About a year ago, a good friend was struggling to understand her very strong-willed six year old. The more she talked, the more I realized, she was describing me as a child.
I was a smart kid. Like, giving me a standardized test was like asking Paula Deen to bring a few cookies to your bake sale. When I got angry, though, I would ramp up to a very agitated state and, no matter how much I wanted to, could not come down from the anger. I had no way to make things right, or “fix yourself up,” as we now call it in my house. My friend was at a total loss, wondering what she’d done wrong as concerned friends gently suggested therapy and others rudely suggested beating it out of her (not kidding).
Seeing her at her wits’ end, I sat down and wrote out all the things that I wish I could have said as “that kid” back then. The letter went on for four pages, and came back to the same idea, again, and again. I lost it when I felt patronized and misunderstood, when I was forced to be wrong. I was a very tough kid to be in charge of. Just ask the daycare worker who locked me alone in a dark room with a cot when I wouldn’t nap for the hundredth time. I was screaming “My mom said I don’t have to take a nap!” over and over. No one listened. I was afraid of the dark. The walls were sound-proofed canvas that could be rearranged to make larger meeting spaces. I was too afraid to look around. I just stared at the sliver of light under the door. I screamed myself to sleep. I remember every minute of it. My mom dealt with the staff, but the fact remained. At the age of three, I could irritate an adult enough to make them treat me like a much older child. That “caregiver” was just proud she had found a way to get me to sleep.
So, I have an unusual compassion for kids like me who are begging to be heard, begging to have someone believe that they really don’t want to be this way.
And, I have two children who are just like me.
Last night, my very patient husband, Andy, was in a standoff with JR that would make lesser men weep. I watched JR ramp up to higher and higher levels of emotion and Andy warn, and get stricter and stricter, reasonably increasing consequences with every passing minute. And then, the worst of the worst: physically dragging the child to timeout. Some would have argued we should have spanked him at the first sign of insolence, but that just would have gotten him to the heightened rage faster, with less opportunity to repair it.
Now don’t get me wrong, this is not a democracy, and we aren’t worried that we are crushing fragile egos by enforcing a bedtime. But, what we do need to worry about crushing is his God-given spirit. When these explosions occur, there is something chemically firing in his brain, forcing him to stand his ground, not back down for anything, and never apologize. He is not capable of making that cascade stop, even when he wants to.
I know, because I can feel it, too.
This fight-to-the death feeling cannot be dispersed by punishment or discipline, but can only be diffused from within. That’s a tall order for a five-year-old boy. For a three-year-old girl. Even 28 years later.
So, how can I take what I’ve learned in a lifetime to make overcoming the control of this chemical anger, as I call it, possible? Can a five-year-old learn to channel his rage into something that won’t make life so punitive for him? Can his three-year-old sister?
We have taken the first steps already.
The first thing was to let the kid know that they are safe. As a parent, I can be that. “Safe” means I am capable of not making him pay for my frustration or anger over his offenses. Safe is a person who doesn’t need anything from the child–because he has nothing to give. JR now knows that when he gets in this rage, I will not continue to meet his challenges, and I will not escalate the situation.
Andy has never felt this way (he quickly learned to duck under the radar under punitive discipline), and can’t get over his incredulous “You have no idea what would have happened to me if I pulled that as a kid…” And not in the “I wish I could do that to him,” way, but in the “I am killing myself to be such a thoughtful and deliberate parent—for what?!” way. As a result, many of the escalations happen under his watch because he doesn’t feel the warning signs like I do. But, he’s an amazing father, and is fighting to see.
So, to give my friend’s daughter and our son (both sharp little tacks) a chance, I invented a term. At any time when he feels himself about to explode, JR can say “Porcupine!” What it means is “I don’t know how to stop being angry and I feel myself going off the deep end and I don’t know how to stop!” Porcupine means he does not admit he’s wrong. It means he gets some space. We don’t hound him. We don’t demand resolution. We soften our hearts when he can’t.
Also, we don’t get to say porcupine. It is a precious tool only the child can use. We can stick a kid in time out in his room, but only he can say that he can’t handle what’s happening. This power gives him a tool of self-awareness, too. When he calls “porcupine,” he is my kid who can’t handle what is happening, and needs me to just be his mom, and not his teacher.
Gentle discipline advocates say kids parented appropriately never get to this stage. I say go jump off a bridge.
Why is rage in a small child a sign of a bad kid? Bad parents? When JR calls down he’s ready, I throw a strip of pH paper in by asking him “Is your heart soft enough to learn the lesson yet?” Nothing ticks off a raging child like pansy talk about soft hearts. If he says “no,” he takes more time. If he won’t stay on his own, he’s ready to fight, and didn’t really mean his “Porcupine.” That has never happened yet.
But, I just won’t destroy a little boy who, in a rage, can punch his grandmother in the stomach, destroy his sister’s favorite book, and tell the baby he hates him. Because when he’s himself, he calls me over to whisper “You’re the best mom in the whole world,” tells his little sister she’s adorable, and paints pictures for his Amma, “So she won’t forget me.” And don’t go thinking about master manipulator capablities. I’m here. I know genuine.
What’s not genuine is a little boy who, when he gets scared and can’t find his way out of the darkened room of the emotions running through his mind, fights to the death. He screams himself exhausted in the frightening world of these intense, genetically given, chemical surges. Maybe you would medicate him out of these extremes that happen maybe once a week. I wouldn’t blame you. But, you’d be wrong to do that to my boy.
I know, because he’s me. And I wish I had a porcupine to defend myself back then, too.