My fastidious and strict German grandmother used to say: a child needs to eat a certain amount of dirt to grow up right. I always loved this. As a child it allowed me to get messy and have an excuse. As a mother, it helps me to know that a child does not need a perfect parent. A child needs a parent who is present and available.Children need to learn about disappointment and how to overcome greed and selfishness. They need parents to teach them about limits and appropriate behaviors. They need to learn about everything from rules of conversation, table manners, what feelings are and how to mange them.
Whenever I get to this point, people ask about discipline. Each parent had their own question about the topic which I can summarize here as: How do I discipline my child the right way? I wish that there was a straightforward answer to this, but I don’t think there is. Instead I try to keep a couple of ideas in mind to help me.
First is to understand the difference between guilt and shame; guilt about something that you have done and shame is about who you are as a person. A guilty person feels badly about taking a cookie from the cookie jar. A shameful person feels they are bad for taking the same cookie.
Little kids have a hard time understanding that their feelings are transient, confusing and not the totality of themselves. They feel things intensely and assume that everyone must feel the same way that they do. If you are angry at them, they cannot fathom that you still love them. Likewise, if they are angry at you, they assume that you must also feel angry towards them.
The way that I tried to explain this idea to my kids was to tell them over and over again: I love you even when I am angry at you, and even when YOU are angry at ME, I still love you. I would tell them in the midst of the angry feeling, and at other times when we were feeling closer. I wasn’t sure if it was registering until once when I was very angry my son patted my shoulder and said: Mommy, just remember I still love you even when you are angry at me.
Turns out that was a great reminder to us both. By saying that, he reminded me that he pays attention to what I say as well as what i do. He reminded me that our connection was the primary thing, and the anger was the fleeting feeling. He reminded me that I have a choice about how I manage my feelings, which is what I’m always busy telling him he can do too.