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Don't React — Respond

January 19, 2018
"Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?"
Lao Tzu
How many times a day do your children say or do something that bothers you — words or actions you know are wrong or simply irritating? And how often do you quickly correct or scold? If you’re like most parents, you intervene fast. Are you reacting or responding?

Our best parenting rarely happens when we react. Reacting comes from the emotional brain, shaped by evolution to move fast and without reflection. It’s when we respond — pausing long enough so the logical brain can think about the situation and consider our options — that we’re able to be the best parent we can be (see Two Brains, April/May 2014).

Many of us mistakenly believe that if a child misbehaves or speaks unkindly or breaks an agreement, we must say or do something immediately — on the spot. Not so. Often we’re unsure as to the best response (despite reacting anyway). One of the most effective strategies for quality parenting is relying on the phrase: “I don’t like what’s happened, and I need some time to think about it. Then we’ll talk.”

Reflecting before acting is parenting consciously, with awareness of what we’re doing. It happens when we observe or hear about a child’s inappropriate actions and, initially, we say nothing — no scolding or correcting — and simply pause to give ourselves time to observe our own thoughts and feelings. Maybe we take deep breaths or step away in order to let our emotions settle down. In time, the logical brain shows up to shape our best response. Am I upset? Angry? Afraid? Where is my emotion coming from? Am I confident or unsure about what to do?

With practice, pausing before reacting can become a habit. Asking ourselves the question, "Am I on the verge of reacting right now?" can in itself create the pause that offers a mental break and interrupts the reactivity impulse, opening the space to reflect on how we want to proceed. Our responses after deliberation often differ from our knee-jerk reaction.

There’s a powerful lesson for our kids when we model for them the familiar aphorism “Look before you leap.” Isn’t that something we hope our sons and daughters will learn to do rather than have quick, unthinking reactions to the challenging moments in their lives?

References & Citations

Chinese philosopher believed to have lived in the 5th century B.C. and the founder of Taoism.