a hand to hold

Midway through our Portland trip last month, we drove to a state park near Salem to meet my aunt and a few cousins for a picnic. After lunch we walked through a grove of Filbert trees to the pebbled shore of the Willamette River, wide and unthreatening and perfect for the kids. The water was shallow and still for fifty feet or so before it picked up the river’s current, making it safe to play and explore, even for the littlest among us.

Boy Powers waded in bravely, but the size of the pebbles beneath his feet were just tricky enough to make him pretty unsteady. Undeterred he stumbled on, catching his balance every few steps and reaching out to grab the nearest body to steady himself. The nearest body was, of course, Girl Powers, who was making her own way on bigger feet and stronger legs, though not without wobbles of her own.

I watched, snapping pictures and congratulating myself on planning ahead by bringing extra dry clothes for them both. He struggled but didn’t get frustrated, staying inches from his sister and using her as his personal life boat, grasping alternately at her shirt, her arm, her waist to keep from falling into the water. She adjusted her balance each time he upset it and mostly just ignored him. I could tell that it wasn’t making her life any easier to have him falling all over her, but if she was annoyed she didn’t say anything.

And then she did something that made me smile at first, then dissolve into a heap of gratitude and wonder in pieces as many and varied as the pebbles under my feet.

“Here, buddy,” she said in a voice that didn’t sound four or fourteen but more parental than even my own. “Why don’t I hold your hand? That’ll make things easier.” And she took it, his little hand in hers, and they stepped forward together into the water.

She didn’t have to do it. She could have brushed him aside and said, “quit grabbing at me!” and I wouldn’t have blamed her. I don’t think she did it to help him as much as to make her own life easier, and she definitely didn’t give it much thought one way or the other; it was a moment that came and went as quickly as a million others and for some reason I happened to be watching.

I’ve tried to figure out why it was so touching. Empathy, yes, that holy grail of emotional skills we hope our children pick up while they’re in our care. Part of it was that; she sensed him struggling and did the most obvious thing to help him – without him having to ask. Selflessness, too, because surely he slowed her down and to hold his hand was not in her personal best interest at that moment. But the subtlety of it all, I think, is what got me the most. She didn’t know I was watching; he didn’t fall or whine or cry or do anything dramatic to get her attention and inspire her to help. It was a quiet display of everyday, garden variety kindness.

And it was also wise. Wise beyond her years. There were other ways to solve her personal issue at that moment – the fact that she was being dragged down at every step by an unsteady toddler. She could have pushed him aside, or asked him to leave her alone, or called for my assistance. But she saw through all of these options and did the most effective thing – she identified what he really needed and provided it without condition. “This’ll make things easier,” she said. For herself, for sure, but for him also.

Generally speaking, we parent from the philosophy of Positive Discipline or “positive parenting” (sometimes called “gentle parenting”), a non-punitive approach that emphasizes respect for the child, setting limits with empathy, fostering connection and teaching emotional intelligence. It is a style and belief system that feels right to us and works with our kids right now. It is not the easy way out, nor is it a neat and tidy guidebook of rewards and consequences, black-and-white rules or handy discipline tricks and sticker charts. Which means, yeah, it’s hard and sometimes murky work. But fundamentally this style appeals to me because it challenges me always to look at the longer-term goal, which is to raise emotionally intelligent and kind people who stand up both for themselves and also those around them who cannot. It forces me to ask what MY role in a conflict might be, rather than handing down the nearest consequence to squelch whatever inconvenient emotions happen to be raging at the moment. And above all it asks that I be continually attuned to the emotional needs of my children, just as I was attuned to their biological needs as tiny infants.

That day at the river was an example of this philosophy in action, only it wasn’t me acting as the caregiver – it was my four-year-old. It was a reminder that when my children whine, or pull at my legs and push my buttons, when they grasp for my attention and challenge my patience and I am tempted either to ignore or push back out of irritation or convenience, that I have a choice. I can react, or I can connect. Their path is rocky, and on oh so many days, so is my own. They are working to find their balance, and grasping for the nearest sure thing to keep from falling. I can brush them aside, or I can stop like she did, just long enough to give them what they really need: a hand to hold.

{Updated: shortly after I posted this, this post came through from my favorite parenting author online – it does a great job of explaining why “peaceful parenting” is NOT the same thing as “permissive parenting” or “just giving up and letting them do whatever they want”. It’s a great read for anyone interested…}



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