When my youngest was a wee lad, there was a period when I knew I was failing him as a parent. Day after day, from the moment I woke him up to take him to the sitter’s until I tucked him into bed (for the last time), we were locked in one power struggle after another.
I wanted him to have a playful, imaginative childhood, yet the word I uttered with the most frequency was no.
Worse, while I retained the upper hand, I was under no illusion that would persist. Short of formal therapy, I’d already exhausted every resource at my disposal. I’d bent The ToolMaster’s ear whenever he could call from his enforced work absence. I combined his advice with that gleaned from seasoned and skillful parents. I’d worked on my reactivity and consistency, picked my battles, used time-outs, positive reinforcement, logical consequences, yada yada.
Still, it seemed that my son knew all my moves and counter-moves in advance, could push me to the limit, so I was always on the cusp of acting more childlike than him. It was a discouraging, humbling experience and ironic, given that my patients often thanked me for my parenting counsel.
But one hot July evening, as my son and I launched into our post-dinner script, I clutched a new, secret weapon to my breast.
A Hero in a Red Sports Car
It came courtesy of Dr. G, whom I’d been fortunate to meet at a conference on spirituality in medicine. A Corvette-driving, six-foot-tall woman in her early sixties, G’s practice was devoted to cognitive behavioral therapy. She was good at it, too — so much so that she was under contract to provide mental health services to the province’s physicians. (Doctors make extra-demanding patients because of challenges around vulnerability and trust.)
I don’t recall confiding in her about my worries, but G was full of entertaining stories. At some point in our luncheons together, she talked about hamster-wheel relationships and how she worked with clients to shift them. She had plenty of examples — all anonymous or derived from her personal life — and I glommed onto them.
The principle was radically simple: When stuck in a scripted relationship, disrupt the pattern. Do something fresh, something completely unexpected so that neither party can return to the previous relationship trajectory. (She never said as much, but by her examples and common sense, I understood this to exclude anything destructive, disrespectful, or cruel. In other words, follow the Golden Rule.)
So it was, on that sweltering July evening, when Frank and I began another of our tussles over the bedtime routine, that I had a different consequence to use when he refused my request to go up for his bath. My inspiration? [Read more…]