As grown-ups, we have pretty much completely forgotten what it’s like to be three, or seven, or even fifteen years old. We think that we know what it’s like for our children, and we tell them all the time… but we don’t really know at all.
We are all-too-often unintentional in our responses to our children – particularly when they are mad. Most of our reactions are entirely self-centred. While it’s not polite or politically correct to say it, unfortunately what I see most of the time is parents who respond to their children’s anger, frustrations, or mad, bad feelings based on how the child is affecting the parent rather than how the child is feeling! The parent makes it about them.
“I don’t like it when you do that!”
“Cut it out now.”
“If you keep that up I’ll [insert threat or punishment here]”
It’s all about us. Or about how their stuff is affecting us. We turn away from them, withdrawing ourselves or dismissing them. Alternatively we actually turn against them with anger, judgment, disapproval, and scowling contempt.
When they are sad, we certainly know what sad feels like. But we regularly fail to feel that sadness with them. It’s true that when we are at our best we might try to comprehend it. We say, “Ooohhh, that made you so sad.” Or “Come here and give me a hug. I’ll cheer you up.” But we are merely recognising their sadness. We aren’t feeling their sadness with them.
Besides, most of the time we’re not at our best. We’re caught up in our own universe. Under these circumstances – being busy and focused on all our ‘stuff’ – we may pause and make some effort. But when we do, we tend to see their sadness through our own prism, our own viewpoint, our own particularly not-quite-right perspective. It is rare that we stop, focus, empathise, and genuinely understand how it is for them in their world.
That’s because, even as adults who care for and would do just about anything for our children, we are still the centre of our universe. In fact, we really only pay serious attention to things as they affect us, and what we’re most focused on is the way that those things affect us. We blame our children for thinking the universe revolves around them, when what we are really saying is that we resent the fact that right now it is not revolving around us – and we prefer it when it does!
Because we are so ego-centric, what this ultimately means is that we are often not purposeful, thoughtful, or intentional about our parenting. Instead, we are reactive; unthinking.
In some ways it kind-of makes sense. We live much of our lives mindlessly… on auto-pilot. And in the middle of going through the motions of working at the same tedious job everyday, or while we wade through all of the picking up, tidying, vacuuming, washing clothes, ironing, doing dishes, making beds, being hungry and tired and unmotivated and unfulfilled and wondering what in the world we signed up for when we married that person or had those kids or took that job… a child loses the plot, or bites a sibling, or refuses to eat the meal we cooked for them.
It’s usually at that point that we unthinkingly, reactively make it all about us.
“I’m sick to death of the way you treat your sister, and your slack attitude, and the fact that you don’t eat your meals that I cook for you!”
In our less enlightened moments we see our children as stupid, painful, wasteful, ungrateful cretins who are nothing more than a major impediment in our lives. We still love them. But we get mad because they’re screwing things up for us.
Thinking like this – unthinkingly – is not really a choice. It’s a reaction. A self-centred, unintentional reaction that fails to recognise something critical. Something that makes ALL the difference in how loved our children feel, and how happy they’ll be.
Our children are human beings. They are not stupid, painful, ungrateful cretins. That’s us making it about us. What they are is tiny little people, or novice adults (teenagers) who are often confused, naive, anxious, and unsure as they try to find their purpose, their meaning; their bliss. They have hopes, dreams, and feelings.
They need our guidance, support, and love.
When we remember this, we stop the unintentional, reactive, unhelpful processes. We pay attention. We parent with intention. We value our children as people. We turn towards them and feel what they’re feeling, understand what they’re experiencing, and remember what it really is like to be a kid who is confused and angry and unsure.
In short, we become better human beings. And that is what great parenting can do – for us, in the centre of our own universe, and for our children when we make them the centre of our universe instead.