by Janet Lansbury
Parenting can be a humbling and embarrassing experience, especially when we find ourselves at the mercy of our children’s guilelessness. Young children say and do what they feel. While this instinct is endearing, even admirable, it can also be a bit awkward in the moment when, for example, our daughter spots a topless man in the market and shouts, “He’s so hairy!” (Been there.)
The most dreaded embarrassment parents face is when their child, purposely or accidentally, hurts another child. Naturally, we are mortified, and our children pick up on our intense dismay before they even have the chance to feel their own response. Then we become desperate for our child to say, “I’m sorry.” We rely on those two words to resolve the situation and help us save face with the other parent.
But our child is bewildered. How did moving that boy out of the way make him fall?
Children do not instantly absorb a situation or respond automatically as adults do. They take a little longer to digest an experience and process it. A child might be just beginning to put together what has happened, when suddenly she is enveloped in enormous pressure emanating from her mom or dad. “Tell the boy you’re sorry,” they say in a tone that makes the girl most uncomfortable. She wants to please, but forcing the words would feel completely false, and faking emotion does not come naturally to a child.
Over the years I have heard many of these forced apologies. I understand the parent’s need for them, but I have to admit they always make me squirm. To truly apologize requires empathy, and empathy develops in its own way and time, at a different pace for each child. So, often the child is not developmentally ready to understand, much less own the words she’s saying.
Recently a client of mine was walking in San Francisco with her young son, who asked if he could go into a barber shop to get his hair cut. She tried to convince her boy that his dad would cut his hair when they got home, but he had his heart set on doing it in the city. “Why not?” she decided.
They went in, and a very sweet barber asked the boy how he’d like his hair cut. And then he cut it.
As soon as they left the shop, the boy burst into tears. “He didn’t cut it it the way I wanted! I kept trying to tell him, but he was talking all the time. He didn’t listen to me!” The boy buried his head in his mom’s belly and cried more. “Tell Dad to fix it when we get home.” The tears kept flowing. Slowly, they made their way back to the car and headed home. For the first 10 minutes of the ride, the boy continued to cry, and Mom just listened. And then something amazing happened! The boy quieted, his tone switched back to its normal cheerful pitch, and he asked to put on music, which he sang along to for the rest of the ride.
When he got home, he did ask Dad to fix his hair, but he asked with a smile and was able to calmly explain what had happened. The rest of the evening this little boy was a joy.
New research suggests it’s how parents talk to their infants, not just how often, that makes a difference for language development.
Somewhere in the ballpark of a year old, the boy said something unintelligible—maybe baby babbling, maybe real words muffled by pancake—and gave a high-pitched giggle. He waved a tiny-syrup smeared arm in my direction.
“He’s such a flirt,” his mother said apologetically.
“He is,” cooed my own mother, who can befriend anything that will stand still long enough. “Hiiiiii.” She kicked me under the table.
“Oh—hi,” I said. I waved back. But men are fickle creatures, and our neighbor only frowned, turned around and sat back down to his food.
The point of the story is not to say that a toddler was unimpressed by my flirtation skills, though I can’t say I haven’t considered the worrisome implications of this fact. No, the point of the story is that talking to small children is hard. In my younger years, I went through phases of shying away from adults who tried to engage me in conversation. Now, the feeling has inverted: As an adult, I am anxious and tongue-tied when speaking to little kids.
Very rarely does one sentence have immediate impact on me.
Very rarely does one sentence change the way I interact with my family.
But this one did. It was not from Henry Thoreau or some renowned child psychologist. It was a comment from kids themselves. And if I’ve learned anything on this “Hands Free” journey, it is that children are the true experts when it comes to “grasping what really matters.”
Here are the words that changed it all:
“… College athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great, that amplified their joy during and after a ballgame. Their overwhelming response: ‘I love to watch you play.’”
The life-changing sentence came at the beginning of an article entitled, “What Makes a Nightmare Sports Parent and What Makes a Great One,” which described powerful insights gathered over three decades by Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller of Proactive Coaching LLC. Although I finished reading the entire piece, my eyes went back and searched for that one particular sentence; the one that said, “I love to watch you play.”
I read it exactly five times. And then I attempted to remember all past verbal interactions I had with my kids at the conclusion of their extracurricular activities.
Upon completion of a swim meet, a music recital, a school musical, or even a Sunday afternoon soccer game, had I ever said, “I like to watch you play”?
I could think of many occasions when I encouraged, guided, complimented and provided suggestions for improvement. Did that make me a nightmare sports parent? No, but maybe sometimes I said more than was needed.
My greatest fear is that I’ll fail my kids. I agree with Jacqueline Kennedy, who said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” I’d bungled parenting. I felt like a failure.
We did our best to transition out of being an intact, whole family gracefully and respectfully. We ate Sunday dinners together, my ex moved into a house seven doors away, and we spoke only kindly of each other. None of that eased what my children were going through. They were each suffering in their own ways. I resigned myself to doing the best I could as the new kind of parent I was: the failing kind.