When my daughter was a 4-yr-old, there was a grocery store where we could go that had little shopping carts for children. It was a really nice grocery store with excellent appointments, good produce, and best of all, they were very child friendly. I was a stay-at-home dad, and I was also Ginny’s hero. Four-year-olds have yet to discover that their parents are perhaps not really superheros. It was an enjoyable time.
I learned something in this store that changed my life forever. I learned it by watching my daughter push her dainty little shopping cart. Before I tell you what I learned, I have to tell you a little background.
This store had nice little creations around that store workers took time to create. There were canned vegetables neatly stacked in pyramids and small structures. There was fresh fruit stacked in neat piles for shoppers to enjoy and select. There were portions of the store where glass jars were also displayed in neat stacks that employees took time to construct. Also, when I was a child, my parents would yell when I made a mess. Making messes was really bad in my house. But somewhere in my psyche I decided I would not be the type of parent who yells at a child for making a mess. There was much potential for mess making in Harris Teeter’s, especially if a child is pushing a small shopping cart.
I remember one Sunday afternoon, we went shopping after coming home from Church. Ginny was still dressed nicely in her church clothes–a cute little dress and sweater with small sneakers that had blinky lights on them, which she loved. She wore her hair in short curls and her eyes were bluer and brighter than any star in a night sky. She was adorable.
Ginny wanted me to give her a list of things to get. She wanted to do it by herself. The list needed to be three items. I knew she was going to linger in the toy area anyway, so I put raisins on the list, because not only did she like raisins, but they were on the same aisle as the toys.
When I let Ginny go, I realized that at any moment, I might hear a giant crash and that she might destroy some employee’s creative project for an attractive display. I wanted to prevent any unfavorable outcomes. I wanted to protect Ginny, but more importantly, I wanted to protect myself from any messes and the shame they might bring upon us both. But I realized I had to make a choice: I could either trust Ginny to learn from her mistakes and develop confidence in her abilities, or I could hover close by and swoop in and save her from messes. And from learning through her own experiences.
I chose the former. I resigned myself to having to pay for whatever goods she destroyed or damaged. I accepted that her adorable little dress and sweater could be covered in broken glass or juice or fresh produce or any combination of the above. But I also resigned myself that I was going to let her make a mess if she needed to, and I wasn’t going to throw a fit. I was going to let any messes be okay. I was going to let her be a kid, however that might turn out to today.
You know what? There were no messes or broken glass that day. Everything came off without a hitch. She found the raisins and the other two items, and she also got a chance to push her cart along a bunch of other aisles and see a bunch of displays and stuff. She taught me that she was trustworthy that day. I also learned that I had an emotional hangover around messes in childhood. It was not necessary that I use my parents techniques when I didn’t consider them resourceful parenting. I could trust Ginny’s growth process. And if there had been a mess, I could have figured that out too.
Thinking about it now, she could have broken glass and cut herself. She could have been covered in blood from those cuts, and she could have required stitches. But all of those scenarios turned out to be very remote. It was only my personal distortions that made them seem like realistic probabilities, however. It was my inner, virtual reality that seemed dangerous; it wasn’t really my actual reality.
As a parent, it’s not easy to know when my inner reality is out of sync with actual reality. Human beings have the ability to grossly distort what’s actually happen and then have no idea that there’s a disconnect between what’s actually happening and what seems to be happening. This is really important to know as a parent.
If I had not become aware of my personal distortions, I would have hovered over Ginny and prevented her from pushing her shopping cart anywhere near the precarious display. I probably would have bundled her up in a protective, kevlar space suit that insulated her from any possible harm. Or joy. When you insulate against sadness, you also insulate against joy. That’s important to remember.
In time, Ginny would come to recognize this potential disconnect between her model of what’s happening and the reality of what’s happening. She would undergo therapy herself, as a kid, after her mom died from breast cancer. She would get to climb into her mom’s death bed and say good bye at the age of nine. I could have “protected” her from that, but The Universe or God or whoever did not protect her from having the experience of losing her mom at age 9, so I chose not to use my own rulebook. I chose to not treat her like a kid. I chose to treat her like an adult in that moment, so up she went to say goodbye to her mom. She knew exactly that her mom was not coming back. I had told her that her mom is dying, and that she won’t ever be going back. I had told her that she would never get to speak to her mom face to face again, that this would be the last time, so say everything you want to say.
It was an extremely personal and violently emotional time.
I’m sure it was impossibly hard for Tish too. But Ginny got to say her good byes. I don’t regret making that decision to treat her as an adult at that time. I actually think it was one of the smarter decisions in my life.
It’s strange, I guess, but I’ve made that choice to not protect my daughter a lot in my life. I chose to treat her as an adult many times. But I also tried to teach her that there are consequences to making choices, and those consequences will come regardless of why you made your choice. When you make the choice, you’re choosing a set of consequences. So keep your eyes open when you make your choices. Learn how it feels to make mistakes. Learn how those unintended consequences feel, and you’ll be smarter next time you make a similar choice.
I chose to emphasize the consequences rather than any shame. I tried to take myself out of the equation, if possible. I had lots of my own leftover shame from my childhood. Ginny didn’t need any of that. My shame shouldn’t have anything to do with her making choices in her own life. My shame doesn’t equal her shame. Or it shouldn’t in my view.
Being My Own Parent
I was probably a better parent to Ginny than I have been to myself. Because I don’t always follow my own best advice. In fact, I seldom follow my own best advice.
In particular, many of my decisions are colored by how I think other people will react to my choice rather than by the consequences of the choices. Still. And those people aren’t even real. For example, I still hear my mom or dad in my mind’s ear, and sometimes I still try to please them rather than please myself. I think this might just be a human thing, so I try not to judge it too harshly. But I still try to see it as a 3rd party observer. It’s weird that I do it, but I still do it sometimes.
I continue to go to therapy and become conscious of my choices. The biggest thing I struggle with is always Resistance. Every single day. Everything else is a side show. Sitting down to do my work is the One Thing that I must do every day. And making that choice is my number one parenting challenge. But if I can just do that, then I’m being an awesome parent to myself!