As we strive to honor questions ahead of answers, a reader raised the question of a ten-year-old boy who “enjoys stirring the pot” and “the drama it creates.” They report “always dialoging with him about different situations,” and used the metaphor of “the wolf inside” and the question of feeding vs. taming. Finally, they were considering martial arts for the boy to engender respect and discipline.
I wanted to take up this situation because it offers a number of things to think about that can enhance parenting across a wide array of ages and issues, and because I wish to reinforce the importance of mindfulness and questions—particularly the questions: “What is my child experiencing and needing at this developmental juncture?” and “How are our own thoughts and behaviors contributing, positively and negatively, to the situation?”
Firstly, the concept of “drama” is central to much of parenting. As Aristotle suggests in his “Poetics,” “Drama is conflict.” Movies and plays where everyone gets along are boring; yet too much conflict in our own lives is vexing and enervating. Children struggle to contain their thoughts and emotions, and as a result they tend to a) spill over unwanted feelings and b) split feelings into good/bad, weak/powerful, etc. and then get us to hold their split off feelings so that they can interact with those feelings in us. They take their inner conflict and they make it relational.
In books, movies and plays, we have the split played by two characters, the protagonist and antagonist; in parenting we usually are cast as Voldemort or Darth Vader and then righteously warred upon; and when our little ones want to try the villain on for size, fun and power they tend to cast us as the victim and then enjoy the Dr. Evil prerogative of messing with us (now this is an unconscious process, and we must resist the temptation to push back as if they were our mental, physical and emotional size). Consciousness and good cheer helps a lot in play acting with our children’s dark sides, particularly in being playful and respectful of our kids’ artful abilities to find our buttons, push them repeatedly and stir up all manner of drama.
If we wish to take the drama level down, we want to artfully and judiciously employ parenting’s secret weapon: attention. Think about it, attention is the drug of choice for many a kid, and a huge part of what kids need in order to form their sense of self (see the colander and the bowl: http://tiny.cc/qktf1), and yet we parents reach our max, need some adult time, some quiet time, some time to work… and this is when a child may act out negatively to get attention. Remember, kids often prefer to be castigated than ignored, and for this reason “always dialoguing” about kids’ negative behaviors has an insidious way of bringing more of the same—more negative behaviors and yet more dialogue about them.
A counter-strategy is the old “catch them being good,” approach by which you make eye contact, give affection and entertain questions when they are on-task, drawing, doing homework—even just breathing without causing trouble will do as a targeted behavior to reinforce. When a child is acting out (provided they are not destroying property or hurting themselves or others), we can go with a Mr. Magoo level of benign obliviousness. But keep in mind, when you “extinguish” a negative behavior by stopping the reinforcement (i.e. when you first ignore the drama) the negative behaviors tend to get louder and bigger; but if you ride out the storm with sang-froid, you can make it to smooth and blissfully “boring” waters.
As for “wolves,” from Little Red Riding Hood to Max in his wolf-suit in Where The Wild Things Are, the wolf has long-symbolized our untamed aggression (be it for power or sex or food). Again we find the classic split; with Little Red, for example, she is the “innocent” and the wolf is the personification of desire. Grandma is the symbol of post-desire (to kids, we parents are pretty much ancient and thus unable to understand their raw lusts, whether for candy or violent video games). Thus Grandma shape-shifts into the wolf (having been literally consumed by the wolf—and now representing a caregiver with hungers of their own). Little Red is very excitingly nearly consumed when the phallic father/hunter bursts in and saves the day, liberating grandma, who emerges from the wolf in one piece. In a post-modern, feminist world none of us gets to fully disavow the old patriarch, and have to “man up” and at least play at trumping the wolfen fierceness in our children (but we must be more Godfather era Brando than loud-mouthed James Caan, quiet but packing authority).
As parents, we posess a more nuanced consciousness than our kids (for the particularities of the brain at ten, see: http://tiny.cc/sLnXR), and our task is to integrate our own wolf, thus blazing the trail for our kids to integrate their own raw aggression and hunger as they mature. A good way to visualize this might be that our kids hand us an entire wolf, and over the course of their development we have to feed it to them, one baby-spoonful at a time.
The wolf is also a representation of our universal and archetypal Shadow (or inner nemesis and destructive trouble-maker). If you happen to have dreams where you are chased by scary figures, this may be a symbolic representation of your Shadow; often the Shadow is trying to bring us our own disavowed power. To the extent this dynamic is in play for any one of us (i.e. when we are overly invested in being “good,” patient and kind to the extent that we might kid ourselves into believing that we have no wolf of our own), our kids are all the more likely to put on their wolf suits and tweak us. The irony is that we must recognize our own aggression, and come to some sort of alliance with it, if we hope to authentically help our children socialize that feral and splendid, although also maddening, aspect in themselves.
Finally, martial arts can be wonderful for imparting Bushido wisdom, cultivating respect, peacefulness and gentleness that comes with solid self-esteem. In such cases it can be good to form a sense of being a parenting team along with the teacher; and to make it clear that learning the power of martial arts is a privilege and a reward for respect and good manners at home. Especially when mothers value the peaceful but powerful warrior in their sons (and in their daughters), they validate their children’s positive masculinity… and at the same time, work to consolidate their own Animus (or archetypal and ideal masculine aspect).
To individuate is to truly grow up and integrate the full monty of our diverse psyches—from the inner child to the wise old woman. Our kids are great teachers of whatever parts of ourselves are still to be integrated (via slow cooking and by way of our own baby-spoons)—perhaps our “buttons” are exactly that, keys into the very aspects we most need to contemplate and come into better relationship with.
So, let’s dedicate today to a more open and playful engagement with our own buttons, while working to consciously reinforce non-dramatic calm in our kids. If they have to spill over, then we try to contain… and not put up a production of Who’s Afraid of Virgina Wolf. And when we feel like we’re going to spill over, we can reach for an imagined bowl, soup-pot or witch’s cauldron and throw that old wolf on the fire… in honor of all our collective children.