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No One Has To Change But You

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. ~Maya Angelou

This weekend I showed my 7 year old daughter, Sara, how to put her hair up into a ponytail. This is a skill I had avoided teaching her because of her extremely low tolerance for making mistakes, her preoccupation over her physical appearance and a low threshold for frustration—favorable conditions to fuel the perfect tantrum. Over the past few weeks, I had become completely fed up with her attitude and drama. Her temper was out of control, she was disrespectful, mean and totally unpleasant to be around. While I was feverishly researching ways to fix my daughter’s behavior, I had flashbacks to several unpleasant exchanges I had with her recently–she wasn’t the only one who was losing it. I was highly reactive to Sara’s volatile emotions and instead of staying calm and neutral, I bought into her emotional experience and spiraled down into an angry and frustrated place with her. Bad choice.  I’m sure if asked to assess my behavior, my daughter would probably say that my temper was out of control, that I was disrespectful, mean and totally unpleasant to be around. I knew there was no way I was going to help my daughter manage her emotions if I couldn’t get a grip on mine. So that’s where I started, where it always has to start: with me.

I used all the information I gathered about behavior modification for Sara and applied it to myself. When my daughter argued that she would never learn how to put her hair up properly, that she can’t do anything right, I didn’t take the bait.  When my daughter blamed me for everything from the texture of her hair to the ponytail elastic falling out of her hand and onto the floor, I met her anger and frustration with emotional neutrality and patience. Admittedly, it took an enormous amount of focus and commitment to stay calm and neutral, but the results were mind-blowing.  After about 20 minutes, with very little drama, my daughter had learned how to put her hair up into a ponytail by herself and she was very pleased about that. More importantly, she learned that her assumptions that she can’t do anything right and that other people are responsible for her successes and failures were completely false.  She would have missed out on those lessons if I hadn’t reigned in my own incorrect assumption that my daughter needed to change her ways without me needing to change my own approach and behavior.

This isn’t a happily ever after ending, it’s an ongoing process.  It requires conscientious and quality effort. I will still be challenged to keep it together when my daughter loses it, I will screw up again, I’m certain of it, but I’m also okay with that because I know I will learn something valuable that I can use to make the next challenging situation better. I can always choose to change course when the path I’m traveling isn’t taking me where I want to go.  It’s hard to teach that concept to others unless I’m practicing it myself.

It’s crazy, but common, to expect other people to change their behavior–something we have little to no control over–to make us happy. The truth is the only behavior we have to change to be happy is our own. Fortunately, it’s also the only behavior we have 100% control over. That doesn’t mean we don’t influence others with our behavior, in fact, when we modify our own behavior for the better, it will often be met with better behavior from others.

  1. November 16, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    I really feel you Emiko, especially after a very similar situation with Josh this morning. I can’t say I held it together (trying to comb out his tangled hair in the bathtub amidst protests and shouts), but I do see clearly what I need to do.

    It is really hard sometimes. And it is ok if we aren’t perfect mamas all the time. 🙂

    Here is to really great hair days, and patience.


  2. November 16, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Hey Pam!

    What is it with the hair?! lol It’s one thing to know how to handle a situation, but putting it into action (especially when Mom is tired . . .) is not necessarily so easy. Like any skill, however, I suspect I will become more proficient at the neutral/patient thing the more I practice it. My girls are very generous with the practice opportunities! I don’t think I can ever let my parenting skills go on auto-pilot. Shucks! I’m striving for integrity over perfection, I think it’s a far more kinder and more productive standard 🙂

    Thanks for the support, encouragement and good hair vibes! Wishing you, me and all the other mamas and papas out there good parenting mojo and lots of high fives for effort!


  3. November 20, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Emiko, your daughter is really lucky to have a mom who is open to initiating change from her own being. I know the self-discipline it takes to access that part of oneself in a parenting situation, so, here’s a heart-felt well done from me!

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