About 18 months ago, Saliha, my son and I did this drawing called the Button Game. No doubt there were hundreds of conversations that let up to this drawing. As with everything in life, we arrived at this moment by taking a million tiny steps over time. But it is this kind of creative culmination that results when life lessons are purposefully marked and made accessible through artistic expression. In this case, illustrations of visual symbols.
Sam was five years old at the time. Like most parents, I was wrestling with a complex range of issues including his developing social skills, the ever increasing amount of requests/demands coming from him, and the ongoing challenges around how we talk to each other. I found myself becoming more and more reactive to his tone and his style of communication. He was pretty demanding. The word rude had come up in more than one heated moment.
Our family’s efforts to teach him to say please and thank you had been ongoing for a couple of years. The requests for sweets, the demands for attention, the challenges around kindergarten and how to manage a tsunami of new behaviors coming out of that space were all in full swing.
The Dead End Alley of Parenting
In my lesser moments, I was continuously yammering away about proper behavior and so on. None of which seemed to connect all that much with Sam (or any five year old). I have probably reminded him ten thousand times to say please when he asks me to do something for him. (I’m still reminding him.) But my reactivity was out of scale. We were battling over a rigid set of my behavioral rules. It was all about what he should do, and less about where those choices originate from. We were getting nowhere fast.
On some days, when my energy level was high, I would have the patience to divert the discussion or create some play around the issue at hand. But on days when I was tired, I would just demand he behave in a different way, exasperated that he was unable to remember the simplest things. I couldn’t let go of the idea that he should be able to REMEMBER this stuff. Say thank you. Don’t push other kids. Hang up your towel. Ask to be excused from the table. Don’t keep asking for ice cream. Blah. Blah. Blah.
It’s this dead end alley of parenting that I loathe the most. “Stop doing that,” becomes the sole focus of the moment. And then, those moments begin to proliferate. Like buzzing flies. All over the place. Yikes.
The Button Game
So then, this drawing called the Button Game came along. You can see from the photo that the buttons and switches have a range of purposes. Here is a list of how we labeled the buttons, switches and dials:
Mad/Happy (Both of us)
Help Hurt People (People who are hurt, help them)
Dada, I love you
I’m Hungry, Will you make some food?
Stop Being Grumpy (for making Dada stop being grumpy)
Stop Being Mean (for making Gus stop being mean)
? (The question mark button)
Some buttons address very specific interactions while others are purely playful. There are no buttons that say “clean your room” or “do the dishes”. These buttons are not about doing. They about being; invitations to change your way of being in the moment.
It has been a long time since we did this drawing. I don’t recall the conversation that preceeded the drawing that day. I suspect it was a grumpy one. And sometimes, when we’re struggling, Sam and I turn to our drawing table to find solutions. And that’s what we did that day. I don’t recall who created each and every button, but I know Sam specifically asked that we create the “I love you, Dada” button and the “Stop being Grumpy, Dada” buttons. I wanted the “Hug” button.
I do remember what happened when we put the finished drawing on the wall above the couch. Over the next few months, Sam sprang up and hit the buttons whenever he needed to. He would announce a hug by hitting the big red heart button. He would ask for food by pulling the “make some food” pull chain. When I was acting frustrated, he would march over and bang the “stop being grumpy” button. And I have to say, when your five year child hits the stop being grumpy button, it gives you pause. You think about how you are are being in that moment. And if you then choose a different way of being, your child is witness to the your choice.
There is a powerful lessen here. We have the power to choose our emotional responses to the world. Teach this to a five year old and you have created a bridge to empowerment. A way of managing any challenge life might bring. The Button Game demonstrated to all parties that we have the power to choose how we are experiencing things and how we present our responses.
Your Child Can See Your Emotional Choices
We all understand that our children see our emotional responses. What is not clear to them is that we can choose to remain calm or get upset. That we can learn to manage our tempers or our fears. In the Button Game, Sam could watch me choose not to be grumpy in the exact moment I made that choice. He could see me laughing at the absurdity of it all. That a simple illustrated button was giving me something I could not otherwise give myself; the opportunity to choose a more positive emotional space. How does the “button” do that? I suspect the Button Game’s power derives from its connection to a space where play is primary.
On a symbolic level, the Button Game represent a preexisting agreement among all who collaborated its’ creation; to honor the power of pushing the button. That agreement stems from the process by which the buttons came into being. Each button is something we (the family) create collaboratively. We decided how to empower each button symbol (Hug, laugh, sneeze). And what we create as a group, we are already in agreement about. If we grant these simple drawings the power to shift our emotional state, they can do so. They become a holding place of mutual intent. And mutual intent is very powerful. It is the holy grail of parenting.
On a functional level, the button symbols create a pause for self-reflection and an invitation to play. Any party hitting any button triggers a “choice moment”. Where am I in this moment? Do I have to stay here? Hitting a button injects the opportunity for play. The buttons remind us that life is playful. It really really is. Just go push the sneeze button and see what happens. I double-dog-dare you not to make the choice to put on a big ole’ sneeze show and laugh.
When we are stuck in that dead end place of telling our child, do this and do that, it can be a painful struggle. The Button Game is about being in the world in a playful way. It is the difference between engaging in power struggles that seem like dead ends and entering cooperative spaces that create laughter, fun and learning.