Young kids can be brutally expressive, sometimes to a fault, even if they don’t mean to be offensive or hurtful. I have learned that usually they simply state what they observe or feel, without regard to how their actions or words might be received. Of course, part of a parent’s role is to teach what’s appropriate to share and how to responsibly express feelings or observations. But, I’ve also learned that part of parenting is learning to not take offense at every candid verbalization. Furthermore, I’ve learned that applying this skill in other situations, e.g. processing expressions or reactions shared by adults, is also helpful.
Currently, I am right in the middle of navigating the unfiltered expressions of young children. For example, my daughter, who used to be a complete mama’s girl, recently decided to exert her independent streak. Now, when she requires help, to get out of her crib in the morning for instance, she shakes her head and says firmly, “No, not mama!” as I reach to pick her up. The first time this happened I laughed out loud, I was so surprised by her earnest refusal for me in a situation where she clearly needed help (not to mention I was the only one around capable of helping her.) When this happened again, I wavered between frustration and being a little hurt that apparently I was no longer her absolute favorite person in the world, clearly she would rather be trapped in her crib than allow me to help her. It was a few minutes into our stalemate, as I contemplated how to proceed and fought a rising fear that the only plausible explanation for her refusal was that she disliked me, when it finally struck me: I don’t need to be offended by her, she doesn’t necessarily intend to be mean, she’s just expressing herself the way she knows how.
Another example occurred recently when I was in the middle of a workout. My four year old son had been wandering around the living room in his own little world before he settled into a chair and quietly watched me finish the workout routine. Suddenly, he exclaimed enthusiastically, “Mom! Someday you’re going to outgrow your clothes! You’re just going to keep getting bigger and bigger,” his hands stretching as far as they could go to illustrate just how big I would grow. I had to stifle a laugh before gently explaining that I was hopefully done growing but he would continue to grow and get bigger and bigger. From his perspective, he was simply stating what he perceived as a simple reality, since we’re constantly reminding him that he will continue to grow.
I could create a book on the silly, loving, random, and, of course, hurtful phrases my kids have verbalized. There have been unexpected expressions of love that filled me with pure joy. There have also been times when their dramatically harsh words made me want to run to my bedroom, lock the door, crawl under the covers, and wish for a restart to the day. Eventually, during the difficult moments, I’ll remember that I cannot take everything they say so personally. They get angry, just like I do; sometimes life turns completely upside down, which results in big emotions that they don’t know how to process and they don’t yet possess the most appropriate ways to vent their deep frustration, which is not so different from my own emotional experience.
Their reactions are often surprisingly similar to my own and, I’m willing to venture, the experiences of most adults. Of course, there are significant differences and expectations between young kids and adults and I’m not saying we should simply allow someone to verbally tread on us and tear us down, nor am I suggesting adults should get a free pass for intentionally hurtful comments. Absolutely not. Kids and adults both need to learn how to appropriately express themselves and learn the difference between helpful and hurtful. However, what I am recognizing is that there is a difference between inappropriate, hurtful expressions and simply misplaced frustration and/or misspoken words. Discerning the difference has been critical in maintaining my sanity through the chaos of young children and it has been helpful in improving my reactions to frustrated adults.
A while ago, my sister shared with me a summary of “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. The four tenets, “1) Be Impeccable with Your Word, 2) Don’t Take Anything Personally, 3) Don’t Make Assumptions, 4) Always Do Your Best,” articulate how to help improve verbal expression, emotional reaction, and perspective. I found these four points and their descriptions fascinating, and even saved an image of them to remind myself of the importance behind the reminders. “Don’t take anything personally,” this one in particular has proved especially important as I’ve learned just how valuable it is to not take my own childrens’ outbursts personally.
Reflecting deeper, I’ve started to wonder what my mental and emotional state might be like if I spent less time and energy fixating on other people’s words and attitudes, similar to the way I am learning to let go of some of the comments from my kids. I’m trying to practice the same habit when faced with hurtful or inappropriate comments from adults. In these tough situations, I’m working to intentionally extend extra grace or, minimally, a benefit of the doubt. Because even adults say things we regret. We say irresponsible, hurtful words, sometimes intentionally but often not. Sometimes we mean well but it comes out wrong, or, as a friend of mine likes to say, “it comes out sideways.” I have spent an embarrassing amount of energy stewing over various “sideways” comments. Although some of the energy is justified, more often than not it’s wasted. I frequently find that the person expressing the words didn’t realize how hurtful they were, or I find out later they didn’t mean to come across in the manner I received it. Making this shift in perspective is not easy, but for now I have plenty of opportunity to practice with my own kids by refocusing my energy from being offended to teaching them how to more appropriately express themselves while I quietly remind myself to not take it personally.
Wendi, her husband, and their two kids are currently perfecting their best “ya sure you betcha” accents, having recently relocated to northern Minnesota. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters and a member of the podcast Moms Who Wine.
*photo credit: personal photo*