By Alexia Saleem
I often wonder what would happen if we could be as honest as young children are in our relationships. I love how they can pull each other’s hair one minute and be best buddies the next. I also love how they can speak their unfiltered truth, unafraid of the consequences.
When I was child, I remember being like that. I vowed never to grow up and be like the “dumb” adults I saw around me. The adults who told me that it’s complicated telling people how you really feel when you’re upset with them. I remember wondering how it could possibly be complicated simply telling a friend exactly how you feel – from how much you love them to how much they’ve hurt you. Thoughts of being ridiculed, offending my friend, making myself appear vulnerable or even risking the loss of a friendship never even crossed my mind.
Then, one day, I grew up and became one of those dumb adults I’d promised myself I’d never become. It suddenly became a matter of not wanting to rock the boat. Not wanting to anger the other person. Not wanting to be laughed at. Not wanting to be annoying. Not wanting to wear my heart on my sleeve.
The problem is, this sort of behaviour can then spill over into other areas of your life and then, before you know it, you lose your voice. Your ability to speak your truth and to be authentic to yourself. And that’s never going to be a good thing. Not if it’s out of fear of what other people will think or say about you. Not if it makes you forget who you are or dims your light.
I have always tried to let my children own their voices. But, as they’ve gotten older, it has become trickier, and I’ve seen myself attempting to stifle their voices because of my discomfort. I’m all fine with the nice things they say, like how much they love people, but not so much when they’re annoyed and want to be left alone or aren’t in the mood to behave or speak in a way that is pleasing to other people.
And this is down to the thoughts in my head: ‘What will those people think of me? What will they think of my children and ergo my parenting?’
I’ve actually caught myself jumping in and trying to explain away what they’re saying or doing. But I feel like such a phoney. Why can’t I just sit with the discomfort of it and allow them to say what they want? It’s not like they’re saying anything untrue. It’s us, the adults, with our years of baggage, who make more of things than what they are.
Young children tend to be highly inquisitive and ask questions about the world around them. They don’t actually judge the world in the way adults do – or not yet anyway. They merely observe and are fascinated with everything and everyone. They also say it how it is – even if it can be perceived as hurtful to the adult.
They might ask you about the shoes you’re wearing. They might notice the size of your ears. They might even notice your skin colour, hair colour or your body shape. Because they are noticing doesn’t mean they are judging. It doesn’t mean they think less of you. They are simply noting things in their environment. How we then respond to what they say matters, because they are watching us. Taking their cues from us.
I remember when I was about nine or 10 making a comment to a lady having lunch with us about how much pasta she was putting on her plate. It was a huge plateful. I didn’t care how much she was eating. I was merely observing that it was a large amount of food. She could have said: “You’re quite right. I love my food. Especially pasta” and then laughed. Instead, she burst into tears. I then got told off for being rude and making comments about how much people are eating. From that day forward I started to notice how much people eat. And I also started to think eating too much, if you’re a girl, is a shameful thing. Something if noticed, or commented on, can make you cry. The solution I came up with was either don’t eat too much or, if you do, do it in private. Talk about conditioning for a future eating disorder.
Our children are always watching us. Listening to us. Learning from us. There have been so many times where I have wanted to burst out laughing and to have the ground open up and swallow me whole, simultaneously.
It’s us parents who make things more complicated. We get involved and tell our kids how to be instead of trusting they’ll work it out for themselves. We tell them do this and don’t do that, like we have it all figured out, when looking at the state of the world, we clearly don’t.
Since having children I’ve started being more honest in my relationships again and it’s refreshing as well as liberating. I am finding the courage to have those challenging conversations again however uncomfortable I might feel because how else can I teach them to do the same? I’m also trying to learn to sit with my feelings of discomfort when they say things that I really wish they hadn’t for fear of offending others. I’m not very good at it yet. But, like everything in one’s parenting journey, it takes patience and practice.