Our homeschool park day is always a good opportunity for me to do some thinking about this whole parenting thing. Earlier in the day, I had read one of Scott Noelle's daily e mails. In it, he challenged us to think about our tendency to want our kids to be "nice". He goes on to suggest that kids provide an excellent example of how to not stuff our feelings. As adults, many of us have learned how to hide our true feelings in a given situation in an effort to be socially acceptable. Nice people are easier to be around. Pleasant people generally don't push our buttons. When our kids act out their true feelings, it's often not very nice.
My son Charley is seven and a half. He has no trouble acting out his true feelings. When he's angry, you'll know it. When he thinks you're being unfair and he doesn't want to play with you, he is unafraid of letting you know just that. Being nice is not important to him. That's not to say he is never pleasant company. He is also thoughtful and curious. He can be joyful and carefree and adventurous. He is playful and courageous and sweet. But when he's mad or frustrated, look out.
What I struggle with, is navigating through the perceptions other adults I spend time with have about my son. So many parents feel the need to teach their kids how to be nice. When I'm feeling particularly anxious about Charley's behavior, I fall into the same habit. Coaching him through a nicer way; a kinder, gentler way of interacting with others. But when I find myself doing this, I'm left with a yucky feeling inside. It doesn't feel like it's serving Charley. It feels like it's serving me.
Maybe people will think I'm a better parent if they hear me tell Charley that he shouldn't call people names. Maybe so and so will have more respect for me if I tell Charley that "we don't say things like that in our house." Because, really, what's happening when these phrases jump out of my mouth, is that my feelings of insecurity and inadequecy are showing up in a big, big way.
I know that Charley knows how to be nice, just like I know that he knows his own name. No one needed to teach him how to be himself. He just is. And part of who he is, is a child who experiences life in a big, big way. Sometimes that experience is loud and annoying and hurtful. But I'm not convinced that I need to teach him how to do it differently.
At park day, a younger child came over to the blanket where the moms were sitting, upset that Charley had insulted his weapon. I cringed. No one wants to be the parent of the child that is not being nice. I expressed that it sounded like Charley was feeling upset for some reason and that maybe leaving him alone for a while would be a good idea. I've spent a lot of time and energy in the past "talking things out" with my kids and their friends when one of them is struggling. I still think that this is often a good idea, but I'm beginning to think that what I would rather do is model an attitiude of detachment. We all seem to take everything so personally.
If Charley insults my weapon, it's really not about me......or my weapon. It's about Charley. We don't insult one another when we're feeling strong and confident and happy. Rather, our darker, negative emotions tend to rise up to the surface when we're feeling crummy inside.
One of the most insightful things I've heard lately is, "What other people say and do is a reflection upon them, not upon me." When I think about what I would like for my children to learn in this life, it's not how to stuff their feelings or how to change who you are so that others will like you. I would much prefer that my children learn that they do not have to be a victim of someone else's experience. If Fred is having a bad day and doesn't feel like playing, I don't have to take that on. As a good friend says, "It's not your dog, so don't walk it."
As the other moms and I talked about this issue at park day, we grappled with the implications of letting our kids learn their own lessons. One mom suggested that she felt it was important to help our kids understand that there are certain things that you just don't do or say in social situations. I'm not so sure. I think we may be selling our kids short by assuming that they can't figure this out for themselves.
I have felt the need in the past to explain to Charley that people don't like to be called names and that so and so may not want to play with him if he calls him an idiot (man, I hate that word). But Charley has experienced this on his own. He has seen the reaction that he gets from other kids (and their parents) when he explodes in anger. It's obvious that it makes people uncomfortable. More often than not, Charley doesn't really want to play either, and what he's actually looking for is a way out. He doesn't need me to show him how to be nicer. Rather, I think he's looking for support of another kind.
I've found that this support doesn't come in the moment. It comes later in the day, when the anger has cooled and no one else is around. That's when the heart to hearts happen and we are able to talk about "stuff". What I've learned from these talks is that Charley doesn't need me to teach him how to be nice. He needs me to accept him for who he is, and to not take it all so personally.