It’s easier to be a good parent when you are not a parent at all. I think if I actually were a parent (to a human child and not a dog child) I would not be able to respond to the daily traumas as rationally as I can with someone else’s child.

A couple of weeks ago, I was out of town with a few families and their children. There were several houses on the property, and we were all in one of the houses together, when one of the children, a four-year-old wandered out. Not long after, someone else brought him back in and he was crying. He’d gotten lost, the grown-up person explained, and was wandering outside, scared. His mother felt terrible and held him. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry. That was a rare event. It won’t happen again,” she said to soothe him.

But, because I was that child, (and in some ways, still am that child) one afraid of not knowing what to do if I get lost, I over-identified with his experience and knew that what she was giving him was only half of what he needed. When she finally put him down, and we all went back to talking I felt unresolved on his behalf and knew that if no one closed the circle for him, he would not learn what to do when he got lost, and he would never feel safe enough to venture away from his mother.

He wanted to go back to the other house and play, so I asked his mom if I could take him. She said yes, and off we went. Outside I asked him to show me what happened when he got lost, and he walked me to the front door of the other house and reached his hand up to the knob, which was a good two feet too high for him.
“Oh!” I said. “The handle is too high for you. What should we do? What are some ideas for how to get in if we can’t reach the handle?”

He thought about it, but couldn’t come up with an answer. “What if you tried to knock on the door? Knock hard so even a person with hearing aids can hear you.” When he knocked, a bunch of voices called out “COME IN!” but he couldn’t reach the handle, so he couldn’t come in. He looked confused. “Let’s knock again until they answer the door,” I said. So he did that, and the door opened.

And presto, we were inside. We hung out for a bit and when we left to go back to the other house, I asked him to tell me what he would do the next time he got locked out of a house, and he told me. It felt so easy and obvious to me, but if I were his parent, I don’t think it would have felt so easy and obvious. I would probably have done exactly what his mother did and soothed him, felt terrible on his behalf and left it at that.

Reality was terrifying to me as a child. I often didn’t know what to do and got lost. I was soothed all the time, but no one ever took the time to teach me the tools and skills for participating in reality; to prepare me for what to do when things went wrong. Soothing me without teaching me what to do, taught me that I was right to be afraid, that the world was too hard for me and that kept me in a state of fear. I had to learn how to undo it all once I became an adult. I’m still learning. Teaching other people’s children to do what no one taught me to do is healing, and I hope that some of these blog posts can help some parents to realize that soothing their children is just one part of making their kids feel better. The other part is teaching them what to do when things go wrong. Because a lot of things go wrong.

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