Sylvia called and said, “I’m exhausted. All day long I’m running around taking care of Jack and Lewis, my pre-schoolers. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”
“Like what?” I asked. “Give me a specific example of something that happened in the last hour.”
“Jack—he’s four—fell down outside on the sidewalk and ran in the house screaming like his hand had been chopped off. So I had to stop what I was doing and calm him down to the point where he’d even let me look at the knee he’d scraped when he’d fallen.”
“Was it bleeding?”
“No, but it was scraped and red, and I could tell it really hurt. So I put an antibiotic cream on it and a Band-Aid.”
“And there’s your problem.”
“I don’t understand.”
“No, you really don’t, so slow down your thinking and prepare yourself to learn something, instead of giving in to the tendency you have to defend yourself.”
I waited silently until I thought she was calming down, and then I explained that life is filled with skinned knees—physical scrapes, emotional insults, our own mistakes, lack of acceptance, attacks, and fears of injury and mistakes.
“Starting at a very early age,” I said, “you showed fear each time Jack fell down or hurt himself in some way. You called it ‘concern,’ but you were afraid, and your fear taught Jack to be afraid—of pretty much anything that causes him fear or discomfort.”
“So you’re saying a mother isn’t supposed to be concerned?”
“That’s what the world believes, but no, rarely is concern the productive response to any situation. What another word for concern?”
“It could be, but concern carries another meaning in addition to caring. We’re concerned about somebody when we’re AFRAID for them. And I’ve been in the room when you’ve been concerned about somebody, and the fear just radiates from you. And when you talked about Jack’s knee just now, you were afraid. He can FEEL your fear, and fear never helps a child feel safe, or confident, or loved, or anything good.”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
“If he falls, you look over at him and quickly assess how hurt he is. If you’re not afraid yourself, you can make that determination in less than a second. In the first second, a child will tell you how much real pain there is. If the pain is mild, the reaction is mild.
"If he looks at you, though, and you look ‘concerned,’ he’ll scream in pain because he knows he’ll get more attention from you. And with time and practice he’ll learn to express more and more pain to get that attention. In the process he’ll become more fearful and much weaker.”
Almost every day I talk to the parents of children—from pre-teens to teens to adults as old as fifty—who are emotionally immature. The children whine and complain and take no responsibility for themselves or anything else, primarily because when they were young their mothers and fathers were “concerned” and saved them from their pain.
It’s not our job to save our children from pain. Pain is one of life’s greatest teachers. We can love our children and teach them, and occasionally even prevent them from experiencing unnecessary pain—stopping a toddler from running onto a busy street, for example.
But when we save them unnecessarily, we cripple them, a condition that often affects them for the rest of their lives.
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