The Washing Up
While visiting a friend, I woke up to the sound of the mother and 10 year old daughter arguing. I could tell the conflict was escalating so I went in to see if I could be of help. As I walked down the hall I heard the daughter say, "Mom, there are heaps!" The mother shot back, "There are not heaps!"
When I arrived in the kitchen, I asked the daughter what was going on. She said her mother wanted her to do the washing up (the dishes) and she was making her late for school. I asked if I could mediate the situation and they both agreed. I began with the daughter. I started out by saying, "Okay, so Mom wants you to do the dishes and you don't want to. Plus Mom said she isn't going to take you to school until you do them? Is that right so far?"
Anja Lea answered, "Yes."
Then I said, "Okay, so you are probably feeling forced...?"
She didn't know what intimidation was so I explained it to her, then she said "Yes."
"And are you feeling loved...?"
"Okay. And how much do you feel understood by your mom?"
"On a scale of zero to ten?" (I had been teaching the children to express their feelings from 0-10 for the past few days.)
"Yes, from 0-10."
I then asked Anja Lea to explain why she didn't want to do the dishes. Several times the mother interrupted us to defend herself, but I wanted to make sure Anja Lea was finished talking before I addressed the mother and the mother cooperated as best she could, even though it was noticeably hard for her to sit there and listen in silence.
As Anja Lea talked I felt impressed by how articulate a 10 year old could be. She had very logical arguments. She said for example, that there were dishes there from the weekend when it had been her sisters turn to do them. She also said she didn't think it was fair that in the past week her mother had allowed her sister to do the dishes in the afternoon rather than before school, so she didn't see why she had to do them now. I said, "So you think it is not fair that Kay could do the dishes in the afternoon, but you have to do them before you go to school this morning?"
She added that she didn't even really ever agree to the idea of one person doing the dishes one week and then the next person doing them the next week. She said that it was her mother and sister's idea, but she wasn't in complete agreement when they were discussing it. In fact, she wasn't even in the room until the decision was already virtually made. I said, "So you don't believe you are obligated to stick to an agreement you didn't enter into voluntarily?"
At one point I asked her if she felt a little defiant. She said "Yes." I then said, "What does your mother usually do to get you to do something you don't want to do?" Anja Lea told me she usually threatens her with no TV or something like that. I asked if she were afraid of her mother hitting her. She said she wasn't. I asked, "What if your mother said you would never get to watch TV again and she was never giving you a ride to school again? Then would you do the dishes?"
I smiled a little and said, "Personally I admire that, but I don't want to make things worse, so let's ask mom how she feels about hearing you say that." The mother said she felt powerless, helpless and very frustrated.
I then returned to A.L. to make sure I understood everything she had said so far and to show her that I understood by paraphrasing, checking facts, etc. When it seemed she was finished explaining herself, I asked her how much she felt understood by me. She said, "8."
I then said, "Hmmm. We are missing two... what else....?" She wrinkled her eyebrows, thought for a few seconds, then told me that she had told her mother she would do the dishes after school.
"So you don't feel trusted?"
I then asked the mother how much she usually trusted A.L. and the mother said about an 8. I asked A.L. if she would like to be trusted more, like at a 9 or 10 level and she said yes. I then asked if she thought she that a 9 or 10 would be possible if she showed her mother consistently she could be trusted. Again she said yes.
"Okay.... Anything else that I need to understand about why you don't want to do the dishes right now?"
"All right, of all of this, what bothers you the most?"
Anja Lea said that it was that her mother didn't trust her keep her word and do them after school.
"Okay. Now, how much do you feel understood by me."
"10," she said, with obvious satisfaction.
Next I turned my attention to the mother. I may add more detail later but for now I will just say the mother felt very defensive, very demanding, very upset. She also felt defied and disobeyed. And she felt offended that her daughter accused her of not being fair. She said she does everything she can to treat them equally and she is still accused of not being fair by both of them. I asked her how important it was to her that the dishes get done in the morning and she said "10." I made a mental note that she had painted herself into a corner by trying to force A.L. to do something she didn't want to do. Now her happiness was out of her hands, and in the hands of A.L. She really seemed to need A.L. to do the dishes, similar to the way a drug addict needs a fix.
She also seemed to feel threatened in the sense that her daughter was questioning her judgment and her decision making authority by basically saying that when she let the sister Kay wait until the afternoon it was a poor decision. Although the mother never acknowledged it, I sensed that this is what actually bothered the mother the most. I base this assessment on the mothers tone of voice and facial expressions as she talked about the various aspects. I believe she felt afraid of Anja Lea questioning her decisions in the future and wanted to teach her a lesson not to question her decisions, i.e. her authority. I also believe that the mother did not want to admit this to me, herself or to Anja Lea and that is why even when I suggested it, she denied this was one of the things which bothered her, let alone the thing which bothered her the most. (See her own account of the incident below) I continued to let the mother explain herself until she also felt understood by me a 10. At that point everyone was happy and they drove off to school.
Later when the mother told me what happened on the way to school I learned two more interesting facts.
First, Anja Lea was the first to apologize when the got in the car. This supports my beliefs that a) children are quick to apologize when the feel bad for something, since they have not yet learned to see apologizing as a sign of weakness, and b) that children often feel responsible for the feelings of their parents and try to do what they can to help them feel better, as long as they themselves feel understood and not attacked.
Second, the mother then also apologized and Anja Lea quickly accepted her apology and said, "That's okay mom." But what is noteworthy is that even when Anja Lea accepted her mother's apology, the mother kept seeking reassurance by saying things like "Are you sure you are not upset?" I have seen this before in insecure parents who need reassurance from their children or from others. (for a related story see "The overly apologetic coach")
Now, here is the he Mother's account:
My friend Steve Hein was staying with us. He had been
with us for 4 days and was conducting some observation/
intervention work with us. The usual morning rush was under
way, Monday..breakfast, school lunches, getting dressed, washing
up..the typical demands and expectations flitting about. As
the minutes wore by, and school time got closer and closer, the
demands and needs heightened. As this all amplified, I was
aware of my stress level beginning to rise. Trying to
remain calm and enjoy my pot of tea, whilst dealing with the
needs and pleas of the two children, became increasingly
difficult. We have an agreement amongst us, that we take it
in turns to wash the dishes each week.
This week it was Anja Lea's week. She was aware of this, and I chose to remind her at 8am, in an effort to diminish the chances of both the girls being late for school. Immediately Anja Lea objected, as she believed that there was washing up from the weekend, dishes and pots that she had not eaten from. I informed her that it was only from last night's dinner and that it wasn't "heaps of stuff" at all. She then said that Kay had left it till the afternoon one day last week. I reminded her that on that occasion, Anja Lea had took it upon herself to admonish Kay for not doing the dishes in the morning, as we had all agreed, and had in fact given Kay major grief over the issue.
A little later I was in the shower. Anja Lea came in and we once again debated the issue of the washing up, and her desire to postpone the chore till the afternoon. I was aware of Steve, still in his room, listening, and I wanted to work on the feelings and my responses to my kids. I felt unheard, and repeated the same arguments to Anja Lea. In my bedroom dressing, Kay began hassling me about the need to leave for school, because she didn't want to be late (an everyday scene). At this time, I wasn't yet concerned about the hour, and told Kay that Anja Lea had to do the washing up, that I had insisted, and that I wouldn't be driving them to school until the washing up was done. I suggested that if Kay wasn't prepared to wait for a ride, then perhaps she should walk to school right then. Needless to say, she wasn't happy. I reiterated the uproar from last week over the dishes, and reconfirmed our agreement that every day, the dishes would be done in the morning, not left till the afternoon, no matter what. Kay was far from happy, walked through the front door, threw a snarl my way and slammed the door behind her. I instantly felt guilty. Kay was being punished for Anja Lea's crime. Oh well, let's just get this washing up done I thought.
In the kitchen, after inquiring where her sister was, Anja Lea
requested that I do two braids in her hair, and indicated that
she would do the washing up if I did the plates. Steve
appeared in the kitchen and aware of the stress levels, inquired
as to what the hullabaloo was all about. I happily plaited
Anja Lea's hair, feeling relieved that the washing up would be
done, as I set about explaining the situation to Steve.
Steve interrupted my tirade of justification and asked both Anja
Lea and I how we felt. Anja Lea said she felt mistrusted
(that I did not trust that she would do the dishes that
afternoon), misunderstood, determined and defiant. I stated
that I felt powerless, helpless, unassisted, misunderstood, needy
(that the dishes be done), guilty for Kay, and perhaps even
desperate. Steve asked how understood Anja Lea felt on this
washing up issue (0). He then queried the "trust"
feelings, by asking Anja Lea how much she felt that I trusted her
on this issue (5) and in general (9). My trust level of her
was 5-6 on this issue and 7-8 in general (it is important to note
that by this stage, Anja Lea had already begun washing the
dishes). Anja Lea indicated that she would like my trust of
her to be 9, to which I acquiesced a 9 on the trust scale is
We then discussed the issue of the "heaps" of washing up. Anja Lea thought it was heaps, whilst I didn't. Steve pointed out the "how long is a piece of string" factor. Who decides what constitutes "heaps" and does it matter? We then focussed on the urgency of the situation. My needs were in fact urgent, I felt that I "needed" the washing up done at a rating of 9-10. Our agreement was non-negotiable, particularly after the fuss Anja Lea made last week after Kay not doing the chore. For me, that was the crux of the issue. How could I let Anja Lea off the hook, when she had chided me for allowing Kay the same extravagance? We had an agreement after all. After expressing our feelings, Steve once again inquired as to how we now felt understood. Anja Lea - 8. Two missing Steve pointed out. Anja Lea then added another point to her case, and informed us that she was now understood to a 10. Hooray!! As for me,7.three missing! I expressed the additional details I felt lacking or not yet understood, and Woo Hoo, it's a 10 Steve!
Soon, the washing up was completed, I thanked Anja Lea and we headed to school. On the way up the hill, she apologised for arguing with me. I apologised for arguing with her. A great outcome, but I pushed it.I sought more reassurance and attempted to justify my position once more. Oh well, that's my baggage from a lifetime of negative conditioning. The result was a good one, and next time, maybe the apology will satisfy me as I would like to think.
It is interesting to see how the mother and I have different recollections of the same thing. I already mentioned the issue of when the braids were put in the hair. Now I notice that the mother says she thanked Anja Lea for doing the dishes. I definitely don't recall this. Knowing me, had she done so I would have asked Anja Lea how much she felt appreciated! I won't say anymore about the mother's account, because I am afraid she already will never speak to me again if she reads this!!