Beware the Boiling Point!

“I can’t STAND it when he does that!”

“What on EARTH was she thinking?”

“If they do that ONE more time, that’s it.”
Sentiments like these are normal but often lead to explosions. How many times have we regretted yelling, threatening, scolding, sending a child away, or otherwise losing our temper when our children have done whatever thing they were doing yet again? The repetition of the situation is definitely a factor: we feel like if we’ve told them once, we’ve told them a thousand times.  If they do it one more time when we’re caught off guard, under pressure, in a hurry, feeling tired, trying to work, or annoyed with the day’s trials, the frustration is destined to spill over. This is what I mean by “the boiling point.”

Everybody has a different boiling point. Some of us have high tolerance for frustration, others have low. I have a friend who can sit in the middle of her two toddlers playing all day with noisy, bleeping toys with flashing lights and shrill moving parts, and she’s totally fine! I lose it if the racket goes too long. Another friend of mine is very high strung and it makes her so mad when she tells her children to do something like put on a coat and they ignore her and get in the car. I would have just carried the coat to the car and put it on the child, but she feels ineffective and disrespected. It doesn’t matter so much about where your boiling point is (although there is certainly virtue in having higher tolerance) as much as it matters what you do about it.

By what we do about it, I don’t mean how we cope. Coping-wise, some of us yell, some of us punish. Some of us head to the refrigerator, some of us sit and stew. Some of us slam the door and take a walk, some of us lock ourselves in the bathroom, get on the phone, turn to the Internet, or Instant Message our husbands at work. One really nice mom I know pulls everyone into the living room to read a short story together!  Whoa.   Every mom has her own coping strategies, and there is definitely something to be said about learning new types and how to be most constructive. But I am more concerned about why we let ourselves get to the Boiling Point at all, and what we can do to prevent the blow-up feeling.

I have noticed that the main thing that gets me to my boiling point is not the needs of my small children… the diapers, the laundry, the baths, the empty packets of string cheese on my table. It is my apparently amazing capacity to avoid confronting their issues consistently. In short, I’m a coward. I choose not to deal with what’s bothering me. I choose to work my life around the kids as much as possible because I love them and I don’t want to be on their case all the time… but then they dare to cross over that line!

Let’s take a gray area as an example because the grayer the area, the more likely it is to have a boiling point problem. A good gray area example in my house might be singing. Like normal parents, we’ve taught our kids all the nursery rhymes and Vacation Bible songs that could possibly exist, and then combined with kids’ shows like the Backyardigans where they turn even everyday conversation into singsong, we’ve got three very capable and motivated singers around the house! (Not to mention that my husband and I have been known to burst into song whenever we randomly feel like it 😉

So on my good days, this is no problem. At least, not really. I smile at them, at their cuteness, and sometimes join in. But then they start to creep over the boundaries. It goes like this…

Slowly at first, it starts. A sweet sing-songy voice, slightly off key, and rhyming, blending some of the finer words together from the adjacent room. I smile. Then the phone rings. All of a sudden my second  preschooler next to me picks this moment to join the song. I tolerate it at first but then it gets louder. Then the words turn silly. And louder. Then the prancing and mild stomping in rhythm start. Then the rolled eyes and giggling. Finally, the third toddler enters and they switch to the most of annoying song of the year (the Bob the Builder theme song), competing with each other to sing the verses faster and faster before the others can finish a stanza… and I lose it!

“Hold on,” I say, rather nicely to the person I’m talking to, then cover the phone to hiss at the kids: “HEY! Mommy is on the PHONE! You need to be QUIETER!” I walk out of the room to the next one. From there, I can hear the kids trying to make an effort at first but it’s doomed to failure within a couple minutes of my exit. By the time I’m finished on the phone (I stay on a couple minutes longer to avoid having to go back into the din right away), I’m annoyed because I can hear their elephant feet from across the hall and I can tell they’ve switched into running in circles mode. So I steel up a little bit, bite my tongue so I don’t scold, and put one child in one room with a video and another in a separate room with some toys, and another with me. But they’re sad about my choices handed down from on high for them, which makes me even more annoyed because I picked a likeable video, I bought likeable toys, and the kids deserved the separation.  I stuff down that annoyance because they’re just children, but then the baby cries because I woke her up when I was talking on the phone near her room. AAARRRGHH!

The details of the story change, but the plot is the same a dozen times a day, on any given day…Elmo diapers, sippy cups, T-shirts, snacks, toys—anything where preferences are involved and priorities differ, there is potential for blow-up. I try to be gentle, kind, and patient, but end up hitting my boiling point.  Usually about 4pm, when the same scenario has run itself through at least a handful of times, or at least has happened several times that week. Why is this?

Well, as I said before: I’m a coward. I don’t assert my boundaries well. But nor do I deal with them being broken very well. This is going to cause problems. Usually bad thoughts circulate in my mind until I become bitter, take some action, or both. As any good observer can see, I could have stopped way back in the account where the first singing infraction started. If I had intervened then—by either asking the caller to call me back and separating the kids considerately, or by giving them thoughtful correction with a consequence laid out—I would have been up by a point. Or, even better, if I weren’t such a chicken about approaching their amazing need to singsong to begin with, and shaping it so that they know when it is appropriate—then I could have been up by ten points! Unfortunately, I am afraid of telling them I need them to be quiet just because I want some peace, and so I appease for awhile but pay for it later. I win a battle but lose a war.

Plenty of moms do this in the areas of sleeping and eating… they don’t confront but they hate the results.  Why do we do this? I think I do it because I’m afraid of confirming the too-often appraisal of me as the Big Mean Mom if I tell them my needs when, by objective standards, my “needs” aren’t really defendable. Why does too much sing-songy noise annoy me? I am not sure I can explain it to myself, let alone my three- and four-year old, and so I conclude that it’s harsh to just impose an arbitrary standard upon them. But then I inevitably blow up at some time later, so I have effectively traded being the Big Mean Mom at one moment for being a the Big Mean Mom at another.  I think other moms feel like this about bedtimes, the kids sleeping in their own beds, naptimes, and dinner–too many arbitrary (but desired) standards.

Knowing this, you’d think I could just counsel myself.  In my head, I know my children will face other people who will not always be so accomodating as their mothers. (On the other hand, I suspect some will be more!) As they grow, they will run into people with all sorts of arbitrary needs and standards which they will have to both recognize and adjust to, if they are to succeed. So it should behoove me to consider their long term adaptability and not beat myself up about what I want from them.

Plus, I have noticed that Dad doesn’t hold back imposing his own arbitrary standards, and they seem to like him well enough! Maybe I need to learn something here 😉

And yet, my cowardice continues. It continues because “mothering” includes both loving your children in a way that no-one else will love them, and yet loving them in a way that models for them how to love others.  It is a living contradiction. I hesitate to confront because they are innocent to their own past history while I know all too well their mistakes, character weaknesses, and bad patterns. I hesitate because I know my heart is not always right–sometimes I dread facing them, sometimes I criticize or condemn them, or paint them into a box. Sometimes I forget to pray for them—or with them—or appeal to someone else for a break.  In the natural, I just can’t figure out what makes a simple thing like obedience, kindness, sharing, or waiting your turn so hard! But to a little child, these things are very hard. They are clearly grappling with feelings they don’t understand and can’t control. They only know themselves, so I know they see me as the Big Mean Mom because I am standing in the way of what they want.

Thus, my only resort, as James Dobson puts so simply in his “Parenting isn’t for Cowards” book…

Buck up!

Recently, I have tried to value my own boundaries a little more and get over my anxiety in harming their development or in causing them to think ill of me. Of course there are valid times to be a peacekeeper.

Valid Reasons not to confront:

1. You need to fix yourself first. You have a bad attitude and must take care of your own issues before turning on the family.

2. What you are going through is  normal but innately difficult: sickness, accidents, returning home after a taxing trip, etc.   You probably need encouragement, refreshment, or just a break.

3. The child needs special encouragement in a particular area because of health, bonding, or well-being issues. (Death, adoption, illness, special needs, etc.)

4. The child has a more basic need that needs meeting first: hunger/thirst, diaper change, nap, basic insecurity or loneliness. Often times meeting the need makes the “problem” you think you are facing, suddenly evaporate.

And yet, there are even more times where I should confront but choose to do not. These are the areas I want to work on.

Reasons I might not confront (but should):

1. I am too tired.

2. I am having a long, hard, or bad day

3. I think correction doesn’t seem to work for this child or this situation. It does no good.

4. I am sick of working on this same issue for the day.

5. Someone else will just come along and mess up my progress anyway. (i.e. my husband, grandparents, or daycare does something different)

If I truly prize my children, and my relationship with them, I will not sacrifice long-term peace for short term peace. As my husband likes to say, I will be a peaceMAKER instead of just a peaceKEEPER. He says, to make peace, sometimes I have to wage war. And of course he is right. Winning their hearts for the long term is the most important thing, not winning them over for the moment.  I must be a shaper, not a reactor.  My shaping them today will influence their relationships with each other, their friends, their other authorities, and their future spouses–hopefully for the better!  I can’t leave these things to just naturally develop on their own.  I owe it to them as the mother–older, wiser, and hopefully, more patient 😉


2 thoughts on “Beware the Boiling Point!

  1. This article brought me some much needed light on this subject. And the peace maker reference really helped to put thing into perspective. I have been trying to be a peace keeper with my two year old and it has not worked out too well for me. He needs these rules to help him prepare for life outside the home. And I need him to abide by these rules willingly so that I don’t seem to constantly be at my boiling point. I do need to find a way to hold onto these ideals during the really rough and trting times. If I loose my cool then what does that teach him but to do the same. Raising children, keeping a clean and safe enviroment for them to live in, caring for your own well being and that of your spouse (not to mention pets) is alot to manage for one person but it is something that HAS to be done. For the happiness and well being of the entire family. Thanks for this article. It was really helpful.

  2. Thanks for this entry! I have so many of the same issues and I think you analyzed it very well and accurately, too. I hate the guilt that follows when I have a meltdown in front of my toddler. It leads to so much frustration and more cowardice.

    I appreciate your taking the time to spell out the intricate details of this plight. It is all so complicated and contradictory, often misunderstood for meanness or simply dismissed as fatigue.

    I especialy appreciate the toddler schedule entry–which brought me to your blog via Google. Excellent. I strive for some structure but it can be an time based situation and was thrilled to hear you echo this. Routine vs. Schedule: order of things but not always at the same intervals every day.

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