Friday, May 13, 2011
It’s a Saturday morning and Jude is in his room singing a new song for the thirteenth time.
Ronan (nine years old): JUDE! STOP SINGING THAT SONG!
Jude (five years old): I can sing if I want to. You’re not the boss of me!
Ronan: JUDE, I SAID STOP!
Jude continues, ignoring Ronan
Ronan: SHUT UP, YOU LITTLE BABY!
When words fail to yield compliance, Ronan goes into Jude’s room and shakes him by the shoulders, causing Jude to cry and hit Ronan. Ronan retreats but not before calling him more demeaning names and is now tattling. No one is actually hurt but pride and feelings are damaged. What ensues is a loud summary of who said what, and who did what first, told in the most flattering version by the person doing the telling. Since I heard the whole battle the first time, I don’t need to hear slanted reports of innocence and victimhood now as I talk to them both.
I ask them how they each could have handled things differently for a more peaceful outcome. They decide that Jude could have shut his door, sung more softly, or stopped singing for awhile. Ronan could have shut his door, went somewhere else, or asked more nicely. They both agree that yelling, hitting, and name calling were not good choices for resolving this conflict. They know, conceptually at least, what the better choices are and if those failed, that they could come to a parent for help. Ronan acknowledges all this but is incredulous that I am not giving Jude a consequence for hitting him and for “being annoying”. He accuses me of generally doling out more consequences to him than to Jude and assumes it is because he is older and he should “know better”. From this argument and conversation, we each learn our “hot buttons”, meaning what it is that elicits a strong emotional reaction in each of us.
After thinking about it, I realize that I am very sensitive to unkindness. Kindness is a very important value to me and I easily am moved to tears by many simple acts of kindness. I feel angry when I see someone purposely hurt someone with words or actions and feel justified in handing out consequences for that kind of offense if it comes from my children. Considering other scenarios, we conclude that Ronan’s hot button is not having someone respect him, his feelings or his wishes. This is what sets him off predictably in any kind of conflict. In further discussion, we agree that Jude’s current hot button is being bossed around or treated like a baby. We share these later with Dad when he comes home but characteristically he cannot be pegged down on a single hot button issue, claiming he has hundreds of them. Later, though, he decides that his hot button is more of circumstance: it is not getting exercise. When he has the time and energy to invest in exercising, he is happy and patient. It takes a lot to upset him. When he doesn’t, virtually everything is a hot button for him. Thankfully, he exercises almost every day.
Knowing what it is that will predictably cause strong emotions (and likely unpleasant behavior) in those we are close to is of tremendous value. It helps us avoid pushing those buttons and gives us a short cut in talking about them. When tensions are flaring I calmly remind everyone about our hot buttons and it seems to diffuse the situation. When it’s too late for that and there are claims of unfairness and unjust consequences being meted out, I mention the hot buttons that were trespassed and it stops the whining and objections quickly. I wish I could say this has stopped all quarreling in my house. It hasn’t, or course, but it does give me perspective and equanimity much faster when I realize that our reactions are tripped up by our own sensitivities. That equanimity can be contagious!
I did a poll of my friends on this topic. Their hot buttons varied and included lying, passive aggressive manipulation, cruelty, emotional blackmail, rudeness, arrogance, and judgmental attitudes. To me they all seemed like variations of unkindness, as could be said of Ronan’s and Jude’s sensitivities as well. What causes a strong negative reaction in you?