I have tried very hard not to grow up. Many people would probably say I have succeeded, although they might not use the term “admirably”. They’d probably be thinking more along the lines of “distressingly”, or perhaps “alarmingly.” But it has been of considerable benefit to me in my parenting journey. Empathy is an essential component of relating successfully to anyone, and nowhere is it more crucial than in a parenting or carer relationship. To be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is fundamental to understanding where they are coming from, and how they are feeling.
A friend recently asked for my perspective on an article on “unconditional parenting”. In a nutshell, the article argued (with reference to some fairly compelling empirical evidence) that children who are secure in their parents’ love, and know they are loved even when they mess up or do the wrong thing, grow up to be more secure, well adjusted adults. The article claims that conditional love, whether in the form of “positive parenting” – praise when they do the right thing – or “negative parenting” – withdrawal of love when they do the wrong thing or don’t measure up – both damage children and lead them to feel insecure and inherently unlovable.
It’s a somewhat frightening idea – I don’t know a parent who can claim never to have shouted in moments of stress, or when the kids do something incredibly frustrating, dangerous, or just plain wrong. I shout far more often than I should – being human, there are times when I lose my temper. And I know my daughter feels less loved when I do that – she says so. There is nothing more heart rending than being in the middle of a screaming tantrum (parents have tanties, just as much as kids do!) and having your 6 year old look at you tearfully and say “it feels like you don’t love me anymore.”
The idea of deliberately withdrawing your love, for any reason, is anathema to me as a parent. Yet it obviously feels to my daughter as though I do that when I am angry. And it’s not realistic to aim never to get angry. I am certainly working on it, I don’t like being a tanty monster. But I am human. There will inevitably be times when I lose my temper.
There are times when it is appropriate to be angry – perhaps even important to express your anger. If a child has just done something dangerous, or potentially dangerous, to themselves or the people around them, it is important to make it very clear that a line has been crossed, that this behaviour was inappropriate, dangerous, and should never happen again. There are many other times when children provoke our anger, and I believe it is important to be genuine with your children, to express your emotions without making your children the brunt of them.
That’s a fundamentally difficult thing to do. To express my anger without wielding it as a weapon is something I find remarkably difficult, and I suspect I am not alone. There have been in times when I have been raging, and suddenly focused on Chloe’s face, and put myself in her shoes – 185 cm of raging adult towering over her, clearly out of control. How terrifying must that be to a 6 year old?
My own guilt and anger at my failure to control myself make my emotions even stronger and harder to control. Still, I do what I can and work to handle my emotions better. My goal is for those angry moments to be learning experiences, rather than permanent scars.
The key, I think, is to differentiate between the behaviour and the child. “I am angry about your behaviour. I am very disappointed in your behaviour, but I am not disappointed in you.” That’s a fine distinction that is pretty difficult for kids to understand – obviously I am not making it clear to Chloe with any success. But then, as my friend Tim recently pointed out, it’s a difficult point even for adults to understand. Certainly when my husband is angry (or more to the point when I think he is angry), I automatically assume it must be with me. I start going through a frantic review of my recent behaviour – all the things I have done, all the things I have left undone – to try to work out what I have done, and how to fix it. Then I get defensive, about something I am only guessing is a problem, and get angry with him for getting upset with me about it – all before I am even sure he is upset, you understand. Certainly without knowing for sure what the problem is – if, indeed, there is one! I can have the whole fight inside my own head, without his input. The results of this are often something of a surprise to my supremely rational Engineer husband.
I believe that this is a learned response, and it is one I am anxious not to teach my kids. The best strategy I can manage so far is to debrief afterwards, without fail. Never waste a teachable moment, as someone wise once said, and messing up is always a teachable moment. While I struggle to learn better ways of dealing with my emotions, the fact of the matter is that I will sometimes mess up, regardless of how emotionally skilled and wise I manage to become. So will my kids. Learning from those mistakes, and helping my kids to learn from them, may be the best education I can give them.