Know Your Kids as They Are
I read a plea from a desperate mother of a nine-year-old girl who hates school. The mother felt helpless, hurt, and angry. She appealed to her email loop for support and advice. The first email reply went through the “nurturing model”—
- rock her in a rocking chair,
- don’t worry about school,
- she’s young still,
- enjoy precious moments,
- help her to feel comfortable and happy in your home with less school pressure
The very next reply was a 180 degree turn. This mother offered a list of quotes out of a popular child rearing book. The first one said roughly, “Don’t make rules you won’t enforce.” And of course, if you make a rule, require obedience. Suggestions of penalties followed:
- time outs,
- wooden spoon spankings,
- withdrawal of TV or computer privileges.
These two positions were so opposite to one another, I found myself laughing out loud. What kind of parents are we? It seems to me that the real issues are often missed in these discussions. We parents are so quick to evaluate the behavior of our kids and then to look to each other for “tricks” or “tips” on how to “deal with them.” The desperate mother is asking the wrong questions to the wrong people.
The Inner Lives of Our Children
The inner lives of our children ought to be the object of our quest. When they throw routine tantrums and say outrageous hurtful things, why aren’t we asking where that’s coming from? So often we just want to squelch the behavior—extinguish it like a sputtering candle.
Can we know our kids from the inside out? Will they talk to us? Some kids have no trouble telling us their needs or hardships. Others are completely tongue-tied—stuck perhaps in the non-verbal mode of relating to themselves—aware of problems and feelings but unable to articulate them or to even identify them.
Instead of rules enforcement versus nurturing to the point of “catering to,” how about investigation and support/compassion? How about encouragement and understanding? Are we willing to know our kids as they actually are rather than to simply apply labels for behavior, or symbols for their season of life, or rules for their “own good”? What if we become fascinated by the complexity of our kids, rather than worried about it?
I remember when Noah (my oldest) was 10-years-old and he struggled with writing. His attitude showed that he was demoralized (even after “all I’ve done for him” to make it easier). My ego got flustered and irritated.
He was violating my system.
He was invalidating my work.
But my spirit knew differently. I suddenly saw that Noah must have had real reasons that made sense to him about why writing was continuing to feel hard… It was a moment. I flipped my point of view away from wondering where I went wrong or why he couldn’t validate my efforts, to what was going on inside of him. So I asked him with gentleness and true interest:
“Noah, what’s wrong? What is bothering you?”
Do you know that for the first time, tears of shame and earnest self-displeasure surfaced? He felt badly that he couldn’t please me by “getting it” more quickly. This reminded me of feelings I had as a girl when my father tried to help me with math homework and I just “didn’t get it.” My dad got so frustrated with me, thinking he’d been clear (I’m sure he was!). But I felt desperate inside. I couldn’t validate him. I could only fail in his presence and make him miserable. What an awful feeling—to know your parent is trying to help and you can’t translate that help into success! The only way forward is to shut down, if there is no entry point for discussion or honest communication of scary internal feelings. I feared I wasn’t smart. I didn’t want my dad to know that about me. So I clammed up.
Noah’s weren’t tears of frustration or anger or anxiety about writing specifically. I could tell. He said to me,
“You’re a writer. You and Dad talk about it all the time. You teach it. No matter how much you tell me that you aren’t worried about how well I write, I still know that you’d be happier if I wrote well. And I want to do it but know I can’t.”
Wow. So honest. So risky!
The only respectful reply at that point was silence. I saw. I didn’t have an explanation, or more information to throw at him, or even good ideas, or defenses for how wrong his perceptions were. I saw. And in seeing, I knew that all I really had to offer was compassionate support. A hug. A kind, understanding smile of sympathy.
So I told Noah that I loved him, appreciated his openness in risking those words out loud, and I offered to do whatever it took to support him in finding his own way out of those oppressive feelings. It was a moment.
My real job at home
I suddenly realized that my true job as a mother was to care more than anyone else about the interior lives of my kids. I wanted to be there to watch, encourage, and do what it took to support them in triumphing over the hurdles they faced. Noah gave me a gift. He articulated his feelings in a way that I could understand them. Lucky me! Here was an instance where Noah’s self-awareness and verbal capacity helped him—and even realizing that—that he could find his words when he felt safe and cared for—helped me know he’d write well one day.
Not all of our kids can express themselves as easily in words. We want to remember to listen beneath the words, or to help find the words for our other kids when they get that stuck. Or at minimum, we can offer a comforting response like,
“It must be so frustrating to not be able to express what’s bothering you right now.”
Noah and I talked for 45 minutes the next day about his writing project on roller coasters that he’d begun, and the change was dramatic. He felt freer to ask for help, to try my ideas, and he knew I was relaxed and happy with him. We did the work together, and I watched him go to the computer to write with relief and success. I was humbled by that. It struck me that he found a way to relieve the pressure of those “illegal” feelings, and then with my kindness and companionship, writing followed.
That may not be the exact sequence in your family. However:
Those are good too.
“I suddenly realized that my true job as a mother was to care more than anyone else about the interior lives of my kids. I wanted to be there to watch, encourage, and do what it took to support them in triumphing over the hurdles they faced. ”
Wow, this post hit home and really made me think.
My 4th child, an 8 yo dd cries almost every time we try to do any kind of writing projects. I need to try approaching it differently with her and trying to figure out what’s underlying those tears… I know poor spelling is probably part of it.
Thanks for giving me something to think about and work on today.
I wholeheartedly agree with you. My son, now 16, is struggling but doesn’t want to open up – acts angry, even defiant. He is definitely wanting to be in control, not bossed around, etc. I am used to years of being in relationship with him, really getting him. But now I don’t know how to help him. I try to love him with food he likes, by being patient and speaking softly when really I’d like to rant and rave about his behavior. I know it’ll be ok b/c he is a wonderful guy but this is tough.
I definitely enourage parents to stop trying control behavior when kids are young and get to the root of things. Be present and engaged, enter into your child’s world – their hopes, dreams, interests.
Julie, if you have enouragement for a mama’s heart right now, I really could use it.
The biggest, most challenging transition in parenting for me was entering the teen years. The withdrawal, the desire to solve their problems on their own, their inability to articulate what they wanted (at least not to me) felt so alienating after all those years of breast-feeding, cuddling on the couch, talking at length on nature walks, etc.
If you have a father in the picture who is able to be around and open, it can help. Not all of us do, and even sometimes the ones who are present are still not the “right kind” to do the job.
Keep going—keep loving, don’t be afraid to express your anger (you can do it in a healthy way—”Hey! That doesn’t feel good when you smirk and make fun of me”). Sometimes they need to bump up against our real feelings. They know when they are being manipulated, too. So check into how you feel. Share it, but don’t analyze it.
Allow for some distance to enter the relationship. That’s okay, too. This is a boy becoming a man and he will start to distrust his “mother’s voice” because he needs to create his own male voice inside.
And then, glory of glories, they do return in their 20s! It was such a distinct joy to find that out!
Hugs! Take up a sport or go back to school or start a new hobby. That helps too.
Thank you, Julie. Actually I did go back to school. I’ve waffled some with that decision but really feel like I need something right now about ME… that isn’t wrapped up in being mom.
I haven’t read your blog in a very long time…my oldest in college now and my youngest just seems so easy now..but I just read this and I just have to say I LOVE YA!!! Keep up your awesome work..love who you are, love your work and what you share!!!
That is exactly how I parent. I had to really pray and ask the Lord for wisdom when my kids were young. We were facing many challenges and enduring quite a bit, which required me to be humble in my parenting. It mattered to me that our children felt safe to come to me and tell me what was going on inside of them. As humans—young or old–we are all internalizing many aspects of life and processing what we are experiencing. Children are no different, but I think many assume they are just trying to manipulate us. I cringe when I hear that as an explanation.
Children are gifts.
They are humans like the rest of us and deserve to be understood, treated with a gentle strength and respect the same as adults would desire for themselves. They need it even more greater as they are relying on us to show them the way in how to approach life and respond to life’s challenges. We need to train up our children in love. I am not talking passivity, but grace and patience.
We are appointed mentors and role models to our children; inspirations, wise counselors.
I believe I am my children’s cheerleader, their coach, and adviser. I learned early on that getting down on my knees and looking into their eyes, heart to heart, was the most powerful and effective way to communicate. They responded the greatest at these times. They hugged me and thanked me, and over the years they have learned they can come to me about anything.
Recently, I had a battle internally feeling like I have fallen short in educating my children. My 16 year old son stopped me and told me he feels I have taught him the most greatest thing anyone could ever teach him. He has learned through me how to respond to life, how to look to God for everything, and how to cope with things that are difficult when life hands you challenges. I have taught him how to think deeply about things and to evaluate what is before him. He expressed to me how for him that surpasses anything he could ever learn in school. Because to him it is the foundation he needs for life when all else fades away. He feels grounded and nothing could be more important.
–Talk about putting a mom into tears.
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