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Children Just Don't Understand (And It's Not Their Job)

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 ..."

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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 you."

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 day.

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.

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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 the process.

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.

Photo via Twenty20/Brittany Leigh Neal

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