Raising children is no joke. Parents often spend more time commiserating with each other than they spend listening to their children. ‘Kids!’ they exclaim; even worse, ‘Teens!’ All the grown-ups nod.
When parents are there for each other more than for their kids, things get tougher all round. We’ve all been brought up ourselves, all vowed we’d never do that to our children, all sure that, having been victims, we’d never be perpetrators.
“You’re not going to like this,” she said.
Unfortunately, human psychology isn’t that simple. How we forget.
Just six months ago our teenager was toying with the idea of dropping out. High school was tremendously stressful, but in the end she did well — almost. Her trusted math teacher Mr. S had a heart attack, and the substitute teachers were no substitute. We learned now, just as she was enjoying her summer job and feeling confident for the first time ever, that she’d have to resit her exam.
We didn’t tell her right away. First, we’d line things up. Caroline got the school on the line. Our daughter had tried hard and they’d promised to look out for her, but in the end she’d slipped through the cracks. Caroline gave them a good blasting. She’s good at that. You know you’re being blasted, but she gets you onside. ‘Empathy,’ she calls it.
After being empathized, the school counselor was eager to help. She researched the alternatives while I took to the road. Caroline coordinated us from her office, where she was online with the scholastic authorities.
At the summer school I paid the fees, bought the books and drove home. It was forty kilometers each way and cost me an afternoon’s work — expensive when you’re self-employed. Back home Caroline looked exhausted; also guilty.
“You’re not going to like this,” she said.
Desperate to right all wrongs, the blasted counselor had come up with a better plan. Instead of four, our daughter would have to sit only one exam. Instead of her summer being gutted, she’d manage with a weekend tutor. Plus we’d save money and time. The catch: it was a different school.
Grumbling, I retraced my steps, returned the books, got a refund, drove to the other school and registered all over again. Another afternoon. Caroline soothed and patted me and triggered positive thoughts. Back at work, realizing the sky hadn’t fallen in my absence, I grew proud of my selfless parenting. What great news we had for our daughter! She wouldn’t have to quit her summer job, lose income, be embarrassed or miss the start of college. Everything was back on track.
“What?” Her mouth opened in disgust. “I have to do math again?” She stormed off to her room. I followed, explaining how lucky she was, how we’d fixed everything. She burst into tears.
Caroline was horrified. “How could you?” she asked.
“Me?” I was shocked. “I was just explaining….”
Ignoring her feelings, I turned
instead to her unreasonableness
When things get emotionally confusing, I rationalize. I lean into escape mode, wishing I were back in the monastery — no responsibilities, no ungrateful children, no overwhelming expenses, fewer challenges. All I had to do back in those days was watch myself and try to be good. Not that it’s easy, but there’s no easier place to do it.
Sure I learned a lot of stuff back then: philosophy, ancient languages, monastic discipline, Asian etiquette, coping with other neurotic monks. What I learn now is about feelings, irrationality, caring, love, empathy, self-observation in unpredictable situations — all stirred constantly by material stress. It’s much more difficult, much richer — much more error-prone.
Reason is about how things should
be; empathy is about how they are
It’s easy to follow deep habits, but hard to notice them. Our teen’s bad reaction triggered my righteousness. No way was I going to let go of the self-satisfaction of selfless parenthood. Ignoring her feelings, I turned instead to her unreasonableness.
Trouble is, you can’t talk anyone out of their feelings — not even yourself. I thought I knew that, and yet I didn’t know it in that moment. Reason is about how things should be; empathy is about how they are. Explaining her good luck to her was irrelevant. It was dumb. Worst of all, it was rational when reason was beside the point.
I did my job as a parent and expected gratitude, or at least good manners. I’m at that nice comfortable age where I can explain things quite clearly, but I also know that explanations count for little when it comes to feelings.
I’d fallen into the double trap. On the one hand we expect kids to do what we say. On the other hand, we judge them as beyond hope. That’s when we throw up our hands. It’s when they look like monsters to us and we look like monsters to them.
But we’re their role models. They’re thinking how they’ll never be like us, but unless someone deliberately breaks the cycle they will. One day, when they’re in their own parenting shoes, they’ll see us in themselves and try not to notice.
Kids often say, “I don’t care,” meaning they care so deeply they have no words to talk about it. This is a fragile window of opportunity. Say, “Of course you care,” and it will slam shut.
Real listening lets go of words. I learned this years ago, but I’m still learning it. Time and again, I have to remind myself to stop being reasonable and pay attention to the whole story, to break down my own shell and become emotionally naked.
Empathy is about perceptions, not feelings. It’s about the other, not the self. And yet it begins by asking, ‘Why do I feel this way?’ Only by acknowledging that can I let go of my defenses and see why she feels that way.
This post was written with the collaboration of Caroline Courey, director of New Way Personal Life Coaching, and also my wife. In fact, most posts are written with her collaboration, but this topic is very close to her heart.