It was one of the first few weeks of school last year, and I couldn’t believe my daughter had already lost her sweatshirt. Maybe she had left it in her second-grade classroom. Or maybe she had lost it during gym or recess.
I admit that my first instinct, the one I gave in to initially, was to scold.
As we stood at the front door of our home before setting out for school, I found myself informing my usually conscientious child, at high volume, that I wouldn’t allow her to take sweatshirts to school anymore because clearly this one incident meant she wasn’t capable of keeping track of her belongings and couldn’t be trusted to take extra things to school. And then I thought: Hold on, what in the world am I doing?
I was imposing a ridiculous punishment and helping my daughter see herself as untrustworthy, and that wasn’t the kind of parent I wanted to be. But while we’ve got many chances to mess up, we have just as many opportunities to start over — a theme that’s especially resonant this week, as Jews around the world celebrate the Jewish new year on Rosh Hashanah, which begins Wednesday night.
The High Holidays are a time to take stock of our deeds, reflect on our lives and hit restart. But as parents, we first have to accept that we probably will continue to make mistakes no matter how good our intentions.
“We’re all in this same human condition,” said parenting expert Joanna Faber, author with Julie King of this year’s “How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7.” “We all get mad sometimes, we all yell sometimes, we all lose things, we all get grumpy. And then we get better.”
All the same, it can be tough to figure out how to turn around a parent-child interaction gone sour.
“If your 4-year-old shoved his 2-year-old sister to the floor and screamed, and you screamed at him and dragged him to his room and the whole thing just ended horribly, how do you come back from that?” asked Faber, whose mother, Adele Faber, co-wrote “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” with Elaine Mazlish. “My mom has a phrase for it: ‘Erase and start again!’ ”
Unlike in the traditional High Holiday prayer service, no breast-beating need be involved. Though it’s fine to model saying sorry if you accidentally elbow your son, “I’m not heavy on apologizing to a child because you got angry and you screamed,” Joanna Faber said.
Instead, Faber suggested two major steps as parents pivot from explosive confrontation to constructive conversation: Acknowledge your feelings and talk about the future rather than express excessive remorse. “You can say, ‘Boy, I was really angry and I yelled at you, and you did not like being yelled at and you were really upset, and that was no fun for anybody.’ ”
As for talking about the future, one of the principles underpinning the “How to Talk” philosophy is that formulating a practical action plan with your child is more helpful than repeated scolding or lecturing. The focus for the child, Faber said, should be: “What should I do to fix the mistake? How should I make amends? What should I do next time?”
You may not remember to make an action plan when your 6-year-old spills milk and cookies all over your brand-new leather bag or your teenager takes the car without permission. You may end up yelling loud enough to wake the neighbors and grounding your child for the foreseeable future.
But the idea that we can rewind and begin again means we don’t have to feel locked into an unwanted screaming match or power struggle. Once you’ve calmed down, said Faber, “you can say ‘I don’t think punishment is a good idea,’ ‘I don’t think it’s going to work,’ ‘I don’t agree with my own self anymore.’ ”
For very young kids, bringing a sense of play into your interaction can be more helpful than attempts at logic, she said. Try rounding up all the dirty tissues before the tissue monster gets them, rather than constantly nudging your daughter to throw out her used Kleenex.
I’m drawn to the notion of starting over because, in a world in which it sometimes seems that new parenting do’s and don’ts are being drafted daily, this makes room for the reality that parents are fallible.
That time my daughter lost her sweatshirt, I managed to interrupt my own rant, telling her: “You know, sometimes I lose things, too.” The atmosphere shifted, as it sometimes does, and I suddenly had my children’s attention. “You do?” my kids asked, though surely they must have known this already.
My second-grader lifted her head to look at me instead of at the floor, and I told her I knew that most of the time she did bring her things home. I reminded her that tying her sweatshirt to her backpack would make it easier to remember it. I went from feeling like I hoped no one could overhear the way I was speaking, to feeling like I had just transformed defeat into victory.
“Changing course is what it’s all about,” Faber told me. “Your first instinct sometimes is to lash out, and then, as you see you’re heading for the rocky waters there, a little light goes on in the back of your head and says: Change course! Change course!”
There’s something redemptive about knowing that even though we parents are likely to find ourselves heading for rocky waters again and again, we retain the power to swerve away — on Rosh Hashanah or any other time of the year.