My son pushed his little face up to mine as soon as the guests had left. "Was I good mommy?" he asked, his eyes searching mine.
I confess he sort of caught me off guard. I had reprimanded him a day or so ago for behaving badly at the dinner table when we had guests. Now the previous hour or two flashed through my mind. He had been a squirmy, energetic 9 year old boy and if 'good' was defined as a prim postured child with only politely appropriate words and flawless table manners, then no, he would not qualify. "Well", I said, "you weren't perfect, but I wasn't asking you to be perfect."
As I mused on his query later that day (and again now, years later) I thought ...that's really the fundamental question isn't it. That's the question underneath layers and layers of life and experience. Underneath years of striving, anxiety and bad choices in the adults I see in my office, is a little child wondering "Was I good mommy?" "Did I get it right this time mommy?" "Were you proud of me?
Sadly, as parents we often miss these opportunities to validate our child and help them to build a solid 'self'. We miss the many many times the child does not ask directly, but the question is there all the same, waiting for a response.
I remember once when one son gave the dishwasher door too big a push and it slammed shut. HIs dad hollered at him "Don't slam it shut like that!!!" Then another son got up from the table and went over and did pretty much the same thing. This time their father was furious. "I JUST told your brother NOT to do that!! Up to your room!!!!"
I found the behaviour a bit curious and atypical, so after a few minutes I went up to his room. He was sobbing. I asked him gently "Why would you do what daddy had just told your brother not to do?" Eventually, between sobs and gasps, his perspective emerged. "Daddy said, 'Don't slam it like that" (sob) so I thought I would slam it the proper way. (sob). I thought daddy would be happy with me slamming it the right way."
He was just a little child with a simple desire to do good. To make daddy proud of him. (Along with the bonus experience of 'showing up' his brother). It is so easy for us to miss this as a parent, and life goes on, and we never know. Because the child doesn't have it in him to come to the parent and say "I'm feeling a bit misrepresented dad. I'm not sure if you interpreted my intentions properly and I think perhaps you reacted too strongly without enough information." Instead the child goes away, a little part of him broken that he no longer is motivated to put back together. He feels wrong, confused, shamed and he will continue to feel that way a little more, every time, until he decides feeling that way is too crappy... and then he will block out feelings, lash out...or some other coping.
And that's how our innermost core beliefs about ourselves (and corresponding coping) can solidify deep inside of us. And we are haunted with beliefs about being wrong, inadequate and unworthy (regardless of how many degrees we acquire or companies we own) and still not having it in us to say "I'm feeling a bit misrepresented here..." (in intimate relationships) because we were never taught to validate those feelings.
I woke up the next morning after the evening with dinner guests and went to my son. "Remember last night when you asked if you were good?" "Yes" he said. "Sweetheart, you are a very good little boy and I really appreciate you trying hard to be well behaved in the restaurant." His face lit up into the sunny, untroubled smile that only children seem capable of, and he bounced out the door.
The wonderful part of all this, is that we can learn how to validate our feelings, build a new sense of self, change our core beliefs and become freer from the wounds that were never properly dressed in our childhood. If you are interested in doing this, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I can help.