Saturday, May 18, 2013

I am a coke machine who trained my children to drive me crazy.

This week I attended a lunch seminar for non-profit volunteer coordinators.  An inspirational speaker gave a brief presentation on how to deal with difficult people in the workplace.  And, while I halfway listened and enjoyed the last bites of my cheesecake, the speaker shared an analogy that I am confident will forever change my parenting.  He wasn't even talking about parenting, he was talking about difficult coworkers.  But like a strike of lightening, I had a moment of clarity.

The analogy goes as follows (hang with me, I tried to make this brief... but it didn't really work):

When you put a dollar in a coke machine you expect the machine to dispense a cool, refreshing coke. But what if it takes your dollar and nothing happens?  You might push the button a few dozen more times.  And because you really want that coke, and if no one is looking... you might give the machine a little shove, shake or even a kick.  Why?  Because you're willing to take it up a notch to get what you want.  You're going to escalate the situation.  You show that coke machine who's boss!

Since this is a blog about families, and not malfunctioning vending machines, let's turn the tables. 

YOU are the coke machine.  And that customer who approaches the machine is your difficult coworker (or for our purposes, the INCREDIBLY challenging child you are raising).

So, your child approaches you (the coke machine) and inserts a dollar... but that dollar isn't a dollar, it's one of the INCREDIBLY maddening behaviors your child exhibits.  So this child unleashes that INCREDIBLY maddening behavior to get a coke.  But that coke isn't a coke... it's your reaction to their behavior.  This child is buying your reaction with their behavior.

So he inserts the dollar, then waits.  Waits for your reaction.  For you to yell.  Or pull your hair out.  Or punt a box of legos across the house.  Or bag up all the crayons and coloring books in a fit of fury and throw them in the trash can.  Or send them to bed without dinner.  Or yell at your spouse "ARE YOU NOT HEARING THIS???!!!"

But you're no newbie parent.  You're not going to give this little turd blessing the benefit of seeing you blow a gasket.  So you plant your feet, steady your resolve, and ignore this INCREDIBLY maddening behavior.  Or even better, you gently redirect your child.  You give a "do-over" or a "time in".  But this child knows what they want.  So instead of stopping, this little one looks you square in the eyes... and head-butts you so hard in the kisser that he splits your lip.  You swallow a little of your own blood and a throat full of expletives.  But there's no stopping it.

You lose it.

You yell, pull out your hair, punt a box of legos across the house, bag up everything in your reach and throw it in the trash can, send them to bed without dinner, then yell at your spouse "ARE YOU NOT HEARING THIS???!!!"  You tried to make a stand, but when this kid escalated, you had to teach him a lesson.  But here's that moment of clarity.

When you (the coke machine) didn't dispense the reaction (the coke) your child was looking for when he paid the dollar (his behavior)... you thought you were telling him "Guess what, you little sucker?  This coke machine is ALL OUT OF COKES!  You can tantrum up and down the aisles of Target, but this mama isn't giving in."  But then your child escalated, and what did you do?  You. Dispensed. The. Coke.  You finally gave your child the reaction he wanted!  So guess who's the sucker?  Look in the mirror Mama. You thought you were saying "ALL OUT OF COKES! No reactions today!!!" But do you know what you really did?

You raised the PRICE of a coke.

A coke now costs a dollar AND a head-butt.  So (from now on) when he wants a coke/reaction... you automatically get that INCREDIBLY maddening behavior PLUS escalation.  The new price of a coke.

That's when it hit me.  Lord have mercy, I have done this to MYSELF!  I have shown my children (again and again) that the coke machine is NEVER empty.  I have trained them to escalate their behaviors to get what they want.  I raised the price of a coke!

So now what?  

I'm parenting some tough little cookies.  You may be too.  Their behaviors may be caused by abuse, neglect, institutionalization, drug-exposure... or they could be a child you made yourself, who just happens to be a major handful.  If you are parenting a child who is broken, whose very core is altered by mistreatment, you can't control their behavior.  Yep.  You're off the hook.  You're reaping a harvest you didn't sow.  And that is really tough, lonely, embarrassing and might compel you to eat nachos alone, late at night.  But we can control ourselves. We can choose to focus on our reaction, instead of their behaviors.

Friends, this is a new truth that hit me this week like the stray swipe of a piñata bat.  I don't have a lot of answers.  The realization that I have the power to set the "price of a coke" has left me feeling a little bit foolish for my past behavior, but also empowered to change my ways.  I've stopped myself in my tracks and bit my tongue many times just this week, realizing I was about to offer a sought after reaction to an escalating child.

So, in case you weren't already tired of the vending machine analogy, here's how I'm going to try and un-do what I have done:

Have you ever worked somewhere with a malfunctioning vending machine?  You know the one.  The one that drops "dried fruit & nut mix" when you KNOW you pushed "G5" for a bag of Chili Cheese Fritos.  I've decided that I'm going to try and be that kind of machine.  The kind of machine that doesn't give you that unhealthy reaction you're looking for, but instead doles out wholesome alternatives.  I'm not going to walk away, or ignore behaviors, and I'm not going to allow a 4-year-old or a 19-year-old to push my buttons until I explode.  I'm going to focus on my reactions.  I'm going to offer peace when fury is expected.  I'm going to vend joy instead of anger.  This is no quick-fix.  This is a moment by moment decision I can make, and not beat myself up over if I screw up.

I'm going to try.

And, every once in a while, I might still dispense a little bag of "I'm going to sell your puppy on Craigslist if you don't remember to feed him again" just for good measure.

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