So, now it is time for the next confession: I feel like a hypocrite with my children sometimes. I look at what I say to encourage them and wonder if I am setting them up for success or for heartbreak? As a parent, I wonder what lessons are we teaching our children? And are we really listening to what they say? Can we step back and truly give them the space to grow and apply the lessons we want them to learn in their youth that we struggled with into our 30s and 40s?
Let’s start with an easy one, “just be yourself”—what does that really mean? And does it work in our society? I don’t think so. Being yourself means acknowledging and processing your emotions when they arise, not bottling them up and pushing them down in our culture. When is the last time you saw someone burst into tears in public who was not a little kid? What was the response of people around them, including you? Did people ignore the person, tacitly implying it was taboo to drop the poker face society prefers? Did they immediately rush the person to comfort them, trying to make that uncomfortable feeling go away? Or did the bystanders have the patience to let them express their emotion, gather themselves and wait to offer comfort and condolences?
What about anger? Ask yourself honestly, did you yourself ever outgrow that visceral temper tantrum reaction the terrible twos are so famous for? Or did you apply the lesson that such actions, and by response, such feelings, are not acceptable to have? I am not saying that the temper tantrum reactions of screaming and yelling and kicking and throwing and acting out are acceptable, but how do you process that anger when you feel it? Where does it bubble up in your life? And are you teaching your children ways to process that anger that let them work it out in a safe way for themselves and others? Childhood is a space of extreme emotions, sadness and anger and intense happiness. Do we honor this with our children or do we expect them to stuff it down and keep it bottled up?
Here’s another gem, “what matters most is how you see yourself." When you try to embody that self-vision, dressing as you wish, behaving to suit yourself, acknowledging interests that are contrary to the mindset of those around you in your household, your school, your workplace, it can sometimes end badly. A lot of people want to tell you what you are doing wrong, why that choice is not a good one, what would be better. They don’t listen to your desires, they impose their own visions on you and expect you to hold up that standard and not your own.
We express such confidence in our children to do this. We want them to be loved for who they are. We are their biggest fans. And so we send them out into the world without preparing them for the idea that society won’t necessarily like them for being themselves. We spin our children up to open themselves to being vulnerable, and don’t prepare them for the rejection and hurt they may face. As an adult, it’s hard enough to deal with such rejection, and we have far more coping skills in our toolbox than our children do. Being true to yourself is a scary space, being authentic means you are open to all the criticism and hurts those around you for stepping outside the box they want to put you into. So if you are giving that message, be honest with your children, that doing the right thing, for yourself and for others, is hard work and sometimes it makes people uncomfortable. It doesn’t mean you don’t do it; it simply means you embrace the fact that it can be hard work to be true to yourself.
And let’s not forget my favorite, “so, how are you doing today?” This polite nothing is something teens across the country joke about, because they understand adults ask, but the adults really don’t want to know the honest answer. How many times have you heard someone utter anything but “fine” in response? And how uncomfortable were you when they did? We don’t want to know, probably because we don’t quite know how to listen. And I am more guilty than most … as many years of reflective listening training as I have had you would think I would remember to give people space to talk (or not talk but think about what they want to say), to truly listen without judging, and to offer the sympathetic ear without trying to “fix” it for them or point them in the right direction. But when my children talk, I fall into that parent mode of “gotta fix it now.” Sometimes I don’t even let them finish talking, I finish the sentence for them. I tell them what they should be worried about instead of what they are voicing as a concern. I talk above them instead of giving them space to share. Not all the time, but enough to feel embarrassed when I think about it.
So, how about you?