Last week, I was with a group of women when our talk turned to how messy it is to allow our children to feel and own their emotions. Earlier that day, I had taken B and K to the downtown library right after picking K up from school. (Mistake #1, as it turned out.) On our way there, I asked K whether she had finished all of the Boxcar children books. She hadn't, so I told her I would need her to go with me to the return desk. (Mistake #2) While that was fine at the time, upon arriving at the library, K was more than a little dismayed when B got to have the parking ticket validated while we sorted through the returns. (Mistake #3 and, boy, was this a biggie.) One small thing set off a ten minute sobbing fit from K.
She cried while we returned the books. She cried while I picked up our books on hold. She cried while we walked upstairs to the children's section. She cried while sitting on the tiny green sofa in the children's section. The girl was feeling a lot of emotion about not getting that ticket validated.
Throughout all of this, I tried to do 2 things: not shame her and not shame myself. Not shaming her meant not saying unkind things to her, not pointing out that she was making a scene and trying to encourage her to get her emotions under control while not threatening her. Not shaming myself meant not beating myself up over an ill-timed trip (see mistake #1 above), not losing my temper and setting firm, enforceable consequences. K left the library without a single library book that afternoon. She also left without crying. It took far longer than I would have liked, but she did settle down and read her Boxcar children book.
That night, a friend was sharing how her children get upset over the small things in life (no eggs for breakfast on Monday, scrambled eggs instead of sunny side up on Tuesday) and how it's easy as the parent to be offended by this behavior. But if we put ourselves in their places for a while, we see how little control they have over their lives and we can then imagine how it might upset us to not get to choose what we have for breakfast. As a group, we talked about how to let our children express their emotions while trying to minimize the sensory onslaught that their emotions bring. I don't, by any means, have the answer for how to do this. I do know this: I am ok with my children feeling - and expressing - anger to me. That's part of their job as children, isn't it? To get upset with their parents. To separate their views of the world from mine. To articulate when I am doing something that they disagree with.
Here's the thing: I don't want my children's emotional inheritance to be one where they lock up what they feel and don't learn healthy expressions for the whole range of their emotions. Because I am learning - slowly and as an adult - that you can't really feel joy without letting yourself feel anger. You can't experience gladness without letting the guilt in. You must feel all of it to feel any of it. This isn't easy for me, but it's an area where parenting has pushed me beyond my inadequacies. It's an area where I am teaching myself when I say to them, "Don't yell. Tell me what you feel and tell me what you need."
What inheritance do I hope to leave my children?
A love of books
A love of art
The ability to name their thoughts, feelings and desires
An acceptance of people who are not like them
A willingness to listen
A belief in the value of community
The knowledge of how to throw a great party
The ability to cook a tomato tart for a friend
Faith that when they get it all wrong, it will still be OK
I can't know what they'll get and what they'll miss. I can only keep trying to be a parent who hands down these things as an inheritance.