Some parents have written to me asking for suggestions on how they could explain the concept of death to their children.
There are 2 aspects to explaining death to children (or to anyone else). One is to help them be less afraid of death. This in itself is a tall order. How many of us can claim to have come to terms with the fact that with each passing moment, we are closer to death? Have we even begun to examine our own attitude towards death, our own fear of it? The answer is probably “no”. And still we want to help our children overcome the fear of death? Parents are a strange breed indeed!
The other aspect of death that you might want to address with your child is how to deal with the death of a loved one.
In the first case, the child himself will be gone. In the second, a dear one is gone, and the child needs to deal with the loss, the grief, perhaps the guilt, and maybe even an increased fear of his own death.
Today I’ll tell you some ways in which I have explained death – not only to my child, but to other children as well. In the next post, I’ll give you ideas on how you could help a child deal with the loss of a loved one.
“Where did I come from?” This is one of the questions that most fascinates children. As they grow, they learn about puppies and kittens and calves, they learn about birds hatching eggs, they see seeds grow into plants and trees, and they ask, “Where did I come from?”
Depending on your beliefs and your style of parenting, you come up with some answer to the question. But as your child grows, she wants more detail. (“How did I get into Mom’s tummy?” – a question you might have been dreading! 🙂 More on answering this in a subsequent post.) Given that your child will repeat this question innumerable times over the years, and ask for different kinds of information each time she asks “Where did I come from?”, I hope you are giving / have given some thought to what you’ll say.
I won’t tell you what to say. There are innumerable books, websites, movies out there which will give you ideas. You also have your memory of your own childhood as a resource, as well as ideas, suggestions and the experience of friends and family. For sure you’ll come up with something.
What is important is that you believe in whatever you come up with, that you are comfortable with the point of view, the level of detail, the language and the explanation. That is the only way your child will accept your answer. No matter how far out or how contrary to accepted belief, as long as you believe in the ‘truth’ of your version, your explanation will work.
In case you’re want to remind me that I’ve gone off-track (you’re supposed to be explaining death to a child, not how she was born), rest assured. I’m still with the program. 🙂
Ever since she was little, one of my daughter’s favorite ‘stories’ has been the story of how she was born. Of course, now that she’s a happening, know-it-all teen, the ‘wonder’ has gone out of the story, though it probably still has some nostalgic value. 🙂
For each of the ideas below, I repeat: use them with caution, only after you have thought each one through and are convinced about the statement. Each ‘answer’ you provide might raise a host of further questions, and unless you’re sure of your beliefs, it would be better not to use the answer. Also, different answers will work at different times with different children. You know yourself and your child, so pick what you think will work, or use these as inspiration to come up with your own ideas. Do share in the comments – your ideas, experience, and feedback.
Ideas of how you could explain death to your child:
1. It’s like going to sleep: “When you are asleep, you don’t know what is happening around you. I might enter the room, or change your diaper, or pick you up, and you wouldn’t know it. Do you remember how you fell asleep in the car that day, after we’d gone to the zoo? When you woke up, you were in your bed. You don’t remember what happened in between, but many things happened. Death is a bit like that. Things go on, but the dead person is not a part of it.”
Then, extend the logic. “If you’re not part of it, you don’t miss it. So there is nothing to be afraid of.”
2. It’s like going away: “When you go to the park to play, you are not at home. You’ve gone away from home. Dying is like that – people who die go away. (We don’t know where they go.) When you are away from the house, it’s not necessary that you are sad or lonely or frightened. You may be enjoying yourself enormously with your friends. I keep calling you to get home and do your homework, but you’re having so much fun that you don’t want to come back; you want to keep playing outside. So if death is like going away, it doesn’t mean it has to hurt or be painful or sad or lonely. When you’ve gone away to the park, you could be happy or sad, having fun or fighting with your friends – anything could be happening. But that is true of life at home too! You could be happy or sad, having fun or fighting at home as well. It’s all happening in a different place – that’s all.”
3. You have died before, only you don’t remember – This is my favorite explanation! 🙂 “When you were a little baby inside Mom’s / my tummy, you only knew darkness. Everything around you was soft and wet, all the sounds that reached you were muted. Nobody ever touched you, you only felt vibrations – like when a heavy truck goes past and you feel its movement in your body. You were safe and comfortable. That was your life inside the tummy. But nature does not allow babies to live inside the mom’s tummy forever. So you had to come out. You came out into bright light, into a cold dry room, with strange voices talking loudly, plastic gloves touching you. I’m sure you must have hated it!
We (your parents) welcomed you with joy. ‘Our baby is born!’ we said, delighted. We couldn’t stop smiling. But for you, for the little baby, it was like a death. The place you were in, the way you lived earlier (inside the tummy) was your life. And that life ended – it changed. You went away to another world – that is, you came into this world. So the death you think of as the end of this life is not necessarily bad – the more you think about it, the more anxious you will get, but that anxiety will not change anything. Everyone has to die, but dying out of this life may mean being born in another place. And guess what? You actually celebrate the day you died inside the tummy – you celebrate it with cake and candles and gifts as your birthday! 🙂 🙂
4. What if nobody died? – This is a great way of getting children to see why death in the abstract is desirable. Ask your child this open-ended question, and keep asking questions to each of her responses. It will lead to the realization that it is important that living things should die. A hypothetical conversation:
You: What if nobody ever died?
Your child: Then people would live forever! Nobody would have to go away.
You: Where would these people live? We complain already of so much traffic on the roads, so many people without jobs, too many children trying to secure admission in too few ‘good’ schools, too many people dying of hunger, too many people without homes. If nobody ever died, where would all these people live? Where would they find enough food?
Your child: (Some answer.)
You: And what would these people do with their time?
Your child: They would play/watch movies/have fun/shop (whatever is your child’s “fun thing” at the moment).
You: For how long? You like playing, but can you imagine Granddad playing for hours in the park? When you go for a walk with him, you complain that he walks too slowly. What would you do if you lived to be that age and you lived forever? Even as a child, you come home tired after playing for a few hours. How would you like to just keep playing all through the day every single day? Believe it or not, you’ll be bored.
“Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.”
Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC)
As a parent, you know that effective communication is one of the essential skills of modern life. Success, whether at school or in a profession; whether in personal or social relationships, depends on your ability to communicate well. Communication means speaking well and listening well. Both are equally important. I’ve written earlier about listening, though a lot more needs to be said in that area. Today, let’s see how you can help your child to speak well.
Many parents believe that children start learning language when they begin to speak. Because of this belief, they start speaking to their child only when the child begins to babble or verbalize. These parents have lost valuable time during which their child could have learnt a lot about language.
Children begin learning from the moment they are born. And the rate of learning slows down with each passing year after they are about 4-5 years old. Yes, as young as that! Check any parenting or child development website or book – the earlier you start, the better for your child. In fact, children already know (recognize and understand the meaning of) hundreds of words before their mouths, tongues, palate and teeth are developed enough to formulate the sounds required to say those words.
So speak to your child as soon as you can. I started when I was three months pregnant – really! 🙂 Here’s a story I’ve written that might give you an idea of what I mean when I say “talk to your infant”.
So – here are the 5 tips that will ensure your child speaks well:
1. Speak to her as you would like her to speak – “Cho chweet” “Shay ‘I love you’”, “Shumbody’s looking very naa-ish today” “Belly good baby”… Don’t go this route. “So sweet” “Say ‘I love you”, “Somebody’s looking very nice today”, “Very good baby”. If she doesn’t hear the correct thing from the very beginning, she will not learn how to speak correctly. You will then have to go through the needless and painful additional task of making her un-learn the wrong thing she has already learned, and re-learn the correct thing. Utter waste of time and energy.
2. Correct him – Even if he is just beginning to string words together to form the most basic of sentences, interrupt him to correct his pronunciation, grammar, intonation – anything and everything that needs to be corrected. Correct him every time, making him repeat the correct way to say it. As you keep on at it and he keeps on at it, he will learn to speak correctly.
Pronunciation: “Not ‘appil’; say ‘apple’.”
Grammar: “Don’t say ‘You did not knew’; say ‘You did not know’.”
Intonation: “If you are asking a question, your voice should end on a higher note. Then people will know it’s a question. See how different the same thing sounds: ‘You are going.’ “You are going?’”
3. Speak naturally – Especially when your child is young, you tend to simplify (or maybe even over-simplify) your vocabulary so that she can understand every word you say. You keep saying the same 20 things over and over again. By doing this, you impose arbitrary and artifical limits on your child’s speech and vocabulary.
If you would naturally use the word ‘astonished’, don’t keep replacing it with ‘surprised’ because you feel your child is ‘too young’ to understand ‘astonished’. In fact, use: taken aback, amazed, bewildered, flabbergasted, shocked, jolted, revealed, marveled, wondered, and as many more as you can think of. Consider using also: environment, inflation, morality, precipice, domineering… 🙂 Your child will learn the nuances of the language, and will learn many more concepts and ideas than he otherwise would. Do yourself a favor and stop censoring your speech – unless you need to, I mean. 🙂
4. Read – Before you rush out and grab a book to read to your child, I must tell you that this will work only if you read – for yourself. Your child must see you reading – books, magazines, the newspaper, your tablet, whatever. Now you can begin to build your child a library at home, though it’s fine to borrow books from one too! The important thing is to read to your child. And when he starts reading, let him read aloud – to you.
5. Listen – When your child speaks, listen. Pay attention to everything she is saying. You might find she’s using a word inappropriately – tell her the correct word to use. You might find she is looking for a word she doesn’t know – supply her with the word. You might hear her say something unacceptable – correct her!
When my daughter was 4, she met the word ‘rascal’ used in the sense of ‘scamp’ in a story book. After 2 days, her grandfather was teasing her about something, and she said to him, “You rascal!” We both jumped and I had to tell her that this was not a word she could use for her grandparents. 🙂
Try these tips – the earlier, the better – and tell me how it goes with you. Even if ‘trying it earlier’ is no longer an option for you, it’s never too late to begin.
Of course, you always get the exception that proves the rule. A friend was telling me how her daughter didn’t speak a single word – not Mama or Daddy or Book or Come or Bye or Ta Ta or Hi – till she was 18 months old. The concerned parents consulted the pediatrician who sent them to a children’s speech specialist and so on. Many tests were conducted, all of which declared that there was nothing wrong with the child. She could vocalize, so she could verbalize, so she should verbalize – but did not. Her behavior and other developmental milestones were normal for a child her age, so it was difficult to attribute the lack of speech to any sort of psychological trauma.
And still the child didn’t speak. This continued till she was 30 months old. No speech. More doctors who pronounced: she could speak, so she should speak. But she wasn’t speaking. My friend and her husband began to worry.
One day, as they sat in front of the TV eating lunch, they were absorbed in the program being broadcast. Their daughter must not have liked their absorption, because in the midst of the meal, they heard her say, “Mom, could you please pass me the vegetables?” 🙂
Just like that! And she was speaking as well as any other child her age – right from the time she ‘started’ speaking – at over 30 months. A few days later, when they’d got used to the ‘miracle’, her parents asked her why she hadn’t said a word before that landmark day.
“There was no need – you understood everything I wanted without my saying it, so why bother?” the minx replied! 🙂
“Umm – Vinita, can I speak with you privately?”
I was teaching a course on fashion, and one of my students walked up to me at the end of class. (This wasn’t in India, where it is not done to call your teacher by his / her name.)
“Sure – go ahead,” I replied. I was slightly taken aback because this girl had shown no particular inclination to have private conversations with me over the 15 months that I had been teaching her various courses.
But she seemed to want to do so now. We found an empty classroom, and sat down.
“What’s the matter?” I asked her.
She was curiously reluctant to begin. Eventually, “You know, what I’m telling you is in confidence. I don’t want it to get about. I had earlier confided in one of the other staff members and she went and told so many people.” She squinted at me, “Did she tell you anything about me?”
“No, I haven’t heard anything about you or about anyone else, for that matter. And before you go any further, I must say that I will respect your confidence, but if you have the slightest doubt about it, please don’t tell me anything.”
“No, no, I know you won’t tell anyone. That’s why I decided to speak with you.” She stopped again, and I waited.
“I had an abortion yesterday.”
I didn’t know how to respond, so I kept quiet. She looked at me, and when she saw the lack of either condemnation or inquisitiveness, she went on.
“It was my third abortion.”
“Oh, no!” burst out of me. “Don’t you use protection?”
“Well, he doesn’t like to, and I forget to take the pill sometimes.”
“How are you feeling? Should you even be at school today? How did you manage? Did you have a friend with you?” the questions poured out of me.
“My mother went with me,” she said.
Suddenly, I was struck by a thought. “How old are you?”
“16, but I turn 17 next week.” Thus far, she had sounded like an adult trying to discuss an issue with another adult. But at the mention of her birthday, her teen enthusiasm took over, and she preened.
I couldn’t hide my concern. “Do you know that having so many abortions could seriously impact your having a baby later on? You might not be able to conceive, or the baby might be harmed by all the abortions you’ve had.” I couldn’t have given her the slightest technical details of what I was saying if my life depended on it, but I knew that she was taking a real risk with her health.
I didn’t really understand why we were having this conversation. Her mother seemed to know what was going on. She’d even accompanied the girl to her third abortion. I was thinking: If the mum is okay with her having sex at 16, why doesn’t the lady just remind her daughter to pop the birth-control pill? (The girl lived at home, and even if she’d lived elsewhere, all it took was a phone call to remind her…) That would solve the problem.
“How can I help?”
“You see, my mother is very worried. She is upset and unhappy and forcing me to leave this man, but I love him and I can’t live without him!” ( 🙂 Oh, the agonies of teen love!)
“Don’t your parents like him?
“My dad doesn’t know, but my mum is not in favor of this relationship. You see, he’s 41 and married, with 3 children.”
I was completely tongue-tied – physically, and mentally. I didn’t even know what to think, let alone what to say. Me, a woman married for over a year, and I feel like a new-born babe in front of this 17-year old who’s talking to me of love and abortions and a man who is committed to his wife and children, but also claims to ‘love’ her.
“I want to ask you what I should do. I know it’s not good for me to have any more abortions. Every time, I think this is the last time I will have an abortion, but then I forget to take the pill again… I love him too much to let him go.”
“What does he say?”
“He will not leave his wife and kids, but that’s alright with me.”
I groped carefully to find words that might reach her. “You know there’s no future in this for you. You are a lovely girl with a great enthusiasm for life, and you have all of that life ahead of you. You are lucky to have a mother who is so supportive of you. Though she is against your relationship with this man, the love you both share is strong enough for her to be there for you whenever you need her. She is asking you to leave the man. Why don’t you try doing that?”
“I have tried,” she sounded desperately close to tears. “Especially after every abortion – I hate that I have to go through these abortions. He won’t come with me; my mother does. I want to have babies later on, and every abortion will make it more difficult. But then he calls me again, and I can’t stay away. And my mother is heart-broken about it. I love her so much I would do anything for her. I hate giving her so much pain, so much trouble, but I just can’t stop loving this man.”
I still didn’t see what she wanted from me. “Listen, maybe you want me to say that it will all turn out okay with this man, that it is okay for you to be in this relationship. That might make you feel better about your decision to continue seeing the guy. Because you have made that decision, haven’t you?” She nodded unwillingly. “But I can’t say it, because I don’t believe it to be true.”
We sat in silence for some time. Then she got up. “Thank you for listening. It has made me feel a lot better. And please don’t tell anyone – I know you won’t, but I still need to say it.”
I nodded. “Take care of yourself and your mother. Bless you.”
This incident took place about 15 years ago, and I’m sharing it because this could be true of any child, anywhere in the world. Then, or now, it probably IS true of some children in many parts of the world.
There is so much to learn from this:
Sending the girl somewhere else was not an option – the family did not have the wherewithal. And then the man could well have traveled and continued the relationship on an off-and-on basis.
Besides, you can’t run away from your life. If she had gone to some far-flung place, she would still have been vulnerable and might have gotten into a similar or worse situation from being on the rebound, or feeling the lack of romantic love in her life, or feeling that she was over the earlier relationship and ready for a new one.
Whoever you are, whatever your situation, running away doesn’t solve it. You merely take it with you, though you might take some time to realize this. 🙂
I deeply admire the mother for sticking by her child. She realized what so many parents do not.
Condemning the girl, blaming her, scolding her, blackmailing her (“How could you do this to me, your mother, who loves you so well? How can you hurt me like this? What have I done to deserve such treatment from you / to have such a fate? I brought you up so well…/I have failed as a mother…”) – all of which she must have done – would only serve to make the mother feel better by giving vent to her feelings.
It would not help the girl or the situation. Revisiting the mistakes that were made by either the parents or the girl would also be futile. The mother realized that just continuing to communicate with her daughter was vital. At least the lady knew what was going on; she could prevent things from being worse than they already were.
If she had not accompanied her daughter to the abortions, how would the girl, as a minor, have accessed a hospital to have the procedure done? Where would she have got the money? How would she get the post-operative care – physical mental and emotional?
Certainly the girl was conscious of and vocal about her mother’s support despite the latter’s deep disapproval (to put it mildly). That in itself was a huge anchor for her.
I don’t know how it all turned out. I respected her confidence by never again referring to the matter, even privately, even with her. I figured if she ever wanted to speak with me, she would raise the topic herself.
The point is that sometimes, despite our best effort as parents, things don’t turn out the way we’d like them to. In this particular instance, they turned out horribly wrong.
If your daughter doesn’t join law school (a dream you have cherished for her since she was conceived – ! – ), it’s not the end of the world, but if she decides to beg for money, live in the street and eat out of soup kitchens, that is another level of pain altogether.
If things go horribly wrong, what can you do as a loving parent? Unfortunately, there are no right answers here.
You know your child. You know how far gone the situation is. Some children realize things quicker when they are left alone. Others need to be helped out of situations. Yet others need to be bullied out of them.
Whatever you decide to do, you might want to consider the ideas below:
1. Keep the communication lines open – Agree not to talk about the area of conflict, but keep things as ‘normal’ as possible otherwise. Don’t raise the topic every time there is a difference of opinion with him. Try not to blackmail him with it. Avoid the attitude: ‘we’ve let you get away with the one BIG thing, but you’d better toe the line on all other counts’.
If you can do this, your child will keep you in the loop, and you will still be a part of his life; you may still have some influence on him. If nothing else, he will appreciate your not withholding your SELF and your love because he is going against your wishes in one area of life.
2. Do not blame yourself – It is natural to keep going over the problem, wondering what you did wrong, what mistake you made that allowed this awful thing to happen. You keep wondering what you could have done to prevent its happening: you should have noticed it earlier, you should have nipped it in the bud, you should have… There is no end to this.
You have a lot of power as a parent, but you have no control. That is the truth, and as you continue parenting, you come to know that even the power is more a figment of your imagination than reality. 🙂
3. Keep perspective – So many things seem like they are the ultimately awful thing that could happen to you, but with time, you might find that they were the making of you. Besides, life is pretty long, and memories are pretty short. Life goes on.
My student might have been 15, or perhaps even younger (“oh, no!” says the parent in me) when she got into the relationship. I’m sure that in another few years, the man would have aged considerably. By the time she was in her early 20s, she would be working, and find many more congenial men, which would naturally break up the relationship. She might get very busy at work, and the relationship would die a natural death.
And she would still have the rest of her life ahead of her. (However, it still beats me how between mother and daughter they did not manage to ensure the girl took her birth-control pills regularly.) Scarred, perhaps, by her earlier experiences, but still, free of the situation.
4. Do not allow your child to get away with blaming you – Children do this when they are scared. However old they are, they will revert to early childhood and tell you, “If only you had… / you had not…, I would not have….” Don’t let them get away with it.
You might choose to say: “I hear what you are saying and I understand that you feel this way, but I disagree. I don’t think I am to blame for the decision you made. You may blame me, but I don’t blame myself. I don’t accept the blame you are trying to lay on me. You don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.”
5. Figure out with your child how you will treat the issue in public – If your child is in a homosexual relationship (and that is an impossible situation for you), someone you know will know about it – someday, somehow. Discuss ahead of time with your child how will treat the topic when it comes up. Are you to feign ignorance? Are you to say you know about it and are okay with it? Are you to say you know about it and respect your child’s right to lead his life his way? Decide upon something you are both comfortable with.
This is much better than either hiding it or flaunting it. If you hide it, your child may think you are ashamed of the issue or of her, and may stop communicating with you. If you flaunt it, that might not go down well either. She might feel that though you actually dislike the situation, you are putting on a show of being proud of her, or putting on a show of being a lot more liberated than you really are (you want people to think you’re ‘the coolest Dad/Mom’ in the world).
Either way, you’re not being honest with her. She has been straight with you – she has told you about the horrible situation. If you want to keep communicating with her, you need to be honest with her too. If you’re straight with her, you’ll manage to get through to her – always. Even in the most impossible situation.
Here’s a scenario you would have lived through as a parent:
Your friend has called to invite you over for a meal. “What will the little one eat?” they ask.
“She eats most things, but is particularly fond of spinach, beans and rice. She’s not very fond of meat,” you say.
At dinnertime, when you serve your child the spinach salad, rice and beans, she refuses to touch the food. “I don’t want it. I don’t like it.” Instead, she gorges on the shish kebabs served to the adults as starters.
You’re embarrassed, wondering what your friend thinks of you (you don’t even know what your 4-year old eats!), trying to avoid making eye contact with your friend (you’ve just ruined her appetizer course!).
“Ahem! I don’t know what happened to her! I mean, normally, she wouldn’t touch the kebabs…” you begin to apologize. Somehow, you struggle through the evening, wondering how she could have behaved in such an out-of-character fashion. Of course, you remember to give her a talking-to later on! 🙂
The next time someone asks you what she eats / doesn’t eat, you might remember this incident, and add a disclaimer right away. “Normally she’s fond of…, but on a given day, she might / might not eat anything.”
The same goes for gift ideas. “What would he like for his birthday?” people ask you.
“He loves Spiderman,” you say, “and collects Spidey merchandise and books.”
When it comes time to unwrap the gifts, your son, who forced you to buy 3 almost-identical blue Spiderman t-shirts last week and was bemoaning not having a red one, holds up the red Spidey tee he’s been gifted and says, “I HATE Spiderman tees!”
If you’ve been unfortunate enough to open the gift in front of the gift-giver, this is the time you want to be able to disappear at will. 🙂
Over time, you learn to be slightly less certain about your child’s likes and dislikes – at least in public. But in private, you’re still struggling.
“You LOVE eating boiled eggs – you’ve eaten them every day for years! I keep telling you to try eating an omelet or fried egg, but you never listen. And now you say you won’t eat boiled-egg sandwiches! We’ll be driving for the next 2 hours, and there’s no place to buy any food. This is all there is for lunch. I made it especially for you, because it’s your favorite kind of sandwich…”
Your child sits stony-faced, unmoved by your entreaties. He’s starving, sulky and blaming you for ‘not bringing any decent food along’. 🙂
No prizes for guessing: YOU are what’s wrong.
You treat your child as if he were the alphabet, or a sweater, or a door. Once you know your ABC, you know it forever, and it won’t change – at least, not in English, and not in the foreseeable future. 🙂 Once you buy a sweater and know how to care for it, you just go on caring for it in the way you know how, and it will keep behaving the same way. Once you have a door and know how to operate it, it will just keep opening and closing, bolting and unbolting, locking and unlocking in the same way (until it’s bolt/lock gets stuck – but that’s illness – , or its hinges get rusty – that’s aging).
But your child isn’t any of these things! Your child is a living, evolving being. He’s changing all the time – his body rhythms, ideas, moods, likes and dislikes. Why do you get stuck with thinking of your child one way and one way alone?
You have the luxury of changing your mind – you call it flexibility. But when your child does it, it becomes caprice?
Let’s face facts: you barely know yourself – why kid yourself that you know your child? And why do you want to know your child anyway? But knowing your child is not really the point, is it?
It is not as important to you that you know your child as it is that others should feel that you know your child. Why? So that they think of you as a good parent? Suppose they do think of you as a good parent. So what? And if they think of you as a bad parent; well, so what?
Like I’ve said so often before, it doesn’t really matter what others think of you as a parent (or even otherwise, most of the time, but that is a topic for another post!). Second, what they think of you depends upon how they’re feeling at that time. Lastly, most people are too preoccupied with themselves to really think about you. So your being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parent is just a dim sideline in someone else’s life.
And you’re twisting yourself into pretzels trying to get the ‘good’ parent tag! Ironic, innit? The only tag you need to think about is the one your child hangs on you, and even that you can happily ignore most of the time! 🙂
It doesn’t make you a better or more loving parent to ‘know’ your child better.
Sometimes, you know your child better than you want to know her (maybe she has a cruel streak, which you avoid acknowledging, even to yourself). At other times, you look at your child and wonder if you know anything at all about the person in front of you. (When your pacifist son gets in a fist fight, gives his friend a bloody nose and comes home thrilled with himself!)
You child just is who he is at that moment. And that is your magic opportunity!
If you can get out of the ‘knowing’-your-child trap, you can keep getting to know your child anew every day! You can enjoy being with the person your child is at that time, rather than trying to locate and have fun with the person she was yesterday, or a week ago, or a decade ago! This is one of the secrets to enjoying a great relationship with your child every day of your lives. 🙂
Your baby is born! Some kind friend has gifted you a Baby Book to record all her ‘firsts’ – if you haven’t already bought such a book yourself. You keep the Baby Book open, with the pen ready in it, to record her very first ‘first’.
Nothing happens. The first time you see her smile at you, you’re thrilled and you’re heading for the Baby Book when you realize that she’s not smiling; she’s filling her diaper with all her might! 🙂
You listen eagerly for her first word. When she begins to vocalize, you’re listening like a hawk – you catch every sound, every inflection of her vocal cords. You hear her crying, and you’re listening with so much attention that you understand what her cries mean at different times.
All this while, you talk carefully to her: enunciating every syllable, exaggerating the expression in your voice so that she can learn words properly. Slowly, she learns to speak. And you’re still listening. When she starts expressing herself in sentences, you feel great! She can say pretty much what she wants to, and she understands what you are saying to her. Hallelujah! Communication is happening!
She talks mainly ‘business’ with you: asking or answering questions, saying what she wants and doesn’t want – stuff like that. She doesn’t initiate conversation; she’s not sharing ideas. Obviously not – she’s too young!
Then she starts spending time away from you – at the daycare, with a caregiver at home, on a play date, at school. When she’s back home, you ask her, “Did you have a good time? What did you do? What did your friend say? What did you eat?”
She begins slowly to put sentences together, searching for words to tell you her experience. You’re still listening carefully, prompting her to use the correct words, the correct tense, to pronounce words properly, and of course, listening to what she did when she was away from you. You do this so you can help her make sense of the experience.
She may say, “I ate beans for the first time – it was yummy.” Or “my friend did not give me her favorite teddy bear”. Or “one boy fell down on the stairs”. Whatever she says, you will carry the topic forward. In this way, she understands what it means to have a conversation.
She enjoys the attention with which you listen. She enjoys the entire experience of her speaking and telling you her thoughts, and your response to them. Slowly, she will want to share her ideas as well. She will want to tell you in ever-greater-detail what happened in her day while you were away.
This is when you stop listening.
Not because you’re not interested! But because the events themselves are so trivial, so repetitive, and she takes so much time to string together a single sentence (she hesitates, stumbles over a word or phrase, goes back to it to correct herself – maybe a second or third time, even –, looks for a word, gets sidetracked by another thought, comes back to what she was saying, forgets some detail, starts over, takes so many breaths between phrases), – and the entire incident is narrated as a single sentence! – that your mind has wandered far from what she’s saying, even as your eyes are glued to her face, and you’re making the right facial expressions and sounds and nodding your head at the right times. (Did you actually read and follow the last sentence? Kudos to you! 🙂 But that’s what it’s like – somewhat… 🙂 )
And this whole story is just to tell you that when her friend poured water out from a jug into a glass, some of it spilled out! You’re not listening. You’re hearing the words on autopilot. But you are so tuned to your child that she gets the impression that you’re listening with rapt attention.
It takes time for your child to become a fluent speaker, and in the time it takes, you get used to hearing on ‘autopilot’. Believe me, he will realize long before you know he knows it, that you’re not listening to him. And he will stop speaking to you.
As his fluency increases, and there are others to listen to him – friends, teachers, perhaps other adults – he will stop telling you things in detail. He will revert back to ‘business’ talk. He remembers subconsciously that you were very attentive in the days when you both talked only about essentials, so he goes back to that kind of talking with you.
But he’s grown up now, maybe 6 or 7 or older, and you suddenly realize that you want to have a real conversation with him. So you initiate it, but he won’t respond. He’s not playing, because when he was trying to make conversation, you were busy elsewhere (mentally). You’ve done it too many times, and he’s had enough.
This is how communication stops between parents and children. It is always and only because parents stop listening.
It’s tempting not to listen, and I’ve been guilty of it too – more times than I care to remember. But the important thing is to catch yourself, and bring your attention back. No matter how young or old your child is, when you realize your attention has wandered and you haven’t been listening, interrupt your child: “Sorry, I was thinking of something else. I missed what you said. Can you tell me again?” Or it might be, “I need to do something right now, but can you tell me this when I’ve finished my work? I’ll be able to listen to you properly then.” (He may be busy then, or have forgotten, or not be in the mood to tell you. That is a risk you’re taking, but better to take the risk than to wing it and pretend to be listening when you’re not.)
He knows you’ve not been paying attention, and when you acknowledge this to him, he starts paying attention. He starts noticing that you try your best to give him your fullest attention. He feels acknowledged, appreciated, reaffirmed. He learns what it feels like to be listened to; he learns what listening means. He learns to listen to you. And he keeps speaking to you. You will not be one of the many parents who complain: “My kid doesn’t tell me anything!”
Of course, there will be times when you’re speaking and your child’s attention wanders. At times like this, I hear my daughter say, “Hey, Mom! I wasn’t listening. Can you replay?”
You bet I can! 🙂
One of the ways you show your love for your child is by telling him things which are good for him. Like ‘eat healthy food’, ‘get enough exercise and sleep’, ‘plan your work so you can get things done on time’, ‘put your things away so you know where to find them when you need them’. There are so many things you say.
Does your child do as you say? If yes, you are one of the lucky few! 🙂 It may start out that way: he may do as you say; but inevitably, he will begin to do as you do. You may say anything (and you do!), but what do you DO?
At first, your child may not openly question you. He may not ask: ‘Why should I eat healthy if you’re eating junk all the time?’ But he will certainly think it. Keep telling him what he ‘should’ do, and he will begin to question the discrepancy between what you say and your behavior.
He has every right to ask: ‘Your closet is a mess. Who are you to tell me to keep mine clean, organized?’ (No, this is not a made-up scenario. I know a lady who is chronically incapable of keeping her closet organized. The rest of her home is spick and span. When I first met her, almost 20 years ago, I asked her how she kept such a neat home but such a cluttered closet. “It’s my husband,” she explained. “I’m a stay-at-home wife with no kids. When we were first married, he’d walk in from work every evening to find the house looking like a tornado had blown through it. Three months later, he gave me an ultimatum: the house had to be ship-shape or else… But the closet is mine, so I indulge myself there. Today, she is the mother of two teenagers. Her home is still a model of organization. Her closet is still a mess. “Call it self-expression!” she says. :-))
Your son questions your right to give him advice that you don’t implement in your life. You have no answer. You know you’re struggling with yourself. You know you are doing your best all the time – doing your best to be your best. In some areas, you are not as successful as you’d like to be; but that doesn’t mean you want him to go through the same pain you have lived through.
You don’t want him to be like you – hunting frantically for the wedding license or ring at home (that you KNOW you kept so carefully right here) when you were due at your own wedding half an hour ago.
And what about the big ones? The principle is the same, but if you have an addiction, and you are counseling your child not to smoke, or drink, or abuse substances – what then? You are in the trap – maybe keen to get out of it, or maybe not.
But for sure you don’t want to see your child in the trap. And you don’t know how to convince her. Because she has every right to question you (and she will) when you say, “Don’t!” Because you can’t set her an example. Because you are still with the habit or behavior you are advising her against. But you would give a lot to make sure she stays away from it.
How can you reach your child in such a situation?
As always, honesty is the best policy. Tell him how you started. Tell him your journey. Tell him the mistakes you made. Tell him how you’ve felt over the years about this habit or behavior. Tell him what happens in your mind and body. Tell him how you’ve tried to stop; what it is that keeps you stuck. Share the experience – all of it.
Of course, you need to be careful, and tailor it to your child’s age and temperament. But share. It is the only way she will even think about doing as you say and not as you do.
Maybe it was peer pressure. Maybe you wanted to look cool. Maybe your ‘friend’ introduced you to it. Maybe you were very stressed at a point in time, and began the habit or behavior to deal with that stress, but couldn’t get out of it. Maybe you come from a home where this is the norm. Whatever the story, share it.
Show her the horror.
I used to be fairly disorganized as a person, but one day, I hit rock bottom. I was at the airport, at the check-in counter to board an international flight with my 15-month old, and I discover my passport is missing. I almost dropped the baby I was holding in my arms. I had to make this flight – I had no options.
Heart pounding, mouth dry, hands clammy, stomach roiling, sweat all over my body in 20°C temperature, legs trembling, knees crumbling, mind numbed with horror, facing a questioning airline ground crew member, managing handbag and cabin baggage. And before I could take it in – you guessed it – my daughter started screaming and flailing her arms and legs. The tension in me got to her, I guess.
I’ll spare you the frantic phone calls to my husband and his cross-city scramble to get my passport to me.
Today, I manage the family finances, and am considered a model of how to file (and retrieve! :-)) all manner of papers and things, so there’s a happy ending to this story. But it was a long, painful journey – one I could complete only because I shared the pain with my daughter and enlisted her help. “Remind me. Nag me. Make sure I put things away.” She loved it! 🙂
The fact is that each of us is dealing with some issue about which our children can ask us how we can dole out advice to them when we are not able to get our act together.
Don’t let their questions stop you from giving them advice. Tell them – despite not being able to set an example. It takes courage to acknowledge you’re not doing as well as you could be, and your child will recognize (and applaud) it, if only you take that courage in your hands, and SHARE. And you DO have the courage – your love for your child gives you the courage.
Who knows, you might just overcome the issue with your child’s encouragement and support. Maybe he’ll be the one to set you an example. 🙂 At any rate, there’s a good chance he’ll take your advice.
Ideas are powerful. Saints, intellectuals, thinkers, philosophers, scientists, litterateurs – in short, achievers from all walks of life extol the virtue and power of an idea.
Who am I to disagree with them? I, too, believe in the power of an idea. But I want to show you the other side of the coin today. The power of an idea not to build, develop, encourage, support, construct – but to destroy.
A 4-year old classmate told my daughter, “I’m bad, and I’m stupid.”
Three years later, my daughter asks me, “Why does he say this about himself? Every time we ask him to come up with ideas for group work, he says he’s too stupid – his ideas will be no good. And you know, Ma, he comes up with great ideas all the time. He had a wonderful idea the other day. We built the entire project around it, and we did so well! But still, he says he’s stupid. I keep telling him he’s not, but he won’t listen!” (She meant he wouldn’t believe her.)
I told her maybe he was having a bad day.
“He’s been this way for years now, ever since we began to go to school,” she said. “But how can he say that about himself? It isn’t even true!”
The boy was an enfant terrible, and I wondered if ever he would think well of himself. Happily, he was given a position of great responsibility at school, and that was the beginning of his transformation. Today he is hardly recognizable as the wild child he used to be. Today, he believes in his intrinsic worth. 🙂
But what a colossal waste – of time, of possibilities! How much pain he has endured! How much more fun he would have had, how much more he could have explored his potential, if only he hadn’t started with the idea that he was bad and stupid.
I was at my daughter’s school to pick her up. I was surrounded by a bunch of her 5-year old classmates. One girl with a wistful expression came up to me, and I said, “Hello, beautiful!” It’s not like I didn’t know her name, but I sometimes address children this way.
She looked up into my face and said simply, “I am not beautiful.”
My heart missed a beat.
With most other children, such a statement would mean they were angling for more compliments – a sort of teasing, laughing game.
But the way she said it, I couldn’t say another word to contradict her. I genuinely felt she was beautiful. And she genuinely felt she wasn’t. There was nothing more to be said – at least, not at that moment. I held her to me in a hug, which she fervently returned, and told her, “You’re a wonderful, special girl, and I think you’re lovely.”
Over the next seven years that I have known this child, I have tried to tell her at odd moments, overtly and covertly, that she is beautiful. One fine day, recently, she said to me, “You may think so, but I know I’m not.” It took seven whole years for her to believe that one person thought her beautiful! And this: a child who would leave her ‘friends’ and be with me every time she saw me!
In those seven years, I have seen her systematically destroy relationships with children. I have seen her strike out blindly at anyone who was happy or contented. I have seen her being underhanded, cruel and unbelievably vindictive when she did not get her way.
Even as I counseled other children with how to deal with the trouble she was creating for them, I could not bring myself to denounce her. Instead, I tried to explain to the others that she was coming from a place of pain (where she was supposed to conform to some specific idea of beauty – but did not, though I didn’t share this with the other children). And this lack of acceptance colored her entire life.
Imagine explaining this to 6-, 7- and 8- year olds! Understandably, they weren’t interested. “She has no right to behave this way! Why can’t someone talk to her parents? Why are they not told what she’s doing – how she is (mis)behaving?”
Her parents… Trust a child to hit the nail on the head!
I ask you – where do you think she got the idea she wasn’t beautiful? Right first time – at home, from her parents.
An idea is a scary thing.
Don’t worry about watching your words around your children. Don’t try to hide from them what you really think. Doing so is a waste of time and energy. Instead, revisit your ideas about them.
Because no matter how careful you are, your ideas will color your attitude, your body language, your mannerisms, your words, your expectation, your tone… – your ideas will create (or destroy) your relationship with your child.
And since the human mind focuses more on what ‘is not’, the idea you focus on will invariably be a negative, destructive one.
So you think she’s lazy. I’m not saying you’re wrong. Maybe she is lazy (according to you! :-)). Well, is that all there is to your daughter? Is that the only thing you can say to yourself about her? That she is lazy? There must be something else to her. Some quality of mind or heart that you believe is desirable?
Why let the negative (lazy) idea take over your mind? And hers too!
In any case, who are you to decide what lazy is? A snail might look lazy (slow) to you, but it is probably going as fast as it can! Who are you to judge?
Maybe she’s an early riser. Why not pick that up as an idea? Maybe she’s caring, well-mannered, an achiever, a sportsperson, an artist, neat and orderly. There has to be something.
Don’t do this when you’re tired or irritated. Do it when you’re overjoyed with her. What about her has you elated? What do you celebrate about her?
I have met some parents who, over more than a decade, have been unable to find a single positive thing about their child. To them I say, if you were to write your child’s obituary, what would you write? Identify a positive idea.
And stick with it.
An idea is a powerful thing – wield the power cautiously, wisely.