What Do They Hear?

Kids with egg glassesIt happens more often than I’d like to admit: Someone comes up to me and compliments my children, and I feel compelled to explain why they’re wrong.

“Your children are so well behaved at church!”

Well, they’re sneaky about their church misbehavior, I’ll grant you that.

“Julianna’s doing so well!”

She is doing well at __, but she’s really struggling with ___.

“Nicholas is such a delightful child!”

Sure he is, when he’s not __, __, or __.

Now why do I do that? My primary objective as a parent is to raise decent human beings, human beings who evoke exactly those sort of compliments. It makes no sense to undercut any attempt at affirmation.

I am not very good at self-censoring. I am good at self-analysis: at acknowledging the bad and the ugly along with the good. And while that is a positive trait for my own growth as a decent human being–because you have to acknowledge your failings before you can fix them–I’m beginning to realize this is problematic where my kids are concerned.

What is the soundtrack of their lives? Is it affirming or hypercritical?

What do they hear me say about them to other people?

What do they think their mother thinks about them?

Do they think I only see their warts?

Do they think I am never satisfied, that nothing they could possibly do will ever be good enough?

These are the questions I’ve been asking myself the past few days. Each of my children has a behavioral quirk or two that make life difficult (what kid doesn’t?). Michael is discovering the dual concepts of “I want” and “I can be really persistent in deafening protest.” Nicholas is, well, Nicholas. Julianna considers herself deeply victimized any time she’s not watching Tinker Bell, and her performance is Academy Award worthy. And Alex has discovered the long-suffering tween sigh at an age that seems ridiculously early to me.

Any one of these quirks, on its own, I can manage. Even chuckle at, in some cases. When they line up, I lose my sense of humor. They no longer seem like quirks, but ****they multiply exponentially. They block out awareness of the bigger picture.

Don’t get me wrong: I look for opportunities to affirm my children in the moment. I think carefully about how I say things to them. But when I’m talking to adults I tend to be more frank.

I remember how demoralizing it is to stand off to the side of someone else’s offhand comments. When my kids were tinies, it was okay to talk around them, as if they weren’t there. As they grow into their own emotional journeys, that’s no longer appropriate. That’s a tough adjustment to make, but it’s time to do it.