Learning to Regulate – Parenting in Paradise

By Leza Warkentin

So we went for dinner at the home of some friends the other day.  Our children went happily with their children to play, and we went happily to the terrace.  All was well until we heard some shrieking.  Once it became clear that the shrieker did not belong to me, I went back to my chat while the shrieker’s dad went to deal with the problem.

When he returned, things were much quieter, with just some muffled snuffling and hiccupping in the background.  The dad’s expression was one I was familiar with. You know the one:  that smile just for guests, meant to convey a casual, oh-those-crazy-kids-again sort of sentiment, while inside one is wondering what sort of diabolical consequence could possibly match the chagrin you are currently feeling.  He sort of sighed, and then complimented me on my column in the Tribune.  I was impressed by the effective diversionary tactic, but then he asked “But next week could you answer a question I have?”  Sure, I answered, wondering where this was going.  “Why do kids do things like bite their siblings, and then can’t seem to give you any type of rational reason for doing it?”

This is a question that we all have at some point or another, or, in my case, at many points or another.  As a matter of fact, if I had a peso for every time I have asked myself some form of this question, I would easily have enough money to build a special room for just me, designed to muffle my screams.  There was the time that I wondered idly, over the course of two hours, where the dog was, and then found her locked in the bathroom with a blue stripe painted down her back.  There was another time when I found the contents of my spice rack emptied into a large mixing bowl, combined with vinegar, water, and chocolate milk.  And then there is every time that one of them asks me to close my eyes for a second.

But I AM going to try to answer this question, because the dad who asked it is a good friend, he makes a mean veggie burger, and we always get dessert when we go to their house.

Preschool teachers are familiar with the term “self-regulation”, because it is notably not well-integrated into the skill set of most preschool age children.  Self-regulation refers to several complicated processes that allow children to appropriately respond to their environment (Bronson, 2000).

In other words, when children throw down every time their siblings call them “potato heads” they are not showing self-regulation skills.  When they continue to play, apparently deaf to your desperate entreaties, threats and finally bribes, when they are already late for school and you are late for your very interesting work meeting, this is a lack of self-regulation.

This may sound counter-productive to you, but really the best way to teach self-regulation is to provide children with opportunities to make decisions.  This helps them learn how to govern their own behavior and feel as though they are in charge (while we are still pulling the strings like the evil puppet masters we are).   So if you really need to get to that meeting (do you really?) ask your child to decide if he/she would like to pick up the blocks or the books first.

Another way to introduce self-regulation is by anticipating problem situations. If your children tend to get aggressive with each other when company shows up, have them help plan what activities they’ll invite their friends to play when they get there.

Give them reminders and cues to help them transition.  Preschool teachers are great at this, and always remind children that it’s time to clean up with an overly cheerful, fun song that would drive most adults straight to the liquor cabinet, but tends to work well with young children and early childhood educators.

These are valuable tools for the future, my friends. Let’s face it; years down the road do we want to hear that they are pulling straight A’s in college or that they are being taught to drink homemade gin from different types of used plumbing apparatus?

As for me, I am currently drawing up blueprints for that adult time-out room I mentioned earlier.  Let me know if you have some good sound-proofing tips.