How many of you parents heard a little voice something like this somewhere in the vicinity of 9 1/2 to 10 months before you had your child:
Voice: Hey! Hey you! You! Up there! Pssssst. Down here, down below, you know, in your reproductive region! Hey listen, I’m an egg, and I’ve been hanging around here in this ovary for darn near thirty years and frankly, I’m ready to bust on up outta here. There are a lot of big-headed, long-tailed fish in some sea out there and I want at ‘em. I want to be a baby! A person! Birth, diapers, elementary school, pimples, prom… All that stuff. I WANT IT ALL! LET ME OUTTA HERE!!!
(For Dads, please make necessary adjustments. If you’ve had seventh grade health class I shouldn’t have to do it for you.)
In other words, when your children are shouting at you at a decibel score approximating a sonic boom that “I DIDN’T ASK TO BE BORN, YA KNOW,” I have the perfect answer for you. Slowly, quietly, and calmly tell them “You’re right.” They’ve got you on this one, hands down. Not only did they not ask to be born, but if they had asked, what do you think the odds are they would have picked you to be their parents? I will never ask my (adult) children this question because I can’t bear to hear their answers, but I believe that if we all parent with that question in mind, we might do a better job.
What if my child could choose his mom? His dad? What about the way I parent my child would make him/her want to choose me? If they had it to do over, would they choose me? If you ask yourself this question honestly, it can be pretty uncomfortable sometimes, right? Let’s look at how we can make just a few basic changes to improve our odds at being the parents our kids would choose all over again.
1. Remember that your children are separate people; not your appendages.
There is a phenomenon that happens at some point to parents, hopefully, when they suddenly look at their children and it hits them: “That’s a person!” It’s not “my kid” or “my” this or “my” that; it’s a walking, talking, live human being with a mind and a will and a personality of his/her own! What a revelation! It is a beautiful moment when we can really look at the children we have been privileged to raise and say, “Wow, this is a really cool person! I’d like to get to know them more!”
I challenge all of us as parents, whether our kids are eight or eighty, to look at them as if we have just met them for the first time. Regard them with the same curiosity and wonder that we would a celebrity who walked through our front door because really and truly, your children should be the celebrities of your life. Start today trying to really SEE your children. Pretend you don’t know them (because chances are you DON’T know them as well as you THINK you do) and learn about them. Ask them questions about what they think and feel about things, and then LISTEN.
2. Honor your children’s experiences and opinions.
You don’t have to agree with your children to honor the fact that they have their own experience of life and their own opinions about life, religion, relationships, and even you! It rankles me when I hear parents talking about raising their children to be just like they are; to have exactly the same beliefs and values and politics. Really?!? I know this line of thought is going to hit a few nerves in some readers, but frankly, this is MY opinion so you don’t have to agree!
Yes, our children are our progeny, but they are not clones designed to carry forth our images of our selves. They are from us, of us, but NOT us. Let’s celebrate our children’s differences and hope that they can embrace who and how they are because WE taught them how to love their own unique selves. I have more than once heard a parent say to their child “Oh you don’t believe that!” Next time, let’s try “That’s interesting! Tell me more!” What a difference. One teaches shame and the other invites exploration of self and provides a great opportunity for sharing differing ideas. We can teach our children that it is okay to disagree and to be different; indeed it is what makes life interesting!
3. Be human first, and a parent second.
I know the old saying “Kids don’t need their parents to be friends, they need them to be parents.” That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about being accessible to your children as a human being with feelings, foibles, and (something else that starts with f… AH!) frailties. Why is this so important? Because our children have feelings, foibles, and frailties too, and if we can be comfortable allowing them to see ours, and to see how we cope with them, our children will not only be more comfortable in their own skin, but they will be more empathic toward others.
Empathy is a big thing. It’s a sign of strength of character and of the ability to relate with people in an honest and authentic way. Isn’t that what we want for our children? We try to teach them to be honest, and the best way to do that is to be honest ourselves; honest with our words, our actions, and our emotions.
When you slip up at something, maybe lose your temper or drop the ‘f’ bomb when you shouldn’t, try letting yourself admit to your child that you are human and that sometimes when you get angry you don’t always handle your feelings very well. Talk to him/her about how you are feeling and how you would like to have handled your anger. Let him/her share in problem solving about better ways to handle stress.
You: Dude! (Assuming that you are a few decades younger than me or that you actually named your child “Dude.” Otherwise replace with appropriate name, nickname, or Gen X or Y vernacular. I’ve lost track really, I remember when “Man” was pretty radical.) I really screwed up just then! I was really frustrated about losing my car keys and I started to yell at you and it wasn’t your fault at all! First of all, I am really sorry and I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings. I lost the keys myself because I was in too big of a hurry. How about I slow down a bit and let’s see if we can come up with a plan together to find my keys, and then maybe we can come up with some ideas to help me keep track of them. How does that sound?
That’s it. Try just making these few basic changes and see if it doesn’t make a huge difference in your relationship with your child. Not to mention your relationship with yourself. I have found over my many years of being a parent that when I do it well I like myself a whole lot better than when I suck at it, to be blunt. And we all have our shining, and not so shining moments. So get real, get human, and get to know your kids! After all, THEY DIDN’T ASK TO BE BORN, YA KNOW!
Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC, is a therapist who specializes in individual, family, and couples and marriage counseling in Denver, CO. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center.