My friend recounted the terrible scene when her daughter finally told her and her husband. There had been accusations and recriminations, variations on the theme of”How could you do this to us?” My heart ached for them all: parents who felt betrayed and the daughter who had gotten in over her head. Could I be of any help to bridge the gap?
I was so upset about the situation that I did what I often do when I can’t think straight: I called my mother. She reminded me of something I heard her say often though the Years. I immediately wrote a note to my friend, sharing Mom’s advice: When a kid’s in trouble, close your mouth and open your arms.
I tried to follow that advice while my own were growing up. With five children in six years, I didn’t always succeed, of course. I have a big mouth and little patience.
I remember when Kim, my oldest, was four and knocked over a lamp in her bedroom. Once I saw that she wasn’t cut, I launched into a tirade about how this lamp was an antique, that it had been in our family for three generations, that she should be more careful, and how did this happenthen I saw the fear on her face. Her eyes were wide, her lips trembling. She was backing away from me. I remembered Mom’s words. I stopped in mid-sentence and held out my arms.
Kim flew into them, saying “Sorry…Sorry,” between sobs.
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“I’m sorry, too, Kim,” I said when she calmed enough to hear me. “People are more important than lamps. I’m glad you weren’t cut.”
Fortunately, she forgave me. There are no lifelong scars from the lamp incident. But it taught me that it’s better to hold my tongue than try to retract words spoken in anger, fear, disappointment or frustration.
When my children were teensall five at the same timethey gave me many more opportunities to practice Mom’s wisdom: trouble with friends, being “In,” not having a date for the prom, traffic tickets, science experiments that bombed, and getting bombed. I’ll freely confess that my mother’s advice wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when a teacher or principal called. After fetching the offender from school, the conversation in the car was sometimes loud and one-sided.
Yet on the occasions when I remembered mom’s technique, I didn’t have to retract biting sarcasm or apologize for false assumptions or rescind unrealistic punishments. It’s amazing how much more of the story, and the motivation, you get when you’re hugging a child, even a child in an adult body. When I held my tongue, I also heard about their fears, anger, guilt and repentance. They didn’t get defensive because I wasn’t accusing. They could admit they were wrong, knowing they were loved anyway. We could work on “what do you think we should do now” instead of getting stuck in “how did we get here.”
My children are grown now, most with families of their own. One came to me a few months back. “Mom, I did a stupid thing…”
After a hug, we sat at my kitchen table. I listened and nodded for nearly an hour, while this wonderful child sifted though the dilemma. When we stood up, I got a bear hug that nearly collapsed my lungs.
“Thanks, Mom. I knew you’d help me solve this.”
It’s amazing how smart I sound when I close my mouth and open my arms.
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