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Stopping to pay attention to feelings underneath
This lovely story is from Julie Roneson, who used it as her introduction to a talk by Larry Cohen in
Fairfield, Connecticut.

"Last summer, my middle son Roy started behaving differently. At seven, and going into second grade, Roy was an easy-going, rough-and-tumble kind of kid, quick to joke, quick to wrestle, quick to hug and kiss and say I love you. But toward the end of the summer he became irritable and I, in turn, became irritable right back. Roy was misbehaving as he'd never misbehaved before. He was picking fights with his sisters, deliberately ignoring requests that he help find his shoes, brush his teeth or come along quickly. I was frustrated.

I was also re-reading sections of Playful Parenting by Larry Cohen. One day I read this: "The most common response by parents to children's isolation is aggravation or worry. We may focus on the annoying behavior, not seeing the pain underneath, or we see the pain all too clearly and feel helpless to fix it." And this: "Most children gravitate automatically to play that helps them master the big and little upsets of their lives, just as we adults like to talk to our friends about the aggravations in our own lives. When children seem to be struggling, adults can facilitate their recovery of confidence by playing with them."

That same day was particularly bad with Roy. I went to work in the morning and came back to reports from the babysitter that Roy was picking fights with his sisters and doing nasty things to their Playmobil figures. I was hungry and I wanted to throw a load of laundry in and finish the breakfast dishes. I yelled at Roy, instructed him to play nicely and then left him so that I could sort my darks and lights. When he started to follow me downstairs, his arms loaded with his share of the Playmobil people, I felt a little irritated. When he threw his favorite boy character, "Jonathan," down the stairs after me and it ricocheted off my heels to Roy's sound effects, I turned around in order to punish Roy, to tell him to go to his room and spend the day there since he couldn't be nice.

"Did you throw that at me?" I asked.

"No. His whole family kicked him down the stairs," Roy said, and his tone was so angry, so offended, I just had to stop. There was a long pause while I thought this one through.

"Wow," I said.

"What?" said Roy, suspicious now.

"That must have really hurt him," I explained.

"What?" asked Roy.

"His whole family just kicked Jonathan down the stairs. That must have hurt a lot," I repeated.

"Well," said Roy, "Jonathan is an idiot."

"Is that what you think?" I asked.

"No, I don't think he is, but he thinks he is," Roy said.

I was almost afraid to ask but I said, "Why does he think he's an idiot?"

"Because," Roy explained, "his family just tells him to get away."

I took a deep breath and said, "Let's you and me bring Jonathan upstairs and see if we might make him feel better about himself."

Twenty minutes later, Roy was a different person. During that twenty minutes we didn't have a deep conversation about his feelings--or mine. Instead, we played. Roy directed the play completely. I felt so guilty that I hadn't really been listening to him for a while and I wanted him to feel in control. We set up the Playmobil people at their farm house, and he introduced me to the neighbors who happened to live on a sort of floating castle. He played the parts of the "main" family and I was the neighbors, just moving in. He wanted to share everything about what went on in the neighborhood, where the best place was to buy vegetables, who I should see about acquiring some cows or sheep. Jonathan (his favorite character) was the expert in all. Even though he was the "little boy," he was the one who really had all the answers. My people didn't know an apple ready for picking from a cow ready for milking. Roy loved it. "I've never milked a cow before," my girl would say, "I'm from the city, you know. We just don't know how to do things like that." He would groan in this theatrical way: "Oh, my gosh, you'll never survive if you don't know how to do that."

That was the way it went. He called the shots, his people were farm-savvy and castle-savvy and my people needed help with everything. I guess it's all pretty obvious, huh?

At the end of about twenty minutes, he suddenly looked up at me and said, 'I love you, Mamma.'

I don't always recover so successfully, but I find I am much more likely now to consider where my kids are, rather than where I would like them to be.

Larry Cohen
phone: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com

Larry Cohen
1680A Beacon Street | Brookline, MA 02445 | Tel/Fax: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com