Dinner has ended. It’s a Thursday night, and I’ve asked every child to do a task so that we can get the house picked up and then play a game. Most of them are working away - clearing the table, sweeping the floor, picking up our schoolroom.
One is not.
He continues to tinker with his latest creation, apparently ignoring the instructions given.
When I say things, and my son doesn’t appear to listen to me. I have some options. I’ve tried at least two.
They both start with me saying “please load the dishwasher” and him not responding.
I think: He never listens to me. He should know better. He loves his stuff more than me. He never wants to do what I ask.
I feel hurt, unloved, and disrespected.
Then I react: “Why are you not listening to me?! I said to load the dishwasher! You need to listen. Do it now! We are all working at the same time so that we can play a game together before bedtime. Put that down now!”
He gets mad, and starts telling me that he didn’t hear me.
I think: He did hear me, he just doesn’t want to obey. He never wants to do what I ask him to. He will never learn to work hard. He doesn’t like to focus on jobs. It’s my fault that he doesn’t know how to work hard.
I feel shame, anger, and disappointment.
So I argue back: “Yes you did hear me! I said it when you were right here. You chose not to listen. You need to pay attention when I say things. You need to follow instructions when I give them.”
He counters with: “I did NOT hear you! I was working on this! I don’t want to load the dishwasher. It will take too long. I won’t be able to play the game anyways.”
Then it’s my turn: “It wouldn’t take long if you would just start!”
It continues in a battle of reason with me feeling all sorts of negative emotions, trying to tell him all the ways he needs to change and improve, and him being hurt and defensive, giving up on even trying and failing in advance.
Trust me, this is not a good option to take.
It leads to misery for both of us.
Gratefully, there is a different way.
I ask him to load the dishwasher, and he doesn’t respond.
I think: He must not have heard me. He is very focused on his project. He loves to learn.
I feel love, compassion, and peace.
I touch his shoulder and wait until he looks up at me. “Would you load the dishwasher please?”
Him: “Oh! Ok, when I finish this!”
He takes longer than I wish he would to get going, and then he does it at his own speed. (I ignore my thought about how fast he “should” do it. I focus on how awesome I think he is.)
I feel gratitude and love.
I thank him for doing such a good job. I encourage him when he thinks it is hard.
He eventually finishes and we start our game.
Notice that in option 1, I am actually the one who first started throwing punches in that fight.
I assumed he didn’t listen. I assumed he was being disrespectful. Those assumptions, or thoughts, cause me to feel negative emotions: hurt, unloved, disrespected.
When I felt those negative emotions, I reacted swiftly, blaming him, lecturing him, and telling him he needed to change.
Why is option one so tempting? Because I feel terrible and my brain thinks that if my son would just change, I would feel better.
It is all an attempt for me to feel better.
My brain thinks that if he would just change, then I could feel better, but it’s a lie.
He doesn’t have to change. He can stay the exact same: not hear me, not react, and not obey.
It isn’t a problem until I have a thought about it.
Consider if you were at a store and asked a clerk to help you get an item. If they didn’t hear you, would you be offended? Hurt? Disrespected? Or would you assume they didn’t hear you?
Often with strangers, we give them the benefit of the doubt. We assume they didn’t hear us, or understand us. We continue to explain and ask for help until we are understood, because we don’t make their behavior mean anything about us.
With our own family members though, we make their behavior mean terrible things.
One of my client’s husband didn’t hear her, and she made it mean that they have a terrible relationship. It means he doesn’t love her. It means he doesn’t care enough to listen.
How do you think she feels when she is thinking those thoughts?
Hurt, unloved, and frustrated.
When she feels those feelings, how does she show up?
Defensive, upset, and accusatory.
She starts throwing punches.
Guess what? When people are attacked, they tend to fight back.
If you start blaming and accusing someone, they will likely defend themselves.
They will throw punches back.
Now you have a fight.
This is exactly what I have observed in my own life - with my son, husband, and other people, and what I have observed with my clients.
Over and over again, our brains choose to make other people’s actions mean something terrible, which causes us to feel a negative emotion, which leads us to react intensely, fueling a negative result.
The good news is that it is all optional.
I don’t have to think that my son is not listening to me on purpose. Maybe he even is! It doesn’t matter though. I want to feel love towards my son and happiness about our relationship, so I choose to believe that he didn’t hear me and ask again.
I choose to love my son as he is.
When I choose to think different thoughts, I create a different result.
Some people think that it isn’t fair to operate that way.
They think that if they are kind and loving when someone else is intentionally unkind, it is rewarding the unkind person.
But when I choose to be unkind, I experience unkindness.
Why should I punish myself for someone else’s behavior?
I want to be kind, so I choose to be kind.
Even if my son is ignoring me on purpose.
It doesn’t matter.
He doesn’t have to do anything to earn my love because that is the kind of mom I want to be.
People will say that it isn’t fair….
And they are right - it isn’t fair. But I am the one that gets to feel the love. My son doesn’t feel my love unless he chooses to think loving thoughts about me.
Have you ever had a child who is spitting mad at you, and you just love them? You’re not even mad a little bit even though they are having a meltdown? (Think toddler in the candy isle throwing a fit.)
Even if you love someone, they cannot feel your love. They can choose to think whatever they want, which will cause them to have a feeling.
If I stop my child from running into the street and getting hit by a car, they can think “My mom is the worst” and feel terrible, or think “I am so grateful for my mom” and feel love.
It is not my choice: it is theirs.
Their feelings are created by their own thoughts.
Back to my son and the dishwasher:
I don’t get to choose how he reacts, but I can choose how I react. I want to choose to love him no matter what.
So when he does things that I could be frustrated with, I give him the benefit of the doubt...
...And that creates an entirely different result for me.
Instead of creating a fight, I create love. (Even if he still doesn't do what I ask.)
When I think about all the things I think my kids should do, and all the stuff I think my husband should do, my brain on default thinks that if they would just do everything on my list, I would be happy.
But it is not true.