Guest Post: Getting to the Root of the Problem

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By Janine Kovac

Step 7: Teach Self-Discipline is my favorite chapter in the book Raising Happiness. Author Christine Carter writes about self-discipline, self-regulation, and how you can teach your children to self-regulate rather than always having to enforce the rules through bribes and punishments.

She gives simple instructions such as encourage self-talk (which is part of Step 5: Emotional Intelligence—labeling and validating feelings), have realistic expectations (Step 3: Expect effort, Not Perfection), reduce stress which, for me, starts with reducing my own stress—and that brings us back to chapter 1 (Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First).

But my favorite simple suggestion is don’t react to misbehavior; preempt it. I think it should be the parenting mantra for 21st century parenting. What I love is not (only) that it’s a useful, commonsense reminder, but that Christine’s instructions on how a parent might actually preempt misbehavior evoke useful metaphors for problems.

Usually, we talk about problems as if they’re an obstacle in our path. We t

ry to work around the problem or get past it. We can’t wait to leave our troubles behind us—as if that problem were like a pothole that has nothing to do with the road leading up to it and leaves no impact on the rest of life’s journey once we get over it.

Other times we talk about problems as if they have an intrinsic nature. (This is how Christine talks about problems.) We get to the heart of the problem or the root of the issue. Problems might get triggered (implying that they are caused by other events) or transformed (a catalyst for change or “a blessing in disguise.”) Dealing with problems (or misbehavior) in this metaphor looks at the nature of the problem. This is not a rocky patch in the road to get through; it’s something more a like a puzzle that gets solved.

To solve the problem is to look at its nature. As a parent, this means I’m addressing the child and the situation in front of me—I’m not trying to adhere to a set of arbitrary rules set by an outside authority.

During the three months that my twins were intensive care, they were hooked up to machines that monitored their breathing and their heart rates. My husband and I fell into the habit of relying on the machines to tell us if our babies were okay, rather than looking at the babies themselves. The machines became our “outside authority.”

I knew my goal was to wean my reliance on the babies’ monitors (as we were not going to have such fancy equipment at home), but to do so seemed almost negligent. After all, those machines were important! They let us know when the boys stopped breathing!

That’s when I’d turn to the metaphors. Any problem—even the problem of ceasing to breathe—has roots. It is not a bump in the road that appears out of nowhere. People do not suddenly stop breathing—even very small people with a history of breathing difficulties. There are signs that can be observed and triggers that can be preempted.

In the case of the boys, a full stomach would sometimes trigger an episode of difficult breathing. So I became especially vigilant at mealtimes. Shallow breathing was another sign. So if I watched the twins’ chests rise and fall indicating deep breathing, I knew they were okay. And if I saw shallow breathing, I knew I could stroke their ribs or tap them on the back to help them breathe deeply again. Gradually I began to notice that there was another sign that preceding shallow breathing—a slight change of color in the boys’ faces. And in this case, I could pick them and hold them and that often did the trick.

Before, when I thought that the boys could stop breathing at any given moment, like that pothole that suddenly appears in the middle of the road, I was always on edge. And it seemed as if the boys’ breathing was worse than it actually was. But by watching the twins themselves (rather than watching the monitors) I realized that the vast majority of the time they were fine. Every day they were a little stronger and a little healthier which left me a little more relaxed and a little more confident.

Best of all, all that observation helped keep me in the present moment, which, not surprisingly, is Step 8 in Raising Happiness.

Like the idea of changing your perspective by changing your metaphors? Check out some of Janine’s past guest posts: Building a Village or Dumping on Your Friends?, How Does Your Garden Grow? and Empathy for the Mompetitor.

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  • Mariannelonsdale

    Nice piece and so true that we often miss what’s right in front of us and most important because we’re worrying/monitoring something else!  Thanks for this series