Open-Source Parenting: Context

In a research-intensive book about couple communication that Dan and I are reading together, the authors emphasize how important it is to be aware of “filters” that might be affecting our conversations. A filter could be a bad mood, a distraction, an unspoken expectation—anything, really, that colors the way we hear and respond to our partners.

Immediately upon reading this, I thought of lunchtime. In our house, lunchtime falls anywhere from five minutes to an hour past my blood sugar threshold of niceness, and I inevitably become hangry. “Hangry” refers to the type of hunger-induced anger that, say, a cross-dressing Chris Farley might experience when denied French fries:

If Dan tries to speak to me when I am in this state of ravenous rage, I am liable to eat his head. This is an example of a “filter” through which his kind offers to help with lunch are interpreted as direct insults to my person and through which my attempts to express my feelings are interpreted as acts of cannibalism. Knowing that it’s my hangry hour, however, helps us get through it. (That, and compulsive snacking.) The point is that, by being aware of underlying factors, we take away much of their invisible power to manipulate situations for the worse.

8 - What the chef looked like

(This is the face of hanger, FYI… brought to you by lunchtime circa 2009.)

I was reminded of this charming tendency of mine when a wise grandmom wrote me following my last Open-Source Parenting post. She shared her realization that sometimes meltdowns (of both the child and the parent variety) happen when we don’t have enough nutrients in our system—when we haven’t had enough protein that day, or when we’ve been eating a lot of junk food. Of course! I thought, reading her email. It’s the hangry effect!

I don’t know why I had never connected that idea to my children’s behavior before, but she’s absolutely right. Sometimes behavior problems aren’t really behavior problems at all; sometimes they’re tummy problems.

Other times, behavior problems are actually sleep problems. I am firmly convinced that most children we know here in this Mediterranean culture of long, late dinners do not get enough sleep at night and that this makes their little brains jittery and contrary during the day.

I see it happening with emotional states too, how one of the girls will channel her sadness or frustration into unpleasant behavior. (Don’t we all do this, really?) It also tends to happen when our schedules are overfull or when there’s too little attention to go around. Sometimes, behavior problems really are behavior problems and need to be met with consequences, but sometimes—more than fifty percent of the time for us—our kids are acting out because of some underlying cause that needs to be addressed more than the behavior itself does.

This troubleshooting approach is not the easiest, I know. It would take far less work to pick a preferred brand of punishment and wield it each time our children misbehave. In fact, I’ve heard disciplinarians argue that because kids thrive on consistency, punishment should take a one-crime-fits-all approach. That’s terrible reasoning though, especially if we want to reach our children’s hearts. These are our children, not lab rats being taught to perform a series of socially acceptable actions. I’m not nearly as interested in how well my girls act as I am in how well they are. If my daughter is feeling stressed, that’s the issue I want to address above and beyond the fact that she yelled at me. If my daughter clearly needs some sleep (or a steak!), that’s what I need to provide before I even think about sermonizing.

When I pay attention the context of my children’s behavior, I often see that it’s not about the behavior at all, and this helps me to respond to their needs rather than react to their deeds. (Too cheesy? Feel free to turn that into an ironic cross-stitch wall hanging if you’d like.)

Your turn! What underlying causes have you noticed affecting your kids’ behavior? Do you have any tried and true methods for deciphering what’s going on behind your child’s tone of voice? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!

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  1. Sarah could be the poster child of “hangry.” Sometimes Jeff and I just look at each other and say, “Who forgot to feed HER today?” Sometimes we just tell her that she needs to EAT for God’s sake. Tired applies as well…

    Parenting is a wealth of problem solving exercises.

  2. underlying cause? at least 50% of the time, i am the underlying cause of my children turning into green-skinned monsters from scumville. my stress. my ill humor. my impatience. my tiredness. my hormones. etc. etc. it seems that when i am feeling whole and alive then so are they (for the most part).

    the other 50% of the time, they are just terrible all on their own. 😉 how’s that for deep parental wisdom. 😉

  3. When Drake the dog barks a lot at random barely perceptible noises, I know I haven’t exercised or mentally engaged him enough that day or week.

    Oh wait, this isn’t the Open Source Dog Owners is it. Sorry, wrong blog. 😉

  4. Megsie – Haha, I’m now picturing you and Jeff as zookeepers. 🙂 Your last sentence there is perfect. It would be absolutely overwhelming, I think, if we couldn’t bounce ideas off other parents or hear what works for them (thus, this series). On the bright side, sounds like you’re helping Sarah identify the hangry effect now so that she’ll be aware of it throughout life. I wish I’d had that advantage!

    Erika – I love your honest guts. You’re spot-on, unfortunately, about our emotional states underlying our kids’. (I was really hoping not to get into that. Can’t we just blame hunger?? 😀 ) We’ve figured out a pretty good coping mechanism in our house though. Whenever I’m particularly hangry or hormonal or difficult to live with, Dan will ask, “Hey kids, what does a negataur say?” and the girls will gleefully respond, “Rawwwwwwrrrr!” before collapsing into giggles at the fact that they have a dinosaur of negativity for a mother. It’s awesome.

    Eliot – Haha!

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