Not long ago I was soliciting ideas from the mother of a three-year-old what she would be interested in hearing if she were to attend a parenting class or seminar. She thought briefly and then looked at me and said, "What to do when your kids hurt your feelings."
I was intrigued. Her daughter is right at the age so may kids are when they find their voice and begin to speak it loudly without those filters that come in later years. In many ways hearing kids speak their minds is refreshing. Young children don't hide their feelings, disguise their intentions, or play verbal games around sticky issues the way we learn to as years go by. But it can be an uncomfortable awakening in a parent to realize their little angel has the potential not only to delight, but to sting.
I have a distinct memory of the first time Gabriel spoke harsh words aimed squarely at me. He was three years old and in a moment of mutual frustration he blurted out, "Stupid Mommy!" It was striking for both of us. We both kind of froze. It was a moment when he realized the weight of his words; when he realized he carried with him a potent weapon. For me it was a moment of coming to terms with pain felt not on behalf of or in defense of my kids, but because of them. We had crossed a threshold.
I remember feeling wounded by my son lashing out at me, but I also remember how it took only seconds for him to exhibit regret. He saw my face and knew my sadness and did all his little three-year-old brain could think of to remedy it. He asked me if I was sad. He apologized. He crawled into my lap and hugged me. He apologized again. It was as if he were astonished by his own power and wanted reassurance that his newfound super strength did not create a chasm between us. And I assured him it did not, because if anything I know my job as his mother is not to make sure that all runs smoothly between us all the time, but that he knows after the rough patches he always has safe arms to run back to in the end. As parents we are guaranteed to have strife and conflict with our kids. But what we teach them in the aftermath may have the strongest impact.
I think it’s easy as parents to look at our kids and assume that the role we inhabit in their lives when we first meet them is the role we will inhabit forever, despite our intellect telling us this is of course not the case. When our kids cause us pain, whether intentionally or not (anyone besides me had to swallow a lump in your throat when your kid chose someone else for a snuggle, a story, or to solve the latest dispute?), it can seem like an affront to the roles we assumed when our kids were first born. I dote on you and care for you, you think the world of me forever. Agreed?
Yet I have to think that if pain comes from my kids, there must be something for me in it. For each barb they send my way, there must be an opportunity to learn. Maybe I need to hear what they say and make some adjustments, even if the criticism is hard to hear. Maybe they need to learn to speak with grace, even if what they speak is the truth. Maybe both. I don't know how this works exactly, but I know at times when I have felt profound pain or deep sadness, something about the very depth of feeling itself is a hint at something beautiful. Isn’t the ability to feel itself a blessing? Doesn’t pain, even in or perhaps because of its harshness, have the potential to somehow soften us to feel love, joy, and peace that much more poignantly? Pain is never a pleasure to walk through, and yet walking through pain has the power to refine us and mature us and build in us character and grace we might never otherwise exhibit. That our children can cause us pain may actually make the pain that much more potent in sharpening us, for is there any weapon more powerful than the one wielded by those closest to our hearts?
I’m not sure how I would answer that young mom’s question: What do you do when your kids hurt your feelings? Perhaps the answer is in the question itself. You hurt. First, you just let it hurt. And then maybe talk about it, and learn from it, and wonder about why it hurt so much and how you both might have done things differently, and then you move on and go on living. Living, loving, hurting and healing. Because in the end, that’s kind of the way of things. Life keeps rolling on and we take our lumps when they come. I just hope the lumps I get from the little people in my life will leave lasting lessons for the better.