I likely wasn’t that different from many of my parental peers/contemporaries when it came to wanting to “shield” my children from heartache, discouragement, physical and emotional pain, rejection and disappointment – as often and as long as I possibly could. My thought process was fairly simplistic: I figured there would be plenty of time (and lots of opportunities) for them to experience those and countless other “negative” emotions when they grew older. Consequently, preserving the innocence and “joy” of childhood as long as possible became a high priority of mine. And so, early on, I donned the mantle of head cheerleader where my kids were concerned and, believe me, I took that “job” very seriously. In fact, while I stopped just short of posting “No Long Faces Allowed” signs and establishing NTZ’s (No Tear Zones) around the house, it wasn’t a secret that dad preferred smiles to frowns, a skip-in-the-step to lethargy, cheerfulness and optimism to discouragement and doubt – and laughter to tears. I not only encouraged my children to search for a silver lining, I “insisted” (in word and action) that they actually find it, even if, at the end of the day, I had to “construct” one out of whole cloth. When tears came and anger and frustration were expressed, as inevitably and repeatedly they were, I quickly sought to dispel them with humor, a new activity or toy, a diversion, something more “positively directed”—in the hope that it would lighten the mood, bring a smile or restore familial peace.
My goal was laudable: I wanted my children to be happy. However, the means I chose to achieve that goal were not. You see, I thought the best way to ensure my children’s happiness was to micro-manage their lives, including, among other things, the activities and people in it, in a way that minimized the risk that they would experience sadness, anger, pain, bitterness, rejection, disappointment, failure, etc.—in short, anything that threatened what I quickly (and accurately) perceived to be their beautiful, but especially delicate spirits. Ironically, of course, each time I sought to prevent them from experiencing those emotions, what I was really doing was sending the same subliminal message I too often heard from my own parents, albeit in a very different way: “Don’t bother coming to me if your intent is to share an emotion other than happiness or your latest success story ‘cause those are the only things welcome in our home!” Not surprisingly, over time, they responded in precisely the same ways I did—by shutting down, by isolating, by seeking other outlets to express themselves and their feelings. I misunderstood my role as parent, which was not to shield my children from the harms and emotions that are an inescapable part of growing up, of living, of loving, of self-discovery, but rather to equip them with the tools necessary to learn from those experiences—and then, little by little, to let them go, so that they could grow into the person they wanted to be, not the person I wanted or thought they should be.
Don’t misunderstand the message: I’m still a firm believer in the criticality of positive thought and in continually searching for “the bright side.” But I have learned (the hard way) that it is equally critical that we allow not only our children, but OURSELVES and all who we profess to love and care about, to fully feel in the moment – and that we validate those feelings. Where others, including our children, are concerned, we need to refrain from always rushing in to “try to make things better”—even if it means watching them suffer from time to time. The same is true for us and our emotions (i.e., we need to embrace them, not seek out others or, more troublingly, substances to avoid experiencing them). Because the truth is: We do our ourselves, our children and those we love a tremendous disservice by not doing that. Sooner or later, the tears will come – believe me, I’ve shed enough of them over the years (and watched my daughter shed twice as many) to know. Better that they be shed in the moment, than that you or your loved one try to play catch up after 25 years (or 54 as the case may be). We need to send a clear message to our children: there’s nothing “wrong” with being sad or disappointed or angry or heart-broken or disillusioned. To the contrary, those emotions and many others like them not only are an integral part of being human, but often times an indispensable source of growth and the catalyst for a deeper understanding of ourselves. Just ask the tree!