As a parent, sometimes it seems like our kids just aren’t listening to us. Don’t let them fool you. We have no idea how much of what we say they absorb, assimilate and recall as adults.
This reminds me of a sad story I heard about 30 years ago. A young man recalled his mother telling him that he should not expect happiness in life, but should be satisfied with being content. I still remember the exact moment I heard him relate this to me because I found it shocking. Imagine a mother telling her son that happiness was not within his reach! Yet he remembered his mother’s words and wondered whether his search for a happy life was unrealistic.
Last night, my daughter told me how something I previously said to her had a negative impact. Two or three times over the past few years, I either asked her if she was losing weight, or commented that it looked like she had lost weight. She interpreted this as my thinking she was fat, that she should lose weight, and that being thin was important. In retrospect, I can understand her interpretation. When I actually said those things, however, I was being careful not to state a value or judgment, but just to make an observation. She had been skipping meals, and I was wondering whether she was trying to lose weight in an unhealthy way. You see, throughout most of my life, my mother constantly bugged me about my weight and told me what to eat and what not to (despite being overweight herself), and my sister had an eating disorder. I knew how harmful comments like my mother’s were to both my sister and me. Without realizing it, my comments had affected my daughter’s self-esteem. But I can say that I was very pleased that she brought up the subject, shared her feelings with me, and that we talked it over.
As Brené Brown says in her “Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto,” we want our children to engage in the world from a place of worthiness. They should feel worthy of love, belonging and happiness. When we tell our children they aren’t entitled to be happy, we tell them they aren’t worthy of happiness. When we send them a hint that we think they are overweight, they think they aren’t worthy.
So much of what our children learn from us comes from what they read between the lines. It is impossible to be perfect and have everything we say come out like a 1960’s TV script. Anyway, actions speak louder than words.
Here are four practical tips for how to relate to your children, whether they are young or adults, in a wholehearted way so that they, too, can be wholehearted individuals.
1. Be Yourself. Don’t hide who you really are from your kids. You can’t expect your kids to be themselves with you if you aren’t yourself with them. They might not know what you’re hiding, but they can detect a lack of authenticity. You can bet that they won’t be open with you if you aren’t open with them. They’re not going to become potheads just because they learn that you smoked pot when you were younger. Answer their questions honestly, share your experiences, both good and bad, and use them as a teaching tool.
2. Be Accountable For Your Mistakes. All humans make mistakes. Lots of them. Trying to cover them up or being too stubborn to take ownership of them because you want your kids to think you’re infallible is definitely giving them the wrong message. When they see that you are human, it makes them feel more comfortable being themselves with you, and likely with others. Always say you’re sorry when you screw up.
3. Love Yourself. A mother who can’t love herself can’t really teach her children how to love openheartedly, no matter how much love she feels for them. Parents need to model love, and it is hard to do that if you believe you are unworthy of even your own love.
4. Talk About Your Feelings. This is part of being yourself. It is also part of teaching your child how to be an emotionally healthy adult. (Read about emotional adulthood HERE) Our kids need to learn to discern what they are feeling and that feelings are legitimate, even negative ones. If we hide our feelings, we may be teaching our kids that it is not acceptable to have feelings and express them. This puts them on the EZ-Pass lane to messed-up adult relationships, divorce, depression, and all of that dysfunctional stuff. Isn’t it better to show them how to express their feelings constructively? Also, it is much easier to learn this at an earlier age. Adults who first learn how to feel their feelings and express them later in life can take many years to become comfortable with the process.
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