When my daughter came home from her new preschool crying about friend troubles, I approached the task of helping her with the enthusiasm of a well-trained competitor. My experience leading workshops and developing curriculum for Girls Leadership had all been practice. Now, I was ready for prime time.
Or so I thought.
While Winnie told me about the girl in her class who was acting mean, making rude comments to her for no apparent reason, I waited for my opening to drop a few choice Girls Leadership lines on her.
“How did you feel when she did that?” I asked. “What happened next?”
Winnie was confused, wracking her four-year-old brain to figure out what she’d done to offend this classmate. This is my time to shine, I thought. Time to wow her with my role-playing skills.
We role played.
We talked about feelings.
But, the classmate’s behavior got worse, and so did Winnie’s social anxiety. She was petrified that her other classmates would turn on her, too. I was at my wit’s end. I was worried for Winnie, but I was even more concerned about myself. This whole Girls Leadership “Conflict is an opportunity for change,” thing had been my job. I was supposed to be good at it. If I couldn’t help my own kid, it would mean that I was a fraud and a failure.
I was so focused on acing this critical parental trial that I got upset every time Winnie brought up the situation. Impatient with her, I quit. I stopped role playing. I stopped asking questions. I stopped listening.
One day in the car, realizing that I hadn’t heard any updates for a few days, I asked Winnie, hopefully, if the situation had gotten any better.
“No, it’s still happening,” she told me. “I didn’t say anything, because I know you don’t really know what to say anymore, and it just makes you feel frustrated.”
There are very few more painful experiences than feeling you’ve failed your kid. In this case, my pain was compounded by the shame that I had turned her crisis into an opportunity to prove myself the perfect Girls Leadership Mom, and made her feel that she needed to protect my feelings. Even worse, she’d stopped sharing with me. She wasn’t even in Kindergarten yet, and I’d already succeeded in shutting down our line of communication.
It took Winnie a long time to build her social confidence back up. I’m working on building my parenting confidence back up, too. She occasionally has friendship troubles at school, and I’m grateful that she shares them with me. I’m grateful to have the chance to do better for her.
Now, when Winnie tells me about these situations, my number one goal is to listen. Really listen, not listen with half an ear while I make dinner. Not listen for my opening to insert amazing Mom Wisdom. Now, I make the time to focus on the conversation, asking questions and repeating back what she tells me. I try to make my first response compassion, not an action plan. Even if I only do this one thing, it is an improvement.
Sometimes I wish that parenting was more like a test in school, something that I could prepare for, have all the answers in my pocket. I’ve always been good at tests. If parenting were a test, I could just memorize the names and dates and call it good.
Unfortunately, knowing all the answers isn’t in the job description. Parenting requires more of us. It requires us to keep showing up, every day, even though we don’t know what will be asked of us. Even though we sometimes feel like we’re failing. Parenting requires us to help, with love, at every opportunity.
Sometimes help means a hug. Sometimes help means bringing in reinforcements. Sometimes help means going for a walk, baking cookies, cranking the music up loud. Sometimes help means giving someone space. Different strategies for different kids on different days.
I’m not totally sure yet what helps Winnie the most, but I’ll keep listening hard and trying harder. I hope that I’ll sometimes get it right.
While parents are not required to be perfect, effort does count toward the final grade.
Shannon blogs about her bookish life at www.shannonrigney.com
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