Two Sticks and a Do-Over
We were on our way to a shop. The ground was covered by fresh snow, and my two sons (4 yr and 18 mo) were scribbling pictures into snowdrifts with sticks they found under the old chestnut tree. They were laughing, running, having fun.
Before we entered the shop, I asked boys to find a place to leave their sticks. Mike, the older one, placed his stick on the stone fence. George followed his lead. We bought what we needed, and when we came out the boys collected their sticks.
Suddenly, with no apparent reason Mike came up to George and hit him with the stick. George started to cry, and I remember a thought that ran through my mind: "This is dangerous. He could poke him in the eye or hurt him another way. He needs to stop this now!"
Acting on that thought I came to Mike and told him: "You hit George, look he is crying! I do not want to see you hitting him ever again!" Mike looked at me, and it seemed the message went through, but in less than a minute he came back to George and hit him again.
"This is not acceptable!" was another thought that ran through my mind. "He cannot be allowed to do this! He should stop when I say so! I am the adult here, and he needs to obey!"
All these shoulds and shouldn'ts were running at the speed of light inside my brain. Anger started to build up in my stomach. I came to Mike and took the stick out of his hand without asking. I heard myself saying to him: "If you don't know how to use the stick, you cannot have it!"
Now Mike was angry. He started to shout: "Give it to me! Give it to me!"
With the stick in my hand and George in my arms, I started walking back home. Mike was behind me shouting: "Give it to me!"
While I was walking slowly, my body relaxed and the tension started vanishing. I started thinking: "What had just happened? This is not my typical reaction to unwanted behavior..." I switched my thinking from judgment and started to ask myself questions instead:
"Did I know why Mike hit George?" ...No, I didn't.
"Why did I take his stick by force?"...I felt I was not in control, so I was taking it back.
I heard myself saying in my mind again: "If you don't know how to use the stick, you cannot have it!" but this time the whole statement felt ridiculous. "How will he learn how to use the stick if he does not have it?" It is the same as telling someone: "I will buy you a violin when you know how to play it!"
It also became clear to me that approaching the whole situation from a different perspective would produce a different outcome. Telling Mike, "I do not want to see you hitting him ever again!" was an invitation for him to test if I would really walk the talk.
This is when I started using my Language of Listening coaching skills.
I turned to Mike and told him: "Mike, I was thinking about what had just happened, and I decided I will give you the stick back since I trust you to learn how to use it." He looked at me surprised, and he took the stick.
For few minutes he held it in his hands, than he came to me and tried to hit me with it. I understood why he wanted to hit me. He was still angry at me for taking the stick from him by force, and he wanted to let me know. Since I had not listened to him so far, it makes sense that he would not expect me to listen now, so what other option did he have?
Earlier I had been acting out of fear not connection. This time, however, I was centered and ready to listen, connect, and coach. So when I saw his hand raised up with the stick ready to hit me, deep inside I smiled. This was my chance for a do-over.
I stopped his hand and made the conscious choice to act from connection not judgment. He loves it when I count so he can race to do something before I say ten. So to his attempt to hit me, I responded with a smile and Success Training to bring out his STRENGTHs:
CAN DO: "There must be at least 10 things you can find that can be hit by a stick without hurting somebody or destroying something."
He smiled back and started looking. I responded with SAY WHAT YOU SEE (SWYS):
SWYS: "Yes, you found one. You can hit the road with the stick!"
SWYS: "Yes, there's another one—snow!"
I was not only repeating what he said, I was matching all the energy he put into each word. In no time at all, he found 25 things that could be hit by a stick without hurting them. When he ran out of ideas I invited him to try another game:
SWYS + CAN DO: "WOW, you found 25 things that could be hit by a stick! I am sure you can find at least 10 things that cannot be hit by a stick!"
He joined the game without hesitation.
SWYS + CAN DO: "There's one—people cannot be hit by a stick! Mike, I bet you can even tell me why people cannot be hit by a stick."
Mike: "Because it hurts, and they could get injured!"
STRENGTH + CAN DO: "You are right. You know why it is important to be careful not to hit people with a stick. So what is the next thing that you know cannot be hit by a stick?"
Mike: "Car, because it could be damaged."
This is the way we walked back home, playing and having a great time again. When we were approaching the gate, I was curious what would happen. The day before, when we were in the same situation, there was a struggle over the gate handle since both boys wanted to open the gate at the same time. That time I mediated:
SWYS + CAN DO: "It seems to me, that George wants to open the gate by himself, and you, Mike, want to enter first. Must be some way to make this work for both of you."
Mike: "I don't know."
CAN DO: "What if George opens the gate by himself, and he lets you enter first?"
Mike: "I like that."
CAN DO: "George, do you like that as well?"
George nodded. (He does not speak yet.)
This time no mediation was needed. Mike got down to George's eye level and looked into his eyes:
Mike: "George, would you like to open the door for me, so that I can go in first?"
George nodded and they entered peacefully.
A few weeks later we went out sledding. On our way home, both kids were sitting on their sled, and I was pulling them. When I turned to see if they were OK, I saw Mike holding a stick in his hand over George's head. He moved the stick as if to hit George with it, but stopped just before it could hit George. He did it three times and threw the stick away.
SWYS: "I saw you stop the stick right before it could hit George, and then decide to throw it away."
STRENGTH: "I call that..."
STRENGTH: "Yes, self-control. You stopped the stick just before it hit George because you knew it might hurt him."
I do not want to teach my kids obedience. I want my kids to be able to make conscious decisions and act on them. This is not an easy task since I have to change first. We all are on the way.
And when I am at my best, I listen, connect, and coach my boys. Those days are full of fun and laughter. Power struggles are diffused at the very beginning, so behaviors that could be seen as challenging, suddenly become mutual opportunities to learn and grow. I love those days because during those days there are no winners and losers. We all are empowered.
Zuzana is the author of Mothering.cz blog. She has always been interested in human development. When she first learned that she was going to become a mother, she started collecting information to support the development of children from birth onward. In her search she discovered the Montessori method and Language of Listening® coaching which she explores with Slavic readers on her blog.