It’s 8 p.m. on a weeknight, which means we should be ushering small people through the stations of winding down: read aloud, teeth-brushing, pajamas and, ultimately, the long, one-way march toward bunk beds. But, everyone’s trying to wring the last moments out of a fading spring evening.
Col is reading a dystopian novel on the couch. Two feet away, Rose is choreographing a dance to Joni Mitchell’s “Carey,” which she is also singing, managing to take up an impressive amount of space, physically and auditorially in our 800-square-foot house.
I warn the kids bedtime is approaching, and Col throws an arm out to hook his father, passing through the living room. “Come snuggle me, Daddy,” Col pleads, and even though there’s a whiff of stalling the inevitable, Dan embraces the invitation.
I watch Col’s small body tucked into Dan’s, thinking, this is what boys need, men who can model intimacy, who can be soft and gentle. Suddenly and suspiciously, Rose’s dance routine comes to an abrupt halt and she launches herself on top of the snuggling pair.
“Hey – get off! Me and Daddy are snuggling!” Col shouts.
“I have enough love for both of you,” Dan calmly replies, rolling each kid up in an arm.
The couch becomes a tumult of arms and legs. Col jumps off the couch, and like a military strategist, begins striking his sister from the floor. Snap judgments infiltrate my mind: Col is a bully. Rose is interfering. Dan raises his voice, telling Col to stop, and then resumes his preschool teacher demeanor and asks, “Col, is there a request you’d like to make?”
“Yes. Can you tell Rose to get off the couch?”
“Can you make a request that tells me what you want, not what you want Rose to do?”
“I just want to snuggle you alone,” Col replies.
“OK. I’m happy to do that. Can you wait until Rose and I have a couple more minutes snuggle time?”
A quiet calm settles over the house. I feel my nervous system decelerate from red to green. No one is wrong or needs discipline. Mother Theresa said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Here are kids who need to be loved, who have longings to uncover. One kid wants the special feeling of physical connection alone with his dad, another kid wants reassurance that even if others are connecting, she’s loved, included and belongs. Requesting that which contributes to our happiness is a skill that enables us to access power in our own lives.
I love receiving clear, doable requests. It’s satisfying to get clarity on how we can contribute to someone’s well being. Studies show that we receive much happiness from acts of generosity, and yet many of us are more likely to launch a complaint rather than letting others know what can be done to bring more ease or joy to our lives. News flash: Expectations unvoiced go unmet.
Later, during the high-level debriefings that often take place after the kids have gone to bed, I thank Dan for how he handled the couch skirmish. “I learned it all from you,” he replies. Which is true, just for the record.
Rachel Turiel teaches nonviolent communication to groups and individuals. Contact her at email@example.com, or check out her blog 6512andgrowing.