“When I was your age…” — connecting with our children through empathic memory

I promise, I’m really not a bad cook. In fact, I love cooking. For the past two weeks I have been clearing out old copies of a cookery magazine, which I have been collecting for 17 years. Yes, seventeen. (The less said about this the better off we will be. Moving swiftly on.)

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I put a lot of effort into our meals. Friends say, “Lisa’s a good cook.” One of my dearest friends came to visit from the US and joked, “The food in this B&B is excellent.” But no matter how proud I am of the meal I’ve prepared, no matter how delicious it is, one of my children has the makings of a scathing restaurant critic. Here is only a selection of some of the things he has said about my cooking:

“We’re having this again?”

“Look. I ate it all. Can I have something good now?”

“This actually tastes better than it looks.”

At first, the things he said wounded me. After racing around the kitchen, chopping here, slicing there, stirring the pot and fending off children who want to do pre-meal snacking, I land everything on the table, flick my hair (you can still flick a pixie cut, I promise) and internally, triumphantly announce, “Voila!”

Next moment, I’m slumped at the table, palm to forehead, cut down to size by a small person with big opinions. It didn’t just make me sad, it also made me mad. I felt indignant at his insults, and hurt by his thoughtlessness.

After a long time of getting mad, I began to feel differently. One day he looked at my tomato and arugula (rocket) risotto and said, aghast, “Is this SICK?” all I could do was laugh and say, “I think we can confidently say that I will never, ever serve you a plate of sick.” Having been reassured it was risotto, he ate it all. From that moment, his comments have become a source of laughter for me, and groans for his sisters.

When a friend asked me why it doesn’t bother me any more, I reflected on how hard I found it, as a child, to say the right thing. I well remember how easy it was to put my foot in my mouth. I recall the looks on peoples’ faces when something I’d said went down like a lead balloon; I remember the chastisements I’d faced when something glib came out of my mouth before I’d had time to think, and I’d hurt someone. In short, I remember what it was like to be a kid.

It was only a few months ago that I walked into the kitchen and found one of my children perched on the countertop. When I asked what she was doing, she turned to look at me, and I saw that both of her cheeks bulged. “Nuffing,” she replied, unable to speak owing to the many huge marshmallows stuffed into her cheeks. For a moment there, I think she thought she was going to pull it off. And though I was irritated that she was sneaking marshmallows out of the cupboard, I laughed because I remember what it was like to be a kid.

Remembering what it was like does not replace instruction. It simply makes it possible to mine that instruction from the coalface of empathy. Instead of getting angry or exasperated and reacting accordingly (which is so often what I do), remembering brings us shoulder to shoulder with our children. My experience is that my children are more likely to listen to me when they feel I am on their side. Connection breeds trust and mutual respect.

How often as a child did we hear the words, “When I was your age…” as a tool for instruction? “When I was your age, I had to walk to school… in the snow… barefoot… uphill both ways!” I don’t know about you, but “When I was your age” became a Pavlovian cue to me to roll my eyes, cross my arms, and spend the next 20 minutes fantasising about Jon Bon Jovi while the adults talked at me.

Wait. Did I just admit that?

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What I have found is that my children don’t want to know how much harder my life was at their age. What they do want to know is that I was once their age and faced many of the same issues they do, and made many of the same mistakes. I say to them, “I remember how hard it was to say the right thing at the right time. Even now I say the wrong thing.” Or, “I remember how hard it was to resist temptation. Even now I struggle to resist temptation.”

I will forever treasure the look on my child’s face when I first empathised with her like this. “It’s hard not to hit your brother when you feel angry. I remember when my brother and I used to hit each other all the time and it drove my mother crazy.” Her look of incredulity (You were my age once? You fought with D?) and pleasure (Yes it is hard!) was heart-rending. She knew I got it, and was receptive when I followed up with, “Please remember we don’t hit. Use your words or come ask me for help.”

Sharing my memories with my children is not a way to beat them over the head with comparison or even to belittle them. Instead, it’s an opportunity to say,

I was little too.

Growing up can be hard.

Meeting others’ expectations all the time is impossible.

I understand.

This is what it’s like to be human, and I know, because I am a human too.

All of this draws me toward connection with my children, which is right where I want to be. I just might not tell them about Jon Bon Jovi. Not yet anyway.

Words and photos © Lisa Hassan Scott 2016.

 

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