I am writing this just after having celebrated my son’s 21st birthday. Something so many people tell me about him now is how well he seems to know himself, and how independent and self-reliant he has become. As I reflect over his childhood, I cannot help but think about an incident that I believe changed both our lives forever, though at the time it occurred I hardly thought of it as a positive turning point.
My son was just four years old and became very disappointed one night about not being able to go with his dad to take a friend home. The more upset he became over wanting to go, the more adamant I became that he stay home. What proceeded was a tug of war that left me with a bloody nose and my son inconsolable.
Having been born in Romania and adopted from an orphanage by us at 16 months old, our son did have some profound anger issues. This time was more severe and was the only time involving any violence. I was very frightened by the meaning of it all and terrified that perhaps there was something seriously wrong.
I had a meeting the next morning with my therapist who had been helping me navigate the many parenting issues that often come up with children who have spent time in orphanages. I was so afraid that he would tell me there was indeed a serious problem with my son. But when I told him what had happened, while emphasizing that violence of any kind is never a good option, he simply asked me “Why couldn’t he go with his dad to take his friend home?” My response popped out of my mouth before I really knew what I had said: “Because he needs to learn that no means no.” It was particularly troubling to me as I realized that they were not my words, but the words of my parents. At that moment it occurred to me that what had happened was not about what was going on with my son, but about what was going on with me.
I grew up in a household where a parental ‘No” really meant “No.” No questions asked. No talking back. No asking why. No tuning in to what is going on with your child, no parental self-reflection or apologizing. I grew up with the kind of arbitrary rules and regulations that I promised myself I would never impose on my own child — yet there I was stuck in the middle of my own childhood — and dragging my son back there with me.
As I reflected on what had happened that night, I realized how I was in no way tuned in to what was really going on with my son or my self. His sadness and anger had overwhelmed us both. As his parent however, it was my job to tune into him and help him make sense of his feelings. What I came to understand after all of this was that through a deeper self-understanding I could be more of the parent I always had hoped I would be. I learned to reflect and question my self along the way: “Do I not want him to do that because it’s not a good choice, or because it will just make me worry too much?” Is he really doing something intentionally to hurt my feelings, or are my feelings just hurt?” And the moment I hear any trace of “Well, my parents would never have let me get away with that …” I know it is time for me to take a break for some serious self-reflection. I learned to check in with my self often — especially when experiencing overly strong reactions.
By working on making sense of my own early experiences, I was better equipped to help my son make sense of his experiences. When people tell me now how well he knows himself, I believe it all started that night when he taught me that no really does not have to always mean no. It was a lesson I treasure and believe one that has served us both well.