Let's All Be Pieces of Velcro
I was going to write an update today about my fumbling efforts to participate in Ramadan and my deepening appreciation for Muslim women, but something else has come up. I got a message over the weekend from a friend who's being criticized because she's too gentle and "ridiculously accomodating" with her son. His dad is tough and critical. She feels like she needs to balance things out. She wonders, is that poor parenting?
Been there. Oh, I feel the anguish! High on the list of emotional torture is watching the breaking of your own children's hearts when they keep trying to earn the love and respect of a parent who gives them enough love to keep them coming back, but then cuts them down, tells them they don't measure up and pushes them away. Of course, your response is to want to shelter them, to give them a totally safe place, to make up for the love that's being withheld by the other parent. And sometimes, that makes the task of providing correction seem almost impossible.
Here's why it needs to be done anyway.
1. Imbalance invites more imbalance. If I swing to one extreme in order to balance out the parenting on the other side, I perpetuate the problem. The other parent might think they need to continue being harsh and critical in order to balance out my permissiveness. And the cycle continues with both of us ignoring that inner voice that invites us toward healthiness while blaming it on the other parent. If we do that, the children are likely to see our patterns as being gender-roles rather than unhealthy extremes. Then, they either follow the pattern of the parent whose gender matches their own, or they reject it but wind up feeling conflicted about gender.
2. Children need to know what healthy relationships look like. If one parent is rigid and rejecting and the other has no boundaries at all but tends to lie down on the floor and invites the children to walk all over them, the children are likely to grow up thinking they have to choose between one of the two extremes. They have to be a hammer or a nail. And either way they choose, they're guaranteed a life full of heartbreak.
They need to know that hammers and nails are not the only models for attaching. I used to hear Simon and Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa" and my feelings would revolt at the lyric, "I'd rather be a hammer than a nail." Never a hammer, I'd think. I'd much rather be the one taking the violence than the one that's doing it. And when I later found myself in an abusive marriage, I comforted myself that at least I wasn't the hammer. Then, one day I read a children's book about two little girls (racoons, actually) where one of them did the other wrong. And her friend didn't just take it. And she didn't blow up. She found a solution that respected herself and invited the other back into the relationship as an equal. I was stunned. I realized there were other ways of responding to abuse than passively taking it or returning in kind. And I didn't have to choose to be the hurter or the hurt in order to attach. I could be like a strip of velcro. You can't attach anything to a strip of velcro by doing violence. You have to meet that velcro with velcro, and then both strips of velcro hold onto each other, as equals.
So, how do we model being a strip of velcro? By respecting both them and ourselves.
I need to give my children at least one parent who loves both myself and them unconditionally. I need to show them what caring for myself looks like so that they have tools to care for themselves when someone else is trying to walk on them. That means that sometimes, I need to tell them "no," so that they comprehend that it's possible to say "no" and still be loving. The good news is that correction can be safe and loving. If I avoid accusations and labels, if I give my child credit for good intentions and then I express my own need, or someone else's, I empower them to respect others and themselves. Maybe I need to say, "I'm sorry, dear, but if I get up at 5am to make you a pancake breakfast everyday, I won't have time to exercise and prepare myself for the day. Those early mornings are precious to me. Let's have pancakes on the weekend." Isn't that so much better than a barked "No!" with an exasperated look that says, "Why, you inconsiderate brat! Do you expect me to wait on you hand and foot?"
And then I need to follow through so that they can understand that "no" means "no." If they're used to me lying down and inviting them to walk all over, they're going to have a hard time hearing my loving "no" at first. Every time they hear a "No" from the other parent, it's delivered with a threat of rejection. Since our relationship clearly isn't under threat, they think I just need more convincing. So when they plead and whine or even resort to accusation and tears, I need to keep my cool and hold on to my "no." This time, though, it's not as much about my original reasons for telling them "no" as it is about proving to them that you can have healthy boundaries and stay in relationship. That's proof they need. Which is why, even when it gets to the point that I'd really rather just give them what they want and be done with the tantrum, I am going to continue praying for grace and quietly repeating my no.
In those instances, I might need to say something like this, "I'm sorry this is so hard for you. But I've told you no and we're not going to discuss this anymore. I'm going to take some time in my room now. When I come out, let's talk about something else."
Establishing healthy boundaries with traumatized children takes both resolve and patience. It's not something to start doing for the first time at the grocery store or at Sunday dinner with Grandma and Grandpa. Extended family are likely to perceive me as needing support and to come to my defence in a way that is not helpful. They might need to be filled in on what I'm doing and my need for them not to interfere.
The good news is, children can and do learn healthy attachment when at least one parent strives to model it. And then, they tend to improve on the model they were given, and go forward with a determination to persuade the world that hammers and nails are passé; let's all be strips of velcro!
(Photo by TRAVELERGEEK on Unsplash)