Parents need to accept that they aren’t perfect and make mistakes. Even when you’re just venting, if something wasn’t your kid’s fault and you let them think it is, you’re not just telling them they did something wrong – you’re telling them they are wrong.
– Aubrey Brown, age 11
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Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff
Let’s face it: nobody’s perfect. Try as we might to filter and Photoshop away our less flattering traits, the truth always comes out. And as far as I can tell, our real selves are clearest not in the bathroom mirror but in moments of discord and conflict, which, as any parent will likely attest, are never far off. Character, in turn, is often a result of how we treat others – our partners, colleagues, and children – when the going gets tough. Speaking of character, let me tell you a story.
Shortly after her eleventh birthday, while she was washing dishes, my daughter accidentally doused me with water from the kitchen sink. I was at an adjacent countertop, diligently applying a screen protector to her long-desired and recently received tablet. As I did, a sudden blast from the faucet spray head soaked me, some nearby appliances, and, of course, her new iPad. The resulting deer-in-the-headlights look on Aubrey’s face made clear to me that she knew exactly how her (admittedly) obsessive-compulsive dad would react to this unexpected shower. “I am so sorry,” she offered with clear and earnest remorse.
Although I’ve made progress in recent years at managing my frustration in moments like these, I’ve made less when it comes to letting it go. As a result, my reply was one Aubs later described as extremely predictable: “Please focus on what you’re doing and be more careful next time.” Crestfallen, she returned to washing dishes while I cleaned up.
The Scene of the Crime
“Are you okay Dad?” Aubs asked later that night while brushing her teeth. “You seem a little frustrated.” As we began to discuss the brief shower that rained down earlier, the start of our conversation was also predictable, with more of my overplayed reprimands and reminders. Less so, however, was the sudden turn it took. As Aubrey describes it:
You saw the look on my face, stopped, and said, “You know, I should be the one apologizing. You only made a mistake and everyone makes mistakes.”
In the back and forth that followed, I put a leash on that most quintessential of parental impulses, the urge to lecture, and instead focused on letting my daughter do the talking while I listened. As a result, Aubrey received a gift infinitely more valuable than any toy or tablet – a chance to be heard. “After that,” she remembers, “we talked, hugged, and left as friends!”
What Is Love? Baby, Don’t Hurt Me No More
Assume for a moment that Aubs and I hadn’t talked about what happened. Assume we hadn’t been honest with ourselves about what we each thought and felt, hadn’t shared those thoughts and feelings with the other, and hadn’t tried to hear one another out. In the grand scheme of things, would that matter? I mean, it’s not really that big of a deal, right? C’mon, stuff happens. Life goes on. And besides, I did have a point after all – iPads are expensive! Wouldn’t any parent feel how I did at a moment like that?
In the title and refrain of his 1993 hit single “What Is Love,” Eurodance musician Haddaway brushes aside such self-serving rhetorical questions and replaces them with an important one. When formed as a noun, we might be tempted to define love using others: love is kindness, compassion, devotion, etc. However, I increasingly find that love is less a noun, something we have and hold, and more a verb – something we do. This, I think, is one reason why one of my favorite podcasters often asserts that, contrary to popular belief, the three most loving words in the English language are not, “I love you,” but, “Tell me more.”
“There are three fundamental needs that all humans have,” explains mindfulness consultancy Applied Attention, “we need to be safe, we need to belong, and we need to matter. In the moment when you use ‘tell me more’ sincerely, you give others a sense of all three.” What’s the lesson here? In a few words, have honest conversations. In a few more, as offered by one American President, “I apologize when I’m wrong.”