I’ll just cut to the chase and tell you…you’re kind of getting the scrubbed, sugar-coated version of this journey. When I sit down to write, I’m not inspired to transcribe the painfully irritating details of every kid drama embedded in our experience. Similarly, when Brian selects images, he moves past the ones where Liv is scowling or Alison’s arms are contorted into an accusatory posture over her “mean sisters.” When we look back on each day of this adventure, we aren’t focused on the frustrations or fights or moments where we felt like giving another family member a smack in the face. We remember the good stuff, and really, that’s the way it should be.
Yet the truth is, this trip around the world ain’t always a walk in the park. While the experience is incredibly beautiful, exciting and eye-opening, it’s also been extremely challenging for us as parents. It seems one of our girls always has something to be furious about – a bossy sister, a broken toy, missed pets, a homework problem, or the enigmatic “Nothing”, as is often their response when asked why they’ve assumed the furrowed-brow, crossed-arms position that is the universal body language for “I’m mad.”
Sometimes I think they secretly plan out their schedule like athletes taking on a rival team. “Okay, Liv, you lead us off with the morning grouch play, I’ll take over at noon with a round of prepubescent moodiness, and then Ali will come in with her overtired preschooler routine. If we haven’t broken them by early evening we can always fall back on the old shrill-screams-of-laughter zone defense until one of them cracks. Got it, team? Okay BREAK!”
The tension created by this vacillating rotation of kid drama can put us parents on edge. Emily spoke to it in her recent blog post when she wrote that her parents “definitely can’t withstand our bickering the way they used to.” No dear, no we cannot. It’s like the blitzkrieg of kid angst some days. The girls do seem to recognize what they’re doing to us at times. In fact, I think their recent interest in domestic chores has been their response to the smoke they see exiting our ears on a daily basis. “Mom’s about to blow! Quick! Wash the dishes! Dad’s losing it! Someone grab the broom! For the love of God, look helpful!”
It’s a new dynamic we’ve settled into recently, but it’s really not some dire situation. This kid drama and periodic tension are just a part of traveling together and certainly worth it given the benefits this trip brings us. At least that was my attitude until the other day. That’s when I woke up early, headed out on my own to clear my head and had an ah-ha mama moment in the historic town center of Prague.
As I wandered along Prague Castle, past St. Vitus Cathedral, through the Royal Gardens and into the Strahov Monastary, I decided, very affirmatively, we can change this. Brian and I don’t have to accept the fact that our girls are going to drive us crazy. We embarked on this trip to find balance. That balance needs to include our kids’ interactions with each other and our interactions with them. There is a better way to handle this than using my recent catchphrase, “Turn it around, NOW” whenever they take a turn into negative town. We can change this dynamic! I know we can, I thought heroically. How? Hmmmmmm…. Now that was a question still rolling through my head hours later as I made my way to the Senate gardens.
While there I watched an interesting situation unfold. The gardens apparently have several resident peacocks, and one of them had gotten into an area deemed by the female security guard to be an inappropriate locale for peafowl strolls. She began chasing the peacock around the bushes, which only served to get both of them very riled up and winded. When she started yelling at the poor confused thing and gathering a crowd of onlookers, I heard a little British boy ask his mom, “But Mummy? Why does the peacock have this big garden if he isn’t allowed to use it?” Exactly. If the guard doesn’t want them in the bushes, why have peacocks in the garden at all. The whole place is a bunch of well-groomed bushes, for pete’s sake!
So here comes the ah-ha moment. (Took a while, didn’t it?) Like a peacock being chased into a corner of its massive garden, why do kids have all these emotions if we never want them to use them? Brian and I have been essentially chasing the girls out of their bad moods. We’ve taken an almost “Be happy or else!” approach when it comes to the kid drama. And, not surprisingly, we’re getting the same results as the security guard chasing the peacock – they keep doing what they’re doing but they’re a little confused and they probably like us less.
Instead of seeing their sibling rivalry and foul moods as Machiavellian attempts to turn our hair gray…er, we can recognize them as opportunities to help prepare them for the future. They’re going to grow up and feel competitive toward a colleague or get frustrated about a situation in their lives. The roller coaster of emotions we’re seeing now is practice for this big game of life. That’s what childhood is about, right? They have to figure out how to handle psychological struggles now so they can make the winning play when it really counts. (Okay, enough with the sports analogies.) The point is, this is a normal process for kids to go through, yet our parental instinct is to shut them down and make them just be happy for crying out loud!
On this trip Brian and I are seeing more of their fighting and drama simply because we’re physically around them all the time. Instead of letting them stomp off to their rooms to pout or scream hateful things at each other out of our earshot, we’re forced to see it all up close and personal in our little apartment. Maybe this overload of parent involvement can be a good thing for their emotional development. If Brian and I can refrain from blowing our tops and reverting to unproductive tirades (“Be happy or else!”), it’s possible we can impart lessons that we didn’t figure out until we were adults. Because we see it all happening – all day every day- maybe we can find a way to guide them a little bit. Rather than stewing in their childhood angst and thinking no one understands them, maybe they can get to emotional maturity a little sooner than the average bear.
So, here’s my new catch phrase: “It sounds like you’re giving her/it/them a lot of control over how you’re feeling right now. What do you think you can about that?” Yes, it sounds like I’m trying to be a child psychologist, but I have to admit, it seems to be working a lot better than my old “Turn it around NOW!” approach. The drama dissipates much faster and the best part is I don’t feel like a security patrolman chasing my peacocks anymore.