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Sunday, 25 March 2001

Authentic Parenting

Written by  Sherri Mandell

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Yesterday I was at a nursery school party. The children were sitting in a circle singing, and a woman I know called out to her daughter: Smile, Lila.

The mother said to me: "She doesn't look happy. She's frowning."

I thought back to all of the times I was dressed in my finest clothes, going somewhere special, and my mother had said to me: "Smile."

Or all of those birthday parties my mother made for me where I felt like crying from all the overexcitment and was told: "Smile."

The next time your child is unhappy, don't assume there's something wrong with him. Connect to him. Understand him. But don't deny his feelings.

And I told the mother: "Leave her alone. Let her feel what she's feeling."

How often we try to make everything all right. Our kids come to us with a wound and we say, "It's okay." Or they come to us with some disappointment and we try to soothe it away instead of letting them feel sad, enraged, depressed-or just confused.

We falsify their feelings in the service of happiness.

Yes I believe in joy. But not a false sense of it.

And leading children to be less authentic can ultimately take away their joy.

I was recently with a friend whose son was having a tantrum.

"Don't be angry," she said.

Of course the kid went on being angry. In fact, he got more angry.

I'm not advocating tantrums but they're not going to go away just because we want them to. We need to be willing to live with a certain amount of discord.

In fact, scenes and conflicts can bring a family together. In Parenting by Heart, Dr. Ron Taffel explains that scenes can cause a family to connect and actually feel closer with each other. In other words, scenes can be helpful for clearing the air, as long as they are not the only way the family interacts.

There is a truth meter in our relationships.

Dr. Rollo May, an existentialist psychologist and professor, discovered the great value of authenticity when he researched mother-child attachment.

He assumed that the mother-daughter bond in poor,disadvantaged broken families would be weaker because in the broken families, the mothers would have less opportunity and desire to connect with their kids. He hypothesized that the weakness in attachment would cause the daughters to be more depressed when they were adults than daughters who came from higher- income, intact families.

Instead he found that the daughters from disadvantaged homes didn't have higher rates of depression.l

Their mothers may not have been around much, they may not have been the greatest of mothers, but they didn't lie or dissimulate. They told it as it was. They had a boyfriend, or they had to work late, or they were on their way out with friends and left the kids with a neighbor. But they didn't pretend more love for their kids than they felt. They didn't falsify their feelings.

Instead it was the middle class kids who were more likely to be depressed. Some of their mothers had falsified their feelings. These mothers told their kids they loved them and would do anything for them, but for some reason, these mothers weren't able to give the kids the love they professed. It was the daughters who felt their mother's love as insincere who suffered a greater frequency of depression.

There is a truth meter in our relationships.

As children we feel it. And as adults.

How much can we expose? How real can we be?

Because we can only grow in our emotional lives when we understand how we feel. We can only progress once we identify what we are feeling and the source of that feeling. Children need to be able to express the truth of themselves. And so do adults.

When we tell our husband we're upset about some small slight in the office and he says: but you shouldn't feel that way-we feel hurt and misunderstood.

Feelings are not about should or should not.

They are signals that demand and deserve respect.

They're the canaries in the mines of our emotional lives. They speak up for us and warn us of something out of alignment.

They tell us: Stop


And if they're ignored, they keep speaking louder--until we work them through. If we don't, one day we become deaf to them.

As children we feel it. And as adults.

The feelings retreat and keep shouting, only they're at such a distance, we can no longer hear them.

We hear an echo and look to the distance.

Then we don't know what it is we're feeling. Our backs hurt and we get headaches. Or we stay in bed, depressed. And we don't know why.

The next time your child is unhappy, don't assume there's something wrong with him. Connect to him. Understand him. But don't deny his feelings.

Last modified on Wednesday, 24 April 2013 19:38
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Sherri Mandell

Sherri Mandell

Sherri Mandell has a Master's degree in Creative Writing and has taught writing at the University of Maryland and Penn State University. She is the author of the book Writers of the Holocaust. She has written articles for the Washington Post. She is married with four children

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