Annie Keeling: How righteousness and parenting don’t get along
I like to be right.
Really, who doesn’t?
Being right feels so good …
Did you know there are satisfying chemicals released in the brain when we feel we are right, justified, in the know, have the answer, convince someone else, or win a negotiation?
It’s a kind of addiction. Our certainty of righteousness is reinforced by adrenaline and dopamine. As often as possible, we do what it takes to regain that feeling of self-important virtue as often as possible.
This craving of ours can create grief in work, relationships and parenting.
I don’t want to be wrong!
Conversely, there are powerful chemicals released when we feel the threat of being wrong.
Most of us have heard about the emotional hijack in the brain when we encounter a threat (real or perceived). A cascade of hormones is triggered, and we often react with a 3F behavior (fight, flight or freeze.)
The 3F stress response has evolved so that we aren’t looking for real predators at the mouth of the cave. Yet, the interviewer for that new job, sitting there across the desk from us, makes the same predator place of our brain light up. Muscles tense, heart rate rises, beads of sweat appear — even though we are no longer bait on the savannah.
It’s running from the school bully who wants your lunch money. It’s standing frozen in front of the whole speech class unable to remember one word of your well-memorized speech. It’s arguing with your spouse over where to put the new couch.
And our amazing brain is hard-wired to seek out the threats — big and small — at every waking moment of every day.
Being wrong — even the idea that we might potentially be wrong — is perceived as a threat.
How does this relate to parenting?
Parenting kids is stressful. There’s a lot at stake. We want to keep them from falling out of that tree, teach them empathy, get vegetables in their body, make sure they brush, instill respect, prepare them for college, and so much more.
Our brain is trained to look at the “What if’s” — as in, what if my child keeps biting other kids all the way through high school? What if that low test score means he will never get into college? What if her refusal to clean her room means she will be on the “Hoarders” reality TV show?
In other words, our brain thrives on fear.
Threats and fear create that short rush of adrenaline and cortisol, like when that squirrel runs in front of the car and we slam on the brakes. Parenting, though, can be a slow drip of those chemicals, inducing a lower level — but chronic — stress response.
While under constant stress, it’s difficult to be our best parenting self.
How does parenting relate to being right?
If being wrong is perceived as a threat, there is no place as ridden with opportunity as parenting.
As soon as logic enters into the picture, those three year olds start negotiating. The child’s basic message is, “I am right, and you are wrong.” Add in a healthy will and growing need to practice independence. It looks something like this:
“You are wrong. I’m not cold and do not need that jacket.” “I want the cookie. I’m right to want the cookie.” “Wrong — my teeth do not look like they will fall out tonight if I miss brushing.” “I’m not tired, and I’m very right about this.”
Lawyering starts around the age of three and is honed by the teenage years. My husband and I are constantly wrong about something because, of course, my teenager believes he is right.
It really comes down to a battle of chemicals. Give me more of that dopamine and avoid the 3F rush. Right. Wrong. Right. Wrong.
I notice this with my husband as well. Parenting with partners is fertile ground for being right and wrong. With so much at stake in raising a child, it’s important for our partners see our side. After all, we don’t want to raise a cultural deviant, do we? (There’s that fear voice coming in.)
What to do?
In the words of Bob Newhart, in his best patient directive, “Stop being right!”
If it were only that easy.
Those triggers and that fear can be grounded all the way back in our childhood, self-esteem, confidence, and previous wounds. We can try to “think” our way out of a behavior we don’t like, but when we are pushed into a triggered zone, habitual behavior and chemicals reign.
Fortunately, we can bring more awareness to the “being right” behavior and put in the work to lessen its hold on our reactions.
Retrain the Brain
Practice the opposite of self-righteousness. This is not assuming you’re wrong. Instead, it’s bringing curiosity to any given situation, along with a willingness to learn something new. Being open to the uniqueness of a situation can free us from defensive patterns and allow us to stay present. This is especially helpful when working with kids. While we are the natural authorities and our job is to provide a safe and loving learning environment, it benefits all to be open to the positive additions our kids can bring to a situation.
We can do something. We can practice the relaxation response. This includes deep abdominal breathing, focus on a soothing word (such as peace or calm), visualization of tranquil scenes, repetitive prayer, yoga, and tai chi. Our family likes to do “Five Finger Breaths” – breathing in and out on each count of a finger as we hold up the thumb, the first finger, etc. Kids love this one.
Exercise that raises the heart rate deepens the breath as well as relieves muscle tension. Exercise that combines fluid movements with deep breathing — like NIA, yoga, or tai chi — increase mental focus and calm. In the middle of a standstill with your child? Commit together to taking a physical break — even jumping jacks or running up and down the hallway — and see what happens to the perceived threat.
A network of friends, family and co-workers provide support that can indirectly help to sustain someone through times of chronic stress and crisis. If you have a parenting partner, work together as much as possible to create a united front of agreement on the most important areas of parenting. Agree to recognize and work through any impasses of being right. You can also find a friend or community member who will brainstorm with you and help hold you accountable for any behavioral changes you want to make.
I have definitely found that when I stubbornly stick to being right, this decreases the quality of relationships and the effectiveness of my parenting. If anyone wants to start a Stop Being Right support group, I’m in.
Annie Keeling, MFA, of Grass Valley provides local and distance parent coaching. Connect with Keeling at email@example.com or 530-210-1100.
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