Understanding child experience shapes parent response

Our language and posture help give a shape to our children’s wild, big and shapeless emotions. To a child, his emotions can feel bigger than him. I want to be clear and distinguish between understanding and permissiveness. I think when we truly register our child’s experience, we often cannot just allow certain behaviors. Understanding is NOT endorsement. Ex. If a 3 year old insists on hitting her newborn baby sister, this cannot be permitted. But, her parent can still register the pain of jealousy that she feels. When a parent really registers the pain of jealousy, he or she uses a language of understanding that gives the child a building block for growth. It may be words of understanding, a hug, some extraordinary and momentary flexibility—it depends on the moment, the child, the parent’s sensibilities—none of these examples are prescriptive, just possibilities of a parent’s expression of understanding the child. Over time as the child feels more understood and understands something more about her jealous feelings, there is less of a need to act on them. Psychologist, Martha Harris said it this way, “Understanding with firmness leaves [him] freer to develop a more realistic conscience less prompted by fear and more influenced by care and concern for others.” A four-year-old boy was having a hard time getting to sleep at night, acting up and resisting any efforts to keep him in his room and his bed. His mother was pregnant and especially tired at the end of each day, needing to rest at night. This left the boy’s father in charge of bedtime routines for a season. If we consider the boy’s point of view, there are so many wild and shapeless thoughts and feelings that could come up during this season of life—“mommy has a special baby in her tummy? What about me? What’s going to happen to me? What’s mommy doing now? She’s tired? Cause of me?” I believe the boy’s father had an inkling of this boy’s experience, which left him in the position to want to lay in bed with his son and sing blues songs together. This experience of singing became an important part of their routine together and I believe will get stored up as a resource for this boy as he grows up. I think this example is particularly beautiful because of the father’s choice of the blues—it implicitly acknowledged the boy’s pain in a way that connected them to do something creative and ultimately enjoyable. This father did not consciously think of a technique, he was merely responding from his own sensibilities after registering his son’s experience. When we extend a hand to our children and say, “let’s do this together”, we help develop resources within them. An internal helping hand. A part of them that can be helpful to them in the future. Sometimes we can feel stuck in power struggles with our children—it’s hard to offer a helping hand when we feel more compelled to have the upper hand. Being parents can often remind us of having been children, sometimes in a helpful way and sometimes it can get in the way of seeing our children’s point of view. So, in the process of registering we are all the time having to sift through what we feel, what we imagine, what might be our child’s point of view, what limits are required, what understanding is required. It’s one of our principal challenges—the good news is that we get better at it. Often, when our children have taken some steps backwards we worry that helping them could be indulging their dependence and jeopardizing their independence. In fact, sometimes being extra dependent for a little bit is what they need to feel a little more sure of themselves. As we can sometimes recognize as adults, the road to independence has come by way of dependence. As parents, we can often dismiss our instincts and can minimize the power of our understanding. We can assume that “a better parent would know the answer”. You are the best parent for your child.