Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Patience and Understanding; Discipline and Arguments

Being a father has so many different sub-roles attached to it. Navigating them, keeping all roles straight, and making sure everyone is happy is tough. It's sort of like crossing a six-way intersection that has several train crossings thrown in. And it's just when things get stressful in the world around you that wires get crossed, kids act-up, and tempers collide.

Losing your temper doesn't get you very far. Arguing rarely solves problems. It is within these dangerous crossroads that we receive a certain and elusive gift: the gift to exercise our patience and understanding.

How can you expect to just naturally be good at something so difficult? How can you think that such valuable skills will just fall into your lap? Maybe you discover that you're not very good at these things right now, and that is a gift as well.

My family has recently seen a spree of sickness, hurricanes, and stress coupled with a quick drainage of money; there's that dangerous intersection I was talking about. And the speeding trains were my daughters boiling over and my wife and I entrenched in pressure. I can honestly say that for the last week and a half, my older daughter has behaved worse than she has ever behaved. She has learned to talk back, to make ultimatums, to throw extended, nuclear powered tantrums, and to be unabashedly stubborn.

But you can't just throw in the towel. Now comes the opportunity of the moment.

As parents, we have all learned new and deep definitions of the word "patience." Yet we get into grooves, find a system that works, and our new definitions of patience don't get tested. But with this recent onslaught, I've found myself tired and frustrated like I would have been somewhere at the beginning of this whole journey. I've lost my temper, I've yelled, I've made threats. But this isn't the time for those things; it's time to take a step back.

What does my daughter's behavior show me about me? A lot, really. Her talking back and ultimatums are the inverse--the evil twin--of the ways in which I have bribed her to behave or threatened her with discipline. She sees these things, twists them in her own frustrating battle, she shines them back at me and reveals a new light of what this comfortable groove has really been for us: unhealthy. I've been bribing her "to have a nice bedtime," offering rewards for "being nice while in the store," and so many more things that send the wrong message. And I haven't followed through with discipline, I haven't kept a clean house, I haven't modeled the right behavior to reinforce the better side of all these things.

And those tantrums? I've let small tantrums change my mind, so why shouldn't a bigger one work even better? I've taken the easy road many times with them on long days and given in on things just to make the day more manageable. Now I'm just reaping what I've been sewing.

So her behavior of late has been a reflection of me. And I'm finding it hard to cope with because of the stress I've been under. Now is the time that I get to work on my patience, my ability to handle stress at home, my ability to model right behavior and make everyone happy again.

And recently, my wife and I had the first argument we've had for a long time. Throughout it I was given the opportunities to exercise my ability to be understanding and again, my patience. I don't believe--in theory--that arguments between man and wife are something that one should try to "win." I don't believe that you should take shots, make things personal, or say things you have to regret later. After all, to most men, women seem to change the argument away from what we feel like it's about and to the things we've said in the course of the argument.

In the midst of things, you have to slow down and make sure you know what you're arguing about. And you have to remind yourself not to try and "win." Arguments are always lose-lose situations. If the two of you love each other and are committed to your family, then probably this is just a misunderstanding. And it might take a lot of time and a lot of talk to find out where the mis-communication is and where your true understanding lies.

It's not easy. Men grow up debating with each other in large groups--verbally sparring. This seems aggressive to women, most of whom grew up in smaller groups with any sparring hidden tightly in the sub-text.

And the only practical recommendation that I have for this is to constantly backtrack the argument to its roots--recover all of that ground together--until you can both verbalize--honestly--what you feel you are arguing about. Then revisit the assumptions that you held when entering into this argument. Very often, you are either arguing about different things, or your argument is based in the original assumptions that can be lost in the maze of words that we use to try and make our point clear.

Often, to women, men trying to make their point clear comes off as condescending. That's why backtracking becomes so necessary. Remember: you're trying to clear things up, not muddle them. This should be a cooperative discussion, not a bitter battle.

Now, I'm not saying that I'm perfect at these things. And I'm not saying that I like them. But not liking something doesn't make it any less of a gift.

How do you expect to handle a big crisis if your patience hasn't been tested? How do you expect to navigate a real misunderstanding if you haven't ever tried? How do you think you can foster harmony if you've never experienced discord? These things are not to be shied away from: they are to be approached mindfully. Respect the ways you can be tested. Respect the ways you will be temporized.

Henry David Thoreau put it best: "When a dog runs for you, whistle for it."

lastly--and just because I'm editing to add it doesn't make it less important--all of these situations give the very unique opportunity to practice forgiveness. When things are mended, attitudes should be as well. Forgiveness for a child should be total the minute they crack a smile or a laugh instead of a frown and cry. Forgiveness for a spouse should be total and grudges should never exist the moment understanding is reached. If this is easier said than done, you just need more practice. But that doesn't mean you should seek these opportunities, just value them.

1 comment:

octavialuna said...

Very thoughtful and insightful. i really enjoyed reading this.