Why I don’t cry (or yell) over spilled milk

Last week – actually, a week ago today – Tegan (3 years old at the time of this writing) threw Spencer’s shoes in a lake at a park. It wasn’t the first time that his footwear had met a body of water at Tegan’s hand. That was last month, in our friends’ pool.

This time, it was here:
We were all sitting around, barefoot, enjoying the grass and the breeze. She spotted his shoes, was struck with, uh… inspiration… and before anyone could stop her, had taken off for the water with the shoes in hand. The next thing we knew, the shoes were floating gracefully away, while I scrambled to my feet to find a stick or something with which to go fishing.

Have you ever seen a 6 and a 10 year old try to hang on to a 130 pound woman to keep her from falling headlong into water while she precariously leaned on her tiptoes trying to retrieve two floating sneakers with a flimsy branch? You missed a good show. But I did eventually fish them out, returned them to their owner, and we all went about our day.

Afterward, my friend’s 7 year old son – Everett’s best friend – said to his mother, “Wow, Jennifer NEVER gets mad! I never see her get mad about anything!”

It was a nice thing to hear. Not entirely accurate mind you, but nice. I do get mad occasionally (although the older I get, the less I find actually worthy of getting mad about). But I wasn’t mad about the shoes in the water.

I’m not mad when someone spills.
I’m not mad when someone makes a mess.
I’m not mad when something gets broken.
I’m not mad when my kids act like kids.

And it’s not that I’m more patient than the next person – because I’m really not – it’s just that I made a decision a long time ago… I decided that some things mattered, and some things did not. Shoes in water do not matter. Spilled milk does not matter. Broken cameras do. not. matter.

My kids matter.
My relationships with my kids matter.

Even in those moments when I do get frustrated (or more accurately, especially in those moments when I do get frustrated), I remind myself that it’s a decision, and I come to the same conclusion every time: 
What matters is my kids.

Spencer’s shoes were safely recovered that day, but even if they’d irretrievably sunk to the bottom, what purpose could anger have possibly served? Responding in anger would not only have not helped the situation, it also would have damaged my relationship with my daughter. Every time we respond to our kids in anger, it damages our relationship. Every time we respond in anger, it takes us further away from our goal of peace, harmony and mutual respect.

My daughter is more important than a $20 pair of shoes. 

A few months ago, she accidentally pulled my Nikon off the counter, damaging it beyond repair.  She’s more important than a $600 camera too.   Shoes, cameras, houses, cars…. all small stuff compared to my kids. 

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University professor who delivered his famous Last Lecture to his class (which was later turned into a book of the same name) before he died from cancer in 2008, illustrated this in such a beautiful – if a bit extreme – way.  He’d just gotten a fancy new convertible, and his sister was harping on her children, Randy’s niece and nephew, to be careful.  Don’t mess up the new car.  Be careful around the new car.  Don’t spill anything in the new car.  Randy, putting his niece and nephew first, basically told her to relax.  He walked to the car, poured an entire soda on the back seat, and said, 

“It’s just a car.”

And at the end of the day, it’s ALL just a car.  Just a pair of shoes.  Just a camera.  None of it is worth getting upset about.  None of it is worth getting mad about.  None of it matters.  
What matters is our kids.  What matters is our relationships with our kids.  None of us is guaranteed a tomorrow with our children.  And I don’t know about you, but I therefore want to live each moment as if it were the last…. and if it were the last, I wouldn’t want to know that I’d wasted time – wasted even a second – being concerned, or upset, or angry about the small stuff.  

….. and it’s all small stuff.

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16 Responses to Why I don’t cry (or yell) over spilled milk

  1. Pingback: Sunday Surf: Parenting with a Little Perspective « alivingfamily

  2. Erin

    I think the message is good, but my question becomes – do you have a conversation? Ask your daughter why she did that, explain that it wasn’t very nice? I’m not saying respond in anger, but how do ensure that the behaviour is not consistenly repeated. I can’t imagine that buying a new pair of shoes after every outing is practical or warranted.

    • jen

      Oh of course there’s a conversation. 🙂 One of the criticisms that I got on this post when I first wrote it was that it sounded as if I did nothing, and that therefore the kids would just run all willy nilly all over the place, which isn’t the case. I did say something to her, and that day was actually the last day she ever threw anyone’s shoes in the water. Thanks for the comment and for asking the question nicely. 😉

      • katalice

        Ah, thanks… I just started reading your posts, and clicked on the link in today’s to this Spilled Milk posting (although it’s about Thrown Shoes?), and had the same question about whether you had a conversation. I can totally see myself telling my toddler that I appreciate how cool it was to see the shoes floating down on the water, but it was really hard for me to catch them and sorta dangerous to try catching them, so let’s not throw shoes in the water anymore, alright?”  It’s pretty easy, sometimes, to remember what it was like to be young & to try something just for the sake of seeing what would happen, & I know that’s what would drive my daughter to do that.

        Next question:  what if….the shoes had been thrown because she had been upset about something? – like the cookies from a picnic being all gone, or because you had stopped her from jumping off a rock into the lake, etc.?  That’s what I’m grappling with nowadays – the intentional, “I’m mad at you!” actions.

        • pathlesstaken

          Yes, the title has very little to do with the actual post.  (Except that I *do* mention spilled milk in it. ;))  🙂 

          To answer your question, my response if it’s done in anger is actually not much different.  I empathise (“I can see you’re really angry”) then give a quick reason why it’s not okay to do whatever it was she did, (“But I can’t let you do that because it’s not safe – or will ruin his shoes, or make him sad – or whatever”)  THEN, I’ll offer an alternative and redirect into another activity. 

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  4. Holly

    I really needed this today 🙂

  5. Jean

    I love this approach, even though I’m not sure I would’ve been able to react the same way. But after reading this, it’s opened my eyes to how I should respond. Most kids aren’t malicious in their actions. They’re curious learning people and there are a lot of things that are more important to stress over. We can teach w/o losing our cool because we definitely don’t want to teach them that(to anger easily). Glad I found this site!

  6. Laverne

    I depserately want to agree with your post but I am having one hurdle that I cannot seem to overcome. You say that it (whatever is ruined) are just things, that the relationship is more important than the things. I agree with that but when those things get ruined, I must take time away from my children to go earn more money to replace those things, thereby losing precious time with my children. That makes me very angry. How do you make up for that? I think if I can figure that part out, I will be in a better place as a parent.

  7. Sabine

    You are a beautiful parent. I LOVE it! xx

  8. liz

    This is so reassuring to me as a mother and I really needed to read this… in the summer I spent almost 3 months with my 3 year old son at my MILs house for the first time. I will not go into details but over the course of our stay her fridge got broken and apparently she had been resentful about the way I raise my son…wont get into details long story short she had been fuming in anger without my knowledge the whole time, gossiping about it with her 19 year old daughter instead of facing me. At some point her 19 year old daughter decided it was in her right to lash out at me in front of my son, shouting at me and making demands of me. Surprisingly I was very calm (let me just say I am also pregnant) apparently they were blaming the 3 year old child for breaking the fridge, they claim that they have seen him bang it a couple of times…when I decided to talk to my MIL about the incident I realized there were a bunch of stuff that they thought were inappropriate about my son which to me was just part of him being a toddler, they want him to behave as a mini adult so to speak…they didnt want to hang with us or take us anywhere because they wouldnt enjoy themselves!!! they were angry about him touching their stuff(make up,shoes etc) they wanted him to sit quietly and watch TV with them(nothing that would interest him but their adult reality shows and were unhappy when I let him watch his own shows on his dvd player).
    This really broke my heart and I decided to remove ourselves from the situation. They blamed me for his toddler like behavior because I am so calm around him, and told me that I am neglectful of him! and since at the moment I home school him my MIL claims he needs to go to school to get taught discipline! Mind you they never offered any help with him while I was there except for offering him sweets most of which I do not allow him to eat.
    I have always felt like shouting, spanking, yelling at him and sweating the small stuff was not worth it and not part of the solution,this has just been my instincts. Thank you for affirming this!

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  10. Amanda Trotman

    I try so hard to be like this, fail every day, and try harder tomorrow. This approach is new to me since my husband of 14 years and father of my 4 kids (now 15, 13, 7 and 5) died suddenly at home from a heart attack just over one year ago. In the years before he died, I remember yelling around the house that I felt like everyone’s slave just cleaning and tidying all the time (I know) and what did it achieve, really achieve? Stress, sadness, unhappiness for me, him and them… and did it work? Did those years of yelling pay off? Do I now have clean and tidy, considerate and always helpful children? No. I have messy, untidy, sometimes selfish and allergic to chores, HAPPIER children, and I am way less stressed. I am trying hard now to forge a way forward for us which means that we will spend every precious moment together, happier together. I try hard not to cry over spilled milk and am currently trying to teach my 15-year-old to ease off his (often mischievious) little sister when he comes over all ‘parent’ with her. I am seriously considering unschooling (I homeschooled my eldest for a year in 2010) because time is precious. My 5-year-old is allowed to wear party dresses every day if she wants to because you’re right, none of us is guaranteed a tomorrow.

  11. Nina

    Thanks for this Jennifer 🙂 I grew up in a very angry home myself. Although my parents provided us with everything my only memory of them is of the yelling, the name calling and each time there was unwarranted yelling and whipping (with a belt) I wowed to do it differently with my own children…until I had them. I’ve never used the belt but I’ve had the same fit of rage, that I’ve seen growing up. I’ve learnt to apologize to my kids though and let them see me as imperfect as they are and it helps them understand that everyone makes mistakes at some stage. Yet, I’m tired of the yelling, the guilt that follows, the apology and the cycle just goes on. I used to think how will the kids know not to repeat it if they don’t see just how angry I am, who was i fooling. It only got them more perplexed and worked up. Your article only confirms my need to change.Thank you 🙂

    • Nina

      Hi Nina! My name is Nina too. 🙂

      And I feel as if I’ve written your comment myself.

      I too grew up with very strict parenting styles and was often hit with a belt or made to squat in a corner with arms outstretched for 15 to 30 minutes.

      My struggle now is how to unlearn that.

      I too often end up in a fit of rage when parenting my 2 boys become so overwhelming ( my husband passed away 6 months ago so i guess it’s partly a grief reaction, though I must admit that the yelling and the spanking started even before that). I’m tired of the yelling, the forcing, the threats, the spanking and the guilt that follows. It’s nice to know I’m not alone onthis journey. 🙂

      Jen, thank you for your posts. I’ve been reading on gentle parenting and want to employ more gentle, more natural ways to deal with my kids. I hope to learn more from you. Please, keep the posts coming. They are an inspiration to me.

  12. Joey

    Of course they are just ‘things’. And things are worth a lot of money that many people do not have. It is fine to get mad sometimes, it is fine to yell, it is fine for my child to see that I am only human, too.
    I am not artificially controlling all my emotions all the time, that would not make me a better mum. But if I have wronged my child, I apologise.