Noticing When Things Are Not Fine

My son had had a series of disappointments, but he's a cheerful and sturdy little guy who can bear up well, and he was finding his own ways to make life continue to go well. I happened to overhear a conversation he had with his father which included yet another disappointment, but when he came up to me he gave no sign of it. Knowing what his day had been like, I asked if he was feeling a little sad about this latest development. His lower lip began to quiver, and then he burst into tears. It hadn't taken much for the cover of cheerfulness to dissolve, revealing total misery.

I wonder what would have happened it I hadn't asked. I have no doubt that he would have done fine. We all have to learn to handle disappointments, and children are amazingly resilient in any case. It's so much easier for us, as parents, to go along with the appearance of things being fine with our children, rather than searching underneath for possible hurts or upsets--much less full-scale misery. Lord knows we have more than enough to do just getting through life with the problems that are right in our faces, without poking around for ones that might be hiding. But I think that not noticing, over the long run, takes its toll.

Having had the experience of being a "cheerful," "non-problem" child, I know how lonely it can be. I can't even remember how early I gave up on the adults around me. They loved me and they provided for me--which is a lot to be thankful for. But they were so committed to having a happy family that they weren't eager to know anything that might challenge that image. So I didn't show them. I didn't show anybody anything. While I've grown up fine, the reserve that I learned so early has been a problem for me, one that I would not wish on my children.

Doing it a different way, however, is hard. After all, I want a happy family too. I don't want disappointed children. I certainly don't want children who are disappointed in me. Yet when I take the plunge, and actually encourage my son to notice how he's feeling, that is exactly what I get. He starts being upset at me. It seems so unfair. Here I am, making a great effort to offer him something that I never got offered as a child--a pure unselfish gift--and he gets mad.

If I can step back a moment and put myself in his shoes, though, it makes sense. I've given him an invitation to notice how he feels. He feels disappointed and angry. To feel angry, he needs to express it somehow--and I'm the one who's there warmly offering myself as resource. So he takes me up on the invitation and uses me. From his point of view, it's a completely logical response.

So I hold my sweet son who, after crying bitterly for a while, is now thrashing in my arms and trying to hit me, and I ponder the complexities of life as a parent. My gift of noticing has been accepted. My resources are being used to make my child's life go better, which is exactly what I've always wanted. (And I have no doubt that things will go better for him as a result; cleaning out that wall of anger and disappointment always leaves him much fresher to handle whatever the next day has to offer.) But I never knew when I got started on this journey of parenting that these were the resources that my children were going to use most exhaustively--and value most highly.