you calm down, you can have Galaxy time. Screen time is a privilege and tantrum-throwing is how to lose privileges.
At this point, M went into a full 3-year-old style fit. She threw herself out of my arms onto the ground, arched her back, drummed her heels and screamed, “Not fair! Not fair!” I knew full well she wouldn’t hear anything I said, but I still told her what was going to happen so I knew I’d done my part.
Me: You can stay in your room without your Galaxy. I’m going to go to the living room with Sissy and rest my ears. If you can get control of your body while it’s still screen time, you can get it back.
M: LEAVE ME ALONE.
I picked up the tablet and took it with me as I left the room. M ran out of the room and screamed.
M: DON’T THROW MY GALAXY IN THE TRASH.
She repeated herself I don’t know how many times, while J and I ignored her. She retreated into her room. After about 5 minutes, I felt calm enough myself to dare enter the Cave of the Out-of-Control 7-Year-Old.
M: STAY OUT OF MY ROOM. YOU’RE NOT WELCOME HERE.
Me: Okey-doke. I love you. See you when you’re calm.
About 15 minutes later, I went into the girls’ room for a hairbrush. M had shoved her toy box against the door in an attempt to keep it shut, but I walked in anyway.
M: I told you to stay out!
I ignored her, grabbed the hairbrush, and left the room. It was another 30 minutes before she ventured out, sniffing.
M: Did you throw my Galaxy away?
Me: Of course I didn’t. I just brought it out of your room because you need to be calm to have that privilege.
M: I’m ready to calm down.
Me: Okay. Can I help you do that?
M: I need snuggles. Can I snuggle?
I held her for a while and then pointed out where her tablet was. There was only about 10 minutes of screen time left, and both girls meekly put their tablets away when I asked.
Me: M, you are within your rights to feel frustration, but the way your approached your sister was not okay. You were venting anger instead of solving a problem. And your tantrum? Completely unacceptable.
M: Everyone throws fits sometimes.
Me: I disagree.
I didn’t have an immediate reaction to that, so I let it go and picked the discussion back up in the evening.
Me: I’ve been thinking about what you said about everyone throwing fits. I think everyone feels frustration and anger, but there are lots of better ways of expressing it and dealing with it.
J: Like reading a book or taking a cozy bath with good smells. She meant essential oils.
Me: Well, those are ways to calm down, but that doesn’t actually give you chance to fix the problem that’s causing anger. I think those are great ideas, but often you need to go back and deal with the problem. Do you understand? Another great way to get frustration in your body out so your brain can think well is to exercise. Run around the backyard or do some jumping jacks!
M: J shouldn’t have taken my Galaxy.
Me: How about you ask her what she was thinking?
M: What were you thinking, J?
J: I forgot to check the name. I’m sorry. I thought it was mine.
M: I’m so embarrassed. She began to cry again.
Me: I’m sorry, sweetie. I know that doesn’t feel good. Please use today as a lesson that you need to use the Golden Rule instead of assuming that people are hurting you on purpose.
M: My less time of Galaxy was fair, Mommy. I behaved terribly.
Me: I bet that was really hard to admit. I’m proud of you for recognizing what you did wrong. Next time, talk to your sister and come to me for help, okay? We’ll figure out our problems together.
What Happens Next
M obviously learned her lesson, but will that learning stick? Will J think twice the next time she feels like giving into rage? I have no idea, but I continue to hope that these discussions will trigger something in my girls to cause them to take ownership of working on self-control.
You know where I learned my self-control? It came from a deep desire to model for my children how I want them to behave. Perhaps the self-control I want for them will be out of reach until they have a reason as good as mine to learn it.
I hope I don’t just scare those of you with younger kids, but this is pretty par for the course for age 7 so far. I have no idea whether my approach will bear fruit, but I can’t really come up with any other ideas.
Is teaching self-control part of your parenting strategy? What techniques have worked for you?
Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school in order to better protect their privacy and was delighted to have the opportunity to keep a foot in the blogosphere through HDYDI. She also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.