I’m watching my firstborn on his first day in first grade. A gleam in his eye, his cheeks are flushed… he is excited. Standing in the first row, waiting for his name to be called. I notice that he is afraid; he is seeking eye contact with me, my validation for his feelings, my presence. This is a special moment for him and me. Thoughts rush through my mind, my eyes well up with tears and strong emotions overwhelm me.
I see my daughter; my little daughter; all grown up. In a moment the bus will take her away from me, from the house to which she was accustomed for 18 years, far from my reach. I see the joy in her eyes, she’s going to study in a very good place, a college she wanted to go to so much. She is excited, lively, energetic, and I observe her. Proud, afraid, sad, but also happy and excited. I embrace her and do not let go.
In their book Everyday blessing, Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn ask whether we should wait for special moments in the lives of our children and our own lives to notice them, or do these special moments come along more often than we think? Can these moments appear and be available to us at any moment if only if we tune in to them and consciously choose to direct attention to our children, to ourselves and to the moment?
Parenting is by far the most demanding, complex, and stressful job there is, but at the same time it is also the most important and influential on the future of our children. Out of all roles, we step into this one with virtually no preparation, with little support, but with very high expectations. We wish to succeed in shaping their personality, their social skills, their academic success, etc. It is no wonder that this combination gives rise to so much helplessness and insecurity that affects our reactions.
This helplessness has turned us into consumers of advice, and shaped the discourse around parenting so that it deals mainly with issues such as boundaries, authority and leadership. The necessity of boundaries and authority in education is not in doubt, but it is important to remember that all these are only part of our role as parents and have only a partial role in the education process. It is anywhere between difficult to impossible to educate our children when we are not attentive to their feelings, thoughts and needs, and to ourselves. When striving for attentiveness, the most significant matter is not perfect parenting (if there is such a thing at all). It’s not about “doing it the right way”, but rather about the authentic experience, being attentive to your child, to yourselves and to the current moment. Our main idea here is opening up to your child, their experiences, pleasant and unpleasant as one. It is about deliberate shift from a state of distraction, to a proactive state of listening, nonjudgmental and uncritical attention, and an understanding of what we and our child are going through.
One way to do this is through the practice of mindfulness techniques. By being attentive to this current moment, we as parents are able to identify the thoughts, emotions and feelings that arise with regards to our children, and react in a balanced and nonjudgmental manner.
As soon as we notice a thought or emotion as it is evoked, we can say to ourselves: “my emotion is…”, “the thought going through my mind right now is…”. Once we recognize what we are going through, we have a choice: let our emotions control us, or observe them in a nonjudgmental and uncritical manner. Although we may feel we do not have control over it, we can actually choose how much we allow our sadness, guilt, anxiety, anger and frustration to control our reactions to ourselves and our children.
As parents, we learned to do our best to improve our child’s feeling, to prevent them from feeling pain, suffering and sadness. However, unlike physical pain (which can be caused, for example, by a splinter in a finger), emotional pain cannot be easily dislodged. It is precisely the parents’ attempts to alter their child’s feelings, replace them or keep them un-expressed for fear of escalation, that intensify children’s sense of loneliness and the experience of not being understood, thereby intensifying that same painful emotion.
Phrases like: “It’s no reason to be sad”, “It’s nothing”, “Forget about it”, “Get over it”, etc. often do not make your child stop crying or less sad, and surely does not help overcome the painful experience, rather it adds a sense of guilt, loneliness and sometimes even anger to the whole incident.
Difficulty in accepting painful emotions and suffering is deeply rooted in us: our parents grew up this way, they raised us in the same way, and so we educate our children. Many examples of this can be found in children’s books about which we grew up. In Miriam Roth’s book A Tale of Five Balloons (published in Hebrew) Ronny is sad and crying for his balloon that popped, and the reaction he gets is: “Do not cry dear Ronny; that’s the fate of all balloons”. Ronny is sad since to him the loss of the balloon is a significant and sad experience, but this experience is invalidated because adults do not give the same meaning to a balloon.
The crying may stop, but this message reinforces the child’s notion that their emotion is illegitimate, and that their reaction is unacceptable. But what if Ronny was allowed to cry and was told that his sadness and feelings of loss are understandable?
Expressing feelings is important. It is not possible and even undesirable to ignore them, even if sometimes as parents, it seems that crying or sadness comes with no justified reason. Expressing feelings and accepting them develops children’s capacity for emotional containment of a wide range of emotions and their ability to regulate them, and helps them to cope with difficult or frustrating situations in the future.
We, as parents often find it difficult to bear the our children’s pain and try to prevent them from feeling pain, because it is difficult for us to see them suffer, because we are preoccupied with thoughts about the future or because we are immersed in our past patterns. But it is neither possible nor desirable to prevent children from experiencing pain, just as it is not desirable to prevent children from making mistakes. Sadness and pain are part of children’s experiences, just like experiencing error or failure. We cannot properly prepare children for life if we do not allow them to experience these experiences. Moreover, if they go through these experiences in a safe and containing environment, they will learn not to perceive them as intimidating experiences that may “break” them or people around them and leave them alone and without support. children who are less afraid of failure and pain will take on more challenges and therefore will evolve better and will be able to enjoy more of what our world has to offer.
Therefore, instead of repelling pain so that it is out of our sight, we can choose to accept our children’s sadness, and make it legitimate.
For example, if our child says that they were offended by a friend, that some object broke or that they failed something that was important to them – instead of saying: “Just forget about it and stop worrying”, try to examine their emotions and feelings. Going over the incident will allow your child to feel understood, to feel that their emotions are legitimate and that they are not alone.
Later, you may look together for effective ways to react to different difficult events. Perhaps a change will come to be simply by identifying and accepting the emotion and feeling and by providing them with a sense that we understand them. For example:
It really hurts when a classmate mocks you;
It is really annoying when a classmate rejects you;
It is really very unfortunate when something is broken;
It’s very unpleasant when you fail something.
The moment you focus your attention on your child and the experience they are experiencing at that moment, and do not let your fixated patterns (“we don’t cry in this house “) or future fears (“she will never have friends if she gets offended every little thing”), control you, you’ll be able to genuinely understand your child, their experience, their thoughts and feelings. Nonjudgmental, un-directing and uncritical listening, conveys your child a message that you really care about them, forms a bond, and expresses compassion and empathy for your child.