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The Ball's In Their Court!

tennis ball on a court

I went on a long awaited (19 months to be exact) date with my three year old son this past Wednesday. I promised him this date when my daughter was born. I told him the day would come when she would also go to school, and when that happened, I would whisk him off for a full day of fun just the two of us. He patiently waited for the day, talking about it at least once a week during all those months, and was thrilled when it arrived. And….the date was a bust!

On the bright side, it helped me see very clearly that my job is to be the best person I can be, to treat people as kindly as I can. After that, whether they like me should not be a concern.

The plan on Wednesday was to drop Ella off at school, come home, prepare our bags and drive to the metro. Since he loves trains, he wanted to ride into the city to have lunch with his dad. We were then going to visit a Christmas market and ride back home. We would play for a little while at home and then pick Ella up.

We did pretty well until right after the office visit when he started saying: “I want to run around!” I asked my husband if we could buy lunch somewhere and sit outside for Liam to play. We decided it was too cold for that. We chose a more casual restaurant hoping it would give him some space to be a kid. But it didn’t work out. He refused to eat lunch and proceeded to throw his food and hit me. I held his hands and gave him a warning. If he continued behaving this way, we would have to stop our date. He hit me again, I called an Uber, and we returned home.

He was upset. I was totally bummed. Our long-awaited special day was not a lot of fun. I felt guilty as a mom--was there anything I could have done to ensure the day went more smoothly? Even though he chose the plan, should I have been able to predict the day was too much for a three year old? Should I have gone home the moment he said he wanted to run around?

Something happened the very next day at my Pure Barre class that gave me some insight into my relationship with my children and everyone else in my life for that matter. In a nutshell, a woman I had previously enjoyed chatting with totally blew me off. I was taken aback but immediately thought: “it’s totally fine. She must be having an off day. All that matters is that I was my happy, kind self.” And it hit me, this is what I have to do with my children as well!

In raising kids, if my main concern is that they like me or that they be happy with me all the time, I will be doing a very bad job. Just like I did when Liam began flinging himself around the restaurant and hitting me, I have to constantly set limits with my kids so that they learn what is constructive behavior. Do they like it? No. Do they need it? Of course.

I sometimes feel bad when I have to rein them in or set a limit, like they can’t watch another TV show, but for the most part, I know I am doing what is right for them. I know this is what I have to do if I want to raise individuals who will respect those around them, individuals I will want to have dinner with in the future.

But it’s not just about enforcing the limits. It’s about enforcing the limits in a kind, respectful and compassionate way. I don’t always succeed at this, but my goal is to set the limit early, before I get so frustrated I snap. And when I communicate the limit, to lower myself to their level, look them in the eye, tell them what the limit it (and sometimes also why I am enforcing it), allow them to express their displeasure, tell them I understand they are upset, but hold the limit in place. After that, the ball is in their court. I continue to do my part by enforcing the limit in a kind manner, but it’s up to them whether they choose to remain upset or want to play with me.

Wouldn’t this be the healthiest way to approach all interactions? Instead of trying to please, we just put our best, most respectful foot forward. We communicate our boundaries clearly and kindly. What happens next is whatever happens next. If they respond in kind and we go off go have a great time, fantastic! If they shrug us off, who cares? We have given it our very best shot. There is nothing we can do once the ball is in their court!

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