“How big is the gash?”
“Is the blood gushing or pulsating?”
Two questions no parent wants to be asking their child over the phone, while on a remote hiking trail, 30 minutes away. But there I was, trudging up a steep trail, out of breath, trying to see if I needed to hang up on my teenage daughter and dial 911.
Through her sobs, I discovered that the gash was about 1cm, and neither gushing or pulsating blood (great medical terms, don’t you think?)
I stayed surprisingly calm. And tried to make it contagious. I got her 7 year-old sister on the line, and asked her to run and get the Rescue Remedy, and an ice pack. I told her to put some pillows under her big sister’s leg to make it higher than her heart. It seemed like a better option than a tourniquet. And then I started to run back home. I should mention something important here…I am not a runner. Gravity and I have an agreement. I don’t test it excessively, and in return, it doesn’t land me on my bottom. But there’s nothing quite like adrenaline to make your feet fly.
By the time I got home, the tears were drying, but her eyes were still puffy. And I started to ask questions, like how it happened. Turns out that she stepped on a metal ruler that she’d left on the floor. Am I a bad parent that the first thing that wanted to come out of my mouth was “What was a sharp metal ruler doing on your floor in the first place?” And of course, I wanted desperately to follow that up with “Now do you understand why I’m always after you to keep your room clean? I’m trying to keep you safe from things like this!”
You can exhale now – I didn’t say it – any of it. But oh, how I wanted to! I bit my tongue, and instead murmured kind, motherly things, stroked her head, and told her that it was brave of her to stay so calm while dialling me. And it drained every bit of willpower I possessed to remain silent beyond that.
Why are we so quick to want answers from our kids? Why are we so determined to make sure they learned their lesson? I do it because it feels good somehow. It’s my own knee-jerk reaction and it feels cathartic to let my brain seep words, in any particular order, without me having to think very hard. It’s mostly about me, and what I think I should be doing. I ask questions to figure out what happened. I love information, because it helps me make sense of things. Then I want to make sure they learned their lesson, because isn’t that my role as a parent? To guide and teach them? Absolutely! But this is where it’s really helpful to have a clear understanding of the learning process for a child’s brain, because I’ve discovered that how I want to teach, and how my kids learn, are two different things. Of course, we can learn by hearing. But haven’t we all had a professor who droned on and on? Did we really listen? Contrast that with the teacher who encourages discussion. Which was the most effective at guiding and teaching you? Research has shown that it’s usually the one who gets students talking, thinking, and engaged in the material. We learn a little by listening, a lot more by speaking, and a whole lot more by doing. And we know that what children tell themselves, they’ll be much more likely to remember. It’s their own inner voice that matters most, not ours. And sometimes they can’t hear their own voice over our lecturing.
So, for the child who has just injured herself on a sharp object that she herself has left out, what’s the harm in reminding her to keep her floor clear of such objects?
Well, for starters, depending on her age, she may feel more acutely moronic than she did before she was reminded of it. She may also feel irritated to be reminded of the obvious: “Duh, thanks Sherlock!” She may even feel “Does my parent think I’m stupid?” And most importantly, we haven’t shown her the trust to absorb the event, contemplate it, and tell herself what to do in the future. We have robbed her of her autonomy to think and act for herself.
But such things don’t happen very often, right? Thankfully no, accidents are a rarity in our home. There are, however, more common intrusions on autonomy:
• You can’t possibly be too hot!
• Stop that now!
• Be careful!
• It’s okay! There’s no reason to cry
• You can do it! It’s easy!
• Here – let me do it for you
• You don’t hate your brother!
• How was your day? Who did you play with? Did you finish your sandwich?
Are you surprised that these common phrases could take away a child’s autonomy, and delay their development into separate, independent beings? As an “Attachment Parenting” mother, “separate and independent” were just not on my radar. I loved having that bond and attachment with my children. But the point of Attachment Parenting is not permanent attachment. It is to give our children the connections and self-confidence to grow into their own person.
So much of what we say as parents comes from a place of love – where we genuinely believe that what we are saying is full of wisdom. And it is!! Only what good is wisdom if it isn’t heard? What good is love if it isn’t felt? We need to figure out how to combine love and wisdom into words and actions that can actually be felt by the intended recipient. And sometimes no words are really necessary. Silence can be the first step in learning how to best communicate with our kids. That’s crazy isn’t it? That silence can be a form of communication. But it is a powerful pause, while we let ourselves, and our child, just be. To just absorb and reflect on our child’s words or actions, while we contemplate a response, as opposed to a reaction; to give our child a chance to do the same. Nothing is being exchanged during silence, and yet it has the power to soften the tone of our voice when we do open our mouths, and the power to gentle our touch as we reach out to mop up a mess, the time to choose words that will be helpful, or the time to unclench your teeth into a smile.
Silence also prevents us from saying things that can’t be unsaid.
And the most beautiful part of benevolent silence with our children is that it teaches them that we have confidence in their abilities, that they can figure things out on their own. It says: “I believe in you. You’re intelligent and capable. You’ve got this.” When children feel our confidence in them, often through our contemplative silence, (or saying only one of the dozen sentences you wanted to say), it can give them the courage to be more autonomous in thought and action. And hopefully, even teach them to pick up sharp objects off their floor, all without saying a word.