Somewhere between the ages of 7 or 8 I started my list. It was a running list of all the things that I wouldn’t do to my children when I became a parent.
- I wouldn’t scream at them in front of their friends.
- I wouldn’t make them eat food they didn’t like.
- I wouldn’t make them eat their dinner in silence because they wanted to watch the news.
- I wouldn’t make them feel stupid if they didn’t get an A on every test.
At the top of the list: I wouldn’t say things that would hurt their feelings. My feelings got hurt a lot. From my father cavalierly saying that I had no talent to my ballet teacher mother saying I danced like a cow, it was like throwing spaghetti at a wall, those words stuck a lifetime.
So it was very important to me that I not be “that parent.” Because I didn’t like the parenting models I had, I read a lot of books on the right way to parent. Here are two of my favorites.
“If a toddler is touching things they are not supposed to on a coffee table, instead of yelling, “NO! Don’t touch the Lalique bowl,” you say as calmly as possible, ” The Lalique bowl needs to be left alone.” You laugh, but I did follow this rule, and it worked for me.
One that didn’t work so well was the suggestion of how to handle potty talk. In the book I read, it said to put the offending child in the bathroom, set the timer for 60 seconds, and tell them they can shout all the potty words they want for the next minute. The book assured that the child would become bored after 20 seconds and would soon associate potty language with boredom. Ha!
Shortly after reading that advice my son and his best buddy Aaron were doing what five-year -old boys do, and I saw an opportunity to try out my bathroom potty talk parenting skills. I explained the rules to the two boys, put them in the bathroom together and set the timer. At about 10 seconds in, I realized my strategic error. This was not supposed to be a team activity. As the volume escalated and the boys started competing for the most outrageous and creative potty terms they knew– which was quite impressive–I realized what an epic fail I had created. Instead of thwarting the potty talk I had accelerated it to an entirely new level.
When my daughter was born, I wanted to make sure she always knew she was loved for the person she was. I wanted to protect her from a world of hurt. After it was confirmed that she had extremely poor eyesight and would be cross-eyed, I remember going to the movie, The Fisher King and bursting into tears at the end of this scene.
Anybody special in your life?
Does it look like there’s
anybody special in my life?
You don’t have to say it like that.
It’s not so, you know, crazy an idea.
You’re healthy. You have a steady job.
You’re not cross-eyed.
Nope, there is nobody special.
What I was so afraid of was that people would be mean to her because of her eyes. I thought the children would make fun of her. It never happened. And the fact that she had different eyes was never the burden I imagined it would be.
When she was five, I had taken her and a neighbor to one of those indoor playgrounds that were so popular in the 1990s. On the way home, the young boy said to Berit, “Hey, you want see me do something really gross? I can cross my eyes!”
I held my breath, wondering what my daughter would do. I looked in the rearview mirror and watched her take off her glasses simultaneously saying, “That’s nothing. I can do that just by taking off my glasses.” She then stared at her friend and the two of them giggled and giggled. Crisis averted.
Fast forward to a Friday night in Nashville. It was the weekend before my daughter’s 26th birthday. I was in Nashville attending the BAM conference. Berit came along to celebrate with a birthday dinner at Husk. She was not happy.
I could tell she wanted to say something and from experience I knew it was something I probably wouldn’t want to hear. A pattern had started between us that when we were on trips, my daughter felt comfortable sharing things that had been bottled up from her youth.
So I was not completely taken by surprise when I could see she was struggling to get the words out. When she did, I sat there numb. I looked at her pained face and her accusation, “How could you say that to an eight-year-old?”
I remember the conversation from 20 years ago. I remember the context. Three seconds. That’s about all it took to scar her. Three seconds that I didn’t give a second thought for nearly 20 years. Three seconds that haunted her for 20 years.
What can you say? Sorry is certainly not adequate. “I didn’t mean it?” Well, at the time, I did. She knows it, I know it, and to deny it would be worse.
And yet, if I could take it back, I would. I would never intentionaly inflict that kind of pain on anyone, let alone my daughter. It’s one thing to suspect someone feels a certain way, it’s another to hear them say it. Words stick. Thoughts and beliefs can evolve. When you haven’t said it, you still have time to change your mind in silence.
I kept another list after I became a parent. It was a list of the kind of adults I hoped my kids would become. I wanted them:
- To be kind
- To have good manners
- To have a strong-work ethic
- To be a good friend
At the top of that list, I hoped they would be the kind of adults who felt comfortable telling me things I didn’t necessarily want to hear. I believed then and I believe now, that those conversations are the true sign of a close relationship.
More than anything, I want to be the kind of parent that my kids didn’t mind spending some time with. That they don’t dread having to be with. That they actually look forward to seeing.
Time will tell whether that goal is achieved. For the time being I want to continue having those tough talks. They humble. They hurt. Most of all, they give me hope.
One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.