The other day I came across a post touting the virtues of complaining about our children. Bonding, commiserating, empathic connection with other parents over the trials and tribulations of parenthood. It doesn’t really matter what post it was: there are a number, probably countless posts, blogs, memes and status updates, suggesting that this is in fact a wonderful and important part of the parenting path. I don’t want to discount this totally. There is no arguing against the fact that it can feel amazing to know that other parents are in the same boat as us. It can deepen the bonds of friendship, minimize loneliness and remind us that the trickier side of parenting is tricky for everyone. And, in order for us to get that benefit, we do indeed need to be willing and open to sharing those struggles with others. But while I don’t want to discount the positives that may result from venting, laughing or even crying over our spilt milk moments, I do want to take a moment to relish in the other side.
The post that I saw the other day not only touted the benefits of complaining about our children, but it also decried the act of bragging about them. As if, somehow, the very act of voicing our pride, love and amazement of our children is somehow wrong. As if saying to another parent that our kid is great is somehow equivalent to saying that the other parent’s kid is not. And we should not do this. And so we should say bad things about our kids to make the other parent feel better about their not-so-great kid.
But here is the thing. Pride, love, amazement, joy, intrigue, warm fuzzies, curiosity, awe, excitement: these things feel good. And when we feel them about a person, we feel good about that person. And when we feel good about that person, we love being around them. And when we love being around them, we are kinder and gentler. And when we feel these things about a person, we have a different perspective about their downside. And that kinder gentler perspective can help us make better, kinder, gentler decisions about how to interact with (or parent) that downside.
Have you ever been around a new couple? They are so gushy and mushy and, well, in love with each other. Not only do new couples love to talk about each other to others, but they also say overwhelmingly positive things about each other. And they are biologically rewarded for this. This kind of thinking produces oxytocin and dopamine and other feel-good neurotransmitters, which leave us feeling flushed and excited and generally lovely. Research in marital therapy shows that the difference between couples that “work” and couples that fail in the long run may in part come down to this same concept. Couples that “work” say and think nice things about each other at a rate of 5 to 1. Sure, they still fight and complain and get annoyed with each other. But they maintain a positive narrative about their relationship and each other. They have easy access to the things that they love about each other, and they talk about it. A lot. In short, they keep the gushy mushy side of things going, and that makes the trickier parts of the relationship more manageable. They work hard to stay In Love with each other, even when life gets complicated.
So what does this have to do with parenting? The same pattern applies. Loving our kids may be easy, but being In Love with them takes work. Especially when their developmental needs and behaviors interfere with our vision of what life should be like. I have noticed a consistent pattern that parents, at least many of us, fall into. When our kids get tricky, we focus more on the negatives and less on the positives. We talk about the negatives, vent about them, cry about them. We start to see our kids less as whole human beings and more as just a compilation of those particular problems. The tantrums. The rudeness. The sneaking out at night.
And, when we get lost in the negative, our interactions with our child suffers. We may be less empathic, less tolerant, more reactive. We may feel more resentful, more short-tempered. We may feel more exhausted, depleted, hopeless, frustrated. And when we feel overwhelmed, we are more likely to take their behaviors personally.
It is easy to feel warm and fuzzy when our kid is on stage singing and dressed up like a carrot in the school play, or taking their first step or posing for pictures with their prom date. Less so when they are rolling their eyes at us, or bending the truth, or hiding their homework or having the tenth tantrum of the day. When their behaviors are trying, we take it personally. And it is hard to feel In Love with someone who we believe is intentionally trying to ruin our lives.
But the truth is, they aren’t doing this TO us. They are doing this because they are on a path to adulthood that is paved with rocky, tricky, desperately painful attempts at balancing autonomy and dependence. The work ahead of them is hard and it isn’t always pretty. They are humans with light and dark, good and bad. And it is our role, as parents, to guide, protect, support, help and love. And we can do this so much better when we don’t just love, but are In Love with the little human that is just trying to figure his way out in this world. So whether we are faced with the recurrent and strong-willed tantrums of a three-year-old, or the eye rolling, window-escaping, grunting of a teenager, it is our job to stay in love with them. It is our job to find the thing about them that makes us smile, connect with that quiet sparkle in their eye, access the funny story about that silly thing they did, see the small and often hidden goodness, rejoice in their developmental strides, cherish the way that curl falls over their eye just so, be in awe of the wonder of them, just like we did when we first brought them home. And we need to do this not only in the silence of our own mind, but out loud. With our partners. With our friends. With our children.
When we find ourselves In Love with our children, we find the good in them and in ourselves. And it feels amazing. And when we do this, we make it possible to love parenting. Even when it’s tricky. So I say, vent a little, but gush a lot. I want to hear how great your kid is. I want to hear how much you love them, and how funny they are and how you honestly believe they are going to be President some day. I want to hear you say it because it is good for you, and it is good for me and it is great for our kids.
Don’t know how to start? Write a love letter. However old your kid is, regardless of how tricky their behavior is, or what challenges your family is having, sit down and literally write them a love letter. If they are old enough, go ahead and leave it on their pillow. Put it up on the fridge so you see it as often as you eat. Remind yourself every day that this is the same kid that is throwing those tantrums and that this side deserves just as much, if not, more attention than the dark side. Try it and see what happens. You may just be surprised at how much you have to say.