For some reason, this was our first beach day this summer. Out of state trips and lots of rainy days when we were in town kept us away from the coast. So when Mike and Nathan left for a weekend camp-out, I decided to brave the beach with the younger three kids. This would be the second time eight year old Wenxin had seen the ocean. The first time was almost a year ago.
Anyone feeling nervous at this point?
We parked our cooler at the perfect spot -- far enough from the water that we wouldn't get washed away when the tide began to come in. We unfolded my chair and spread out a straw mat for the kids. Julia and Wenxin grabbed the pails and shovels and ran closer to the water and began to build.
Katherine wanted to try her hand at boogie boarding so she and I ran into the surf.
After watching Katherine ride a few waves, Wenxin came out and wanted to try. That's when everything began to go downhill. You see, he really, really wanted to try boogie boarding. It really, really looked fun. But he was really really scared.
He learned to swim earlier this summer, but this was his first time to try to swim at the beach. He didn't want the salt water in his eyes and mouth and nose. He was afraid of being swept away by the waves. He wanted to . . . and he didn't want to.
He refused to lie down on the board. I strapped the cord to his wrist and it was all wrong. . . too tight. . . too loose. . . not comfortable. . . wrong hand. No matter what I did, it wasn't right. He was not going to be able to boogie board like Katherine, and somehow it was quickly becoming all my fault.
He cried and screamed and thrashed around in the water.
I tried to help him name his emotions. "I know you really want to boogie board but you feel scared," and "I know you aren't used to how the salty water tastes and feels." I don't remember exactly the words I used, but I tried to help him process his feelings.
He stood in the surf and stomped his feet.
I tried to stay calm. "Why don't we try again later?" I suggested.
Screaming louder, he demanded to try now.
"We can't try again right now, because you've lost your self-control. You are frustrated, but you can have self-control. You can stop throwing a fit. Tell me when you have your self-control back."
"OK," in a loud voice that was just a little more controlled, " I have my self-control. May we try again?"
So we tried again, and within minutes he just lost it.
Finally, I walked out of the water with Wenxin running and screaming behind me. He even slapped and kicked at me. I tried to stay calm. "You may not hit and kick me. We are taking a break. We will try another time."
Across the beach we went, heading toward our stuff. If I'd known this was going to happen, I would've set up closer to the water.
Instead, off we went - slapping, kicking, falling down, crying, whining, stopping for little talks, walking again, holding hands, jerking away. We were putting on a show for everyone. I kept wondering when some beach-goer from the audience was going to yell, "If I'd acted like that when I was little, my mom would've worn me out."
Back at our stuff, I offered Wenxin a chocolate chip cookie from the cooler, but he took one look at his sandy hands and began to cry that he didn't want sand in his food. . . he was sick. . . we needed to go home. . . now!
When I didn't start packing up right away, he wailed loudly, "You must hate me!"
A bunch of seagulls were watching the drama from across the sand and on a whim, I threw a piece of cookie their way. About 12 of them descended on the cookie at once, the lucky winner grabbing it in his beak and flying away. Wenxin laughed.
I stuck a cookie in Wenxin's mouth and he just sucked on it, leaving half of it dangling outside his mouth. The hungry gulls were all watching us now.
"If I were you, I'd get the rest of that cookie in my mouth - fast," I warned. "I'm afraid one of those gulls is going to fly over and take it from you."
As Wenxin laughed and gobbled up the cookie, the evil spell was broken. We watched the birds and ate snacks, accidentally dropping some pieces for the birds from time to time, until Julia and Katherine came in for a break. Afterwards, all three built sand castles for the rest of the afternoon.
Late in the day, I looked up from my book, just in time to see Katherine pulling Wenxin across the waves on the boogie board. A few moments later, Julia ran up the beach and yelled, "Mom! Wenxin wants you to come and watch him do it." He was riding the waves like a pro.
As much as I like an entertaining story, it's hard for me to write about days like this. . . because we have them a lot. A week or two ago I wrote a post called Re-Entry Can Be Rough about the struggles we've had at home since returning from Colorado. I'd love to say that things have gotten easier since then, but honestly, they haven't. I fear that I'm coming across like a whiner or that people will think I'm creating the problems myself by not being strict enough. More than once someone has told me, "He's just manipulating you."
I don't doubt he's trying to manipulate me. In a lot of ways I'm his lifeline, and maybe he feels safer thinking he can control me. My question is what to do about it.
When I think back over our day at the beach, one thing is clear. The main way Wenxin has learned to deal with overwhelming emotions is by melting down and throwing a fit. He needs to learn appropriate ways to handle fear and anger and frustration.
One of the principles I try to practice in parenting all my kids, is to never correct them or punish them for doing something wrong if I haven't first taught them to do it right. That's kind of a "no-brainer" to me.
So I think my first step in helping eliminate Wenxin's tantrums is to work with him on appropriate ways to respond when he feels angry or afraid or frustrated. I need to play act and practice with him. I need to get some short, sweet phrases that I say to him over and over when I sense he's about to go over the edge. I'm still mulling over a plan in my mind, but it's clear to me that even though he's eight, we've got some catching up to do in this area. I'm open to suggestions.
My second thought as I look back on yesterday has to do with judging. When my eight year old acts like a three year old in public, I feel judged. When I share with people, sometimes even with people close to me, that after almost a year we still have issues, I feel judged.
I think I gained a new insight into Jesus's commandment to "not judge." One reason we shouldn't judge others is that we simply aren't equipped to pass judgement. We aren't all-knowing. We aren't God. When you see that big kid having a meltdown in the store, you have no way of knowing if it's a result of bad parenting or something more difficult -- autism, walking through a family trauma or even an older child adoption.
So remember me and have grace. We're trying. We really, really are. And by God's grace we're getting there.