We are skilled at showing interest in our children and their words and their work. It’s one of the reasons we are good with people—we like to make others feel good about themselves. One of the root reasons for this is because when we were children, we kind of needed a little more effort to be made by the adults in our life (e.g., parents, teachers, relatives, neighbors) to make us feel noticed, accepted, approved of, included, and special. We may have heard the words every so often (how many times has anyone ever told us that we were “special”?), but we didn’t necessarily feel it because the actions weren’t completely there to back up the claim.
The truth is that we rubbed shoulders with and shared many an environment with full grown adults who had major psychological problems. We didn’t know that then. Our parents were just parent-y, right? The mood swings were normal, right? The way our parents bickered was typical of married people, right? School was school, and piano lessons were piano lessons. That’s how things were back then. The adults were the important ones, not the kids. But we knew that something was missing. Everyone lacked the empathy and sensitivity that we needed as a child.
We (as the “special” child we were) might have come off as way older than our years, but that didn’t mean that we were any less a child. And what is more, we may have learned how to navigate those choppy waters and how to stay resilient nonetheless, but that didn’t mean that we were numb to the harmful effects of criticism, rejection, passive aggressiveness, and neglect. We are forgivers, and we always gave people the eternal second chance—but now that we are older, we know that we can’t keep on living that way. As some point, we have to separate ourselves out from the toxicity—and that is what we have done.
Yet even with all of the conscious effort to not be dismissive with our own children (as an attempt to break the cycle we are so familiar with), we still find that it’s almost second nature—as if it were part of our DNA or something. But hear this please: the very fact that we are aware of it lets us know that we can beat this thing. It is hard, yes. But so is winning piano competitions and getting straight A’s and teaching middle school and earning a Master’s and birthing three babies. And we have done those things. So whenever we want to reach a goal, we already know what to do: work hard and don’t quit.
We must actively work against being dismissive with our children and with anyone in our life. Sure, we get it now: our brains are overly active, and there is always something that we are doing or working on or thinking about. But when actual people in our midst are wanting our attention (or needing it or demanding it or vying for it), we can’t just wall ourselves off from that simply because we are annoyed or bored or concentrating or being avoiding or hesitant to letting our defenses down. It’s okay to let our minds go into low gear so that we can connect—really connect—with the people who mean the most to us (like our children and our spouse).
So the next time our little one shows us something or tells us something, we are going to concentrate on them and give them our full attention and look at them in the eyes and show our interest in and approval of them with our words and our body language. We can say, “This is amazing!” and mean it, we can smile, we can touch their arm or give them a hug, we can ask them questions to prompt them to expound on what they have shown us or told us, and we can linger until they are done with us (not the other way around). Yes, we are busy. Our lives will never be un-busy ever again (not with kids in the house!). But we can take the few minutes that it takes to pour into our children when they come to us to share something that they are proud of or something that they want us to be a part of.
The more comfortable our children become at coming to us about anything (positive or negative) and the more they experience an encouraging and uplifting reception, the stronger of a bond they will have with us and the greater the likelihood that what we are growing with them stays healthy and flourishing. For all the guilt that we may be refusing to pick up from our departure from our own parents’ lives, we know that that was a necessary move (literally and figuratively). Self-preservation at its finest. But it doesn’t have to be that way with our children. Not if we can help it. (Meaning, it doesn’t have to come to them moving away from us geographically as well as emotionally—nor do we have to fall into the trap of becoming distant with our children just because we are in new territory with them or because we are uncomfortable or because we are still working our own issues.) And it starts with staying aware of when and how they need us now and doing our best to meet those needs and lay a firm foundation on which to build the rest of our relationship with them.