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Taking it personally?

We are excited to share a blog post from Kim John Payne, who is one of our featured speakers in the July conference "Collaboration and Innovation" for ALL subject teachers.

“I Don’t Take It Personally Anymore.”

Adapted from The Soul of Discipline by Kim John Payne M.ED (Penguin Random House)

When kids “misbehave,” it is only natural for a parent or educator to run through a dog-eared catalog of self-doubt and recrimination. Some of the most common inscriptions on our personal walls of shame are “I wonder what I did wrong in raising them?” or, for the guilt wracked among us, who feel like untrained stand-ins, “Anyone else would deal with this better than me. Who am I to be doing this?” The Imposter Syndrome is particularly onerous. Like the Wizard of Oz, who makes great proclamations but feels small and unworthy behind that screen, we may feel unprepared, incapable, and lost just at a time when our kids most need us to be strong and oriented.

Feeling unmoored, we take children’s behavior personally. In a flash, we can shift from self-doubt and self-recrimination to frustrated re­actions, punctuated by comments like “You will not speak to me that way” or “Do it right now.”

Just about every expert expounds on how we must stay calm in the face of bad behavior. Good advice, but how? Because un­less we have a foothold on the “how,” the cycle of self-blame will lead us right back to taking it personally. That catapults us to as far from calm as we can be.

When children are at their worst, we need to be at our best. Danny and Suzanne’s story illustrates this well:

I met Suzanne at a workshop I gave in Washington, D.C. She was struggling with a very defiant boy. Together we explored the difference between bad behavior and disorientation. “It was a real ‘aha’ moment for me when I began to see that Forrest’s very difficult behavior was in fact a cry for orientation,” she said. “Before we real­ized this, I really struggled. I treated For­rest like a little adult, presuming that he had much more control over his behavior than he really did. I figured he knew what he was doing—that he was trying to wind us up. That led to all kinds of con­flict and ugly scenes. I figured he should know how to stop. It might seem kind of crazy to get involved in a power struggle with a child, but that is exactly what I was doing.”

Danny was at his wits’ end too: “I’d get so exasperated. The more I insisted he was making ‘bad choices’ about his behavior—that he should be capable of controlling himself—the more out-of-control he got. I can see now that his behavior wasn’t bad; it was desperate. But back then I would get into these subtle battles with him. You can’t believe how personal it got. But I felt he was disrespecting me as a person, and it really pushed my buttons.”

When Suzanne told Danny about the Pinging Principle, it made perfect sense to them both, but it upended their ingrained attitude to­ward this child’s behavior. “This new way of seeing the problem was scary and hopeful all at the same time,” said Suzanne. “But the one thing it did immediately was to shift me away from taking Forrest’s antics personally. You just can’t take it personally anymore when he has a meltdown if you’ve found a place within yourself to ask, ‘What does he need to orient himself? What can I do to help?’ In the few seconds we spend asking ourselves these questions, we move from being reactive and taking it too personally to seeing the underlying forces and staying much more centered, to becoming the kind of person I always wanted to be.

Forrest still has occasional meltdowns, and he still pushes back. But Suzanne and Danny are relieved and grateful that the length and in­tensity of the difficult behavior has diminished to such a degree that it’s “unrecognizable.” Suzanne and Danny have undergone their own transformation: As Danny put it, “It’s like I’m me now, not some weird person arguing with a child.” Does the Pinging Principle apply when a child is being deliberately challenging? The answer is yes. Even when children misbehave on purpose, they need guidance. Whether pinging behavior is conscious or unconscious, it is still a cry for orientation.

A woman we’ll call Claire wrote to me about an experience she had when she was five years old. Her mother had just returned to full-time work after being an ever-present stay-at-home mom. Little Claire de­cided to go on an adventure. She walked to an abandoned warehouse four blocks from her home to explore “all the really good junk” she imagined she would find there. What’s worse, she took her three-year-old sister with her. “I knew very well it was against the rules,” she said, “but I did it anyway.” A scary-looking man discovered them coming out of the building. He called out, “Go home, girls.” They did just that, running all the way. Their parents were shocked when Claire’s younger sister spilled the whole story that afternoon, and they stayed with the chil­dren closely for a long time afterward.­­­­

Reflecting on her actions, Claire said, “I am not sure if doing this was directly related to my mother going back to work, but I suspect I was feeling the need for their attention. I guess it was natural for my parents to worry after my adventure and make sure we stayed in the yard, but I certainly never would have done something like that again.” The fact that Claire’s parents were so attentive after their scare made her “feel safe again.” Her willful disregard of the rules was, in her own estimation, a call for attention and conscious.


Join us July 17-20, 2023 for our all subject teachers collaborative conference and hear more from Keynote speakers Kim John Payne and Kevin Avison.

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