Welcome to The Parent Space where I will periodically post some of my thoughts and practices around parenting and my work with children. Please see my book Raising Parents Raising Kids.
Some years back our family was taking a walk and we were discussing what to do for my upcoming birthday. I wanted a mellow birthday, dinner in a restaurant with family and a few friends. My seven year-old son whined, "I'm only going if we can go to Fonda Rosa or Sushi Land." He was pouting and not looking at all enthused. I said, "I don't really want Mexican food and I don't want to go to Sushi Land, and since it is my birthday I get to choose where I want to go." He countered, "Well, I have nothing to eat at those places. Can we play a game at the restaurant?"
"It doesn't seem like you want to go. So I am dis-inviting you. You aren't invited, you don't have to come at all." As those last words tumbled out of my mouth, I wished I could have gathered them up and taken them back. He immediately fell crying to the ground, terribly hurt. As he lay rolled up in a ball on the grass, I realized I had hurt his feelings. I was unaware that I had been hurt by his grumpy mood. I wanted him to happily accommodate my request on my birthday. However, instead of expressing my hurt, I hurt him by dis-inviting him.
I took him in my arms and apologized for hurting him. I explained that I was hurt and then suddenly he began to shriek. At that moment, a bee had stung him. He hadn't been stung by a bee yet and feared them terribly. We knew people who had had allergic reactions and brushes with death so he was terrified.
The back of his leg was reddening and became a little swollen. His screaming persisted – his throat obviously wasn't closing up. Then it hit me. "Theo you can sting people. You can even give Mama a sting. Watch." I made my fingers like a bee buzzing around and then landed on my arm and said, "I don't want to come to your birthday dinner." He stopped crying and I told him to try it. He made his fingers like a bee, landed on my arm, and gave me a flick with his finger. "I don't want to come Mama."
"Yes, you can do that Theo. You can hurt Mama sometimes. It is okay. It is okay that sometimes you have to do something that might hurt someone. We don't mean to hurt or sting someone, but sometimes you might want to do something that is different than what they would like and it might hurt them. And that is okay." I continued, "And when they get hurt, what can you do?" He then kissed my arm where his finger flick had stung. "Yes, it hurts me a little that you don't want to come, but I understand. Thanks for the kiss. I know you love me."
It is a profound learning to discover that you can hurt your parent and that the relationship remains intact and that there is no consequence. In fact, many of us adults don't really live what is inside of us for fear that we will hurt those we love and lose the relationship. As a result we adapt in ways that aren't really good for us.
I am not advocating for being hurtful and cruel intentionally. But hurt happens in life. Most of the time, we hurt others out of our own unconsciousness and feelings of being hurt ourselves. Remember I was slightly hurt by Theo's mood around my birthday and since I didn't notice it, I retaliated and hurt him in kind. That is often how hurt happens. Or take Theo. He was moody and unintentionally hurtful to me around my birthday dinner because he couldn't tell me directly that he didn't want to come. Therefore, it came out in a way that was whiney and disinterested. If he could have said, "Mama it really isn't so fun for me at restaurants with grown ups and I would really like to stay home. Maybe we can do something together just you and I for your birthday." This statement wouldn't hurt at all. I would miss his company, but would certainly understand. And even if it did hurt, that kind of a hurt is the beginning of relationship, not the end result.
Hurt is one station on the relationship train, actually an opportunity to engage and get to know more about each other. This is just as relevant for children as for us all. Hardly any of us grew up with good role models who could engage in conflict and get something out of it that enriched our relationship.
Children come up against a terrible inner conflict when they begin to realize that their own independent thoughts and feelings can sometimes be different than their parents. As parents we are their first loves, their first authority figures, and hopefully their first sense of safety. When they assert their own direction and find that it is different than ours, it can threaten their most basic sense of security. Thus, letting a child know that it is okay to give us a little sting, and that it doesn't threaten the basic thread of our relationship is essential. Furthermore, we teach our children invaluable skills when we model the ability to travel through and get to know the many stops on the relationship train of life.