What if the thing we really need to protect our children from is our own protectiveness?
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we were living in rural Pennsylvania. The nearest State Police headquarters was thirty miles away. I drove the distance to verify I’d installed our new car seat correctly. Two months before my son was born. As parents, our protective instinct is a good and essential thing. But three kids later, I’m wondering:
Is my protectiveness the very thing from which my kids need to be protected?
The Ways We Protect
Everything in our children’s lives is orchestrated for safety. We have genetic tests and multiple ultrasounds before they are born to ensure their health. We have side air bags, and high-tech car seats they’re supposed to sit in for the first four years. We have safety recalls on chewing devices and play toys and the cribs they sleep in. We have helmets to protect them against head injury. We’ve developed protocols to protect against school shootings. We don’t let them walk home from school alone for fear of an Amber Alert.
We’ve got their physical safety on lockdown.
So what do we do next with our protective instinct?
We try to perfect our children because, deep down, we believe perfection is protection. From each other. If we are flawless, we leave no chinks in the armor. The more perfect we are, the more likely we are to come out on top in the game of social comparison. If our kids are perfect, we hope it will protect them from peer rejection, poor self-esteem, disappointments in life, and the pain of being human.
The problem is, perfectionism itself is dangerous.
If you only had one day to hear, what would you listen to?
About four months ago, I began to lose my hearing.
Every few days, for about thirty seconds, I would lose my hearing completely in my right ear. The doctors couldn’t find an explanation. But then a chiropractic adjustment seemed to resolve it. For about six weeks. Then it happened again, in the other ear. And then it happened again and again and again. As I waited a day to see the chiropractor, my anxiety swelled. I thought of the music I love and the sound of wind in autumn trees and way you can hear my wife’s contagious laugh from two houses away.
And I started to panic.
The key to a joyful life often seems mysterious or unattainable. It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it may be as simple as listening and responding to five little words…
I’m drying dishes and putting them away when I see it once again.
I open a cabinet door, place a cup on the shelf, and I notice the unopened Star Wars video game nestled next to a stack of cups. I think to myself, “I really should do something with that video game.” I close the cabinet door. And then I stop. The video game was given to my son at his sixth birthday party. We already owned it so, amidst the chaos of the party, I’d decided to toss it in the cupboard and figure out what to do with it later.
My son is now eleven.
For five years I’ve opened the cabinet door, noticed the game every time, and then closed the door again, telling myself I should do something with the game. It’s a silly story when it’s about a video game. But it’s not such a silly story when we do the same thing to our relationships and our passions and our dreams…
The first time my oldest son went trick-or-treating, he was dressed up as a bumblebee, but he turned into a monster. Because, paradoxically, inundation always ends with a sense of deprivation…
My son was two-years-old when it happened. We dressed him up in a puffy black and yellow costume, and we rang his first Halloween doorbell. As the first pieces of candy disappeared into his bag, he was too overwhelmed with wonder to utter a word.
By the third house, he had recovered his speech, and he expressed his childlike gratitude. By the fifth house, he was doing drive-by trick-or-treating—the candy hadn’t hit the bottom of the bag before he was hitting the sidewalk for the next score. By the seventh house, I think he would have wrestled the loot from the woman’s hands if he’d been big enough to take her. And by the end of the evening, when we told him it was time to stop, he was angry, because even at his age, he knew we hadn’t turned over every rock in search of sugar.
From a sense of wonder to a sense of deprivation. In about thirty minutes.
It doesn’t take long for opulence to change our lives.
To blame or not to blame, that is the question. The answer is the difference between a life of resentment, and a life of hard but healing redemption…
My son’s eyeglasses disappeared.
It was a warm summer evening, just the right amount of breeze, just the right amount of conversation with good friends, and, as the Tiki torches burned and the burning sun set, I was feeling just the right amount of perfect. Then he told me he couldn’t find his eyeglasses. A quick search of the backyard produced a mangled, canine-scarred pair of spectacles. My perfect night had just gotten hundreds of dollars more expensive, which is to say, no longer perfect.
And I wanted someone to blame.
Because someone is always to blame, right?
So, I began to lecture my son about leaving his glasses lying around, until tears filled his eyes and he reminded me I had told him to leave his glasses in his shoes while on the trampoline so they wouldn’t break while jumping.
My son had done exactly what I asked.
So I reflexively turned on my dog, but I quickly remembered our unspoken agreement: he doesn’t chew anything in the house, and the back yard is fair game. He, too, was doing what I had trained him to do.
My night had broken bad, and there was no one to blame.
I felt like I was about to be publicly beaten, when it occurred to me: it’s way easier to give good words to others than it is to receive the good words they give to us…
The first staff meeting of the academic year at my clinical practice—more than twenty psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists gathered in a circle.
And I felt like crawling into a hole.
Was I about to be reprimanded? No. I was about to be validated.
In order to emphasize the value each of us brings to the treatment team, we were going around the circle and, for thirty seconds, each clinician would be showered with words of affirmation by the rest of the group. I would be the fifth to go.
As the people ahead of me were blessed by good words about who they are, I discovered it was easy to call out affirmations for my colleagues. But as I prepared myself to receive affirmation from them, I began to steel myself for the experience. I wanted to put on armor. Crack a joke. Find a mask. I wanted to hide.
There’s a myth going around that we treat ourselves better than we treat everyone else. It is just that: a myth. Generally, it’s way easier to sincerely give a compliment than to sincerely receive one. It’s way easier to give others the good words they need than it is to show others how badly we need the good words they give us.
Until a few years ago, I lived like every resource was about to run out. I worried I’d never have enough money, enough stuff, enough certainty, enough safety, enough strength, enough love, enough acceptance. Mostly, I worried I’d never be enough…
I tried to believe my worries were bogus—or, at least, a waste of time—but the knowledge wasn’t getting into my heart. So, a little desperately, I accepted a challenge. For two months, I carried a pocket-sized notebook around with me, and I wrote down everything for which I was grateful. My life became a series of moments in which I attended to the beauty around me and within me. I hoped the exercise would make me finally happy and content.
And it didn’t.
Because I discovered something both wonderful and disconcerting about gratitude:
Gratitude is not meant to pacify us; it’s meant to prepare us.
I feel bad for marital communication, because it gets blamed for everything. For generations, in survey after survey, couples have rated marital communication as the number one problem in marriage. It’s not…
Marital communication is getting a bad rap. It’s like the kid who fights back on the playground. The playground supervisors hear a commotion and turn their heads just in time to see his retaliation. He didn’t create the problem; he was reacting to the problem. But he’s the one who gets caught, so he’s sent off to the principal’s office.
Or, in the case of marital communication, the therapist’s office.
I feel bad for marital communication, because everyone gangs up on him, when the truth is, on the playground of marriage, he’s just reacting to one of the other troublemakers who started the fight:
The real scandal is not about football or domestic violence or big business. The real scandal is about what’s happening in our living rooms…
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice gave his wife a right hook before he gave her a wedding band.
He knocked her unconscious and then dragged her halfway out of the elevator they’d been riding. Just far enough to keep the elevator door ajar and the security camera recording. Just far enough so the NFL could witness the totality of the brutality. When they saw it, they suspended him for two games.
Until the video went public.
Then the team cancelled his contract and the league suspended him indefinitely. In the wake of the news, more allegations of domestic violence amongst NFL players are emerging.
But really, none of this is terribly scandalous. Is anyone surprised that a sport rooted in violence toward others cultivates violence at home? Is anyone surprised that a billion dollar business will hide bad press until it can’t hide it anymore? No, the real scandal is in the results of an NBC poll: while 60% of football viewers disapprove of the way the NFL has handled the scandal—and presumably even more disapprove of domestic violence—90% of people will not watch less football as a result.
The real scandal is not about football or domestic violence or big business.
The real scandal is about what’s happening in our living rooms and in our lives.
The real scandal is our tendency to ignore what we value and to live out something else.
It’s what the news will never tell you about people. It’s what comedians will never joke about. It’s the unseen part of every human being…
I walk into the house on a random Wednesday night and the television is on, tuned to the local news. I can’t remember the last time we watched the news in our house.
And I’m quickly reminded why.
The local newscasters recount story after story of death and murder and tragedy and fear. By the time the commercial break puts a pause in the terror, I’m convinced I need to beef up my home security system, quarantine my family, and immediately change every password on every account.
I hit the power button.
Oldest Son: Why did you do that?
Me: At most, ten percent of what people did in the world today was horrible, but they make it look like bad stuff is the only thing going on.
Oldest Son: Oh, it’s way more than ten percent.
Me: How much of what you did today was horrible and mean? Was it more than ten percent?
Oldest Son (head tilted thoughtfully): No. And I guess I’m a pretty typical guy.
He laughs and walks away to do something that is almost certain to be not-horrible. My pretty awesome, sometimes mean, sometimes cruel, but usually good and kind and beautiful boy, running off to do something that will never make the news. Something like playing. Something like breathing and living and laughing and generally being goodness in the world.