Parenting Hurts

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Here’s an excerpt from dinner last night:
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Me: Yummy!  Dinner’s ready!

Peanut:  Pizza?? Green beans and apple sauce?!?!   I told you I wanted macaroni and CHEESE!!!

Me:  Sorry, sweetie.  Tonight is pizza night.

Peanut: <scowl>
<deeper scowl>
<downright evil stare>
Me: What’s on your mind, Peanut?

Peanut: You are ZERO great!  I love you ZERO!

Me:  <taken back by the outburst> Wow, you sound angry.

Peanut:  I wish Daddy were here.  I love Daddy one HUNDRED!

Me:   I know.  Daddy’s pretty great.

Peanut:  I wish I didn’t have a mommy!  I wish I only had a Daddy!

Me:  <Pause. Deep Breath.> I hear you.  But you know what?  No matter how mad you get at me or how angry your words are, I’ll always love you.  And tonight, I love you enough for BOTH of us.

Peanut:  Hmph. <Pause. Then a very light kick to my shin under the table>
Me:  Oh, how sad that you didn’t use your words.  Off to time out, please.

Aaaaaaaand scene.
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It is humbling and mildly embarrassing to me that an almost-5-year-old can hurt my feelings so deeply. Peanut’s angry outbursts first started about a year ago and were almost exclusively directed at me.
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I was hurt and surprised, my confidence shaken.  Was I doing something wrong?  What was bringing on these outbursts and why were they always pointed at me?  Was my husband some saint?  Was I the worst mother ever?
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Where was my sweet girl?  And why was she so angry?

 

My knee jerk reaction was to tell Peanut how much those words hurt my feelings. Not only did that feel wrong (like I was shaming her) but my brilliant, psychologist aunt pointed out that I was having a peer response, not a parent response.  It would be appropriate for me to say to another adult, “Hey Bob, when you tell me I’m a dummyhead, it hurts my feelings.”  But to my pre-school daughter?  Not so much.
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I’ve come to understand that a 4-year-old girl is trying to hurt her Mommy’s feelings because she’s “trying on” what it feels like to be mean.  She is experimenting with independence, with the power of words, and maybe even testing the strength of our relationship.  She does all this experimentation with the one person she knows won’t go anywhere.  Me.
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B and I decided before we had kids to allow big feelings in our house.  That means that Peanut (and anyone else, for that matter) can express feelings with words.  Even angry words. But there’s a clear boundary in my head: name calling, bullying, and anything involving hands, feet, or teeth is strictly prohibited.
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Peanut knows this.  We’ve talked about these boundaries before.  She chose to put a toe over that line at dinner.  She didn’t kick me hard; she barely even made contact.  But it was purposeful and I know she did it to see what reaction she could elicit from me.
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It’s critical that my reactions be consistent, even nonchalant. Perhaps most important is that I react to her behavior, not to her.
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I’m no saint; there’s a part of me that wants to ask her what the hell her problem is. But I know that’s just another peer reaction.  Over time, I’ve gotten better about not taking her outbursts personally.
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But make no mistake about it, it still hurts.
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Gratefully, the outbursts are few and the recovery quick.  I was surprised when Peanut picked my favorite book for one of her bedtime stories last night.
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Her book choice felt like a peace offering. (Source)

I got choked up reading to her,
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When you are lost,
I will search for you
with my lantern.
I will follow the tangled path
and find a way
when there is no path.
I will wear out my shoes
and a dozen little
rays of hope,
but…
I will find you!
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I didn’t become a parent because I needed more friends.  I became a parent because I have love to give.  Sometimes Peanut needs that love when it’s hard to give it.
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I have to rise to the occasion and be the grown up so that she can be the kid. I have to be the one that won’t threaten or reject or leave her when she practices being mean.  I believe that practice will teach her that being mean doesn’t feel good.
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Today I am fall-to-my-knees-grateful that I’m the one that gets to find her when she feels lost trying to find her place in this big world.
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Yes, parenting hurts.
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And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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