August 10, 2017
"You disgust me.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“This is so embarrassing.”
“Why can’t you just behave?!”
OK. I get it. Parenting is (really) hard sometimes. I have yet to meet a parent who hasn’t said something in the heat of anger or overwhelm that she or he regrets – sometimes deeply regrets.
As Dr. Laura Markham, founder of Aha! Parenting and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, reminds us, the very first task of parenting is regulating our own emotional world. This isn’t easy for most of us, and it is especially challenging if we grew up in homes where shaming words were normative or the energy of anger was present in the very air we breathed.
If only we could listen more as parents. If only we could talk less and listen more, especially in times of deep hurt or frustration. While we can always apologize and do our best to repair ruptures in parent-child attachment (and this is such an important skill to model), we can’t take back shaming or demeaning words. They can’t be unsaid. They live on in the memories of our children.
Is it any wonder that sometimes little ones cover their ears?
My parents loved me. I never doubted that as a girl. Their love for me was rock solid. Usually when they were provoked due to my childhood antics – acting out, frustrations, or just plain wildness – their critical words were measured.
“I will always love you, Amy,” my mom used to say. “But I won’t love everything you do.”
This helped me separate between what it means to love a person and what it means to rightfully critique her or his actions. Such a teaching was medicine to my soul. I would repeat these words silently to help me remember her love when other words were spoken...when she wasn’t so calm...when harder, more shaming words came from a deeper place of hurt within her being.
“It would be better if you had never been born.”
This was my mother’s response to my heartfelt query about how she would feel if I ever left the Mormon Church. She loved her church; it was true beyond measure. To imagine her eldest child would willfully leave the gospel triggered a deep and unimaginable sorrow. Suddenly, my actions were very much connected to my being. Something I could choose to do could displace not just her love but also the value of my existence. It would be better if you had never been born.
As children, we don’t yet have the filters to make sense of the fact that occasionally, even the best-intentioned among us lose our moorings and speak before thinking."
I imagine all of us can conjure up words our parents have said that cut to the bone. As children, we don’t yet have the filters to make sense of the fact that occasionally, even the best-intentioned among us lose our moorings and speak before thinking. While it’s normal to feel angry, or deeply hurt, due to a child’s behavior -- it’s harmful to shame a child with words that conflate behavior with personhood. When children are shamed, they internalize critiques deeply and are at risk for seeing themselves as inherently defective. As an adult, I can now understand and make room for my mother’s pain. As a child, her words haunted me.
As parents, we would be wise to embrace all of ourselves -- our shadow and our light. We are wise to befriend all of the human emotions -- even difficult ones like regret, hurt, and anger. Yet, it isn’t wise to act on everything we feel. Living with integrity as a parent means acting on the values that support what is healthy in life. It doesn’t mean acting on every strongly felt emotion. Yes, sometimes a child’s behavior is really out of line. Sometimes it may even feel “disgusting” or “embarrassing.” And sometimes, in the hardest and darkest place of a parent’s soul, a child’s actions may make one wish that she or he had never been born. Nonetheless, we are called to love, nurture, connect, and guide – even on very hard days.
So, the next time you see your little one cover her ears as you go on and on -- stop. First, stop. Then, listen -- listen to yourself. What is going on inside of you? Take a few deep breaths to regulate your own emotional world. Then, choose to act only on the feelings that will lift up the good in the little one you love. And when you slip up, model what it means to apologize. Learn to lean on support from healthy family and friends. Move out of shame-based parenting.
Most importantly, in such moments, remember four simple words:
Talk less, listen more.