Learn this: A child's body and mind are his own, not anyone else's.

My little man-in-training.

A few random things came together over the last couple of days:
  • I promised myself I would watch every Oprah episode this year since it's her last
  • I've started studying for my counseling exam
  • I've recommitted to being present with Hawk
  • Hawk leaped ahead in cognitive and verbal development

The first is incongruous enough, but the episode I saw had Wynonna Judd on it along with her mother.  Apparently, they've had a contentious, undifferentiated relationship for years and have been struggling to sort it out in therapy.  Wynonna has been lost as an individual and unable to know when her wants and needs started in relation to her mother's and she poignantly pointed out that as a child her body was never her own; she was never allowed to ward off a hug, a pat, or a squeeze whenever an adult wanted it.  She was scolded for trying to protect her personal space -- a very powerful concept that struck me deeply coming from a family that often chased me down (literally) for physical attention.

The second, also incongruous, involves the first chapter of review in my study-guide book -- child development -- so there has been lots of talk about the cognitive abilities of children as they grow, their limitations, their understanding of their world and the people and relationships in it, and of themselves.

Third, on occasion I find myself wishing for the end of the day when I can shut down from being 100% "on" with Hawk.  Of course this is immediately followed by piercing guilt, then love, then re-ignition of my presence of mind to the moment: this moment, the larger moment, all of it.  But it's happening all the same and I need to reel myself back in and check myself.

And last, Hawk is more present in his world.  He notices who is where and when (though the why is happily still beyond his grasp).  His language has improved, he understands complex thoughts such as "tomorrow" and a little more about cause and effect.  It's this last piece that is most important to me because I don't want him to start laying pathways to self-destruction such as: I'm doing X and Mommy is distant and unavailable because of it.

All of these things have conspired to remind me of one unalienable right that many of us forget entirely:
Children are their own person and their bodies and emotions are their own to govern, express, and share as they see fit. 

As adults we often overlook the fact that they have the right to be who they are regardless of their control.  In fact, because of their utter lack of control in their worlds we should go especially out of our way to let them be who they are. 

I've taken this to mean a couple of things:

1. If I am in a good mood and Hawk is determined to be in a bad mood, I should let him do so with no consequence other than acceptance and giving him a space in which to do it.  I certainly feel any way I choose when the mood hits, so why should I have the right to deny him the same freedoms just because it's inconvenient to me?  And since he can't go lock himself in a closet and scream, I have to provide that opportunity to him.  

If Hawk has a melt down because God-knows-why, then he is doing exactly what he should be doing.  He is the center of his universe, can barely wrap his head around "Not now, later," and is only just now developing coping skills.  It is wholly cruel of me to expect him to stop an untoward behavior simply because I am over it.

Case in point, we were at Old Navy yesterday having a swell time when, out of the blue, his mood tanked about an hour earlier than it normally would.  I was caught unawares and lost my cool.  I stormed out of the store with him in my arms curtly telling him to "Stop it," every few steps as he sobbed and yelled and hit my chest and back to go back.  He fought me getting into the car seat and lest I force him in it by brute force alone I had no options.  At the thought of physically over-powering him I felt slapped.  I sat back and took a deep breath, looked into his tear-streaked face and said, "Baby, I'm so sorry for scaring you... come here," and pulled him onto my lap.  He continued to sob as I patted his back and apologized for losing my cool and getting angry.  He choked out, "Mama not angwy, me angwy!  Me sowwy!"

I said, "Yeah, baby, we're both angry and being angry is ok.  But it's not ok to be mean to someone you love when you're angry.  And I was a little mean by being scary."

I kept holding him and tried to kiss him, but he refused the touch and sternly said, "No kisses!"  He wanted only the hugs and pats.  I said, "Ok, you tell me when you're ready for a kiss," and he agreed.

As we began the drive home he continued to be upset, still sobbing "I wanna go baaaaack!" mixed in with completely unintelligible whines.   I snapped again and yelled angrily, "What is it that you waaaaaaant!?!?!"  He cried harder.  I took a couple more deep breaths for few beats and asked again, "Baby, what is it that you want?  Mama wants to help make you feel better and she's frustrated because she doesn't know how to help you," to which he replied, clear as a bell,

"Me not want to feel better.  Me saaaad and maaad!"

I swear you could have knocked me over with a feather.  He wasn't ready to be placated, to feel better.  He wanted to be upset.  I rode back home in silence chewing on my thoughts.  Hawk intermittently whimpered and watched the word whiz by his windows.

This was a major epiphany for me.  I've been protecting his right to his physical space since his birth, but the truth of the matter is, I haven't been protecting his emotional rights quite as much if they threw a wrench in my day.  

2.  I need to remove the concept that some emotions are "good or bad."  Emotions inherently have no value.  They are neither better or worse than others, just more or less accepted.  But here I was determined to help him feel better because the whining, crying, rage was pissing me off, when ultimately he was quite happy being unhappy and it was my own personal comfort level that was being affected.  Nothing else.

If I had it to do over again I wouldn't have engaged my own anger with his and I would simply have taken him to the car, told him to let it out via screaming and kicking (though, not at my person, specifically) and then told him I'd be there for a hug whenever he was done.

I'm not advocating letting your children tear about the planet expressing every emotion they have at any given time, but I am advocating a deeper understanding of their developmental levels and what, exactly, it is we're expecting of them.  Would an adult appreciate being scolded for being grumpy?  Would an adult appreciate tacit nonacceptance of her feelings?  Would an adult understand the nuances of social expectations and the role he had in society in general as visitor to a new planet?

These questions could play an important role in getting along with children exploring emotional boundaries with their caregivers, and within themselves, by allowing them the room to do so without internalizing shame or criticism given because it wasn't convenient to the adult.

I don't know... it's complex, I know.  I'm just trying to stay plugged in and present, but it's hard when I'm shredded most days.  I have hardly anything to give, but I hate more than anything to let myself or Hawk down when I know I can always dig a little deeper.  I want him to see the effort even if the execution is imperfect because that's part of the lesson I want him to take away: perfection isn't the goal, it's growth; mistakes happen, we can talk about them; and, most importantly, he is worthwhile in every shade of emotion he has, not just the ones that are easier for me.

(And if you've made it this far, you deserve a gold-fucking-star.  Thank you.  Truly.  I love that you're here.)


  1. I had never thought of this in such depth. I was guilted for non-happy emotions all the time as a child and I do this to my child, too. It's so easy to forget the things that are important enough to break a child's heart (for a little while, at least) often make no sense to an adult. There are so many lists of tips and tricks out there for keeping a child content and behaving perfectly that I think people (even highly respected experts) forget it's normal that a child gets upset or sad sometimes. This is of special concern to me because I have daughters and I've already noticed (and certainly did when I was a child) that girls are frequently not cut as much slack when their emotions veer out of the sweet, calm, peaceful zone. It's this way for grown women, too. It may be worse in our location (southeastern US). Here, a man nobly stands up for what he believes in while a woman gets up on her soapbox and bitches. Anyway, I love this post and I'm going to have to remember this. I think it could seriously improve things between me and my kids--especially my older one.

  2. You're the one who deserves the gold star. This was a fabulous and insightful post. Hollis is lucky to have you.

    I think it is easy to know that children deserve respect and autonomy. It is another thing entirely in practice. Putting that knowledge into practice is something that I am constantly working at.

  3. What a great post. I love it when a blog I read articulates some vague ideas that had been swimming around in my brain but I couldn't quite put it all together.

    It's interesting that you come at it from the point of view that was overly physical affectionate. Due to illness as a child I feel I missed out on some physical comfort and so I think I have to watch a tendency to over compensate for this with my boys. Different starting points but same end result!

    You're so right though that the freedom to write their own emotional story is so important to children. I've been in the exact same situation that you describe in Old Navy (of course I have, I'm a parent!) and the thing is that the times when I feel I handled it well and the times when I handled it not so well, externally a lot of my behaviour might have looked the same - out of the store, back to the car, carrying one (or on a truly awful day) both of my boys. But how the situation is resolved, it's legacy for the rest of the day truly relies on how I respect the child who's upset's emotions.

    Anyway, this is why I don't often comment, I run on and on! But it is a great post, and I am so impressed that you still much to dig deep for such articulate reflections in the midst of such challenging times.

  4. i sooo understand....today was a case in point feel drained!

  5. awesome write up of this. there's something to be said for allowing yourself to let go on control and let your kid do their own thing, intellectually and emotionally.

    i think this goes hand in hand with a concept i've talked to jon about– no forced hugs and kisses. we need to help empower our kids to have ownership of their bodies and that means that they have the right to refuse a hug and kiss from you, or from grandma. it's about respect.

    to me it seems even more valuable that you were able to apologize to Hollis outside the old navy. it helps him see that it's ok to make a mistake, own up to it, and move on. that makes you an awesome role model.

    since i work all day i definitely try to be 100% "on" when i'm at home in the evening. i know how important it is and that time is so precious. but by bedtime... man, i'm tanked. it's exhausting. great, valuable, and exhausting.

  6. There you go..making parenting even more complex, challenging, and thought provoking than I already thought it was! Lol! Love it....it's just what I needed :)

  7. Oh yeah...and LOOOOOOVE the picture!

  8. I like it. And I like thinking about some of these things now when Nathan is still a year and a half out from Hollis, it's like looking into our future a little bit. : ) Thank you.

  9. As Oprah's representative, I would like to thank you for agreeing to watching Oprah daily for the entire season. Took you long enough.

  10. This post is absolutely, 100% right on....and it is a topic that has been heavily on my mind as of late. I'm pregnant with boy #2 and due in seven weeks. I've been thinking a lot lately about ways I want to improve myself when it comes to dealing with -and encouraging the healthy outlet of- emotions with my children. I tend to snap and then feel terrible guilt, going back to my little man and apologizing, explaining, etc. Pretty much EXACTLY what you just wrote about! Your post is going to be bookmarked, saved, reread over and over again, because it is just that good. Side question: will you be my therapist?

  11. Lauren at Hobo Mama shared this link, and I am so glad she did! I've really been thinking about children's bodily autonomy recently.

    There was a thought-provoking post at Natural Parents Network about toddlers and bodily exploration (http://naturalparentsnetwork.com/bodily-exploration/) which got me pondering the best way to explain to my boys about "private parts".

    I'm of a mind to teach them that ALL their parts are private, and not to be touched without their express permission. In part I want to discourage the shame that our society tends to associate with parts like a vulva or a penis, but also in part to let them have more control over their bodies. I have a creepy great-uncle who I always had to kiss when I was younger. I hated it, and still feel a sense of unease around him to this day. I don't want that for my children.

    I also appreciate the reminder that emotions aren't good or bad, they just ARE. We would expect compassion and space to move through our emotions as adults, and as adults it is our responsibility to allow that space for our children.

    Thank you for a fabulous post!

    A cousin of mine said something striking the other week, in regards to one of my 13 month old twins who was toddling around the house: "Oh, he looks just like a little person!" I gently reminded her that's exactly what he IS!

  12. Wonderful post! I sometimes I need this reminder even with my 12yo daughter. I think it is important that we do acknowledge when we've faltered and apologize for it.

    Also, have you seen the article about Happy Candles? You could probably call them Peace Candles, but whatever the case - I thought you might be interested.

  13. Thanks for this. Good reminder... though had never heard it expressed in quite this way before - defending their right to emotional freedom. Like it.

    It is such a fine line we navigate. Sometimes it is so helpful to offer positive distraction to a kid, other times (depending on age, as you say) it is important to just provide a safe space to express anything that comes up. Moving between those responses is like a dance improvisation - an art I am still learning.

  14. In case you're interested, I wrote an entire blog post inspired by this article and my own daughter's behavior. Thanks again!