Photo: Courtesy of Erinne Magee
Last summer, my then 8-year-old daughter and I had an argument. I can’t even remember exactly what it was about, but I know I was fed up with my mini salesperson who was always trying to negotiate and had a hard time accepting no for an answer.
“You need to think of other people,” I scolded her. It was an attempt to help her recognize that she was being selfish in that moment, but I, too, was being selfish. I desperately wanted her to see my exhaustion from my relentless effort to put others first. Of course, our argument didn’t accomplish that.
Later that day, as I was filling myself with worry and wondering what I could have done to curb our raised voices and if my daughter was losing her once empathic ways, I thought of a way of turning our back-and-forth disagreements into something positive. Knowing my own coping mechanism during difficult times is taking a moment away from everything, I would design a space for Lexi to go when she needed a break.
The next day, I called my Pinterest-loving Mom and my super-handy Dad to brainstorm the execution of my idea. Together, we crafted the Thinking of Others corner. They drove two hours to help me transform an area of my basement into a space with bright, bold colours, filled with everything from paint to markers, beads and decorative tape. I also displayed some of Lexi’s favourite art pieces from school. I didn’t want this to be a Bandaid, solution. Rather, it was going to be an integral part of our home and hopefully a place my young toddler will use as the time comes. When Lexi came home from a sleepover, the surprise was unveiled. I called it an ‘escape with a purpose’.
My hope was that rather than disappearing with arms crossed from a room, my daughter could sit at the Thinking of Others desk and write a letter to someone, or make a craft. Distraction has always been a discipline method that worked with her so I made this tactic age-appropriate and hoped for the best. Of course I had no idea if a desk in the basement could make that big of a difference. But the truth is, it’s worked magic in our household.
Six months into our new arrangement, we still have disagreements, but they feel less petty as we've cut down on the never-ending back-and-forth commentary, typical with a tween. Now, she catches herself getting worked up about something, and channels her feelings into creativity instead. When she’s annoyed that she has to turn off Netflix she sits down and designs dresses, cutting them out to send to her fashion-forward Grandma in New York. She's realized that the art area calms her down, so she goes there without prompting to distract herself from whatever is bothering her.
A fear I had about implementing this strategy was that she would come to see art as a punishment. But this wasn’t the case at all. Instead, it helped foster a willingness to try new things artistically because she saw how well her kindness was received by others. She’s also really taking the time to think about her friends and family and what it is they might like to receive from her. When they write back or respond, she’s proud of herself, and her relationship with these special people is deepening.
But here’s my secret. At first I starting using the corner to model that everyone needs an outlet for their frustrations and stress, but now I use it for my own therapeutic needs. When I’m wondering if I’m doing it right, or if my kids feel loved and safe, having a creative outlet calms me down. And if I find myself getting too caught up in the scrolling on my phone and checking my Facebook feed, I put down my device and design something. I find myself in this spot two to three times a week.
Of course, sometimes situations still call for more than time at the art table. While it can be tempting to shoo Lexi off whenever her emotions flare, when we really need to resolve something in the moment—and instinct tells me she’s indirectly seeking advice—we still sit down and talk about it. Or if she has genuine hurt feelings about a situation involving friendships or classmates, for example, I am sensitive to her needs by simply listening and eventually asking her how I can help.
My hope though, is that we’ll both continue to use the ‘thinking of others’ corner as a calming, therapeutic space in the years to come. As the teen years hit, we’re bound to need it.