My littlest one had banged her upper jaw on the swimming pool ledge while doing push-ups at school. She had chipped a fraction of a millimeter off one of her front teeth. The chip was barely evident, but she could feel it with her tongue. Being the little catastrophizer that she was, she believed it to be much bigger than it was.
I had listened to her story, I had told her it was hardly visible, I had reassured her the pain would get better, I had even offered to take her to the dentist, but the misery just went on and on the whole day. By evening, I felt exhausted, and my will-power was all but depleted.
As she began her umpteenth round of moans, I turned around to tell her it was enough. But before I could, I saw her heart shaped face, her worry, and her fears. Something melted in me. I hugged her tight, wiping her tears, stroking her strands, asking where it felt worst, and nodding in agreement with everything she said. I offered no advice and no suggestions. Within moments the sobs subsided, and she was ready to talk about “the funniest thing ever” with beaming eyes and a sudden burst of energy.That night she wrote in her gratitude journal:
“I was grateful that you helped me with my tooth today when I told you it hurt.”
I couldn’t help smiling at her innocence and her childlike hurt. I couldn’t help wondering at all it took to calm her down. I also couldn’t help marveling at her ability to make sense of her world even when all my words failed to do so.
Old Habits Die Hard
It was a learning moment for me, but I guess old habits die hard. For it happened again a few days later. Her class was having a twin day, and she and three of her best friends had decided to dress alike. However, a shy little girl who had not found another partner wanted to be her twin. Passions, conscience, zest, and kindness were all tugging for their share of her mind. She, poor thing, was emotionally distraught.
My lesson all forgotten, I rushed forth with a solution:
“Look honey, this little girl would have no one if you don’t dress like her. The others all still have each other.”
I got the reply I should have foreseen:
“You don’t understand!! There’s no point asking you anyway…” and off she rushed upstairs.Memories of the previous week came slowly back. All I had needed to do was listen with empathy, and yet I could not contain myself. She was not asking for my solutions. As a coach, I understood this. As a parent, I was sadly delusional.
Why is it that as parents, we are incredibly quick at trying to solve our children’s problems? It may be that we have safeguarded a hunter-gatherer brain and carried it forth into the relative safety and unique challenges of the 21st century. By helicopter-parenting our way through our children’s troubles, we may be minimizing their inner hurt, but with it too their potential for emotional adaptability and psychological resilience.
I wondered whether I was hobbling development and encouraging dependence by rushing forth with solutions that barely called forth her own wisdom. Was it not this connection inwards that would guide her in the change and complexity of the world she has inherited, and provide her with the fulfillment that comes from knowing that she stayed true to her inner voice?I wondered too about the pace of life we live in, and the fact that it takes a village to raise a child. Was I providing her with the time that grandparents, aunts, uncles and other blessed souls provided me to solve my crises on my own? Or was I dragging her through my household chores, work commitments, and family responsibilities, controlling her life so that mine stayed intact?
Memories of my dear paternal grandma came flooding back. She was that peaceful presence in my life that always had time to listen to my worries and wash them away without a word. As she sat chopping betel nuts with her nutcracker, and nodding with understanding, she let me hear my own voice that was muffled in the throes of emotional disquiet.
I needed to simplify my life, yet again, so I could give my daughter back the time that was rightfully hers and that life continuously usurped as its own.
Once More With Humility
As these thoughts and images flashed through my mind, I had a sudden surge of humility. The awareness that I did not have all the answers grounded me in my own limitations. The realization that she was not asking for my solutions but simply talking out loud to find her own solution made me question my role as a parent.then, she had already guided me towards it. My role was not to control her life, but to empower her to do so for herself. She wanted me to listen, to empathize, and to be present in the littlest moments of life when she silently soaked my words and actions and stored them away in the massive storehouse where the answers she sought lay ripe for the picking.
I went back upstairs to her room and found her lying on her bed with a book. I tucked myself in beside her and she turned away. Stroking her hair despite the jerks, hugging her despite the shrugs, I made my way back into her world as a mother learns to do.
This time I listened. I listened with empathy for her world of girly in-groups and rivalries. I listened with acceptance of the fact that she may make mistakes and will need to brave them with resilience. I listened with time at my disposal, giving her all she needed to quieten her emotional noise so she could hear her inner intelligence. I listened with humility, knowing that being her mother did not mean I had the right to force my solutions onto her and crush the budding emergence of her own.That evening, I found her rummaging through the old costume bag of dress up clothes the kids had worn over the years.
“Found them!” she cried with joy as she pulled Thing 1 and Thing 2 out of the bag. My heart filled with pride, my eyes filled with tears. Not only had she decided to be the little girl’s twin, she was also making it truly special for her by sharing with her the costumes she prized the most. I may have never thought of that!
Dan Siegel, D. (2011). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. New York, NY: Random House.
Lythcott-Haims, J. (2015). How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. Henry Holt.
Nakamura, J. (2011). Contexts of Positive Adult Development. In S. Donaldson (Ed.), Applied Positive Psychology: Improving Everyday Life, Health, Schools, Work, and Society (Applied Psychology Series), (pp. 185-202). New York, NY: Routledge.
Crying at dinner courtesy of David D
Gratitude journal courtesy of Homaira Kabir
Over-protective parent? courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar
Grandmother courtesy of nicco
Reading in bed courtesy of John Flinchbaugh
Thing 1 and Thing 2 courtesy of Homaira Kabir