My mother’s pearl earrings. My blanket from my childhood bed. My chicken paprika recipe. My ability to talk to anyone. These are the things I’d like to pass down to my daughters, whether they want them or not. The list of things I’d rather keep to myself is much longer, not the least of which is my lifelong love affair with all things sweet.
Since my daughters were born, I’ve given a lot of thought to the things I can pass to them and the ways those objects or characteristics can make my girls’ lives better. I know that the blanket and earrings and chicken dish will offer delicious comfort and bring fond memories. The gift of gab will ease many uncomfortable situations and be the seed that grows many friendships (and not just the Facebook kind). The addiction to sweets? Well, sorry about that! Looks like we’ll be doing a lot of baking together…
But what of those traits that I long to keep to myself in hopes of protecting my girls as they grow? The impatience, the sarcasm, the impulsiveness. I know that my actions are setting the example for my children and that I can’t always mask those characteristics. So what do I do?
The first step is knowing the sources of those behaviors, which, for many of us, are wounds we suffered sometime in our own lives, even as far back as childhood. These wounds, or wrongs done to us, have the effect of freezing our emotional development at the level we were when the wound occurred. We could be stuck in emotional childhood, and those wounds can begin to color our reactions and even our parenting.
My impatience? Does it look a lot like my child’s behavior when she doesn’t get her way? No comment. The effect that our conduct has on our children is far-reaching, even into adulthood. If our children are to follow our examples of how to deal with adversity, loneliness, frustration, or disappointment, we must handle those challenges like adults, not children. If we don’t take the initiative to unpack our own baggage, we will hand it off to our children as if they were our emotional bellhops.
Now that we know what causes our less desirable behaviors, what do we do about it?
Make a habit of noticing the circumstances surrounding our childlike behavior, and then start to do the hard work of healing the old wounds. The key to healing is taking responsibility. Life is ten percent what happens to us and ninety percent how we react to it. Understanding that we have control over our own feelings and reactions is vital to moving past those ancient wounds and becoming the example our children need — we move out of emotional childhood and become emotional adults.
Emotional adults do not blame others for their circumstances or give anyone else control over their feelings. Emotional adults do not cling to the role of victim. They control their own thoughts and master their feelings. Emotional maturity means never giving someone else the job of making you happy. While this task is simple, it is certainly not easy. At first, it requires constant attention and self-correction, but once the habit of owning our own feelings is established, it is freeing.
What an amazing gift to pass on to our children: the ability to assess situations and separate someone else’s hurtful actions from our own responses to them. We can model this method as we learn it so that our children aren’t facing extra years of emotional childhood. We can equip them to overcome the many challenges they will face by being transparent about our own struggle and by working through those feelings with them, rather than compounding them with our own reactions.
We will be the good example. We will own our reactions. We will teach our children valuable life skills. And we will do our children the favor of passing down a toolbox, not a suitcase.