A Little Yet Profound Distinction That Can Make You a Better Human (and Incidentally, a Better Parent)

A Little Yet Profound Distinction That Can Make You a Better Human (and Incidentally, a Better Parent)

As I prepare to become a mother in the next few weeks (holy shit, holy shit, holy shit…did I mention holy shit?), I’ve got my nose buried in books about pregnancy, labor, and parenting.

My mind is flooded with questions:

What if I don’t know what I’m doing? Will I be a good mother? What if I don’t know her cries? What if I can’t figure out what she’s trying to tell me? Do I need to get her on a wait list for pre-school now? Should I get her an air purifier? I don’t even know how to use the stroller yet. Or the car seat. Or the baby carrier. I haven’t learned how to swaddle yet either. Shit. I should really learn how to do that. And I really need to stop swearing! Crap (better!) – I have to pack a bag for the hospital, but what do I put in it?

The list is endless. My mind is reeling. All. Day. Long.

Besides the logistics of keeping my child alive for the first few months of her life (and keeping my sanity in tact as a welcomed bonus), perhaps my biggest questions of all are about parenting:

How am I going to raise a kid who is empathetic but doesn’t get walked all over? Who is driven without being an overachiever who has a hard time experiencing joy on account of it? Who is successful but doesn’t let their success define them to the point that without it, they feel like they are nothing? Who will be a positive contribution to the world without feeling pressured to do so but who instead chooses it because it’s the way they want to be?

My parents did an amazing job of what I like to call the “parenting balancing act.” They were there for me when I needed them to be, but not too much. They didn’t let me quit when they saw I could do something well, even if I fought them on it (downhill skiing, playing the piano), but they let me walk away from things I didn’t have a natural ability for after they were sure I’d given it my all (soccer, swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, basically anything that made me sweat, shall I go on?). They placed just enough trust in me so that I felt comfortable telling them if I was going to the bar at age 15. But their trust came with a price – one that I bestowed upon myself: while illegally at the bar, I would be the perfect angel for fear of losing their trust and disappointing them. It was really quite brilliant. They pushed me to get good grades in school, but if I came home with a bad grade every so often, they wouldn’t berate me. Actually, they would comfort me. They would have an open conversation asking me what went wrong (which I often explained through labored tears) and console my self-induced punishing behavior by telling me that I did my best and that there would always be a next time. Basically, they held me accountable without being overbearing about it.

Add in the amazing trips, countless hours spent helping us with our homework, memorable holiday celebrations and teaching us to treat everyone equally, my parents really did a phenomenal job.

Their example will serve as a welcomed guide for my journey as a parent.

And to my bag of parenting tricks, I will also add this lesson:

A few years ago, I was listening to a very interesting lecture by a psychologist whose name escapes me right now. His talk was about relationships (his specialty), and he began his speech with a story:

There was a young boy who was walking in the park with his mom. They came up alongside a dog, who immediately began to bark at them. The boy began to cry. The mother, trying to console her son, told him, “Don’t worry! It’s no big deal! It’s just a dog!” This only made the boy cry harder.

As they walked away, another mother and her small child (I can’t remember if it was male or female) came along. The dog – true to form – began barking at the pair, and this child also began to cry. This mother’s reaction was different. She got down to her child’s level and hugged her child. “Oh, this must be so scary for you! I know he looks rough and tough and his bark is loud – that must be really frightening!” She continued in this vain – at the child’s level – until the child eventually began to stop crying. Then, she took the child by the hand and said, “I wonder if this dog is a friendly dog who just wanted to say hello. Should we go over and see? We can do it together.” They did, and eventually, the child began petting the dog, and then – course – loving the dog.

Which mother are you in the story?

I come from a long line of polite Canadians who love helping people. “Don’t worry!” is a phrase I have often uttered in all sorts of circumstances, because I just can’t stand to see someone in pain.

So you can imagine which mother I am in the story. Well, at least, I used to be. Now I know better.

The psychologist went onto explain that when parents dismiss their child’s reactions by saying things like, “Don’t worry, it’s no big deal,” and such, they are putting their own view of the situation onto the child, and essentially diminishing the child’s view of it. They are effectively saying that their child’s feelings are not valid. From that point on, that child is taught that the world is a scary place, because their opinions are not valid. Those same children get into relationships, and eventually end up in this very same psychologist’s office in couples counseling, all because of this initial relationship with their primary caregiver from so many years prior.

The mother who got down to her child’s level, on the other hand, unabashedly acknowledged her child’s feelings. And by doing so, she validated them. But rather than leave it there (and do like some mothers would and yell at the owner of the dog), once the child calmed down, she tried to help re-mould that child’s view of a barking dog. By asking for the child’s permission first, and then creating a safe environment with which to re-define the relationship, she not only cured her child of a fear of dogs, but she also told her child, “The world is safe. Your thoughts and feelings matter.” And so, the child grows into an adult who trusts the world and has healthy communication skills in all relationships.

Ok, maybe it’s not that simple. But it’s a good starting point. And it certainly had a profound effect on me.

I was dumbfounded after listening to this story. It made so much sense, and yet my instinct is to protect not by helping someone through the pain, but by trying to take it away completely.

But as Ted (my wise husband) has reminded me time and time again, when you do that – try to take someone’s pain away – before they have a chance to feel it, they don’t get to experience what they need to experience, and as a result, they don’t get the lesson that ultimately leads them to a brighter, more enlightened place.

What is that first child going to do when a dog barks in the future and no one is there to protect him? Sure, his mother’s intentions were pure, but she didn’t teach him the tools he would need to navigate the situation should it ever arise again.

As a parent, I can imagine I’m going to want to tend to all of my daughter’s wounds. I’m going to want to beat up any person who tries to make her feel less than. I’m going to want to protect her from the menacing world around her.

But if I do that, this much I know is true: I will be robbing her of the experiences that will shape her into the human being she was destined to become. By helping her out of a jam she is quite capable of getting herself out of, I’m robbing her of the ability to experience how deep and profound her skill set is. What will she do if I’m not around to bail her out? Aren’t I being a better parent if I teach her how to use her values and skills to navigate whatever life throws at her than if I do everything for her, leaving her without a life raft if and when I’m not there to save her?

And so, it would seem, that one of the ultimate secrets to being a parent who wants to raise a good human is this:

Let them fail. Let them feel pain. Let them cry.

But be there for them. Get down to their level. Talk them through it. You don’t have to give them the answers in order to be there for them. Don’t try to take their pain away. Just help them through it so that their feelings are validated, and they can come up with their own solutions. By doing so, you create a skill set that will serve and protect them for their entire lives, one that they will always be able to call on when the going gets tough, with or without you.

Whether you’re a parent or not, I bring this up with the intention of having you reflect on any of the areas of your life where you might be choosing to protect someone’s feelings rather than let them feel through the pain.

Have you told someone, “Don’t worry!” in the last little while? Have you kept your opinions about someone’s behavior to yourself for fear of hurting their feelings? Have you told a white lie for the same reason?

When you tell someone not to worry, you tell them – unintentionally – that their view of the situation isn’t valid. It’s silly, in fact. If instead you say something like, “I understand how you might feel that way. It makes perfect sense. I’m here if you want to talk through it,” rather than diminishing their feelings, you give them the opportunity to be seen, to be heard, and then, to work through it.

When you feel something about someone and don’t tell them because you’re worried about how they might react, you are robbing them of the ability to potentially improve a certain aspect of themselves that – with some tweaking – may set them on a new path that is in fact better for them. Or not. Or maybe you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to air out a miscommunication on your part based on their behavior that may turn into a rift or a complete breakdown in the future. You can’t know unless you bring it up. So care enough to give someone the feedback that could potentially help them become a better version of themselves, or help shed light on your relationship with them.

I think it’s important for us as humans to allow each other the space to feel. Relationship issues – whether they are with parents, soulmates, children, friends or peers – arise because one or both parties don’t feel like their feelings and opinions matter. Fights are fought ego to ego and become about winning instead of understanding. It’s a terrible cycle that repeats itself over and over again.

So the next time you find yourself wanting to tell someone not to worry, or refraining from giving someone feedback you think may hurt their feelings, don’t. Just don’t. Love them by allowing them to feel what they need to feel. Don’t be mean! Just be there, be open, be honest, and let love be your guide. Sometimes your feedback will be misplaced, sometimes it won’t. But by communicating it in the first place, you allow for the opportunity to air it out, for the person to examine their behavior, to adjust course if need be, or to explain why they shouldn’t if that turns out to be the case. Either way, you give them the opportunity to explore a situation in their lives that may or may not be holding them back.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I know I’m going to need help remembering this advice the first time my daughter cries for me, but I know that the best way to help her will be to teach her to help herself. It’s the ultimate act of love not only as a parent, but as a good human.

So – will you be a good human today?