Win-Win Parenting When It All Falls Apart

How to make a difficult interaction with our child into a win/win situation.

Posted Aug 23, 2016

iStock/Used with Permission
Source: iStock/Used with Permission

I was walking down a NY city street on a recent Sunday when I saw a young family out walking. Mom was pregnant. Dad was holding the hand of his two-year-old son. The little boy was crying. “Up!” he said. “Up, Daddy!” 

“No,” hissed Dad. “You’ve been up on my shoulders all morning. You walk now.” He was half pulling his son along the sidewalk. 

The boy cried harder. I was so glad I wasn’t him. I was also glad I wasn’t his mom, who was too pregnant to carry him and looked pretty unhappy. And I was glad I wasn’t his dad, who must have had aching shoulders and looked pretty frustrated. 

Then I realized that it was early afternoon, and clearly nap time. Not a great time to be anywhere except home, putting this little guy down for his nap. Not surprising that he was having a meltdown. 

Now, I'm not judging Dad. For all I know, he had a bad back, and could have put his back out if he lifted his son once more. It’s so hard to balance our needs against our kids'. I'm sure that whatever circumstances required these parents to have their tired toddler out on the street in this exhausted condition, without a stroller, were important. (Maybe this little guy is at that stage where he refuses to get into a stroller. We've all been there.) 

But watching these three miserable people and wishing I could wave a magic wand to make things better, my Aha! moment was: There’s always a way to make even a difficult interaction with our child into a win/win situation. 

Sounds impossible, right? But it just takes three simple steps. Simple, but really hard, because we have to step up and be willing to choose love when we just feel like crying or yelling.

  1. You start by extending compassion to yourself, so you can shift out of your own state of emergency. 
  2. You remind yourself that every relationship has two people, whose needs will sometimes conflict. Our job is to model for children that we can work out those conflicts in ways that bring us closer. This awareness helps us shift into a willingness to be emotionally generous, even when we can't give the child what he wants. 
  3. Then you connect with your child. You might be setting a limit ("I can't carry you now") but you're offering love and understanding instead of annoyance. Often, feeling understood and loved is enough for a child to accept a situation, even when he doesn't like it. 

These three steps calm the storm instead of inflaming it. They transform us and then our child, and often transform a situation where everyone loses into a win-win.

But like most of us when we get upset, this dad was so unhappy he couldn't think straight. So he couldn't figure out any choice except to make this a contest between his needs and his son’s. His needs won, but there was no winner here.

Could there have been another way to handle this difficult situation? 

Well, to start with, Dad could have calmed himself down so that he wasn't yanking his son’s arm to drag him along the sidewalk, which clearly wasn't making Junior any more cooperative.

He could have empathized, so his son didn’t feel so alone: “I know, you are so tired of walking. We’ve been out all morning, haven’t we? And your legs are tired, I know. You wish Daddy could carry you.” 

He could have reassured his child: “We’re almost home now. As soon as we get home, I will help you up the steps.” 

He could have helped Junior, and himself, regroup: “I think we all need a break. Let’s stop here at the deli. You can rest for a minute with mom on the bench while I go inside and get you a cool drink of water.” 

Then he could have turned it into a game, or distracted him:

  • “Let’s see how many steps it takes to the corner." 
  • "Let’s see whether we can beat Mommy home.” 
  • “I can’t carry you until my shoulder feels better, but Mom and I can swing you some while we walk. Here, hold both our hands. Now you count to five. Every fifth step, we will swing you."

But of course you can see what the problem is here. We have to calm ourselves down enough, so that we WANT to connect warmly with our child. That's pretty hard when we're at the end of our rope.

And sometimes it feels like there is simply no way to find a win-win. Sometimes it’s 3am and we’re exhausted and walking the floor with a crying baby, and the only win we can see is to dump the baby in her crib and collapse into bed ourselves.

But there’s always a deeper win. It starts by extending compassion to ourselves, which we can do when we Stop, Drop and Breathe. Just stop. Drop your agenda. Take a deep breath. Notice how you're aching for someone to give you a big hug and admire how heroic you're being. Then, do that for yourself. Give yourself that big love you deserve.

Now, remind yourself to choose love, for you and your child. That's where you find a win-win solution.

It's win-win because we're transforming our resentment into love, and giving our child the blessing of that love. It's win-win because we're modeling that we don't have to be perfect; we can feel overwhelmed and collapse in tears, but we can always choose love over anger. It's win-win because we're teaching our child that love is what matters, and that he is lovable no matter what inconvenient feelings he exhibits. 

There's a famous longitudinal study of a class of Harvard graduates who have been followed for many years now. The researchers interviewed these men throughout their lives to determine the factors that most affect achievement, success, and happiness. You know what they found? 

The only thing that matters is love. What made these men happy and successful wasn't about IQ, family status, money, the jobs they achieved, or the wealth they inherited. The people who had great relationships with parents and siblings, with peers, roommates, girlfriends, the people who went out into the world and created good relationships with other people, who gave and received love -- those were the people who had the happy, successful lives. And it wasn't Harvard that gave them that capacity to love. It was their own childhoods.

So as parents, how do we raise children who succeed at love and relationships? They learn everything they need to know from us. We don't have to be perfect to teach love. We just have to try to demonstrate it, day after day. They learn to love, and we do, too. That’s the ultimate win-win.