The Armchair Parent
What is an armchair parent, you ask? An armchair parent is one who sits in a chair (or on the couch) and tells the children how to behave without ever really looking, getting up, or making eye contact. It is the “don’t do that,” “stop that right now,” “don’t make me get up” method of parenting. It is exactly the opposite of the kind of parent I always dreamed I would be. But, suddenly, I had become one.
Somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind, I justified this “armchair” behavior because I believed it would be temporary. I was pregnant with my fifth child and I was tired. But, I won’t be tired forever, I reasoned. Baby number five joined the family via cesarean section number five, and I still sat on the couch. In fact, I was encouraged to sit and allow people to help me. They could bring me food, and drinks, and even the baby. At last, I had a legitimate excuse to direct my children’s behavior from the couch.
This doesn’t mean it felt right. Or that it was even effective. In fact, barking orders at my three year old from the couch could not have been less effective. All it did was give her reasons to scream, stomp her feet, and assert that she could “do anything.” (Normally, I am all for encouraging the “I can do anything sentiment,” but in this case it was often more along the lines of coloring on the wall with a sharpie than becoming an astronaut.) But, since I was recently post-operative, there was not too much I could do. By the time I would hoist myself off the couch and catch up with the wiry little girl, she had already drawn three or four frescoes on my walls, and the point was now moot.
I could, and sadly, did, spank her once or twice. I figured, I got all the way off the couch, and she had been deliberately naughty. But, spanking never ever felt right, and I could not usually justify the “we don’t hit our brother” spanking in my mind. (Yes, because the best way to teach that we do not hit is to hit. That works.)
The ironic thing is that it got easier and easier to be that armchair parent. Never having to get up to interact seemed like a pretty good deal. I sat on the couch with baited breath every day, waiting for the three year old to start screaming. And when it did, I blamed the screaming fits for my fatigue and exasperation. It was like a self fulfilling prophecy…I expected the screaming, I got the screaming, so I began to expect more of it. It is just how my days were bound to go. She would grow out of it, right?
But here is the thing. I knew there was something wrong with me because when baby number five joined the family; I had help. My sister flew in from her home, a million miles away, to take care of the older children, and in particular, the three year old, while I took care of the newborn. My sister had never met my three year old until the day she arrived at my house. Of course, she had heard the stories of the screaming and tantrums that I dealt with daily. I think she was a little afraid to come to my house, but she came anyway. I am grateful that she did, because she taught me a very valuable lesson.
I watched her interact with my daughter. I watched my daughter respond. She didn’t scream, she chattered. She talked about a million things that she could do, and that they could do together. And my sister, the amazing woman that she is, did something that I imagined I had been doing, from the comfort of my spot on the couch.
She talked to the three year old as if the three year old had something of value to say. And she helped her. And she encouraged her. And she treated the three year old with respect and understanding and love. And the three year old BLOSSOMED. She just began to shine.
Oddly, it wasn’t until several months had passed and I hit a rock bottom of sorts with the three year old that I realized what my sister had done and what I was not doing.
“Rock bottom” is never pretty, and it certainly wasn’t pretty between the three year old and me. I told her I wasn’t her mommy. I told her that MY children did not choose such behaviors and that she should go and find her mommy because I wanted nothing to do with her. I was D.O.N.E. She was being sold, nay GIVEN, to the very next band of gypsies that came through my neighborhood. Worse than thinking all of these horrible thoughts, I said them out loud. To my three year old. And then I stopped talking to her. (Because the silent treatment is particularly effective when directed at a three year old. Of course it is.)
During the hours I had of not speaking to my young daughter, I had plenty of time to reflect on the behavior choices that both she and I had made. And this is when I realized that that solution was simple, and my sister, my wonderful, amazing sister, had already shown me what needed to be done.
I needed to LISTEN.
I didn’t need to get off the couch, necessarily, but a little eye contact with the child speaking, and a genuine interest in what she had to say would work wonders. I needed to become involved again. The day after I told her I was selling her to gypsies, I decided to try it. To try really listening and actively involving her in the day’s goings on. It probably will not surprise you to learn that we had a very good day. One that did not include screaming and throwing things. Oh, there was a tantrum or two, to be sure, but instead of the yelling and screaming method of handling it, I talked to her. I really talked to her and asked her to explain what she was feeling. I asked her to solve the problem. And then I listened. I listened with amazement as she figured out how to solve the problems. And on this day, the tantrums were much shorter than they usually were. I treated my three year old like a person, not a small child. It was exhausting, but, it was a very good day.
So, while I may still sit on the couch, I know now that the quickest way to divert my child from going down the path of bansheedom is to actually hear her thoughts and feelings. I always thought I did, until I saw how it was really done.
Finally, I can be the parent I want to be. The parent I always envisioned myself to be. I can be involved. With EACH of my children.