Familiarity breeds insensitivity

Familiarity breeds insensitivity

You’ve heard the saying: “Familiarity breeds contempt.” I’m sure it’s true in some contexts, but in families, familiarity is more likely to breed insensitivity.

Our kids are like extensions of our own bodies. Mothers have carried them in their bodies, they’ve let the babies suck their breasts, they slept with them, they’ve wiped their bottoms and runny noses. We see, in our offspring, younger versions of ourselves, growing right before our very eyes.

This experience of the “externalized self” sometimes makes us forget that the child on the other side of the sofa is, in fact, a separate, independent being with unknowable motives, desires, and aptitudes. They are our best teachers of who they are. We know that in our heads, but in the moment, we sometimes forget.

Let me give you an example.

When your child clutches her new toy and refuses to let a sibling examine or hold it, a parent is more likely to say, “Don’t be so selfish” than a friend or teacher. Someone else might say, “Looks like you really love your toy! Maybe when you are finished playing with it, your brother could have a look then.”

Parents feel freer to make “summary judgments” about their children’s character in part because they feel they are admonishing some version of themselves to shape up!

Parents also make regrettable throw away comments that kids remember forever, long after the parent has forgotten them. If your son is getting ready for his first date and you notice his hair looks messy, saying “You’re going on your first date with your hair looking like that?” is the kind of remark an insecure son will not forget, even if you were sincerely trying to help. A week later you might declare that you never said it because now, in your ears, through the pained reminder from your son, you can’t imagine being that insulting!

There are some remarks parents don’t realize are insensitive. When a child is hurting over a rejection, suggesting the child examine her behavior for how she might have alienated the friend can feel like piling on.

Prophecies of doom (telling a child that the actions taken now will spell disaster later in life) don’t often inspire better actions taken. Usually they lead a child or teen to giving up before they start.

Making fun of your kids, particularly in public, never feels good. “Ha! You were never good at sports” or “She’s so dramatic. You can always count on _________ to over-react.”

Insensitivity is most often birthed out of a feeling of rare closeness (ironically). It takes some effort to remind yourself every day that the words that come from your mouth to your child’s ear have magical powers. They can become a talisman of hope and growing self-confidence, or they can become a jinx that leads to arrested development or, at the extreme end, self-loathing.

A relaxed home is where everyone wants to live—parents and kids. The best way to get there is to be mindful of how your words, your “vibe,” and your attitudes impact those in the same space. It takes a little vigilance to ensure that you don’t mistake comfortable familiarity for a license to say whatever you feel or observe about your kids, to your kids, whenever the mood strikes.

Be the voice that repeatedly affirms the wholeness of your children—that they have within all that they need to become the best version of themselves, even a best version that is different than the one you’ve (secretly) envisioned for them.

And hold back those flippant remarks whenever you feel one coming on! You’ll be glad you did.

Image by John Mallon

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