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The Messages We Send

The Messages We Send

This week, I gave a talk on the Child Project phone bridge entitled, “The Messages We Send.” The talk challenged us as parents to be mindful beyond the unexamined assumptions and preconceptions we bring to our transactions with our children. This is no small thing, since these assumptions and preconceptions form a living context in which we’re immersed, as a rule—a paradigm or framework hidden by its very conspicuousness. Deepening mindfulness calls us beyond where we’ve been; it stretches us, and in the case of parents who are committed to being conscious and empathetic, asks us to consider that the problems we see in our children, especially those to which we find ourselves reacting, are all too often a projection of self-work that we haven’t done. Long before we pass from this world, leaving behind a material bequest for our children, we’ve bestowed upon them, for good or ill, the legacy of self.

Parenting, then, mirrors the self-relation, as all our worldly relationships must. The work we do on ourselves to clear contradictions, resolve unfinished business, and set aside unfriendly stories and conclusions about self, others, and the world influences our children deeply and in far-reaching ways, benefitting them as it benefits us, just as the self-work we leave undone is inherited by them and becomes their self-work.

As a philosophical counselor, I’ve often listened to parents recounting stories of actions they had taken in the name of teaching their child this or that lesson with no awareness of what it was like for the child, and so, no awareness of the message they had passed along. They meant well, but ignored the obvious fact that that from the child’s point of view, the message was frightening or blaming or coercive—and now they want to know why their child is acting out in school, or seems sullen and withdrawn. They don’t see the connection that seems glaring to me, because they’re immersed in a paradigm in which the friendliness or unfriendliness of their response simply isn’t taken into account. They may tell themselves that they acted as they did for the child’s own good, but if pressed to look at this outside the immersion, it turns out they knew that something was off, because they knew they were reacting, and then justifying the reaction, and that even if there was some standard or principle or rule they were considering in the moment, they were not considering the child—the actual, living, feeling, tenderhearted being at the receiving end of the unchecked reaction. They didn’t consider their tone of voice, not what they said but how they said it, or the emotional charge conveyed by their facial expression and body language, or what it feels like to have displeased someone twice your size—and not just any someone, but the most important person in your life. They did the right thing, but not the wise thing, not the empathetic or understanding thing, not the skillful thing. Their immersion blinded them, the unfriendly message led to unwanted and often unrecognized consequences, and now they have no idea of where the problem lies or how to solve it.

Parental messages can be passed along with awareness, consciously, even when the engagement in the moment is demanding or challenging. To be sure, it is especially in such moments that so much depends on our staying conscious and empathetic. It is imperative that we, as parents, are clear about what we’re imparting—not only in what we say, but also in how we say it. And here we may want to remember that the framework of a child’s life script is passed along before the child acquires language. What is the tone, the subtext, the assumption underlying a particular interaction with the child? Are we responding or reacting? Has something in our child triggered some unfinished business in us? Does the message we’re sending imply that the world is a dangerous place? Does our instruction have in it an element of criticism or worse, sarcasm? Does it encourage the child’s developing self-confidence or attack it? Are we resorting to the use of force, however subtle—and if so, what message does that send? How is the message being received?

At the end of the day, and this is true every day, the loving, friendly, generous, empathetic response is the only one we won’t regret. Angry, punishing, or mean-spirited reactions are always inappropriate, and always damaging. Boundaries must be enforced, certainly, if a child is to develop a healthy will, which includes a realistic sense of the limits of the will—but a great deal depends on how such boundaries are enforced. What we say matters, but may matter less than how we say it.

The great benefits of this sort of conscious communicating hold no matter what the age of the child, though with adult children, the equation is somewhat more complex. Adult children are supposed to be adults, not children, and it is not out of line to expect them to act as adults. This means that they, too—and not just the parent—have a responsibility to give all that they would want to receive in transactions with their parents: truthfulness, empathy, consideration, and respect. If an adult child consistently refuses to meet his or her parent halfway, acting unilaterally or selfishly or worse, abusively, passive-aggressively, and so on, then there comes a time for even the most empathetic parent to draw a line of self-respect and assert healthy requirements. Adult children suffering from arrested development may be unlikely to step up to those requirements for a long time; that is one of the tragic results of the failure to develop a healthy will—but this can only be the parent’s concern to a certain point. Past that point, empathy becomes enabling and giving oneself in understanding becomes giving oneself away, which is good for neither parent nor adult child.

We can see from all this that the matter is far from simple, but that in all cases, and certainly in parenting young children, empathy and understanding are paramount—even when, perhaps especially when children are intractable, upset, and crossing healthy boundaries. In such moments, a firm and loving message avoids wounding the young and vulnerable psyche, which is no small thing, since early wounds can take a long, long time to heal if they can be healed at all. In dealing with adult children, the same rule applies, with the provision that while caring for his or her child, the conscious parent, as a conscious person, will not abandon self-care. Setting healthy boundaries may be necessary long after a child has grown to adulthood, but there is no reason that this can’t be done lovingly and with the skill of a creative response rather than a charged reaction. In the end, the destiny of our relationship with our children may not be in our hands. As Dr. Joshua Coleman points out, one may do everything right, and things still can turn out wrong. It is, then, not a matter of controlling outcomes, but of doing the best we can as fallible human beings, perhaps in the hope that, when our children grow up and have children of their own, they will realize what it means to do one’s best to navigate those sometimes turbulent waters. They are in any case far more likely to discover in their own parenting, a newfound appreciation for their parents if the messages they received were informed by kindness.

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