Out of the Mouths of Babes: Why Children Are Emotionally Smarter Than We Are

Posted by Deborah Huso on Dec 9, 2013 in Motherhood, Mothers and Daughters, Relationships |

Not everyone within my sphere of influence agrees with how I raise my daughter. I’ll admit, there are things about my parenting that look a little risky. Not the least of which is the way I don’t protect her from the realities of life.

For example, I cry in front of her. I have done this since she was very small.  Thus, she has come to see tears as a natural expression of sadness, which like any human emotion, is a temporary state. And she knows instinctively, so it appears at times, what to do with another person’s sadness….

“Mommy, why are you sad? Who has been mean to you?”

And I will explain in the best terms I can for a six-year-old to grasp.  And Heidi will put her soft little arms around my neck, plant my cheeks with kisses, and say perfectly reasonable and comforting things like, “Sometimes life is complicated, but it will be okay. I will always love you and be here for you.”

Profound yet so simple.

I asked my friend, Bill, the father of three, how my daughter knows to say these things that adults are so often incapable of saying, “Children are pure and untainted,” he says. “Honesty and sincerity come naturally to them.”

And then life breeds it out of them. Sometimes parents do, too.  I know my parents did.  Their efforts were well-meaning.  They thought they were doing the right thing, both in protecting me from their adult troubles and in teaching me to protect myself from letting others see me.

But the thing is—kids have emotional intuition on a scale that most adults do not. No one has to tell them that Mommy and Daddy are worried about how to pay all their bills or that Mommy and Daddy don’t love each other anymore. They may not know what is wrong, but they know something is. And then they act out and fret themselves silly the way children who are afraid and uncertain will do—maybe they will misbehave at school; maybe their grades will plummet; maybe they will have anxiety attacks.

My parents never fooled me. And their efforts to protect me often had the opposite effect.  I tried to fix complicated things that were broken. When Dad didn’t give Mom a Mother’s Day gift one year, and I saw how upset she was by it, I changed the card on the rhododendron I had given her to read Dad’s name instead of my own. I figured it was much more hurtful to her to be neglected by my father than by a little girl. She saw through my ruse, of course.

And then when I couldn’t figure out how to fix the things I didn’t understand because no one was explaining them to me, I would cry…only to be confronted with admonitions from both my parents to quell my tears, not to alert the world I was vulnerable.

Trust no one, my parents words and actions told me. Rely on yourself. Keep your true feelings to yourself. Don’t let anyone know they are getting to you. Then they hold power over you.

I do not resent my parents for any of this. They did the best they knew how.  They raised me as they had been raised. Granted, it took me nearly 20 years to train myself out of that mode of thinking, to be fearlessly who I am before the world, to let people in even at the risk of great pain, to both give and receive love and solace openly.

Honesty and sincerity still work in this world…if both sides are willing to offer them up.

When I’ve had a rough day, and I snap at my daughter for being too chatty and asking too many questions of my exhausted brain, she will frown, look me in the eye and say, “It hurts my feelings when you yell at me.”

How many adults would do this?  Most would walk away, resentful, and give me the silent treatment for the rest of the day for wounding them.

Not Heidi. No way is she going to let anger fester.

And I recognize what I have taught her—honesty, straightforwardness no matter what.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’ve had a stressful day. I did not mean to yell at you.” And I kiss her on the forehead. She is satisfied. Everything is as it was two minutes before.

Heidi knows people get over shit.

If they allow themselves to….

But hardened adults that we are, wounded by life, torn asunder by love gone wrong, protective of what little hope we have left, carry our resentments, our anger, our pain under lock and key, where it festers and corrodes, slowly destroying any chance we have left of unfettered joy—the joy of being who we are and letting others love us for it.

Heidi knows, even at the tender age of 6, what pain and trouble look like. She has seen her parents divorce. She has seen her mother hurt. She has seen elderly relatives sick and fading, slowly losing their minds. She comes home from school some days and tells me plainly about a boy who pushed her on the playground or a girl who called her a mean name and asks my advice. I tell her, “Keep your distance from people who hurt you. Surround yourself with good people, people who make you feel good about yourself.”

I did not come to this wisdom easily. I have learned it from long and difficult experience and from deeply kind and loving friends like Bill, whom I’ve known since childhood. When I commented that openness and honesty, though I strive for them, often leave me in the lurch when it comes to human relationships, that too many people seem to find those qualities threatening, he remarked, “Be true to yourself, and you will draw good people to you. Don’t waste your time on people who can’t take you exactly as you are.”

It was the same advice I had given to Heidi hours before, just spoken a little bit differently.

May my daughter remember it always, even once she is gone from me, that she may not waste time, as I too often have, on people who are afraid of themselves and, therefore, afraid of her.

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