Offering Ourselves

I was listening to a parent leader advise another mom on what to do with her son's addiction to Nintendo. "First get somebody else to listen to how much you hate it. Then offer yourself in its place." "What do you mean?" the second mom asked. "Offer yourself?!"

It makes sense. Having the attention of a real, live, loving available human being has got to be more interesting than the umpteenth hour of a video game. Yet there are several difficulties here, beyond how much we hate it. How many of us are fully confident that we would be more interesting to our children than Nintendo? When they were two, or three, or maybe even four, possible... But at Nintendo age? I imagine most of us feel pretty boring by that point. We're good for picking up dirty clothes and washing dishes and carting them around to different places and paying for things. We may even have moments of feeling close and loved--when we comfort bruised bodies or spirits, during bedtime snuggles, or on special adventures. But as an alternative to a fascinating, challenging, absorbing game of Nintendo? You've got to be kidding!

Yet, I wonder if we're selling ourselves short, both in how interesting and attractive we are in our own right, and in the value our children place on their relationship with us. What if we assumed that, of course, they would choose to be with us, and that, of course, it would be a better choice than a video screen? Then, of course, there's the question of whether we're willing to make ourselves available. We may not like Nintendo, but is our dislike of it stronger than our want or need for the time that it frees up?

If we've successfully leapt these hurdles, deciding that we are interesting and we want to be available, we'll still be faced with their feelings. A toddler is likely to choose human contact over any other type of activity. They are wild to be with their parents--often well beyond what we can bear. They don't get enough of us, and get disappointed. Over and over again. By the time they're of school age, many children have had to come to terms with the fact that their parents are not available.

When we offer ourselves to our children who have given up, to whatever extent, on having us, we may be surprised--and hurt--by the response. Some of them may be delighted. Others may not. This may be the point at which all that stored-up disappointment comes out. Rather than thanking us for being available in the present, they may seize on this opportunity to show how mad they've been about all the times we weren't around in the past.

Now, this is not a bad thing. And there's no need to blame ourselves. No parent has ever yet done a perfect job, or protected a beloved child from all disappointments, or lived up to that's child's greatest hopes and expectations. And staying relaxed and close in the face of that rush of disappointment is very useful to them. Clearing out that well of feelings will leave them much more hopeful about the future, and about us. We just have to not get confused.

We just have to remember that our hatred of Nintendo may be real, but is not useful to our children; that addiction is not anybody's first choice; that we are, indeed, much more interesting and attractive than any video game; that our relationship to our children is more important than many of the things we spend our time on; that we can welcome their show of disappointment as a process of healing rather than a personal attack; and that all we have to do is persist in loving them and staying close.

It’s an awesome series of hurdles to jump. I don't think there is any more incredibly complex and emotionally demanding job than parenting. But the reward is as great as the challenge. We actually get to be close, and to make a real difference for another human being.