Lessons in Assertive Parenting (aka The Journal Story)


After suffering through watching the Dolphins lose badly in their playoff game Sunday, we had an unplanned afternoon ahead of us. It was a beautiful day in the mid-70s with rain promised for most of the upcoming week.  We decided to get outside to enjoy the sunshine with a hike in Penasquitos Canyon Preserve. There’s a beautiful waterfall, but it’s a six mile hike roundtrip, so we knew we wouldn’t make it that far before the sunset.  Nevertheless, it would be fun to hike in the mud and let the kids explore.

Sienna responded to our enthusiasm for the hike with “I’ll bring my journal to record what we find!” She is very observant; always pointing out interesting sights that I’d failed to see and asking inquisitive questions.  She found her trusty purple journal and new princess pen and brought them along.


We arrived at the trailhead and had to park a half mile away. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who decided to enjoy being outdoors before the storms hit!  The five of us – Dennis, me, Sienna, Teo, and our little dog Claira, headed out, careful to avoid the gigantic puddles that had formed on the road.  About a half mile from the car, as we’d just entered the muddy trail, Sienna declared “I don’t want to carry this journal the whole time!  Can we take it back to the car?”

“Honey, it’s a ways back to the car. We can just take it along.  I thought you wanted to record your discoveries…” I replied.

“But, I don’t want to carry it the whole time!” she cried.

“Okay, well I’ll take a turn carrying it. Or, we can put it here by this bush and come back for it,” I offered, as I took the journal and pen from her.

“No! Someone will take it!” Sienna started to cry real tears.

Oh for goodness sakes, I thought, as I kept walking.

“We have to put it back in the car!”

“Sienna, it’s not that big of a deal! You’re not even carrying it!” I replied.

This back and forth lasted another minute or so. Finally, I asked, “Why did you bring it if you didn’t want to record what you found?”

Sienna replied, “I thought I did, but now I don’t. I made a mistake, Mom.”

She made a mistake. We all make mistakes.

How do I want to handle her mistake?  Make her suffer for it?  Shame her?  Or, be the one she comes to for help fixing her mistakes.

“Babe,” I called up the trail to Dennis. “We’re going to dash back to the car to drop this stuff off.”


Truthfully, I was still irritated as we turned around. All we wanted to do was go for a nice family hike, I thought.  Then, I stopped that thought.  So, I’ll help her fix the mistake but make her feel badly about it?

I took a deep breath, slowed, turned back and waited for Sienna to catch up so I could take her hand.

“Let’s talk about how we could have handled this better,” I said. “I’m sorry for getting upset with you, I know it was a simple mistake.”

“I just didn’t want you to leave it there. I was afraid someone would take it.”

“I understand. Next time, can you ask more calmly?  It’s hard for me to hear what you’re trying to tell me when you’re crying and throwing a fit.”

“Okay, I’ll try.”

We returned the journal, pen, and her jacket which she decided to ditch too, back to the car. In no time, we joined Dennis, Teo, and Claira to resume the hike.  We crossed creeks that were relatively raging with water, threw sticks in said creeks, and generally explored the canyon.

After about an hour, we spotted a tree that was filled with Woodpecker holes. “Wow, look at that, kids!” Dennis exclaimed.

“There’s a Woodpecker!” Sienna shouted.

We stood as quietly as possible to hear the Woodpecker drilling yet another hole into the old tree.

“Wow,” Sienna spoke with awe, “I wish I had some way to record this.”

“Oh, yeah. If only you had a field journal with you,” I couldn’t help but reply.

She looked up at me and met my sarcastic gaze with a wry look. “Yeah, Mom.” We smiled as I threw my arm around her shoulders.

As I’ve learned to be present and live more fully in the moment, I can see the ebb and flow of individual and family moods and feelings. We had a great day, overall.  But, there were tears and frustrations at various moments.  The kids bickered.  Teo got cold and I felt guilty for not bringing him a sweatshirt.  No one complained of hunger on the two hour hike, but typically that happens on long family outings.  Or, one child decides they’re going to die without the last drink of water and the other kid realizes they are also extremely parched.  Did I mention bickering??

But, by being more comfortable with being present and letting the moments unfold, I’m better able to rescue a family outing by modifying my own behavior. So our walk is delayed because we have to return a journal to the car?  Big deal; that’s just life as a family trying to balance the needs of four people.  When I needed things to go a certain way, my relationships with Dennis and the kids paid the price. When I strove for control, I likely would have pushed the issue with Sienna even further by shaming her for her poor decision to bring the journal or left it behind in the bush, causing her to completely meltdown.

It’s funny, I’ve been working on assertiveness as a parent. Just yesterday, when we first got home from church, before putting the recorded Dolphins game on, Teo copped an attitude about his half hour on the iPad.  I calmly put him in his room, put the iPad on the top shelf of my closet and told him he wouldn’t get to play on it for the entire day.  They only get to play games on it during the weekend, so this felt like a major consequence to him.  He threw a huge fit, but got over it once the football game was on and he had chocolate milk in his hand.  Looking back, taking away the iPad helped pave the way for connection and outdoor fun as a family.  Good decision, Mom!

I suppose one could argue that I wasn’t assertive when the journal situation arose. But, I think therein lies the trick to parenting, knowing when assertiveness helps and when it hurts.  Being unyielding with my children will not enhance my relationships with Sienna and Mateo.  Setting boundaries and holding them will.

There are no perfect guidelines, but focusing on connection and love will rarely steer me wrong.

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