I had a fairly early entry into the parenting arena, and I will be the first to admit that I was pretty green. Friends hadn’t started having babies yet, I was not the babysitting type growing up, and am not the kind of person who just loves kids. I love people. Some of them happen to be small, but by and large – the thought of hanging out with lots of tinies gives me some anxiety.
While there were (and still are) many things I didn’t know coming in as a spring chicken of a mama, there are many things I knew and still know that I want for my kids. I want them to know they’re loved. To be courageous. I want them to be kind. To be empathic. To be generous. I want them to live with the reality that there is more than enough to go around, and that they don’t have to hoard love, belonging, or things. I don’t want them to live feeling better than other people, I want them to know they are enough just as they are. I want them to know they are unique, that what they think and like and want matters. I want them to include others. To see people, like really see people. I want them to care beyond themselves.
There are lots of things I want for them. And daily I try to communicate and teach these things, and do my best (which, like every parent sometimes fails) at helping grow them into solid big kids, and eventually adults.
But as I’ve gotten older (and I’d like to think perhaps a bit wiser), and as I’ve worked more with people in therapy these goals have shifted a bit. The list has grown and there are a few things more things that I hope for them, only these ones I have to work much harder at achieving. See, in my work as a therapist what I’ve come to realize is that lots of people have a really, really hard time with what are often called “bad” feelings. (See thoughts on “bad” feelings here). I see a lot of people who are ill equipped to handle the discomfort that life brings. When things get rough or rocky, panic can set in. Or for some, discomfort wipes them out and their capacity is shot – and their system simply shuts down.
I vividly remember driving home and wondering how I could help my kids learn how to handle these things. In order to flex the resilience muscle, some adversity was needed. Thus, the parenting goals of bored, lonely and disappointed were born.
Our life is pretty smooth and there aren’t a ton of opportunities for my kids to really come face to face with significant adversity or discomfort. Sure, they’ve walked through some tough stuff – cancer took their only present grandpa much too soon, they live with the reality of having a cousin that will die in childhood, and they face boundaries and limits that my husband and I set out for them daily. Yes, they encounter adversity. But as counsellor, there are a few experiences that folks seem to have lots of trouble handling, and as a parent I want my kids to have lots of practice navigating these situations before they fly the coop and have to deal with them on their own.
Bored. We live in a culture of excessive stimulus. The ability to slow down, be understimulated, and hang out with your own self without rushing off to the next task or moving on to the next distraction is a life skill. When my kids say, “Mom I’m bored!” my typical response is “Good!” I can also help them experience this by not overprogramming, by restricting access to screens that often occupy down time for kids, and by providing opportunities for creative and/or outdoor play. This means I have to be okay with mess that might happen if, in response to their boredom, they want to do a craft, dismantle something, build a fort, or dump out a bin in search of something to do.
Lonely. This one is hard. As a teen and young adult I was proficient at numbing my own loneliness. It really can be an excruciating feeling, and is hard for people of all sizes to sit with. As a parent I want my kids to be able to feel lonely without attaching a story to it that says, “You’re alone because you’re not enough.” I want them to long for connection, and to learn how to reach out and build meaningful relationships. I want them to know loneliness because it will increase their capacity to recognize that in others, and can spur them on to be people who are inclusive. I want them to be comfortable enough with loneliness that they don’t have to numb it, and experience it frequently enough that they learn how to be comfortable being alone.
Disappointed. This one is hard to make happen, because as a parent it means fairly intentionally not solving/fixing a situation that may be in your power to resolve. It means allowing your kid to sit in a really uncomfortable spot (one that as a parent, you might not even want to sit in yourself) and to let them feel it, and learn to move on from it. Many of us don’t let our kids stay here and rush in to provide a silver-lining (ie: Look on the bright side! We’ll do that another day! It’s okay that you missed out because we’ll get cookies!), or we simply just fix it for them. If my kid forgets his gym clothes after I ask him to put them in his backpack, do I rush to school to drop them off? Or do I let him feel the disappointment of that experience? When they’re left out of something, do I call the other parent to fix the situation – or pull up a chair in the pit of despair and sit there for a bit?
I think that all of these things fit under the larger umbrella of discomfort tolerance. It seems that this is a quality that is a bit lacking in our world today, and people both young and old struggle to stay present and work their way through a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable, yucky, or ‘bad’. If we fail to have enough experience with these sensations, then it’s like our resilience muscle atrophies, and we are unable to navigate these inevitable human experiences effectively.
When we give ourselves permission to not fix stuff, to fill space, or to alleviate every sensation of discomfort for our kids – I think that opens space for us as parents to take a step back, to breathe, and to watch our kids struggle and then succeed in overcoming experiences of discomfort that will help shape them into healthier, more capable, more confident adults. Next time bored, lonely, or disappointed show up at your house? Offer some compassion, and help your kid learn how to stay there and muddle through it, and watch them build resilience and confidence in their own ability to handle hard things.