I'd come to pick up my child from my friend's house. On this
particular day, her son, about the same age as mine, was upset about being
barred from playing his beloved Minecraft because he hadn't listened to his mom's
request to do his chores. "Why can't I play it?" he wailed. "I never get to play." He stomped to his room and muttered loudly about the injustice under
his breath for a good 10 minutes, a miniature filibuster against the demands
of adult rules. On another day this emotional display could just as easily have
been my son.
Despite being sent to his room, my friend's son worked himself into an emotional state that reduced her to tears. Exhausted, battling a lengthy sinus infection, with a
mountain of work ahead of her that she'd put off while being sick, she'd
reached her emotional maximum. I hugged her, saying soothingly, "I know. it's hard ..."
Her son continued to shout for her, oblivious to his mother's
maxed out state of mind, when her 4-year-old daughter rushed over and tugged
on her mother's shirt sleeve. "Mom," she said, in her fairy-whispery little
girl voice, "*Glenn is calling you. Why aren't you going to him?"
We both burst into the kind of laughter reserved for
funerals and car accidents—a laughter you engage in so you don't cry.
In that moment I experienced an understanding that I've been
chewing over for much of my son's seven years of life—children view their parents
so inexactly, and thus the frameworks of their lives. No wonder growing up is
so hard, requiring much navigation, much error and humiliation. Our earliest
memories are lies shaped around an imperfect understanding of the world, the
people in it and ourselves. Parents, those scions of omniscience, are set up to
fail when their children come to realize parents can't do everything, protect them from all pain or even speak kindly all the time.
I might say, "My brain is tired, I need some quiet" and he might hear, "I don't want to talk to you."
And when parents themselves reach breakdown or need
understanding, children are precisely the least capable or likely to offer it.
This is important for parents to understand. Our children are not meant to help US through our difficult feelings; that is our job for them.
I know this now because daily I watch my nearly son incorrectly interpret my behavior, my words, a too-sharp
tone of voice, a request for him to do something. I might say, "You're
spilling your cereal" and he might hear, "You're a messy kid." I might say, "My
brain is tired, I need some quiet" and he might hear, "I don't want to talk to
He doesn't know, can't know, how the wheedling to stay awake
at the end of the night, the rounds of demands or attempts to manipulate me
into engaging him sometimes make me feel desperate and worn to a nub. He can't
fully grasp how the frustration that sneaks into my voice or the way I finally
shout after having all other requests ignored is not a statement of some
essential failing in himself but simply the end of my emotional stores for that
I don't know if it is a product of modern parenting that I even
sit pondering these things, or that I feel in a very bodily way both the small
pains of his own hard learning as much as my own guilt at my imperfect parenting.
Now that I understand ... I wish I could go back in time and thank my parents instead of giving them a hard time.
What I do know is that I blamed my parents for
many things, for many years, through many therapy sessions. For not putting my
safety or needs first, for being tuned out or emotionally suffocating—things that I now realize equal them doing their best.
Now that I'm a parent, there are so many things I'm learning to forgive, to reframe
through the lens of adulthood and experience. Now that I understand how complicated childhood is, from the other end of
the spectrum, I wish I could go back in time and thank my parents instead of giving them a hard time.
Psychologists remind us that it is the job
of the parent to digest these inexpert understandings of our children. They
are not old enough, their brains not fully formed enough to cut us slack or
provide us with the understanding that would bring relief. The role of the
child is to rail against the boundaries of the parent, and our job is to take
it. In the long run, this dynamic helps to fledge more capable adults. But it's trying in
All the more reason to have those trusted people in your
life who can hold you, remind you, point you toward reminders that you are
doing your absolute best. Parenting is hard, but it's worth it.