Yesterday afternoon I lolled on the living room carpet, finishing up my Bible study and basking in the square of sunshine cast on the floor from outside. My son comes up and drapes himself on top of me, asks if I want to play the game where he tries to get away.
We both love this game. It’s silly, it’s physical. It is great fun, though sometimes I decline to play because of the exertion it requires. Yesterday, I think I may need to take my glasses off for this. I’m feeling lazy.
But yesterday I was also listening. Not just to his words, though that was part of it. Listening to what his invitation suggested—a need to connect, a need to blow off steam, a need to push and writhe and laugh. I am learning, always learning, to listen for the unspoken. So despite my laziness and the horrible inconvenience of tucking my glasses somewhere safe, I accept his invitation.
I grab him. I use my arms. When they get tired I use my legs. I wrap myself around him like a giant octopus, arms and legs everywhere, and he can’t get away. He wiggles and squirms, he tries to tickle me to escape. He pushes and twists his body and I hold on like my life depends on it. We roll around together and our faces, our bodies, our arms and legs smash into the floor and dig into each other. I speak an ongoing monologue during these tests of physical prowess. “You can’t get away, are you kidding me? Nothing is stronger than a mother’s love. You can never escape it, never get away, never overpower it. If you get away from one arm, three more will grab you. You are mine and you will always be mine. There is simply no escape!” We are laughing and he repeatedly exclaims about the strength of my grip.
“How do you do this?” he cries.
And I shrug. “It’s just that strong—a mother’s love.”
He collapses in giggles and sweat and his face is red and his arms dangle like jelly and he is all smiles and I can feel my own heart pounding. We slowly part ways, time to move on to other things. His cup is full. I am glad I chose not wallow in my slothfulness.
I am reading the book Listen by Patty Wipfler and Tosha Shore. It is a book about recognizing our children’s attempts to release tension, work through fear, cope with upset, and connect with us through crying, raging, throwing tantrums, laughing, sweating, and trembling. These healing mechanisms innate in our bodies are most often seen as negative in our society. We hush crying babies, stick pacifiers in their mouths to quiet them, soothe away our children’s tears and try to placate tantrums to save face or our own sanity. We have been largely taught to believe that displays of such behaviors are troublesome and problematic.
But they’re not. Aside from the fact that they are inconvenient and perhaps embarrassing in public because we fear what others will think in an upside down culture where we assume that crying or screaming children equals bad parenting, these behavior are, in fact, healing. And if we let them run their course, and if we listen and support our children through episodes of emotional distress, they emerge calmer, more peaceful, and more deeply connected on the other end.
What a beautiful thing!
My kids, at age ten, are pretty well beyond the tantrum stage. They are articulate and self-aware, so they can talk about their feelings. But that doesn’t mean they no longer need physical outlets to help them process all that’s going on internally. Sometimes it comes out as tears over a seemingly minor upset. Sometimes it comes out as sibling squabbles and arguments over the littlest thing. Sometimes it looks like anger over homework that’s too hard or a teacher who is unfair. And sometimes, like yesterday, it comes as an invitation to play.
I do not know what my son needed to work out. I don’t know that he needed to work out anything in particular, or if he just wanted to connect with me more deeply. I doubt he would know either of these things himself. But I do know that after I trapped him in my impenetrable forcefield of motherly love and he heaved and pushed and writhed inside it for a while, we both walked away feeling close and connected with one another. And when my son and I are close and connected, we can talk openly, I can discipline without punishing, and I can guide without dominating. As long as I have connection, I have influence.
Influence with our children is a great gift. If we want to maintain it, we will learn to listen well. Many times I miss the signal. Yesterday, I caught it. Our kids rarely express their needs by explicitly stating “I need this.” Most often they ask to be heard in far more subtle ways, waiting for those who are attuned to their needs to perk up and say “Tell me more,” so the floodgates can open.