Poke, Poke

Here's one from the archives. A delightful example of the "Punishment" topic that comes up so often in our courses and workshops. This post is from 2010 when Echo and Xi were three and seven.


There is never a dull moment around here. Even the mundane tasks are accompanied by outrageous outbursts, and dramatic exchanges, all adding up to straight-up absurdity. I guess houses with children are like this. Last night while making mac and cheese Xi ran into the kitchen.

"NALLIE!!! I don't want her to stab me with a unicorn..."

(Both Bella and Xi call me Nallie - their own title for their step-mom)


Echo slumps out of the bedroom. "But I want to ask her something!"

So I say, "Xi she wants to ask you something."

And Xi says, "I don't want to talk to her" and then she slumps into the bedroom.

It's all sounding crazy to me and I don't understand a lick of it so I go back to stirring noodles when I hear Echo rummaging around the toys and saying to herself, "I'm going to get a pointy unicorn and swing it at her! I'm gonna stab her right in the leg with the horn! I'm  gonna..."

So I say, "Ya know, I just don't think that will work for you love. Xi is just going to get upset and then you will get upset and then you won't get to ask her what you want to ask her". Echo trundles in to the bedroom anyway, despite the obvious logic of my reasoning and the obvious lack of logic in her tactic. So I dutifully follow, figuring that keeping the children safe is really the bare minimum requirement of parenting.

I enter to see Echo ramming a plastic unicorn horn into Xi's leg  saying, "I'm gonna poke her! Poke! Poke!". I make a move to intervene when Xi stops me.

"No Nallie, don't stop her, it doesn't hurt.". And letting Echo know she is failing, she says, "Echo this unicorn is too soft. It doesn't hurt me.". And then things get really confusing when she says, "How 'bout you try and bite me??". They then start gleefully pursuing each other around the house.

See what I mean? Absurdity.

This is why I make the argument that making rules, such as No Hitting or No Biting, doesn't make sense. There are only actions and reactions. Needs and feelings. On this day, for Echo and Xi at least, biting was a perfectly delightful game. Apparently far preferable to unicorn horn poking. You never would be able to predict that.

I think most parents do too much work. They enter into arguments, try to determine a truthful chronology of events, then single out which is the victim, which is the aggressor, huff and puff about poor choices, figure out a punishment and hang around enforcing the punishment. Sheesh. If you use empathy for all parties, give and gather information about needs and feelings instead of the classic crime and punishment scenario you are freed from this chore, freed from the pressure to have the answers. Holding both children, listening to their concerns without judgement, leaves room for them to find their own solutions.

I certainly would never have come up with the "let's bite each other instead!" solution. They came to this on their own. And even though it makes no sense to me it makes sense to them. That's what matters. Their relationship was at play in this scenario. Let's face it, in an ordinary household Echo would have been put in timeout for her actions. I would then have been monitoring the time-out instead of stirring noodles. She would have been crying about her isolation instead of thinking about Xi's feelings and figuring out a way to work it out. And Xi would have been denied a playmate, and a chance to interact in a way that felt better to her.

A few minutes later Echo approached Xi with two different unicorns, and these apparently were pointy enough to make Xi yelp when Echo stabbed them at her ankles. At this point I asked Echo if she wanted attention from Xi. She said yes, so I helped her formulate a request. She then approached Xi, sans unicorns, and said;

"Xi, I want your attention. Will you give me some?"

Xi smiled, bent down, and scooped Echo up. "Sure!"

If Echo were wailing away in time-out this happy ending would not have been possible. If I had demanded that the children make sense in the first place I wouldn't have been able to guess at Echo's need for attention, and Xi wouldn't get the satisfaction of meeting that need. If absurdity and strong emotions weren't both welcome in our home we wouldn't get the opportunity to work our way through conflict, albeit in a kooky manner.

Pokey unicorns. You just never know where it's going. But the best part is that you don't have to.


Author: Natalie Christensen