Okay, time to get real. It’s not all “hugs and bunnies” at our house. There is, of course, some drama. A lot more now that he’s six and a half because of where he is developmentally. Any seemingly small injustice can quickly become a major crisis. Of course he would much rather build fantastic Lego contraptions than sit down in a chair and eat oatmeal before being rushed off to a place with a lot of (to him) arbitrary rules and obligations. Who wouldn’t? So, every morning is a hustle. Every morning, I have to constantly remind my son to finish breakfast and put on his clothes so we can get to school on time, while also getting done whatever else needs to be done. This requires much patience, a lot of breathing, and a healthy dose of self-empathy – none of which I had the first two days of school this week.
From the moment I walked into the kitchen Monday morning, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the seemingly endless tasks to be finished in a short amount of time. I could feel the tension and stress rising in my body. However, I chose to ignore my body and instead, focused on what I thought “needed to be done.” That’s when my jackal surfaced.
The jackal, for those who may not know, is the voice of the societal (or cultural) dominant paradigm. Marshall Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication, calls the language of evaluation the “language of the jackal.” The jackal is the part of us that criticizes and shames, and wants only to judge and correct behavior without looking to see what’s underneath. The jackal is not curious about needs or feelings – not even its own.
When my jackal emerged, it was ugly. And when I say ugly, I mean Ugly. It was loud and mean. What could it have possibly wanted that it had to sound so scary? Well, to start, it really wanted compliance. It wanted control. It wanted things to go its way, in a particular order, within a specific amount of time. It most certainly did not want to be ignored. How did the jackal make its point—attempt to get itself “heard”? It stomped around and shouted. It threatened. It banged pots and pans. And then, it even attempted “reverse psychology” and pretended it didn’t care.
And of course, the jackal does care. It is my jackal.
For I imagine the jackal – with all of its shouting and yelling and banging – wants to be heard, to be seen, just as we all do. It needs to feel love, connection and acceptance just as I do. Just as my child does! The difference is that the jackal’s strategies to meet its needs can be really scary to a six year old. Or a two year old. Or a fourteen year old. So what’s a parent to do?
In the past, if I allowed my inner jackal to take over, I would have spent a lot of time mentally beating myself up afterward. “How could you yell at him like that?! What kind of mother are you?! How many parenting classes have you taken?! You know better!!”
Berating myself, however, is only time and energy lost for reconnecting with my son (and with myself). Blaming and judging myself doesn’t help us to get back to the place of mutual trust and understanding. So what do I do instead?
I take a big breath to help me regulate and get back to my higher brain. My sole objective right now is to repair the rupture. This means that how I communicate with him from here on is critical.
Our bodies can be amazing tools of communication. For instance, after I’ve taken a couple of deep breaths, I sit down on the ground so I can be at his level. I don’t want to tower over him. I sit with my arms at my side, palms facing up so he can see that I am available to listen. (Sometimes this position acts almost like a switch and he’ll immediately come over to sit in my lap, even if he is really upset and angry with me.) I use my voice to also reassure him. My tone is calm and soft: “Wow, I was having some really big feelings and I can see that you are upset. I imagine seeing mommy that angry was scary and confusing.”
Seeing me down on the ground, at his level, and hearing me speak softly to him, he can relax. He knows that he has a safe space in which to either sit in my lap and get a hug or hang back for a bit to download some of his own feelings about what happened. I listen, with openness and curiosity because I want him to know that I care about his experience of what happened. And, although I don’t want to burden him with my own triggers or heavy emotions, I can say, “I was feeling anxious about getting to school on time and I wish I had said it aloud instead of freaking out.”
Much of my frustration and anxiety in the morning is not caused by my child’s different sense of time or his preferring to work on an ongoing lego project. Perhaps, I am feeling anxious and scared because of the massive responsibility of preparing my child to live in the world as an emotionally and physically healthy being? If he can’t put on his shoes without me having to tell him a million times, how is he going to make it?!
All that anxiety can be exhausting. Fortunately, I have a good set of tools and a strong connection with others on this journey. I have the ability to observe, reflect, empathize, regulate, reconnect and repair.
So, before the jackal has a chance to emerge — I get to recommit myself to my practice of nonviolence and model the type of person that I want to raise. One who is dedicated to empathy, who can make mistakes, learn and grow. I want to remind myself that how my son will grow to be emotionally healthy and resilient, is to have a parent that he can depend on and trust. Much of how I prepare him for life depends on how I care for him, connect with for him and value him as a person.
No one said nonviolent parenting is easy. We are human beings that parent. Humans with our own needs and feelings. What’s critical is that we learn to identify our own needs and feelings and learn to express them in such a way that doesn’t physically or emotionally hurt our children. And, although I am by no means an ideal model of nonviolent parenting — I still get impatient, I still react in ways that are not helpful or empathetic, I still have moments where I lose connection with my son — classes and support from my community at Echo Parenting & Education have given me the tools to quiet the jackal, to understand and compassionately manage the Big Feelings, whether they are my son’s or my own. And when I get off track, and I do, I can literally take a deep breath and begin again.