Rewriting Negative Scripts

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I am not a morning person. Never have been. I can remember hitting the snooze button as far back as middle school; my mom always had to nag me out of bed for school. In recent years, my youngest daughter has taken over this role. As result, I’ve spent the past couple of years frantically shooing my kids out of the house in the morning, urging them to “Hurry up!” so we’re not late.

According to Brooks and Goldstein, this would be a perfect example of a negative script, as I keep following the same course of action in the hopes that they’ll change when the person who needs changing is me. In Raising Resilient Children, the authors do a great job of conveying the damaging effects of “sounding like a broken record”. They claim “while we want our children to be flexible, thoughtful, and receptive to new ideas and approaches, we often fail to model these behaviors, and we fall prey to the seductive trap of negative scripts,” which are words and actions that increase as opposed to decrease family conflict.

Sure, I’ve tried different morning routines, but they always seem to deteriorate quickly. In the spirit of the book, however, I hooked up the new coffee maker I got for Christmas, complete with a timer, and made up my mind to change this negative script.

When the alarm went off that first morning, I was disappointed to discover that the smell of coffee wasn’t as powerful as I’d anticipated. No crooked smoke pulled me out of bed like in the cartoons. Then, my youngest daughter, Lily, was disappointed not to find me in bed, as she usually climbs in with me. I wondered if this “new script” would be worth giving up her morning cuddles. We left the house without incident, but anything is easy the first time.

Like the New Year’s resolution you’ve forgotten by February, continuing to rewrite this negative script got harder as the week went on. While my older daughter loved having more responsibility – she did her own hair and got her own breakfast – my three-year-old missed coming downstairs, in her own time, and snuggling with me in bed. One day, after I’d woken her, she walked past me in her delirium and headed to the staircase. I asked her where she was going and she replied, “Downstairs, like always.” (I suspect she’s a future coffee drinker, too.)

Of course, three steps from the bottom, when she saw my room was dark and the bed was made, she began to cry. Things quickly moved from bad to worse when she insisted she was incapable of walking back without help. I thought of the book and tried to imagine what the authors would say. In Chapter 8: Learning from Mistakes, Brooks and Goldstein talked about what psychologist Martin Seligman called “learned helplessness” so I encouraged her to meet me at the top.

The problem is while the authors have filled their book with a lot of good anecdotes, many of them pertain to teenagers, not toddlers, and most revolve around negative scripts. While it was helpful to occasionally hear myself in what they deemed unproductive conversations, I needed more examples of positive scripts. What does one say to her child who sits on the steps screaming, “Nobody loves me! I wish I was born first!”?

I remembered the authors mentioning choices a lot so I gave my daughter the choice of staying on the steps and crying or coming back upstairs to get dressed for preschool. She chose to sit on the steps and cry for a good 10 minutes. Ultimately, she got what she wanted. I picked her up and carried her to her room because I couldn’t stand it. (How much can really be expected of me before I finish my first cup of coffee?) I closed the door and told her to come out once she’d calmed down.

I couldn’t help thinking about how I’d been telling my kids to “hurry up” for over two years now and they were turning out just fine.Was it really worth changing this negative script?  True, I wasn’t yelling “Hurry up!” any more, but I was in the process of replacing it with another negative script and I knew that wasn’t the point.

Suddenly, Lily apologized and got dressed with a smile. She went downstairs, asking to pour her own cereal and running to the door to put her shoes, something she normally resists. Sure enough, the more I encourage the girls, the more responsibilities they happily take on. I hate to admit it, but I suspect there might be something to this “accept your responsibility to change” after all.

Still with Lily’s best interest at heart, I’ve decided to push up my alarm by ten minutes. We make it to school without the negative script, and most mornings it means Lily can practice her morning ritual. The fact that I get to stay in bed a little longer has nothing to do with it, I assure you. It is good parenting all the way.