It was September, 1962, and I was 13 years old. I was at my friend Patty’s house working on some school project. At 9:30 pm, my father picked me up in the car, even though Patty lived just two blocks away. He didn’t want me walking home alone in the dark. We made the quick drive home, I said goodnight to my father, my Uncle Joe (my father’s brother who lived with us) and my step-mother (Naomi), and went upstairs to bed.
As I lay in my bed in the dark before falling into sleep, I wondered who would not be there when I awoke in the morning. This was not a normal thought for me, but it was common for me to review my day and think and feel my own unique thoughts and feelings. When I woke up at 7 am the next day – Friday – my Uncle Joe told me my father had died of a heart attack while watching the 11:00 news. I had missed the sounds of the ambulance coming and taking my father away; of my neighbors coming in to watch me while my uncle and step-mother drove to the hospital. I slept deeply, protected from the turmoil and trauma of my father’s death. But I knew his death – or someone’s - was coming.
This is a dramatic example of a child having her own unique point of view. Growing up I was often aware that my thoughts and feeling were at odds with the grown-ups around me. More importantly, I was rarely asked how I felt or what I thought about events or situations that affected me directly. How did I feel about getting a new mommy? How did I feel about going to Kindergarten? How did I feel when my step-mother rejected every birthday or Mother’s Day or Chanukah gift I gave her with the words “I do not want your gift; all I want is your respect.”?
I learned as I grew up that my thoughts and feelings were not important to the adults responsible for my care. When I became a mother to my own child, Joseph, he let me know he had his own point of view as soon as he could talk. Joseph was often in opposition to my own point of view. “That’s what you think, that’s not what I think,” was a common refrain.
When I returned to college to get my Masters Degree in Psychology, I learned that children who are natural leaders may be forced into a position of opposition when the leadership positions in the family are already taken by one or both parents. Joseph was trying to assert his own need to be a leader in a family with a strong leader (me) and a co-leader (my husband) already firmly entrenched. I tried to set up situations where Joseph could make decisions for the whole family and feel in charge, for example: choosing a family outing, which movie to see, which restaurant to go to. Of course, this did nothing to ease the tension he felt when “we” decided to move from Cazadero to Sebastopol, from California to West Virginia and then to Washington State. He could voice his opposition, but he still had to go along.
This is something we all would do well to remember from time to time. Children have little to no choice in what happens to them. Their parents choose what house they will live in, what school they will go to, whether they will have more brothers and sisters, whether they will move to another house, city or state, whether they will experience divorce. Children are not in charge; their parents are, and sometimes their parents are just as powerless to choose when life or fate intervenes.
We as parents cannot always do whatever our children want us to do. We cannot let them have ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We cannot let them go out to play in the snow without their coat and boots. We cannot let them run into the street or up to a strange dog. We are responsible for their safety and their well being and for helping them grow into caring and competent adults. But we CAN listen to them, ask them how they feel and what they think. Sometime being heard is all they need.
As a mother I would often catch my kids looking thoughtful, as if they were processing an event as it unfolded before them. I was sometimes afraid to ask them what they were thinking or feeling. I didn’t want to know if they were angry at me or unhappy with a decision I had made. We parents try to do the very best for our children, but sometimes the decisions we make for them are painful, even if they are for the best. Are we brave enough to ask them how they feel, what they think, even if they may feel very differently from us?
It can hurt to hear what they have to say. But the reward for listening patiently and without judgment while your child tells you how he feels is that he will feel more at peace for getting his feelings out in the open and for being heard. And he will be able to come to you with more difficult situations as he enters his teenage years, because you have already established the lines of communication.
When Joseph was sixteen, we were getting ready to go out to eat and meet his dad and my younger son, Gabriel, at the restaurant. Joseph was taking a very long time getting ready and I finally asked him why it was taking him so long to walk out the door. What followed was a twenty minute tirade of everything I had done wrong for the last sixteen years, starting with not circumcising him to moving off the land to moving to West Virginia to moving to Washington to separating from his father. I sat with my mouth shut for once and cried and cried and just listened. What could I say? I HAD done all those things. From MY point of view they were the best decisions I could make. But from HIS point of view he had to live with the consequences of my decisions and he had no choice but to follow me around the country and watch as my marriage dissolved.
He felt much better after he let me have it and I learned a valuable lesson about points of view. Letting him vent on that night fifteen years ago was key in repairing and maintaining our relationship. Joseph and I are still very close. He has written a few of the articles in this Wisewords column.
Recently I took my grandchildren, Crystal, 5, and Jordan, 3, to Camp Kirby for a special treat. Camp Kirby is a 45 acre summer camp owned by Camp Fire USA Samish Council. I used to be the executive director of Samish Council before I left to create Babynut. Camp Kirby is located on Samish Island and has over a mile of beach front jutting out into Puget Sound. It is my favorite place on Earth. The three of us had the camp to ourselves, and we walked all along the beach picking up shells and pretty stones.
At first we were all very happy to be there, but Crystal began to tire of walking on the beach. As we walked back to where we had left our picnic basket, Jordan said “I want to live here, can this be my house?”
“I feel the same way, Jordan,” I said. “I wish this were my house, too.”
“Well, I don’t want to live here,” Crystal said. “This isn’t my house.”
“Why don’t you like it here?” I asked Crystal. ”It makes me sad that you don’t like Camp Kirby.”
Crystal didn’t respond and I realized I was asking a lot of a five-year-old. She had articulated her displeasure and that was all she was able to do at that point. Later on I took them on a walk through the Kirby woods. We found a sign to “Snow White’s Cabin” and followed it to a small log cabin with wood cut-outs of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Crystal was captivated. She loved the cabin and the wooden statues. I had forgotten all about this little cabin! It was the beach I loved. But Crystal loved the woods and the little cabin with her beloved Disney Princess. It turned out we both loved Camp Kirby, but from different points of view.We don’t always need to agree with our children, nor they with us. What is important is that we take the time to look at events and situations from their vantage point. We can learn a lot by this shift in awareness and attention.