Explain what is going on.
Explain why you said or did what you said or did. Don’t hold it up as an example for your child to emulate. That is a different thing altogether; and one which will take you farther away from your child instead of allowing you to grow closer.
A friend always offered water to anyone visiting his home. He was training his children to do the same. One Saturday evening, his son opened the door to a couple armed with flowers and a huge gift bag. The college friends his parents had been awaiting had finally arrived.
As the child greeted them and ushered them in, his parents came out of their room, and there were effusive greetings on both sides. The boy disappeared into the kitchen. As he brought 2 glasses of water on a tray, his father entered the kitchen and said, “No water for them.” The boy was taken aback. For months now, his dad had been training him and his sister to seat guests, and offer them water. And he was now saying, “No water.”!
His parents got tea underway and he helped put out and serve the snacks. He sat for a while making polite conversation and then made himself scarce. The doorbell signaled the arrival of his sister from her tennis class. She walked into their room and he said, “Dad said not to give them any water.”
“Huh?” she asked, planning what to change into after her shower. “I’m sure there’s a reason.”
The evening wore on. The children ate dinner and went to bed while the guests were still around. At the breakfast table the next morning, the dad said, “You must’ve wondered when I asked you not to serve them water. You see, they live in the UK, and they have just arrived. They need a few days to adjust to the drinking water in India. Till they do so, drinking even filtered water might make them sick. That’s why I asked you not to offer them water.”
The boy was at peace. He understood what was going on.
There are so many times when we tell our children to behave a certain way. And then, we seem to behave in the opposite way ourselves! There is always a reason for it. Share that reason with your child. Let her see that there is a method to your madness, a specific cause for your saying or doing something a particular way.
When you explain what is going on, you are helping your child in numerous ways:
1. Growing up – In childhood, all the world is in black and white. “This is good; that is bad.” “Do this; don’t do that.” “Be this way; don’t be that way.” But as your child grows, he realizes that these rules don’t apply beyond a point.
Telling a 3-year old not to talk to strangers is fine. Saying the same thing to your 10-year old before sending her off to camp is weird. You don’t want your 10-year old to talk to strangers either. But the definition of the word ‘stranger’ has changed enormously in the 7 years between the ages of 3 and 10. These changes are gradual and ongoing, and your child will be able to learn and deal with them only if you keep explaining the exceptions to her; if you keep adding the shades of grey.
This introduces her to the real world, and prepares her for a real life, where most things are uncertain and unknown, though we like to pretend that we have great control over things. (“If you are ‘good’, then ‘good’ things will happen to you.” Yeah, right! 🙂 )
Real life consists of hundreds of thousands of exceptions. Explain each one to your child as you come across them together.
2. Increasing his capacity to think – It is only when he learns that he needs to keep in mind many things that your child will be able to come up with appropriate responses; only then will he become response-able. Earlier, the rule was simple: guest, seat, offer water. Now, he needs to think about where this guest is from. That creates an acceptable variation in behavior: guest, seat, don’t offer water (if he knows they’ve just come to India from a foreign country).
Slowly, as more variables get added, he will learn to think of all the ifs-and-buts on his own. Is this someone who only drinks boiled water? Is this person recovering from a water-borne disease? Is it the dead of winter and the person is cold and sick, in which case, they’d prefer being offered a hot drink rather than water?…
But your child will think of other options, other factors, other responses only if you explain things to him.
3. Clear confusion – When you say one thing and seem to do another, your child is confused. This confusion will prevent her from following even the rules she ‘knows’. At every stage, if you can explain your reaction and behavior to her, she will be clear. She will appreciate that you are a person of integrity who follows your beliefs, even if they seem confusing to others at times. She will learn to be a thinking, considerate person, based on the example you set for her.
I have always been particular about speaking my mind to people. I won’t let them walk away with an ‘incorrect’ impression of me.
One day, I’d taken my daughter along with me to work. As we sat down to lunch, the client’s father, a gentleman in his 70s, joined us. He asked after my family, and when he learnt that I had only the one child, he told me, “That is why you women put on so much weight. (! 🙂 ) Women are made for child-bearing. Unless you have at least 4 children, there is no hope for you. Stop working. Go back home. Have a few more children…”
At 6, my daughter understood what he was saying. I’m blessed to have a tactful child, who barely paused in the act of eating as the old man spouted all this. Lunch got over and I got busy with the rest of my work.
I’d barely turned the key in the ignition to go back home when my daughter burst out, “That man was so rude! He was crazy – imagine saying things like that to you! Why didn’t you say anything back to him? Why were you quiet?”
She’s right. In most instances, I’d have taken issue with what he’d said, so it was inexplicable to her how I ‘took it’ lying down – all the junk the gentleman was pushing at me.
“He’s really old, and that is the way he’s been brought up. He’s never going to change the way he thinks. There would be no point in my saying anything. He would merely have felt hurt and insulted that I ‘talked back’ to him, so I let him say his piece. At no point did I nod or indicate any kind of agreement. He realized that I didn’t agree, but I’m sure he appreciated that I was courteous enough to hear him out.”
I continued: “The funniest thing is that his daughter-in-law (my client’s wife) has only 2 children, and he knows that, and knows that I know it too! It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to raise the fact saying he hadn’t even been able to influence his own daughter-in-law so why was he trying to give me his take on women’s health, but his age and lack of education shielded him from any such reaction on my part.”
She wasn’t happy that I had let it pass, but she understood my point. Sometimes, we let things go out of consideration for others. In my book, such consideration doesn’t make me less honest. In someone else’s book, it might do so. Each person has to decide for himself and herself, given the specific situation.
4. Avoid misunderstandings – If you explain things to your child, you minimize the possibility of misunderstandings. This keeps your relationship strong. It keeps you talking to each other through all the storms, troubles and alarms. It keeps you communicating through the hormonal rushes, the hot flushes and the mid-life crises. Not a bad thing, eh? 🙂
So simple! Explain what is going on.
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂
Be who you are.
I can almost see you wrinkle your forehead in perplexity. “Be who you are?” What could I possibly mean by that? I mean, who else could you be but yourself?
But there are so many times when you don’t let yourself be who you are. Here’s what I mean:
1. You hide your real emotions – Maybe you are feeling upset because of something your child did or did not do (forget to wish you for an important date, ignore your request that she keep quiet because you are unwell, say hurtful things to get back at you for not being ‘nice’…). Do you hide that you are upset? When your child asks you if you’re okay, do you manufacture and flash a false smile at her to signify you’re alright?
Or do you tell her you’re not feeling so good and need a little time and space to recover? (This is very different from telling her: “I’m upset because you misbehaved with me.” When you say this, you are telling her that she is responsible for how you are feeling. She will learn not to be responsible for her own feelings. You are also trying to influence her behavior, which will encourage her to manipulate others and be manipulated by them. But letting her know that you are feeling not-so-good is neither manipulative nor false.)
2. You are afraid that you will not live up to the image of the ideal parent – If you have an image in your head of how an ideal parent should behave, you try to be as close to that image in real life as possible. But you are not that image – and so, you end up being who you are not.
You may believe you are not attractive, not attentive, not loving, not educated, not rich, not talented, not smart – in short, you may believe that in some way or other you are not a ‘good’ parent. To reduce the pain of not being ‘good enough’, you deny your natural instincts, ruthlessly suppress your nature and personality, and set out to be the image of what you believe is the ‘perfect’ parent.
A friend of mine had an obsessive-compulsive mother. If a single t-shirt in her closet was out of place in the pile, the mom would pull out everything from the closet. No, I’m not exaggerating. At the end of a few minutes, the closet would be empty, and everything in it would be strewn all over the floor. My friend would then be asked to rearrange every single article of clothing back into the closet, making sure to get it right with no folds or creases, no clothes folded ‘out of line’, and all folded clothes arranged in perfectly ordered piles.
When she told me this, I smiled and remarked that she must have spent a lot of her childhood (re)arranging closets. She said she’d sworn then that her kids could be as messy as they liked and she wouldn’t utter one word of reproach. I stayed with her a few years ago. Her son was then a boisterous 7, and I was impressed to see how clean his room was. As he showed me his new toy and replaced it before going out to play, my friend called out to him: “Come and put your car back properly in the pile of toys. The way you’ve done it now, the box is tilting off the pile.” 🙂
I reminded her of her childhood decision (it had almost been in the nature of a vow) to let her kids be messy. “Oh! I’m nothing like my mom. When my son sits on the bed and the sheets get creased, I don’t throw down the bedclothes and ask him to make the bed again. He keeps sitting or reading or playing. All I ask is that when he gets up, he should straighten the bedclothes. But I have to ask him to keep the closet neat, or how will he find his toys?” There wasn’t any point telling her that the difference she was trying to point out was so negligible as to hardly exist.
Over the weekend that I stayed with her, I watched her seesaw between letting her child ‘be messy’ (!) and straighten up obsessively after him. As for the boy, he was afraid to move a muscle in his own house lest he disarrange something. What a terrible way to live!
So – whenever you next catch yourself living up to some ‘good’ or ‘approved of’ or ‘ideal’ notion, do yourself and your child a favor. Drop it. Flawed as you are (and we are all flawed 🙂 ), you are of infinitely greater value just as you are, than pretending to be someone you are not. Your pretence will increase your anxiety and confusion, bewilder your child, and encourage her to be who she is not. Why perpetuate the misery?
Set yourself – and your child – free. Free to be who you are. This is the only way you will ever have a real and meaningful relationship with your child.
You may be convinced that you are not ‘good’, but the truth is that you are ‘good enough’. And that’s enough. Now all you need to do is believe it and carry on from there.
As Ingrid Bergman said, “Be yourself. The world worships the original.”
When a loved one dies, you are prepared for your child to feel grief. Depending on how you deal with grief, you will help your child deal with it too.
At various times, and depending on your child’s personal preferences, you can employ different solutions to help your child cope with grief. These might be (but aren’t limited to):
1. Holding your child – Unfortunately, this is used too little once children grow beyond 5 – 7 years of age. Your teenage son may not feel comfortable if you give him a full-frontal embrace as you did when he was a child, but you can definitely put your arm around him, or hold his arm, or use touch effectively to convey your understanding of and sympathy with his feelings of loss.
2. Talking – Your child may want to talk, or not. It’s easier if she wants to talk, because you will be able to understand some of the emotions she is grappling with. But if she isn’t, you can still draw her out. Share a story where a child is dealing with loss. This could be a true story of how you or anyone else your child connects with, had to experience loss as a child, and how you (or the person) dealt with it. If there is no true story, share a fictional story. Stories are a great way to obliquely approach issues either you or your child is not comfortable talking about openly.
3. Dedicating a project – Consider dedicating a project to the departed person. Every time your child is taken over by searing grief, he could write about what is troubling him at that time. An example:
If your child can’t handle walking into a house where the dog that welcomed him home is no more, let him write about it in a diary, or draw a picture of it. Or locate a photo of the pet jumping up at him in welcome. These little remembrances can then be collected in some form which would act as a remembrance to the pet.
Slowly, as your child begins to deal with the memories, the reality of life with the one who is gone emerges. Instead of being only the ‘beloved’ dog, he also becomes the ‘naughty’ dog who always chewed your child’s toys, the ‘greedy’ one who stole sausages and cookies out of plates when no one was looking (and sometimes even when they were! 🙂 ), the ‘irritating’ one who had to be taken out twice to do his business late at night in the winters… Balance begins to be restored.
You can formalize the remembrance in the form of a photo album which is sent to close friends and family, or you may even consider enrolling them into the project. In this way, you may all help each other find healing, peace, and acceptance.
4. Creating rituals – You may find it helpful to create rituals – anything that gives a sense of order to your child. “Granny loved roses, and every Sunday she cooked you a special meal, so we’ll buy a rose every Sunday to remember her.” It could be much simpler. ““Granny loved roses, and every Sunday she cooked you a special meal, so every Sunday you could learn the name of one variety of rose (or draw her a card with a rose on it).” “He loved reading books, so we’ll buy you a book every month in memory of his love for books.”
You need to be careful when creating rituals – create and execute with a light touch; you don’t want your child getting obsessed with the performance of these rituals.
When a loved one dies, you are prepared for your child to feel grief. But your child may be feeling many other emotions which might take you by surprise. You might need to work hard to get your child even to acknowledge them, but most children do feel these emotions in small or large measure when a loved one dies.
These are the emotions you need to address if you want your child to be equipped with the means to handle loss, especially loss due to death:
1. Confusion – “What will happen now?” No matter how young your child may be, explain to her in a way she understands, what comes next. What will happen to the body? What happens to the dead person’s effects – clothes, toiletries, papers, car – all the detritus of life? What are the rituals your family will follow? What is their significance? How might these rituals be different from those your child is familiar with through movies, TV, story books etc? What happens to the person’s room / house?
Answering these questions will help her feel more settled about all the chaos that attends a death. It will help her to feel like she’s part of what’s going on. Depending upon the circumstances, you may even want her to share in some of these tasks / rituals, such as choosing a favorite photo, or deciding which memento she’d like for herself, or whom to give some of the effects to.
2. Fear – “I once did / thought / said something bad to / about the person who has died. If they are angry with me, will they come back to haunt me? Will they send me ‘bad luck’? Will they make me or someone else die?” Draw out your child to speak about these emotions. Again, stories are great for this. Then help him deal with the fear.
3. Anger – “Why did … have to die?” The subtext being: “Why now? Why this way? Why not someone else?” Explain that everyone has to die sometime, and the time and manner of our death is not of our own choosing. (This won’t work if the person has committed suicide, in which case you need to deal with far greater feelings of fear, confusion, and guilt.)
I once read a story that might help you answer the question “Why did it have to be …?”
Someone lost his mother, and he raved, “Why my mother? Why my mother? Why not someone else?”
His father, who was equally broken-hearted, replied: “Okay. Let’s say it shouldn’t have been your mother. Whose mother should it have been? Pick a friend – name one – whose mother should have died instead of yours.”
The child could give no answer, but the silence was the beginning of his acceptance of the fact of his mother’s death. Death has to happen. To everyone. The only thing you can do – for yourself, for your loved ones, and for the one who is no more, is to accept it, and move on.
4. Guilt – “I didn’t do enough for … when they were alive, and now I can’t ever do what I meant to do.” “I was mean, and I didn’t get a chance to say I’m sorry.” All of us suffer from guilt – it is part of the human condition, and the best we can hope for is to make our peace with it. Explain to your child that no matter how much love he had shown for the dead person, he would always reproach himself; he would always feel that there was more he could have done. Tell him this feeling is natural. Let him know that the departed person would hate for him to feel so burdened. He (the child) was much loved by the dead person, who would hate to see him so sad and feeling guilty about non-issues. Essentially, you’re telling your child: “Be happy for …’s sake.”
5. Responsibility – “… died because I did / did not do something.” Does this sound ridiculous? Maybe, but it isn’t. Children have a tremendously inflated sense of their own importance. They feel that the sun rises and sets by their wish. So it is natural that they understand every event as a natural result of something that they did or did not do. Death is an event too. And you need to help them realize that powerful as they are, they do not control death.
Maybe your child’s toy tripped up the grandparent, who fell and injured herself so seriously that she died. Your child will feel responsible, because it was her job to put her toys away, and she had been reminded to do this even on the fateful day, but had postponed doing it. And then – her grandmother tripped on the toy…
You could try explaining in many ways: “Gran had to go some way – it happened to be this way. It was just chance.” “So many people trip over toys (and other things), but they don’t always hurt themselves enough to die from it.” “The toys lay around the floor every day for weeks and months and years, without anybody being harmed by them.” “Gran never tripped over anything usually, even the toys in her way. Maybe she lost her balance only on that day. Maybe she was dizzy from being unwell or from some medication she was taking”…
Helping your child cope with the death of a loved one involves much more than just dealing with feelings of loss and grief. And you need to be ready to help him deal with it all. It won’t be easy. It will take time. It will seem like you are moving two steps back for every step you take forward. But it will happen; you and your child will cope – well.
I wish you healing and peace.