Recently I was talking to my daughter about values. She has some kids in her class with very questionable values, and she said, “well, they get it from their parents.” And I think for the most part that might be true. Then she asked me “mom, you have really different values from your parents and siblings, so I guess it’s not always true.” And she is right again. But I had to work really hard to break a lot of the patterns from my own childhood in order to raise my family with the intention that I value.
The million dollar question is how, then, isn’t it? It’s not complicated, but it’s not easy. It takes a lot of work and it doesn’t happen in one go. A good place to start is to see things that are normal to you, that have become normalized to you because it’s the way they have always been, it’s how it was for you growing up, for example, and then break it down. Is it right? Is it good? How does it make you feel? Is it constructive? Is it abusive? For example. Then you want to challenge that norm. I am a big fan of reverse engineering, so when I have worked on breaking my own patterns I like to start with the result I want. How do I want my kids to feel? What do I need to do in order for them to have that experience?
Growing up I was often afraid of my dad. I idolized him, like most kids do, I loved it when he gave me attention and in many ways I shifted my behavior to get his approval, and in others I sought out his disapproval and reaction. Not exactly stable and healthy. He was often physically )and emotionally) violent with me and I have thought about this a lot and I genuinely think that he didn’t have the tools to communicate better, so he used dominance and violence. I don’t think he was a monster, but he had a lot of work to do on himself that he chose not to address, so the responsibility stays his. When I was four or five years old we were having our evening meal in front of the TV one evening. It must have been in the summer because I remember it being warm and light. My mom brought in a tray of sandwiches and glasses of juice, and I was standing behind the coffee table as I reached for one of the glasses. My hands were so little that I grabbed it with my whole hand, my fingers folding over the edges of the glass to get a grip to drink. And as I took a sip, my dad erupted. I had chosen the wrong glass. They were all the same, but I had chosen his, and he was furious. I got scared and started running, and I rolled under the stairs to get away from him. I remember the pit in my stomach. I remember trying to be quiet when I was crying so he wouldn’t find me and beat me. I was four or five. And I was terrified in my own home. Telling this story is emotional for me. And I know one thing for sure, that no child will every feel unsafe around me, I am a safe space for kids. Whatever is going on around, it is my mission to always make them feel welcome and safe, to feel wanted.
So when my sister ditched her toddler with me for three days when she had asked if I could babysit one evening, he won’t know. He will feel safe and wanted with me. The pattern of fear from children has to be broken around me, it is super important to me. So when my kids friends share things with me they can’t share with their parents, I will listen and make sure they feel safe. Because we all need that, and the important thing is not if I am interested or inconvenienced by it, that is a conversation to have with the adults without the kids around, but when it comes to protecting kids and their emotional well being, when you reverse engineer, when you start with the result you want, patterns are shattered left and right.
What happens then when there are more subtle patterns behind the patterns? When there are things we do that are sneaky and like to disguise themselves as something else, something useful. Something easy to justify in a different context? There will be, and then we do the same. We have to be radically transparent and confrontational with ourselves. It’s not complicated, but it’s not easy. It’s work, and we do it because the ripple through the next generation in all directions is so significant. Imagine not transferring our fears and our anxieties, however they express themselves, to our kids? That’s progress.