I work with a family therapist, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. She does more work with Tori than with me, but I do join them at the beginning or end of the session. During one session, she asked me if I gave parental advice. I was shocked. I mean, here I am, at a family therapist. Doesn't that mean I'm not qualified to give advice? But she was serious. She thinks I'm doing a really good job, and that I should share my ideas with others. I have to say, I'm not sure I really am qualified to be a parental advisor, but here's a story I'm comfortable sharing, with the hopes that it may help other parents.
Every so often my daughter gets chatty about school. It’s usually at night, when the lights are off and we are engaged in “quiet” cuddles. I know it’s a delaying tactic, but since she NEVER talks about school otherwise, I let it happen.
Generally speaking, the narrative is one about how she is the hero of the playground. Quite often, there is also judgmental commentary on the kids in the class who misbehave. My daughter may think nothing of slamming doors at home, but at school she is truly a little angel. People often tell me that's a sign of good parenting. Sometimes I wish I weren't such a good parent...
Last night she was telling me about a kid in her class who clearly has some behavioral issues. This child, I’ll call them Pat, is taken out of class to work with a special teacher and my daughter mentioned that Pat goes to the principal’s office to avoid “hurting the other kids in class.” I don’t know if Pat has a learning disability, or a severe behavioral problem. I don’t know anything about Pat except that my daughter disapproves and feels superior.
I'm all about removing stigma from mental health issues, and I don't think 6 is too young to start her education. So I said: “It sounds like Pat has some big feelings and doesn’t know how to handle them. You know, when you had big feelings, we had to go see the counselor.”
“Yes, I used to hit you, and then I saw the feelings doctor and learned how to get my angries out.”
“That’s right. And then you wanted to go again, so you get to go now.”
“Yes, I like going to see her. I get a lot out of it.”
“Well, it sounds like Pat doesn’t get to go see a feelings doctor. Isn’t it great that Pat can see a feelings doctor at school? Sometimes, when people have big feelings and don’t know how to deal with them, they do bad things. They hurt other people.”
“Yes, Pat tells lies about the other kids in the class.” Then followed a long story about kids tattling on other kids. Teachers are saints. I would go insane - just listening to my daughter recount all this drama is wearing me out!
I brought us back to the matter at hand: “So the important thing to remember is that when we meet people like Pat, it’s OK to set boundaries and stay away so they can’t hurt us. But we also need to give them sympathy. Because they have big feelings and don’t know what to do with them. They are feeling really bad when they do those things. And if it really bothers you, you can pray for Pat. That’s what I do.”
She responded with silence to this, thinking it over. I know I haven't won the Nobel prize for this conversation, or answered all her questions about mental health. But it's a start.
I want her to be compassionate towards all people. Compassionate for kids who are less intelligent than her, kids who have less opportunities or money than her, kids who have disabilities. It's a big goal and will take me the rest of her time at home, and maybe longer. And it's a lesson I need to keep learning for myself.
Note: I used a gender neutral alias for the child in this post.