Traumatize /ˈtrouməˌtīz,ˈtrôməˌtīz/ (verb): subject to lasting shock as a result of an emotionally disturbing experience or physical injury.
Last week, the TODAY Parenting Team featured an article I wrote called “A Tale of Two Kindergarteners,” as part of their community series on back-t0-school advice. I chose to share a story from two years ago about my son’s struggles starting kindergarten. He had a rough go of it, and it was hard for me to watch. But in time, he found his courage and confidence, and I wanted to give hope to other parents who might be going through this.
By in large, the response was positive. Yet, like disconcerting pieces of gristle that ruin an otherwise tasty piece of chicken, came voices of dissent, peppered throughout those responses of parents relating to the piece. It comes with the territory of putting yourself out there. What I thought was a fairly innocuous piece, I now saw in a different light, one that called my parenting skills into question for forcing my son to do something he clearly had fears about.
My husband’s aunt often jokes that all parents will inevitably do something for which their children will need therapy. Well, apparently the transgression that will land my son on the psychiatrist’s couch is sending him to kindergarten. It was a very difficult situation, after all. I sure felt like a horrible mother when I left him crying on the bus or tearful in his classroom morning after morning. Maybe he really was traumatized.
Well, I don’t buy it. Mostly because I have the benefit of actually being the one in the situation and knowing exactly how it played out. But it got me thinking about a larger question than whether I failed Send Your Kid to Kindergarten 101: Is “difficult” a synonym for “traumatizing?”
Since when did making our kids do hard things become poor parenting? When did pushing them outside of their comfort zones to face fears get equal billing as trauma? When did it become okay to let them give up on something worthwhile simply because they cried about it? In other words, when has anyone ever blamed their life’s woes and tortuous demons on their mom making them go to kindergarten?
I’m not talking about actual abuse or making children confront fears that have no business or purpose being conquered. I mean, it’s not like I forced my kid to traverse the Grand Canyon on a tight wire, or commanded him to hold still while I let spiders crawl up his arms, or made him kiss his dead grandfather lying in the casket. (I won’t name names, but my great-grandmother actually made a certain family member of mine do that last one. Super gross.) I’m referring to helping children get over perceived fears that keep them from doing things that will ultimately enrich their lives and empower them with confidence.
We do a disservice to our children if we only push them to tasks that come easily. We give fear power in their minds if we let them always run from experiences that frighten them. And let’s be honest: kids are afraid of things that, frankly, are NOT actually terrifying…like fireworks, eating Pinterest recipes that call for kale, branches knocking on windows, and Dad after he hasn’t shaved for a few days. It’s our job as parents to help them distinguish what is worthy of their fear and what isn’t, even if confronting it is uncomfortable at first. Sometimes that means throwing them into the midst of their fear and letting them flounder a bit until they see for themselves that everything really is okay. Realizing that for oneself is a thousand times more powerful than having someone else vouch that it’s truth.
But what about their feelings? Children deserve to have their feelings honored. But here’s the thing…
I never ignored my son’s feelings about starting school. I never told him to suck it up (that is reserved for tears over the fact that we don’t have WiFi in our car so he can’t finish a Netflix movie on the way to Grandma’s house). We talked about ways he could feel comfortable, focus on the positive, and remember that I loved him even when he couldn’t see me. And whenever those didn’t work, I let him have his feelings while doing everything I could to compassionately help him work through them…while he was facing them head on. Keeping him home would have only taught him it’s okay to let the fear win.
As Glennon Melton professes, “We can do hard things.” I don’t think the “we” in that mantra was meant to only pertain to adults. We need to give our children some credit. They really aren’t that delicate, but they will grow up to think they are if we always treat them as such.
As for my son, he COULD do that hard thing. Now he walks through the school doors as if he’s walking through his own back door. And the only thing he really seems traumatized about is that we still don’t have WiFi in our minivan.
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