In an online forum recently, I was asked by a grandmother why her grandchildren are so poorly behaved with their mother, but are so well behaved with her. She babysits most days while the mother works two jobs.
In my office, another working mother confided in me that her son, 7, was upset about her recent divorce. But her daughter, 5, was simply ‘sour.’ She said the girl was just never nice to her, and she was sadly misguided if she thought that was a way to get her mother’s affection. She was angry at her daughter.
I don’t always get these behavioral issues right. They are always complex, with factors of family and environment, health and finances always complicating the emotional and behavioral problems. This time, I did get it just right, so I thought it might be helpful to see these cases unfold.
Here’s an empathic interpretation. In the first case, I had some important information just from the short statement that the grandmother provided. The fact that the kids were generally well-behaved with the grandmother meant that they didn’t carry their bad behavior with them everywhere they went. That was essential to know so I could be really confident that there wasn’t something about the children that was causing the problem. I had no contact with the mother, so there was no way to know if she was really messing up the relationship with her kids, but I took an educated guess. With her heavy work schedule, she didn’t get to spend time with her kids. They didn’t see this, of course, as her sacrificing for their welfare. They see it as their own sacrifice for no apparent purpose at all. So since they feel the cost but none of the benefit, they aren’t happy about it. Then when mother comes home, they are demanding of her time. She’s exhausted, of course, and maybe protective of what little time she has for herself. The children interpret this as rejection, and get even more unhappy, and actively experiment with their own actions to do what they need to do in order to get the attention from mom that they need to get. With the escalation in difficult behavior, the mother has to escalate her attempts to control the behavior, which ends up in a spiral from skirmish to battle. Everybody gets hurt.
In the second case, the older child has tried to fill some of the role of his absent father. He helps mom around the house, gets his homework done without asking her for anything, watches his sister when asked. The elevation in his status and the affectionate rewards he gets from mom are not missed by the 5-year-old, however. What can she do? It seems that every time she tries to help, either her brother steals the chance from her or her mother complains that now she’ll have to do it over again because it was done wrong. Besides missing her dad, she can’t find a role for herself in this new family unit. So to get the attention of her mother, she needs a burning flare to get her mother’s attention and dynamite to separate her mom from her brother. Flares and dynamite are a combustible combination, and she, too, is left to her own creative devices to find activities so egregiously naughty that they demand the attention of her mother. The mom complained to me, explicitly, that she didn’t even like to spend time with this unpleasant girl.
In both cases, the parent needs to spend more time with the child.
There used to be a myth called ‘quality time.’ Though I haven’t been able to find a clear definition, sometimes it meant time uninterrupted by phone calls or distractions, sometimes it meant time with the kids during which everybody was having a good time, sometimes it meant a massive mutual crying session during which the whole family bared their innermost feelings in a catharsis that typically ended with a lot of awkward embracing.
I think there is such a thing as quality time. Again taking an empathic approach, I think it’s the children who determine if the time is ‘quality’ or not. What are their criteria? Even if they say they want more time to watch TV or play on the computer, time with a parent is what’s really valuable to them. If there’s a mistake that many parents make, it’s making this time arbitrary and unpredictable. Children cannot understand this. They don’t see the complexities of your life and can’t understand the flexible priorities you assign to your own daily tasks. So maybe you don’t take business calls at home…unless it’s your boss and it’s really important. Maybe you go to the gym every evening…unless your friend is visiting from out of town. There’s nothing bad in this kind of flexibility. It’s an essential skill of successful adulthood. Those who don’t have the ability to realign priorities with changing situations are not going to fit in to our every-changing lives. (This rigidity in the face of an obvious change in circumstances can be a sign of autistic-spectrum , or perhaps obsessive-compulsive disorder.)
But that’s not your children. To them, quality is not just time with you, but time they can count on. So here’s how to do it if you’re working all the time and have little time with them.
I had a close friend who used to work in the financial markets here in California. The problem was that he usually left for work around 5:00 am, and he hated missing his preschool-aged kids in the morning. So the family decided to skip the pre-bedtime bath. Instead, the kids would get up with daddy, everybody would take a shower together and then go back to bed when dad left for work. While I presume this did take a little more time than a quick morning shower alone would otherwise have taken, dad could leave for work feeling energized for the day. At first, one of the kids preferred to stay in bed. But when one sibling knew that the other was spending time with dad, even if it seemed like the middle of the night, there was no problem getting up.
So when I was asked about how the mom with two jobs can find ‘quality’ time with her kids, I responded by noting that the time was available, and the ‘quality’ was up to her. The key rule--it’s not a guideline, it’s a rule--is that this is an appointment you must always keep. Your children depend upon it as a sign of their importance to you. It really doesn’t matter what you do together, as long as it’s together. If you’re working long hours, what are the tasks that you have to do anyway? Even if the kids weren’t there? The ones I usually come up with are laundry, shopping for food, housework of specified kinds, maybe some others like walking the dog or even emptying all the wastebaskets and then taking out the trash. These are not chores to be assigned to your child while you catch up on your email or return important phone calls! (It could be a chore under certain circumstances. But if your child is acting up, there’s a 100% chance they need more time with you. So if you’re going to use a task for this time, it has to be something you do together.) Make it a team job.
So for a preschooler, maybe they can sort the light items from the dark ones. They can fold things as you take them from the dryer. They can help you put things away. Tip: don’t assign them tasks to do by themselves. You’re a team. So don’t tell the child to put her brother’s clothes in his closet. That’s a chore, no matter how you try to tell her how much she’s helping you (then it’s a favor). Have her help you carry her brother’s things into his room and then hand you the items as you put them in the closet. Why am I so particular about this? It’s the conversation, of course.
Yes, you’re going to have to put down the bluetooth headset. If a call comes during this important time, say ‘I’m doing some work with my son right now, let me call you back later.’ Once you’ve said it, watch the magic it makes with your son. See how much more enthusiastically he helps you. But you’ve also sent another person an important message--you. Once you have embraced that laundry with your son isn’t a chore for you, it’s quality time with your son, it might not be something you do because if you don’t, no one else will. When you do it with your son, you are doing it because no one else can. You and he are now
Special headgear or weapons--developed at skunkworks to be indistinguishable by an untrained observer from household terrycloth--might be required.
Every busy parent’s life is filled with these tasks. Many depend on where you live and what your preferences are. Do you wash your car? Do you tend a garden? I acknowledge that often adult tasks we do alone can be fulfilling and relaxing when done alone. And there are some jobs that are downright dangerous when done with a child (mowing the lawn, blowing glass, welding the steel roll bars on your monster truck, etc.) But if you are doing these tasks instead of spending time with your children, can you blame them for acting in ways that are more demanding of your attention?
The next step in this plan is scheduling. When you have made this magical transformation from chore to team activity, you have to stop treating it as a chore to be done reluctantly and squeezed in whenever you can. That may have worked for laundry, but it doesn’t work for time with your kid. They don’t respond to being a low priority on your to-do list. So go shopping with your child for a monthly calendar. (Another team activity!) They can choose puppies or fighter jets or whatever else they like. Then every Thursday night or Saturday morning or how often you think is necessary, write laundry on those days. It doesn’t matter if he can’t read. He will see that word and recognize it for what it is, a contract with mommy or daddy for his personal time. IT’S A CONTRACT. Break it, and there will be consequences.