What do you do when your child hurts your feelings?
One of my favorite times with my daughter is the car ride home from school. It’s one of the rare moments that she and I have that’s just the two of us, now that she has a little brother at home, too. One day last week, I was particularly excited to pick her up from preschool. I couldn’t wait to hear what letter she’d learned, what art projects she had made and who she played with on the playground. Usually she tells funny anecdotes from her day, and it makes me smile.
I picked her up from school and we headed out of the parking lot. Before I could get a single word out of my mouth, she asks, “Mom, did you bring me a treat?”
“No, I don’t have any treats. I came straight from work. How was your day today?"
“Mom!” she says angrily. “Why didn’t you bring anything for me?”
“Sorry, I don’t have anything. We can get a snack when we get home,” I offered.
“Ugghh,” she says. “I really wanted you to bring me a treat.”
A few minutes later, I ask her, “What letter did you learn today?”
Over the twenty-minute car ride that followed, she proceeded to complain about just about everything. I didn’t take her to the park. She didn’t like her lunch. I picked her up too early from school and she didn’t get to play on the playground in extended care. Sometimes I pick her up too early, sometimes I’m too late. I can never seem to get it right.
I remember the moment when I realized that enough was enough. I was about to turn around and intercede to correct this unappealing attitude. I was about to get really angry, and then something just dawned on me. I wasn’t angry. That was the secondary emotion. Truthfully, I was hurt.
In that second, I just decided to let the true feelings come out. I didn’t threaten to send her to time-out if she didn’t change her attitude, like I’d planned. I just told her honestly that she really hurt Mommy’s feelings.
“I was so excited to pick you up from school today. I couldn’t wait to hear about what you learned and who you played with,” I said. “I looked forward to getting to spend this time with you, but the only thing you’ve done since the moment you got into the car is complain.”
As I told her how hurt I was and that I felt disappointed that our time together was lost, I started to cry. It wasn’t on purpose or to make her feel bad, but it happened.
And in that unplanned moment, I saw something in her change. She looked at me and saw the sadness on my face. She changed from angry and defiant to sad and remorseful. In just a few short seconds, she began to cry as she started to understand that what she’d said had caused me pain. I comforted her and forgave her, assuring her that I was okay and that we could start over.
I learned something that day that I hope will stick with me throughout my years of parenting. More than any punishment or anger could have done, it was my honest emotion and true connection with my child that changed her attitude. So often, we as parents focus on changing the behavior. But, what I learned at that moment is that changing the behavior isn’t the most important thing; it’s changing the heart.