We are a family of 7 with two teenagers. We have been locked down just like everyone else in our constantly cluttered ranch home with bickering children who have had enough of the restrictions of COVID. Why do I mention teenagers? They aren’t so fun to live with 24/7, as I’m sure their parents aren’t much fun for them to be around either. In hindsight, there were memories made like my girls making fried Oreos (among other concoctions) in the kitchen, Pinterest art projects made by my five year olds that adorn the walls of my kitchen, older siblings finding a new appreciation for each other (mostly), and the completion of my second book. It was a stressful and at times depressing three months, just as it was for so many of you. With our annual summer vacation to Quebec cancelled and my kids devastated, I knew they needed some kind of escape after the COVID shutdown. We did too. We needed a place where we wouldn’t have to entertain and where drinks flowed freely for two tired parents who are also sick of each other! We packed em’ up and drove two hours north to an indoor/outdoor water park. Some might say it was risky but we took all precautions and took comfort in the fact that the newly opened park limited capacity to 25%. I write this as we are currently driving home with rosy cheeked, sun-kissed kids, no one fighting, and each willingly said “thank you for the trip.” Success.
One thing I learned long ago as a child is to watch more than speak. You can take in far more of the world that way. As I sat next to the book I was supposed to read for Yoga Teacher Training, I kept noticing the bored dads who were on their 3rd beer while other dads happily headed down watersides with their tweens hoping to connect and make memories. The moms mostly seemed tired. Changing diapers, dragging around kids, and desperately wanting to just sit down. I remember the days of little ones and waterparks and a teeny part of me misses them. But not enough to go back. I feel as though I’ve arrived. I’ve put in my time and instead enjoy my gin and tonic pool-side, occasionally giving a wave to my five year olds and taking breaks to splash around with them. But what I noticed the most as I studied people is something that upset me. Maybe I’m too much of a nurturer, but either way this pattern brought up something in me related to how we treat children and at times ignore their authentic fears. We dismiss them for the sake of moving forward and us wanting them to experience something new. I understand there’s a time for this, but more often there’s a time to simply hold space for them.
My daughter and I walk slowly behind a mother and her 9 year old son up what feels like a million steps while carrying our giant tubes for the Elephant Trunk waterslide. We walk slowly because the boy doesn’t want to go on the ride. The mom ushers him on, saying “we can’t go back.” He keeps looking down noticing how far he is into this fear infused ride waiting for him. When we get to the top she places the tube in the starting gate and says “get in, you’ll have fun.” He doesn’t. He backs away. The worker waits patiently as this seems to be a normal occurrence at this spot in the park. The boy refuses (good for him!). The mother rolls her eyes and says “well that was a waste of a walk.” They head back down, the boy hangs his head low, defeated, wishing that she listened to him on that first step. I’m sure he feels shame and not so much like the other brave 9 year olds in the park. But I’m proud of him. I smile as he walks by and hope he catches the glimmer in my eye of what I just witnessed and what I know. He stood up for himself. He WAS brave, he spoke his truth and listened to what was really going on inside.
I hold my five year old’s hand as we walk to pick up our Chuck E Cheese style pizza across the park. We encounter a rickety bridge meant to move when you walk over it. And we encounter the same scenario. A dad frustrated that his three year old is too scared to make the 10 foot walk to the other side. He pulls her hand, squeezes it. “Hurry up, you’re not going to fall” he says. She starts crying. Fear fills her face, she doesn’t want to go but she doesn’t know any other way to tell her dad that this is too much for her. He doesn’t honor her pleas and drags her across the bridge as she trips and falls midway through. He scoops her up, plops her down and continues to walk too fast for her little feet which causes her to have to run in order to keep up. No connection, no praise for trying, no carrying her 30 pound body for comfort. Willful ignorance toward her feelings. I’m fuming. I picture myself getting on my knees to her eye level assuring her that I would carry her. But she’s not mine, she’s someone else’s and it’s just simply hard to watch. I’m not the perfect parent. I fail every single day. In those moments I try to apologize to my kids and expect the same from them. We’re all trying, that’s all we can do. But in the process let’s try in such a way that we keep in mind we are fostering and guiding, not pushing and telling our children how they SHOULD be feeling at any given moment.
What does it mean to honor something or someone? It means we respect who they are; we value their position of authority or leadership. It means we survey the old battlefield full of tourists and respect the events that took place there long ago. It means we treasure the jewelry box that our grandmother left us or the watch our grandfather chose to give to us. There are so many ways to honor those who came before us, but in this case we can apply the word to our children. We can step out of our own self-righteous, proud, and ignorant behavior in order to give the child the opportunity to practice life. As adults there are plenty of things we are afraid of trying so we just don’t do it. No one is pushing us to sky dive if we don’t want to. We aren’t being dragged onto the plane and pushed out if we aren’t ready. It’s up to us to decide that. I’m tired of people handling children as if they don’t have a voice or if what they say doesn’t matter.
I spend the majority of my job talking to hundreds of children in elementary and middle school gyms about the importance of “speaking your truth.” The younger ones listen intently; the middle schoolers are distracted by a myriad of self-conscious thoughts common to any tween or teenager. However, when I drive this point home, the middle-schoolers look up from playing with their shoelaces and trying to whisper to their friends without getting caught by their teachers. They hear what I’m saying, and for some of them this idea is new. I can tell it’s foreign to them. I let my words sink in with a pause and hope I’m getting through to at least 30% of them. I whisper to myself, “this is why you do what you do, Sarah.” Hoping they remember my small pep talk, I resolve to revisit this topic when I see them the next month.
It’s time we put aside our own agenda in order to see the child. Embrace the sullen and quick-tempered teen as a thinking, feeling, and growing human being just trying to figure out how to navigate the world. Slow down. Look for the signs. Notice your teenager who quickly retreats to their room after school. Check in on them. Talk to them or just sit next to them. If they don’t want you around, then text them! Be patient with the five year old as they cry about their fears about going to Kindergarten. Don’t say, “you’ll make new friends, the bus is exciting, or you’ll be fine, don’t worry.” Acknowledge the fear, step into their body and out of your own. And for goodness sake, don’t dismiss them. You have your kids for a short eighteen years and one of the best gifts you can give them is your time.
You have your kids for a short eighteen years and one of the best gifts you can give them is your time.
How you handle that time with them is what they will remember. Because here’s the thing: when a child encounters a difficult experience they may not remember the time you spent guiding them and listening to them, but they WILL remember the times when you didn’t. When you dismissed them because you were too busy or, even worse, spoke to them in language suggesting that what they are feeling isn’t valid enough to listen to. There will be an element of shame embedded in them for not being brave enough, strong enough, or powerful enough. I don’t say this to scare you into better parenting techniques. I say this for the sake of the child and to remind myself and others that kids matter. Actions are caught, not taught. Be the action in order to teach them how to navigate the world. And through this process, you just might learn something too.