I had a rough moment yesterday with my dear sweet son. He’s 10. He and his friends at school have been dabbling in using the word “gay” in a derogatory way and he’s made a few statements these past few months that I chastised him for in that regard. I had talked with him on a number of occasions, following these comments about people’s right to their own sexuality, about tolerance, about prejudice, and how to explore his own thoughts and beliefs to decide why he is saying what he’s saying.
But….last night, I lost it. We were driving along on our way home from the grocery store and he mentioned that during class that day they were asked to make some notes about the qualities they would want in a babysitter (in preparation for them becoming potential sitters themselves). My son said that he wrote that he wouldn’t want anyone who is gay, bi, or lesbian to sit him. Well, I hit the roof! All these talks about respecting the rights of others, all these chats about tolerance and acceptance and consideration, all those heavy discussions about prejudice and the harm it does and he’s writing this??
I am not a yeller, for the record.
My mind immediately began to spin stories of harm (his and others), and I immediately felt so scared for him should he continue this ridiculous perspective. I felt sad that he was so critical and so ignorant of the sexuality of others. So, I yelled. Loud. It was brief, but loud. In fact, my throat hurt for the rest of the evening. I told myself at the time that I had tried it the nice and respectful way and that he really needed to get this lesson and it wasn’t getting through. I justified it in many different ways but, regardless of my justifications, the outcome sucked (as one would expect when yelling at anyone!). My poor child teared up and turned his body away from me (he’s never done that before) and stared out the window the whole way home – wouldn’t speak to me (who can blame him) – and was visibly shaken. The message to mom was clear – you’ve overstepped your bounds there lady and I’m not feeling safe with you, respected by you, nor do I want to be anywhere near you.
Now, at the same time, I’m in my head feeling terrible for my reaction, but……yes, there’s a but…feeling certain that a strong message was necessary for this issue and that all my other attempts had been fruitless. I was determined that he should stop these comments and clearly I felt, at least initially, valid in using any method required. Some of you may agree, but there’s more to the story.
Now, it gets worse. We get home, I send him to his room so the message sinks in – after apologizing for yelling that is – after ½ hour or so I head on up to talk it out, needless to say my dear child is not at all thrilled to see me. He is however, thrilled to be allowed out of his room so he is willing to come to the table so my step-daughter and I and he can have a chat about what happened and about why I reacted as I did. I start out seeking to understand, which of course, is what I should have done in the first place! I ask him to tell me about what happened, what prompted him to write what he wrote and how he felt about it.
Well, it turns out that he and a friend had watched a youtube video – gotta luv youtube – in which some lesbians had forced themselves sexually on a child (it turned out actually, when he showed it to me to be a music video that was incredibly soft-porn with all sorts of crazy things going on) and he was frightened (he started to cry just sharing about it) that if he had a sitter who was gay or lesbian, they would force themselves on him like the girls in the video had. Poor little confused guy. On top of which, when he had written down his answer in class and then read it out to his classmates everyone laughed and made fun of him for being so prejudiced.
Was I feeling guilty and like a poor parent? Oh, yeah. The poor little guy had been confused about what he saw and it scared him. Then he shared about it at school and his peers ridiculed him. Then he tried to tell me what happened and get some support or some reassurance for his fears and I screamed at him because I assumed I knew what he was going to say, that he hadn’t learned anything from our previous chats and that…yes…bad things were going to happen to him as a result and he “needed to learn his lesson!”
Well if that wasn’t a profound reminder of my own imperfections! And what a powerful reminder of the adage that has truly served me so well in my life since I first started to practice it: “Seek to understand.”
Seek to understand means, if you’re having a reaction to what someone is saying don’t just let go and react. First, ask some questions, allow for the possibility that, no matter how sure you are of what you’ve heard, you’ve potentially misunderstood either the words or the underlying message or both. I have experienced so much peace in my life and so much health and intimacy in my relationships with others by honouring this rule. And of course, if I’d done this last night everything that followed could have been easily avoided.
So, why did I throw it aside last night and instead demonstrate more of my abusive father’s parenting style than my typical open, loving, respectful stance? That’s a good question! It takes a lot to throw me off my game these days. It was the all-or-nothing thinking that crept in in an instant. Stories flooded me in a split second about my son and the troubles he was certain (all or nothing) to have in life because of this prejudice, stories about the harm that would come (more all or nothing) to him because of his closed-mindedness (more all or nothing), stories that as his parent, I was responsible for his beliefs and attitudes and that I had to “change” him and “make him see” the error of his ways (yes, you guessed it, even more all or nothing).
My appropriate feeling of concern for his perspectives and behaviours got hijacked and escalated 1000-fold by my old brain as it began to sound the alarm and I had a fleeting image of myself in the future, as the mother of the recently imprisoned anti-gay terrorist group leader. Ummm. Can you say… “overreaction”? Clearly, when it comes to my son, I can! My fears triggered by my own needs for my son to be happy and well, for his own benefit as well as my own peace of mind and validation of my parenting, got in the way of me behaving in a way that would create the greatest likelihood of him being happy and well! Isn’t this the truth of what unchecked all or nothing thinking does to us all? It actually creates the greatest likelihood of the exact outcome we seek to avoid! And if that’s not a reason to question what you’re thinking before you just buy it and react to it, I don’t know what is!
Little did I know, my son had already started to grasp the message of acceptance and respect for others and that this was a different situation. On top of which, he had already suffered the unfortunate natural consequence of peer ridicule.
My value as a parent has always been to let my son be himself. He’s definitely a unique being – there’s no mistaking that. I realized early on, as I suspect many parents do, that I could socialize him and train him up to be a “good” boy in his behaviour and manners. I could guilt him, manipulate him, silent-treatment him (as had been done to me) in order to get him to be “good.” This, I knew would squash his spirit and he would, as did I, need years of therapy just to figure out who he was and to get started in life in earnest.
I wanted him to learn and hold him accountable for his actions with natural consequences and dignity and respect. As a mentor of mine, Barbara Coloroso says, “Teach children HOW to think, not what to think.” Certainly, there have been times when I’ve questioned the sanity of this choice! He’s definitely his own person, quite outspoken, and, as you parents know, it’s not always easy to respect the person of your child when they’re not able to be fully rational, but really, was I fully rational last night? No siree.
Life is for learning, mistakes are for learning. Thankfully, there is no need for carrying shame or guilt for our actions if we learn the lesson, take full responsibility for our actions, and can trust ourselves to not repeat that same mistake. I know I have a little inner work to do on seeking to understand in highly triggering situations with my son. It’s an opportunity to see where growth is required. Yippee! The truth is I have work to do. I can be frustrated about it, I can get down on myself for it, or I can celebrate that I now see a spot that was blind and that I can do something about it. In so doing, I can also demonstrate commitment to my core value as a parent which is to model that which I want my child to emulate.
There was a time when I wouldn’t have been able to apologize and admit my error to my son, my daughter, my husband, and you. There was a time when I would have eaten a lot to cope with my guilt and shame and feelings of stupidity and of letting my son down when he came to me for love and compassion and education. Those days are over.
I know firsthand now the incredible freedom that comes from being willing to see ourselves as we are, not as we wish we were or as we’d like others to see us. In seeing ourselves as we are in this moment, we get the gift of recognizing our beauty and strengths and of finding a sense of safety and security in acknowledging the places we need to grow; we can even ask for help, or at the very least, understanding and compassion for where we are.
If we’re in a relationship, or have connections with our children and friends that allow us the space to screw up without ridicule and shame and retaliation and instead, receive love and understanding and a second chance, I think we’re doing pretty well in life, and thankfully, I’m doing pretty well.
There’s a whole section in my book, Food is Not the Problem, Deal with What Is! on seeking to understand and the incredible value it provides. As I mentioned, this principle, in and of itself, has transformed my life. Had I just taken a moment to breathe and inquire of myself why I was feeling as strongly as I was, I would have seen the all-or-nothing in my thinking right away. Had I just taken a moment, when I realized I was about to react, to ask my son a question or two, I could have met his need and mine in the most honouring way, bringing us closer together without having to go down the path of hurting him and leaving him feeling more judged and abandoned than ever. Clearly, as my son would say, “The teacher just got schooled!”
I’m going to re-read that chapter! And I hope you do too if this hits home at all (chapter 23).
Have a fabulous week and here’s to all of us taking more time to seek to understand the words and actions of others before we respond.