There I stood in the check-out line with my four year-old in the grocery cart, wailing at the top of his lungs and screaming at me. My crime? Taking away the bag of cookies he had used to hit me in the face. I was so embarrassed, fervently hoping that not a single one of the thousands of people who have heard me speak about parenting was in that store at that moment.
Kindergarten drop off from August ‘til November: dozens of little kindies laughed, played, and chattered before they lined up when the bell rang. My little Palmer? Tears. The saddest little face. Clinging to his mama. I was sad for him and embarrassed for me. Had I done something wrong that led to my kid being overwhelmed by this simple ritual?
The family was all bundled up, ready to get in line for the ski lift when 8 year-old Palmer told me he hadn’t brought his helmet. This, after being told so many times to put his helmet in the duffel bag! I was so irritated that he hadn’t listened to me and mad that I had to miss out on skiing in order to take him to a shop to rent one.
High school: I got a call that my 17 year-old had been speeding through our neighborhood in his car, lost control and took out a neighbor’s mailbox and several plants and tore up the lawn of another neighbor. It was sobering to pull up to the house surrounded by three police cars. Looking at the distraught expression on the face of my kid who was an Eagle Scout and exemplary student, my heart broke. He had fallen for the goading of his younger brother and taken the challenge to see how fast he could drive. I was embarrassed because it was hard for the neighbors to miss all those police cars parked in front of our house.
If I could go back now and whisper into the ear of the younger, embarrassed version of myself, here’s what I would say: “Oh, honey. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t label these actions as ‘wrong,’ ‘bad,’ or ‘misbehavior.’ Don’t take on the weight of your kids’ painful ways of learning. Instead, hold space. See their mistakes and big emotions as opportunities for them to learn.”
From my work as a parent therapist and parent educator, I see it all the time where parents are mad and embarrassed…. or worried and embarrassed…. when their kids learn stuff the hard way. When we carry the weight of our kids’ poor choices, we end up being stressed and mad at them. This leads to disconnection. It puts the focus on our emotions instead of where it belongs, which is on our kids’ learning.
When our kids do stuff that upsets us, we have three jobs:
Manage our own emotions without laying them on our kids. When a kid’s “consequence” is parental anger and emotion, they’re being robbed of the valuable life experience of solving their own problems.
Provide our child with nurturing and support to manage their big emotions. It’s easy to think that big, loud emotions are ‘misbehavior’ and that their sadness is intolerable. But it’s more helpful to love them through their big feelings so they learn to tolerate their own discomfort with a sweet internal voice, not a critical one.
Lovingly hand the self-inflicted situation to our kids and let them practice for the grown-up world by solving their own problems. Hold space for them to learn in a supportive environment. We let them spend their time or money or be inconvenienced to clean up messes they’ve made, just like they will need to do in the grown-up world.
Hold space, don’t carry the weight.
Looking back at the scenarios I listed above, I’ll share how those three jobs of a parent might play out. As you read, please bear in mind that I’m sharing the examples I feel ok about sharing. But trust me, with six kids, there were plenty of times that I didn’t manage my emotions well and I did get stressed and mad about the kids’ behaviors! We are all imperfect parents.
Cookie attack and screaming in the grocery store: I put the assault-weapon-cookies back on the shelf and did my best to have compassion for how upset my 4 year-old was to lose his treat.
Tearful kindergarten drop-off: I nurtured my little guy through every one of those sad mornings and enlisted the help of his kind teacher to provide some extra hand-holding and TLC until he was finally able to tolerate the separation from his mommy. I also worked with my therapist/parenting coach on helping him through this challenge without shaming him or showing frustration.
8 year-old without a ski helmet: I rented him a helmet and had him pay me back. It would have been quicker and easier to lecture and call it good; however, there was much more learning that came from working it off with paid chores and handing over his paltry allowance for a couple of months.
Reckless 17 year-old driver: I hugged him and expressed my relief that no one was hurt. Then I served as an as-needed consultant while he navigated facing the neighbors, cleaning up the mess, repairing and replanting, and dealing with court. It cost him quite a bit of his hard-earned money and time so there was ample learning opportunity without any need for drama from his mom.
When you can, hold space instead of carrying the weight of your kids’ mistakes. Train them that they can come to you in their hard times, trusting that you won’t lecture, yell or punish. Let them carry the weight of their mistakes so that when they are older and facing challenges, they have a voice in their head that says, “I can handle this… I’ve been through hard stuff before. I know how to work through my problems.” Trust me, this is a valuable internal dialogue for the teen years and beyond.