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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sharing our true selves: from baby talk to difficult events

Maybe you saw this great post by Abundant Life Children, about the small behavioural changes we can make in ourselves to improve our relationships with children. At the end, Emily invited readers to add their own tips for making small but effective changes to improve our journey together.

My baby got my true self from the start.
My career made me happy, and I never
hid that from him.

My tip was that we should share our true selves with our children. I encouraged her readers to share their thoughts and feelings with their children honestly. And I thought I might elaborate on that a little, because there's a reason I feel so strongly about it.

Telling you to be authentic with your kids might seem to be stating the bleeding obvious, but in fact we dissemble a lot more than we realise. Let's start at the very beginning; some people habitually use baby-talk to communicate with small children, hiding their true voices behind a wall of 'cute'. Many of those adults never quite get out of the habit of talking down to kids.

Take these examples.

Pammy wanna bicky? 
Mummy wants Pammy to be quiet now. 
We don't hurt our friends. 
Because I said so, that's why!

That's not how we talk in our normal lives. We say biscuit. We use personal pronouns. We don't really think we're part of our child's peer group. We don't tell other adults off like that.

When we talk like that, we're not being our true selves; we've put on some weird vocal disguise for the purpose of talking to a child, and by adolescence that'll put a gulf of insincerity between us and our children.

The language we use when we talk to children is just the start of being authentic and true to ourselves. Being ourselves extends to sharing important information with our kids, like our feelings and our worries and our joys. Sometimes we find this too hard, especially if we've used a 'talking to children' voice to put distance between us and our children; we just don't know how to use our real voice and let our kids know what's going on inside us.

Even if we've always used an authentic voice, many of us conceal emotional realities from our children. Usually, it's done with well-meaning intent- whether to protect them from our own frighteningly intense feelings, or to protect them from some happening that we deem too big or too difficult or too adult for them to handle.

Well, I'm here to tell you that children haven't lost touch with their instincts the way a lot of adults have. Children can read atmosphere, and just like adults, if they feel something big in the air that they don't understand, they'll feel uncomfortable, twitchy or even distressed. There's a reason that child psychologists always want to know what's happening at home before they deal with a behavioural problem.

Sometimes, in an attempt to understand, children will project their own fears onto what they do know, and they'll come to some pretty scary conclusions. That's why many children end up believing that they are the cause of their parents' divorce. They've been left in the dark to invent a pattern of cause and effect for themselves. We can save them that sort of pain by being authentic from the start in speaking to our children about our feelings and about big, adult events like illness, death, divorce and heartache.

Of course, we do need to speak with care. No child needs to know every last detail of your break-up with their father, and no child needs your anger with that father to spray out recklessly all over them. (Just to mention one example.) But a gentle account of the difficult time you're going through can be given, and it can be given early- before the toxic atmosphere starts to affect your child's emotions.

You know that I'm going to tell you a story now, don't you?

When I was about 12 or 13, my best friend and I used to walk home from school together. It was a journey of three suburbs, and it took us the best part of 40 minutes, but we both had an aversion to the jostling and preening that took place at the local train station, where attracting the eye of some gangling adolescent of the opposite sex seemed to be the game of choice. Of all the times we walked home like that- and there were hundreds- I remember only one clearly.

I remember us walking up the steep hill on Edgeworth David Avenue, swinging our schoolbags; I can see it in technicolour. I can remember my friend's hairstyle, and the sound of her voice. I remember us arriving at the park where we always parted company, her to get her train connection further north, me to walk a few blocks to my house. I persuaded her into the park that day, where we sat swinging on the swings and talking about our day. I remember some passing schoolboys wolf-whistling me, and the feeling of shame because maybe I'd swung too high and they'd seen my undies.

I remember it, because I didn't want to go home. Something was happening at home, and nobody was telling me about it, and I was sick with apprehension. All I knew was that my mother was in hospital. That was the sum total of my information.

Now, I want you to put yourself in my 12-year-old shoes. Think of somebody close to you- as close as a much-loved parent. Listen to the whispering voices after bedtime, through the wall. Feel the tension rise in you as you overhear hospital and your loved one's name.

Now wait- wait- and wait some more, right through the next few days, as you feel the atmosphere of your home close in with some unexplained darkness. You don't know if the darkness is real, or if you made it yourself. You can't say anything or ask any questions, because the atmosphere is too terrifying.

Listen to the muttered, offhand, almost embarrassed words on the day. "Your mother's going to hospital today." That's all. Nothing more. Go to school like normal. Be expected to be normal in all you do. Show no emotion, because after all, you're used to certain things not being talked about. Nothing emotional is ever talked about.

Shut down, until you get to the park and some stupid schoolboy whistles at you, and the shame allows all those feelings to explode in you and out of you. But wipe your face before you go home. You don't want anyone to know, because the message you've got is that This Is Not Talked About.

Is that how you want your children to feel? Is that how you want them to behave? If you model shutting down on difficult feelings and worrying situations, believe you me, that's exactly what you'll get in return- cold distance and buried feelings.

On this occasion, my mother came home without comment; a little more eavesdropping and I discovered that mysterious euphemism 'female troubles', though to this day I don't really know what happened. I'm sure my parents thought they were protecting me.

My father went through the same charade many years later, when my mother was dying, and it took me a decade to recover; there was no way to repair the emotional connections by then, nor the feeling of betrayal because he'd tried to deceive me. The time to start sharing your real feelings is at the beginning, when it's easy- not at the end. The prognosis was terminal, both for my mother and for my relationship with my father.

But back to you, and your relationship with your kids.

You know, it's actually better to tell your children that you've woken up really cranky and tired today than it is to yell at them for no apparent reason. It's better to tell them that you're feeling sad because Nanny's very sick than to let them worry that they've done something terrible (and that's why you're not talking to them or playing with them). It's better to tell them that you and your partner are having some problems finding enough money to pay all the bills than to let them hear unexplained arguments after bedtime.

What I learnt from my parents' constant shut-down on difficult emotions was that it was something I didn't want to inflict on my child, because it was too bloody painful in the long term. Maybe my child got told a bit too much sometimes, but at least he didn't have to imagine and project and be fearful. And today, he and I have an adult relationship. We are pretty frank about our feelings, even the hard ones. It's not a perfect relationship, but it's an honest one, and our hugs are huge and genuine.

If that's what you want with your children, well, it's your move. Start now. Don't wait for the really hard moments before you share your true self.


  1. Thank you so much for this, Annie!!

    1. That's a pleasure. Thanks for starting me thinking about this!

  2. My parents, and my mother especially, rarely speak honestly and openly to me. When she is angry, she stops talking to me (sometimes for weeks) and then one day she'll talk to me, never to discuss the incident. Nothing ever gets resolved and we are constantly in a destructive pattern. And I am 40 years old.
    Luckily, I respect my 3 yr old son as an individual, a complete and whole person. I speak honestly and openly, share my feelings, don't shield him from much (as age appropriate as I can be) and Include him in almost all conversations. And I am loving every minute of it. I feel so strongly about this, I loved your article! Thank you.

    1. Anon, I can really hear your pain. Poor communication with someone who's supposed to be your advocate and give you unconditional love is so, so hard. I ended up writing a letter to my father to try to talk over some of our differences, but apparently he just burnt it as soon as he'd read it and never referred to it again.

      Fortunately we've both learned from our experiences, and our children will have an easier path. Good for us!

  3. I wish that I could go back in time and give this article to my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents.

    To this day (and I'm in my 30s) they still do things like this. It is frustrating beyond belief.

    I strive to not be that parent with my daughter. I don't want her to sit in darkness, not knowing. I don't want her to worry. I don't want her to feel the way I feel about my family to this day - untrusting, uncertain, and still angry.

    Thank you for posting this!

    1. Jaclyn, I really do understand! It stems from some crazy belief that children are not people, I think. It's a learned belief. You have unlearned it, and your children will not pass that crazy belief on to another generation. Well done, you, for breaking the chain of silence.

  4. What a great article Annie! I totally agree with all your ideas. Talking to children is one of the best strategy in assisting them develop in a positive manner. Great job!


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