Recently, my son came over, looked seriously into my eyes, held my hand and said, “Mom, it’s not that you’re a bad cook…really, it’s just that I don’t like anything you cook.”
I felt a pang in my chest. I could feel a rush of hurt swelling inside, my defenses started coming up, I wanted to prove him wrong, remind him that he did like my food, frantically I searched my mind for memories of past dishes he praised.
Then I noticed an underlying sadness; what if he grew up never having a warm memory of yummy meals his mother made? Everyone loves the way their mother cooked something.
In an instant, my ego collapsed and I sensed a desperation for my seven year old son to enjoy the food I made for him everyday. I sat for a few seconds as he held my hand. Perhaps he noticed a momentary variation in my body language because he moved to hug me, then hesitantly asked, “Is it okay I said that?”
I switched gears, “Of course it is,” I said, bringing him close. I explained, “I would love to improve my cooking,” then I hugged him and asked, “Do you have any suggestions? Whose food do you like? What type of things do you prefer?” I asked with genuine curiosity, “What didn’t you like about this evening’s meal?”
We celebrated the cooking of others in his life and then spoke about meals which were more exciting for him. Soon after, he was beaming as he shared that one of his passions was to become a famous chef at a top restaurant simply because he loves great food.
I did not tell him about how healthy and nutritious my meals were. I did not remind him that he actually loved my pot roast last month or that he should be grateful that I manage to cook something decent with all the things I juggle in a day.
Instead, I held the mindset of a great detective and remained calm, rational and objective. I took charge of both of our feelings, including my ego. I didn’t want to make assumptions and continued to ask probing, granular questions. By this time I had become good at it. It was not the first time I had felt the sudden slap of my child’s sharp honesty. I can still remember the day he revealed, “Daddy is more fun than you.”
I wanted to shout, “Are you kidding? I’m the good time Mom! I dance and sing and organize just about every awesome event you’ve ever experienced.” I wanted to convince him with epic stories of how many times I’ve made him laugh and scream with delight.
But I didn’t.
I stopped myself from reacting and switched into loving detective mode, recognizing that for some good reason, at this moment, there was a perfectly valid reason for him to prefer his Daddy over me.
Again, I breathed in and said with a sparkle in my eye, “Tell me about the fun that Daddy has with you.” “Teach me more about how you like to have fun.”
I quickly realized I would never be the Mom who flips him in the air and flings him down onto a bed but there were still many things I could do. It’s because of these intimate conversations, we’ve created “dates” together where we explore what a perfect day of “just us” could look like; we plan for it, then make it happen. I also never forget to end the evening with a, “How did this date feel for you?” My version of creating a positive mental “Save as,” both for him and me.
I tell these stories to share how I’ve tried to invite my kid’s opinions forward and share something much deeper about their reality. When we parents create trust and intimacy consistently with children, we are able to calm our kids down, get kids to listen and encourage them to share everything about their life openly and often, without boundaries. When this occurs, we have the privilege to witness the intricacies of their fears, passions, hurts and hopes and intuitively we know something magical is occurring.
So before I share some secrets to creating this kind of openness, I need you to imagine the most heartbreaking, stressful situation you’ve had with your child.
Here’s some examples of what children say:
I hate myself.
I hate you.
I hate my brother/sister.
I don’t like school.
I’m not good at that/anything.
You like (insert sibling) more than me.
Perhaps it’s something they did, such as:
Hit people or you.
Break things in the home.
Continuously do things that annoy you.
Tantrum in public.
Storm upstairs screaming.
When these happen, we may feel panic, desperation, anger or even sadness. Immediately, we want to fix, defend, argue, question and then feel tension, anger, frustration or sadness in our bodies. So do our kids.
What happens next will determine every future interaction with your child. In that crucial moment, a parents response has the power to close the conversation down and unwittingly restrict their openness and future honesty with guilt, shame or blame.
However, there is a better way:
Try a new move.
No matter what your child says, believe in your heart and mind it’s 100% justified and reasonable. They may say or do the most outrageous, horrible, frightening or hurtful thing. Still, trust there is some kernel of truth and validity to what they said, felt and did.
This means if your child says something extreme like “I hate you.”
Do not say:
That hurts me (creates guilt in your child and shuts conversations down).
Well, I’m sorry you feel this way (shows indifference and no desire to understand their pain).
It’s not nice to hate (judgmental and shames).
You wouldn’t like it if someone said that to you (doesn’t change a future behavior, makes kid feel bad & guilty).
That’s a mean thing to say (again, shames them and confirms you don’t understand them).
Why would you say such a thing? (guilt and won’t solve any of the difficult feelings they are experiencing)
How about a time out!? (threatens, dismisses the situation and punishes without trying to understand your child)
You haven’t seen anything yet! (threatens and shows vindictiveness)
Some other defensive, angry rant which adds fuel to the fire, aggravates your child and leaves you feeling anger, resentment and later on, guilt.
Instead, energetically make the switch and go into a loving and curious detective mode:
I’m really interested in learning about what happened here, please tell me more.
I can imagine you’re in a great deal of pain right now and I must have done something to upset you. I want to see how I can fix it.
I can imagine you must be very angry right now. I know when I’ve felt someone wasn’t listening to me, I didn’t like them too much either.
Sometimes I do and say things that aren’t the best. Mommy/Daddy are learning new moves all the time. Can you teach me how I can love you better?
When we respond like this, our kids feel met on their level. They also feel understood & safe which brings their defenses down. They’ll then open themselves up and become trusting. But to do this well, we must hold all the attributes of a good detective. We must have a deep desire to transcend whatever conscious or unconscious thoughts, biases and blind spots we have that keep us reactive instead of responsive.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Wiki Commons