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Thirteen minutes after dropping my husband off at the airport one sunny Sunday morning in April, I found myself in a standoff with my sweet but headstrong 7-year-old son. It began much like previous battles: with a choice to be made, and firm, reasonable limits set.

When these conflicts arise, they are often about small things; this time, he completely unraveled at the thought of having to choose whether to have a special fruit juice drink now, or later. The problem, of course, was that he couldn’t have both.

I feel I must preface this story with a few disclaimers. No, I do not spoil him. No, he is not a brat. No, I am not trying to dissect the smallest of daily struggles in an attempt to build myself up as a parent. This small, but mighty, conflict represented more than a power struggle between mother and son. It provided an opportunity to build trust, solidify boundaries, reinforce love and understanding, and help a child practice critical thinking skills in the midst of strong emotions (on both our parts). A moment of conflict when emotions run high is, for lack of a better term, a teachable moment.

I had promised my three boys breakfast and time on the nearby playground. But as we pulled up to the curb of the coffee shop we sometimes visit on weekend mornings, I reminded my children that if they chose to buy a drink now, they would have to have water later at the picnic dinner we had planned. It is a rule we stick with consistently: all things in moderation, especially sweets. My two other boys accepted the limit and hopped out of the car.

My seven-year-old, still buckled in his seat, weighed the options, then became overwhelmed by the choice and started to cry and whine. Despite my best efforts, it quickly escalated and he was howling with indignation. I considered canceling the breakfast, but my other two boys had been looking forward to the plans, and I didn’t expect the conflict to last long. I also didn’t want them to resent their brother. I handed my 9-year-old some money and sent him and his 5-year-old brother into the shop with instructions to sit next to the window where I could see them. I stepped out of the car and stood a few feet from the open back door, talking gently to my distraught son.

It wasn’t easy. I was annoyed. In my rational mind, this was not a big deal. It was a drink, for goodness sake. But those thoughts did nothing to help me remain calm and empathetic, so I pushed them away and tried to avoid escalating the situation with my body language. Here was my son, whom I love dearly, and he was upset. This was real to him.

“I can’t decide!” he cried. “I just want both!”

“I understand that it’s hard to choose, but having two sweet drinks in one day is not an option. You could choose to have water now, and look forward to a special drink later? But we won’t be doing both.”

I prepared myself for a long standoff and took it as a challenge to practice my patience. I glanced back to the window of the coffee shop, where I could see my youngest son in his tiger hat and black cape watching us while he ate a muffin. My oldest son waved, then gave me a thumbs-up.

There was an older couple sitting at a table on the patio. I noticed that they were watching, but tried not to feel judged, and focused instead on de-escalating the situation with my son. The minutes ticked by. I stood patiently, occasionally reminding my son that his brothers were inside and I bet they’d like us to join them.

“Just leave me in the car! I don’t want to go in!” he said, crying.

“I know you’re embarrassed and overwhelmed, but I can’t leave you in the car by yourself. It’s actually against the law. As soon as you’re ready, we’ll go join your brothers inside.” I said, rubbing his back.

This went on for a few more eternal minutes. He refused to get out of the car. I stepped back a few feet, turned away from him, and said, “Let me know when you’re ready.” I waited. He cried.

The woman from the couple who had been sitting outside approached. She walked up to me slowly. I felt nervous, not knowing what to expect. When she was a few feet away, she spoke.

“I just wanted you to know that I really admire how you’re handling this situation. Your other two boys are doing fine, by the way, I can see them sitting together. I have a 24-year-old and a 26-year-old, and I was never brave enough to do what you’re doing. I wish I had been. You are doing an amazing job. You’re a really good mom.”

My eyes welled up with tears. My son, curious, stopped crying to listen to the woman.

I thanked her and took a deep breath. I turned to my son, who was slowly catching his breath after such a hard cry. He looked so sad, so uncomfortable, but he was getting where he needed to be to move on.

In the midst of all the frustration, I had a moment of clarity. This was one small moment, yet it was immensely important. I was showing my son that I was there for him, that his feelings mattered. I was not screaming at him, or giving him an ultimatum, threatening to take something away if he didn’t stop his tantrum. I was validating his feelings, even when they seemed kind of ridiculous. I flashed back to a time when I had not been so patient: when things had escalated until I was raising my voice and yelling “Enough!” and shutting him down. It hadn’t ended well — in fact, his screaming and crying became so intense that it attracted unwanted attention from a stranger who assumed the tantrum could only mean I was physically harming him.

I had learned from that day that what matters is not my authority as a parent. Being right, being listened to, being obeyed — none of it matters. The point is this: I am here to guide my children, to help them through strong emotions, not to shut them down. I am not here to judge the strength of their feelings. I am here to help them understand the world — all the disappointments and opportunities — and to model the empathy I want them to show others as they grow into strong young men. I am here to love them, to be there for them, to teach them that there are consequences and limits, but most of all, that how they feel, and how others feel, matters.

This time, my son worked through his emotions and calmed down with the help of a few more gentle words and my hand on his back. I took his hand and held it gently. He unbuckled his seat belt and allowed me to lead him onto the sidewalk. We walked into the shop hand in hand, and he ordered a special fruit juice drink, which he saved for the picnic.

Lauren Knight is a frequent contributor to On Parenting. Her blog is Crumb Bums.

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