It may be a virtue but it’s one I don’t have. It’s a deficit many fellow dads also suffer from too. I find it harder to sit down and relax than I do to get on with things. JFDI has long been my mantra. For us impatients, there is no greater test than parenting.
Yesterday I was tested.
I was sitting with my kids (boys 5 and 8) getting them to unpack their clothes from the few days they’d spent at their grandparents. A few days that left the kids happy, my septuagenarian parents exhausted and my marital relationship a bit richer than before.
It took my kids 35 minutes to unpack a bag with three changes of clothes in each. 35 minutes! But they did it. A less patient me would have got it done in a minute flat, a less present me would have got it done without thinking.
But not yesterday, not today and less and less going forward, because I’m determined, to be more patient, and let them learn more by doing more.
The idea to make this commitment kicked in when my youngest asked me to show him how to fold his t-shirt. It’s not that he can’t fold a t-shirt, or he’s just messing around and taking ages, it’s that he isn’t practised at it. The only way he’s going to get practised is to practice.
So instead of seeing it as an exercise in achieving something a bit dull — putting away some clothes — it became an exercise in learning a new skill.
Of course, they got distracted, they started messing around and I had to keep bringing them back to the task. If you’ve ever done any meditation and heard the phrase ‘if you notice your mind wandering, just gently bring it back’. That was me, only I was doing the noticing and the bringing back of their little minds. I felt quite zen about it, which was a big surprise. How had I managed to weather decades of impatient behaviour to mostly stay cool calm and collected for 35 minutes of unpacking?
The same evening I played with that question while sitting in their room, listening to them go to sleep. As an aside, sitting with them as they fell asleep is something we do, I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but we all like it, and it won’t be long before they don’t want us to so we’re going to make the most of it.
Anyway, I found the answer. Reframe. It’s all about the reframe.
When they’re about 3 they can’t get enough of you throwing them up in the air again and again. By the sixth or seventh launch of a little one, you’re getting worn out, but they’re just warming up. You’re feeling the burn in your thighs and arms, while they circle you, jumping up and down, like a pigmy Amazonian warrior, shouting ‘again!’ ‘again!’.
If you, as I have, think about this as an activity to please them then coming back from the burn is hard. But if it’s an opportunity to do some much-needed exercise with your dad bod, then up they go, again and again. The burn becomes the benefit, not the barrier.
The other time I’ve found a reframe invaluable is when they’re upset. Tears rolling down their cheeks, too much emotion to get words out. Our instinct is to comfort them, but comfort on its own isn’t going to help them in the long term. Telling them it’s going to be alright, it’s not that important, there’s a shiny thing over here that’s more interesting. This pure comfort response feels like a hard-wired default reaction to those tears because their tears hurt us and we want them to stop as soon as possible. It’s comforting them from the emotion without confronting that same emotion. Dodging it, not dealing with it.
But the sooner they learn how to handle frustration, loss, anger, pain, fear, disappointment, rejection, the better their lives will be. The only way to learn how to handle these emotions is to practice them. Just like everything else. They only learn to eat by shoving food all over their faces. Eventually, they get better. After ten years of practice, they can probably deal with a posh restaurant without too much difficulty.
To learn to deal with these emotions they have to go through them. They need comfort AND support in facing up to the horrible feelings inside them. Describing to them what it feels like, labelling the emotion, but most importantly, showing them that you’re there for them while they go through this experience. The knee-jerk reaction is comfort, the reframed reaction is developing their resilience. And if there’s one thing we can equip them with to survive in the future, resilience is at the top of my list.
Not everything needs a reframe though.
I’ll never get tired of helping a little one start to toddle, holding their little hands above their heads while they try and find their balance taking tentative steps back and forth. Despite the back pain, it’s something I’ll always enjoy. But that’s just me.
This was originally posted on Being Dads, where I’m exploring what it means to be a great dad.
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