“Mom, I’m hungry.” “No you’re not, you just ate dinner.”
“Mom, I’m cold.” “You’re fine, you have a jacket on.”
“Mom, I’m scared in the dark.” “There’s nothing in your room to be afraid of.”
How many times have you uttered one of those phrases or something similar? Chances are several times… today.
I didn’t think much of my “go-to” responses to my children’s pleas until I read a parenting article that turned everything on its head. Per usual, I can’t remember what the hell the article was or where I read it, but the fundamental directive stuck.
Those exchanges probably look relatively harmless, but the underlying message being sent to your child is, “You don’t know how you feel.”
How many of us, as adults, suffer from an inability to decide what is best for ourselves? We turn to others for guidance or enter into complete paralysis when faced with a choice. Many of us (me, me!) languish in decision fatigue- we weigh all of our options, spending hours researching, afraid to pull the trigger and realize later that we’ve chosen poorly. ( I mean, what if I don’t look at all 565 pages of rugs on Overstock? What if the best one is on page 565??) By the time we’ve invested umpteen energy we are “fatigued” and overwhelmed, with compromised judgment for deciding anything at all.
We are the product of this type of parenting, through no fault of those who raised us. They were simply doing what they were taught via their own childhood experiences. Should we really trust the self-knowledge of a four-year-old anyway?
Yes and no. The importance of our responses has less to do with the actual thing occurring and more to do with what’s being intimated to our child via what we say. Two things are unfolding: We’re disregarding their ability to know themselves and their own feelings, but we are also devaluing them. If every time you expressed that you were cold, your husband responded to you with, “You’re fine, you have a coat on,” you’d go ape shit on his ass after the second time (more likely the first). You’d feel about the size of a crumb after a couple weeks of being consistently discounted.
Imagine how our babies feel. (Heart currently breaking.)
Does this mean that I have to cater to my child’s every whim? No. It does mean that instead of glossing over his thoughts and feelings, I should take a moment to listen and discuss. If he says he’s hungry 30 minutes after dinner (five minutes if you’re River), I can say something like, “Okay, I hear you. I understand you’re hungry. I noticed you didn’t eat much of your meal. Do you think that might be why you’re still hungry? Would you like to finish your dinner?” To which he for sure will reply, “No, I’m full of my dinner. I want a banana.” I’d then have to let him know that at our house we don’t have snacks if we haven’t finished our meal. Same outcome, different approach, and it maybe took an extra minute. But, he felt heard and his feelings were not ignored. In short, he recognized his value.
Life is busy. It's easy to fall into the habit of treating our children’s requests like nuisances when we are rushed and trying to accomplish more than we can handle. We love them SO much, and we’re doing all of this business for them, but we don’t want them to think that they are nuisances. A shift in response can make a world of difference in the confidence of your now child and future grown-up. The little things count for more than we can often imagine. Deliberating over a rug is a relatively harmless offense, but the consequences of a child who doesn't have faith in her own ability to monitor herself can be devastating, as a wee one and as an adult.
During childhood, I remember being as unimpressed with my parents' alleged acumen as my children often are with mine, assuming I had all the answers and feeling extremely frustrated when told otherwise. I can also identify with, at times, feeling like a dismissed and insecure child as an adult. We’re all souls of the same size, mature upon arrival, housed in bodies of different statures, controlled by brains of varying development and just looking for love, connection… acceptance. Reminding ourselves of that innate sense of being and our mutual desires that bind us together, big and small, is an amazing way to behold our children through a more empathetic lens, offering them the respect that they, like us, not only yearn for but wholeheartedly deserve.