A Word Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
I think all my real parenting successes have to do with hitting upon
just the right metaphor to illustrate a concept. Patience, example,
levelheadedness—forget it. All I’ve really got going for me is a knack
for figurative language. But hey, if it works…
One image that has worked wonders here lately is the tipping cup.
Years ago, I noticed something about toddlers. If a two-year-old is
holding a cup of water, and it tips and begins to spill, the
child—rather than righting the cup—will nearly always turn that cup
right upside down and dump out the rest of the water. Which is why you
only gave the child water, and not juice.
It struck me a certain type of temperament is prone to similar
behavior when it comes to anger. I have a hot-tempered child whose
natural tendency is to react to any slight upset with a full-fledged
outpouring of wrath. If her cup of emotion tips, so to speak, her
inclination is to just pour it all out.
So one day I talked to her about toddlers and tipping cups, and how
our feelings can be like the water in the cup. She seized hold of the
metaphor immediately. We talked about how part of growing up is
learning how to straighten your cup back up after you’ve been jostled.
You don’t have to let every little splash turn into a big flood.
This image has become a bit of code between us. I’ll see her
beginning to lose her temper after something annoying happens.
"Straighten your cup," I’ll murmur, and more and more often, she takes
a breath, presses her lips together in grim determination—and keeps her
temper in check. I’ve come to know the expression on her face that
means she is struggling to hold her cup upright. She likes to cuddle up
with me in the afternoons and talk about her triumphs.
"I didn’t tip my cup, Mommy," she’ll whisper. "I wanted to
pour it all out, right on [insert sister’s name] head." A pause, a
wicked chuckle, as she savors the image perhaps a bit too much. She
knows there is acid in that cup. "But I didn’t."
A month later, the image continues to prove useful—and not just for the child in question. I often remind myself not to tip my cup, too. For parents, the saying should be: "Don’t shout over spilled milk." The other night I was listening to a talk on mindful parenting by Ren Allen and Sandra Dodd, recorded at the 2005 Live and Learn Unschooling Conference. Ren said that a big shift in her parenting style came when she realized that "between every action and reaction, there is a moment"—a moment in which you, the parent, can choose how to react. Kneejerk parenting—reacting with the first emotion that rushes over you when something goes wrong—can become a habit, but we can all break it. We can take a breath and choose a different reaction, a calmer, kinder one.
Another image my kids and I have used to help us control our tempers is to think of temper as a horse. You’re the rider of the horse; you hold the reins. Lots of times, something is going to happen to upset that horse; it’s going to want to rear up and buck and come down hooves flying, stomping, charging at the offender. But we don’t have to let that horse run wild; we can choose to rein it in.
Both metaphors, the bucking horse and the tipping cup, have been really useful ways for my kids and me to talk frankly and constructively about emotion, temper, reaction, anger, and patience. I have found that in an emotionally charged situation, an angry child will respond much better to a lighthearted, "Whoa, there! Don’t let that horse get away from you!" than any kind of scolding or sternness on my part.