Balancing Act: It’s tempting to dismiss our kids’ more minor complaints right now. We shouldn’t

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My son ordered a game last week and when we received the email notification that it was delivered, it was not, in fact, delivered.

It happens, I told him. It’s possible it fell into the delivery person’s truck. It’s possible someone stole it off our porch. It’s possible we have to order another one. Let’s give it a couple days.

For whatever reason, there was no smoothing this particular wrinkle. The missing game was a pretty minor setback, all things considered. But it felt, to him, enormous.

A lecture about the health risks facing delivery workers and the suffering all around us and the conversation I had earlier that day with a woman who just lost her dad and all the things we have to be grateful for, including the fact that I still have a job and can order completely superfluous games, started to form in my head.

And I left it there. In my head. Where, in all honesty, it belonged.

Two or three or 30 times a day I find myself not delivering lectures to my kids about how minor their problems are, relatively speaking.

First, it’s a tactic I don’t love being on the receiving end of. If I have trusted you with a problem, I’m not comforted by you pointing out all the ways I’ve failed to consider how petty and small that problem is. That makes me feel scolded and reluctant to turn to you in the future for comfort. (I want my kids to always turn to me for comfort.)

Second, it fails to account for the cumulative effect of stressors. A missing game on a regular ol’ Friday? Eh. A missing game when you’ve also lost the ability to go to school and see your friends and see your grandparents and run in the track season you waited all year for and start baseball in May and go on vacation with your dad in June? When e-learning is confusing and indefinite and you keep overhearing your parents talk about their friends who are sick and their jobs that feel shaky and the economy that feels doomed? Suddenly a missing game feels like the proverbial last straw.

Third, I think there are better ways to introduce perspective during a pandemic.

If your family, like mine, has been thus far spared the worst this pandemic is dishing out (we haven’t lost loved ones; we can still pay our bills), it’s tempting to use that good fortune as a cudgel to obliterate our kids’ complaints. (“Really? Your worried about Lollapalooza when people are dying? Do you know how lucky you are right now?”)

But I think we can, with some patience and creativity, help our kids (and ourselves) understand that disappointment and fear don’t cancel out empathy. We can feel both fully.

I’m finding that where a lecture might go, some gentle commiserating works just as well: “Oof. Talk about insult to injury.” “Wow. On top of everything else? That hurts.” “Oh, geez. I’m so sorry.”

I find myself turning to advice that psychotherapist Katie Hurley once gave me about raising empathetic kids, shortly after her book, “The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World” came out.

“Kids very often don’t feel heard and understood,” Hurley told me. “When we meet them where they are — ‘That’s really hard’ — their response is, ‘Oh, wow. Somebody gets me.’ You’re not fixing it for them and you’re not going to change the thing that happened, but you understand it feels hard and you allow them to be upset.”

It feels more urgent than ever not to be raising tone-deaf, self-centered kids, given what’s unfolding in our midst. But Hurley said that doesn’t mean dismissing our kids’ feelings.

“We need to reduce our own fears about ‘What am I raising?’ and say to ourselves, ‘I’m raising a kid who knows what it feels like to be understood,’” she said.

And how they respond to the needs of others is going to be influenced more by what they see us doing (or not doing) than it is by our lectures about how minor their problems are.

Instead of lecturing a kid about how much a homeless person would love to have the food he is rejecting, find ways to give food or money to homeless people, Hurley said at the time. In your kid’s presence. With your kid’s help.

You can come up with your own translation for today.

“When kids are calm, that’s the time to talk about homelessness and hunger and what we can do about global issues,” Hurley said. “That’s when they will want to make a difference. If we throw all that at them when they’re upset, they can’t even hear it.”

That feels so true and essential to me right now, as I weigh what to do with my own mixture of fear and grief and gratitude and hope and dread. As I try to help my kids figure out what to do with theirs.

“To raise empathetic kids we have to be empathetic people, and that starts at home,” Hurley said. “That’s how we raise adults who will go out and help someone.”

Acknowledge their feelings. Keep looking for ways to help others. For now, that feels like a guiding light worth following.


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