Sunday, October 7, 2007
Unschooling a Tantrum (otherwise known as, "Hitting the Wall at Mile 19")
I ran my third marathon today. I crossed the finish line exactly 8 hours ago, and I think I may never get off this couch. But laying on this couch, hydrating, and eating and resting my aching muscles has given me lots of time to think. As I've been re-living the entire 5 hours of my race multiple times in my head, I got to thinking about the parallels that exist for me between running 26.2 miles and unschooling.
The first 15 miles of the race are great. I feel full of life and excitement and strength. All those months of training and preparation pay off and I feel like I could run forever. The crowd and the cheering and the people-watching keep my mind occupied and my body goes on auto-pilot. And then, somewhere around mile 19, I hit the wall. My feet ache, my legs feel like concrete, and suddenly the cheering from the enthusiastic spectators is irritating. Those well meaning folks who shout, "You can do it, you're amazing, you're almost there," become my worst enemy. I want to throw them off a bridge. Really. My head becomes filled with negative, irrational thoughts. I can't see outside of the moment I'm in and I certainly can't remember why I put myself through this physical hell in the first place.
The funny thing is, I keep going. Something deep inside knows that if I just hang in there, something will shift and I will eventually feel better. Or maybe it's just that I know the end will come much more quickly if I keep on running. As I approach mile 23, my mood shifts. I begin to realize that the end really is near. Just a 5K, certainly I can do that. My pace quickens, my legs lose their heaviness and a smile returns to my face. I suddenly remember how much I love to run. I begin to plan my next marathon. The cheering fans are suddenly all cheering for me. I might even win this race! Nothing can stop me, and I cross the finish line, a very different person than the one I left behind at mile post 22.
Janey, my eleven year old, has a temper. There are times when she hits her wall in very much the same way. When I got to thinking about it, our experiences are really quite similar. She gets overwhelmed with intense emotion and in that intensity, perceives the world to be all wrong. She gets so caught up inside her own bad mood that she can't see that she has ever or will ever feel any other way. In that moment, life sucks and it always will. She screams, she rants, she throws a fit. Anyone in her path bears the brunt of her intensity.
There have been plenty of times that I have attempted to intervene on the premise of helping her through her tantrums. I calmly try to explain away whatever it is that has upset her. I try to distract her from her feelings. I remind her that she has been here before and it always passes. None of it works. What I have discovered, is that in order to allow her to move through her feelings in her own way, I have to get out of the way and let her unschool her tantrum. There are a few ground rules, of course. No one gets hurt. If she can stay respectful of others, we steer clear, and give her space to choose where she wants to be. If she can't, she needs to be by herself. If she needs help, she asks. And then, like magic, her feelings pass, she moves on, and as quickly as it began, the tantrum fades. Just like my magic mile 23.
I get really triggered by her tantrums. I have to remind myself that it's not about me and that her tantrums are not a reflection of my ability as a parent. The more I am able to get out of her way and allow her to move through her feelings in the way that suits her, the more she will be able to continue do so as she grows into a young woman who knows that feelings are not facts. They come as quickly as they go and they do not define us. I also realize that unlike me, she may not have to struggle with the need to suppress intense feelings out of fear. She is already learning, on her own, that she can have big, huge, intense feelings, and still be okay.
The revelation that hitting my wall mid-marathon relates so closely to my daughter's experience has given me the gift of compassion. So often, in her rage, she throws around insults and nasty comments to her siblings and myself, and it's easy for me to react. How dare she speak to us that way? What I realize now is that she just needs compassion and respect. All I have to do is bring myself back to my 4 mile slump at the end of a race and remember that this too shall pass. She's just in a funk. It won't take long, give her space, and she'll be back shortly.