I think in most matters with kids, it's good to keep the stakes low. I'm not talking about life-or-death situations, or other ways that people can be endangered. Those are clearly high-stakes situations, and the adrenaline rush that accompanies them is a handy little bit of evolution that has served millennia of humans well.
But some high-stakes situations are fabrications. They are low-stakes situations that are ramped up, blown out of proportion, and cause for alarm when they need not be. When adults are stressed and anxious, then tend to be short, surly, skittish, distracted, snappy, and sometimes mean. Speaking from experience, nothing short-circuits my attempts to be a good parent like imagining that I am in a high-stakes situation and being stressed and anxious.
Here's a couple of examples of keeping the stakes low:
Not making hard-and-fast plans that are time-dependent, if you can avoid it. At least not with young kids. We make plans with friends loosely when possible, letting them know we'll call the morning of to confirm in case the boys threaten to go feral when I suggest we leave the house. On our best days, we remember to plan lots of lead time for appointments, shows, etc.
Sharing precious objects--photo albums, favorite books from our own childhoods, the fossil collection from Daddy Honey's work in the Badlands, etc.--only with close supervision, and changing activities if things get a little too rowdy. Some things--the great-grandmother's china, the kachina doll--don't ever see the light of day, though some day they will.
Shopping at thrift stores for toys and games. I thought about this one this morning. I looked down and noticed that the game Trouble that the boys were playing with had lost most of its pieces. I felt a little annoyed, and a had a thought about the boys not taking very good care of their toys, and how that makes the games not fun to play anymore.
Only I realized, they *were* having fun with it. They were playing pretend with it. The remaining pieces were knights on errands around the circle of the board. And then I noticed the price tag on the top--$1.99. I felt silly. Certainly they had already had $2 worth of fun with the game just exactly as it was. And it's not like they lost the pieces on purpose, to demonstrate their ingratitude or to annoy me. What nonsense. Games lose pieces when they get played with a lot, especially when the people playing are so in the playing (learning) zone that they don't really think about keeping track.
These are all things I could easily have lost my cool over a couple of years ago--being late for a gathering, something fragile or beloved getting broken or damaged, things getting lost. And on a sleep-deprived, upsetting, frazzled day, I still might get a little grumpy about them, though I hope to keep catching myself at the thought-place before things get to the words- and action-place. Because the fact of the matter is, we all make mistakes. We forget things. We get distracted. We have learning to do.
Just yesterday, I forgot that Fox had been playing with Woody's bike helmet on the other side of the car, the passenger side, which is facing the road and away from my path to the driver's door. I backed out of our driveway, and CRUNCH! $20. Whoops.
But nobody berated me or sighed heavily and muttered about the lost money. Nobody stomped around annoyed at me. Nobody lectured me on taking care of our things or remembering to do the around-the-car walk before getting in. (Remember that trick question on the drivers' ed exam? It was supposed to be the first step in driving the car, when everybody wanting to answer with far more intuitive things such as open the door or put the key in the ignition or check the mirrors.)
That's important. All of us need to know that our closest loving relationships are worth more than money and inconvenience. Some loved one some time is probably going to feel disappointed or frustrated or sad as a result of our actions, but we have to know that they love and value us more than that. Then, we can response with compassion and apology, not with resentment and panic.
Our kids need to know we love and value them more than anything else. Anything. Almost all the other stakes are low in comparison to this truth, and we can work to keep it that way.