“Daddy, can we fight tonight?” my 5-year-old boy bounces like a terrier, looking up at his towering dad.
It’s the highlight of his day, really. Climbing up on the Big Bed, assuming a superhero identity and back-story, and facing off with kicks and jabs until my husband staggers to the floor in a humbling defeat, “You … got … me.”
My little boy gets into the fighting. He’s been deep in the Good Guy/Bad Guy playtime narrative for a few years now (his entire working memory), except the violence has taken a sharp turn upward.
His drawings are getting bloodier and more elaborate. His imaginary guns and bombs have become more detailed, and when he came home from kindergarten with a crayon-scribbled picture innocently including a school, children, and bombs, I thought, “Crap. I am seriously messing up here.”
He shouldn’t be so violent.
He shouldn’t be interested in guns and bombs and death.
He shouldn’t watch Batman or Power Rangers or any of the other shows he loves.
He shouldn’t …
I’ve spent many years untangling myself from the “SHOULDs” wrapped tightly around my mind. I’m sure you have, too. How we should act, or look, or think, or feel, or be. How we aren’t enough.
It saturates our culture. We have appropriate emotions (good = happiness, gratitude/bad = anger, jealousy), as well as proper behavior, etiquette, fashion, and standards of beauty. We even value a standardized type of intelligence in schools. Whether or not society says the “shoulds” with its mouth, the message is quite clear: We measure ourselves and other people against established standards — and so often we fall short, feeling less than.
But, really, the “shoulds” start much sooner than school or pop-culture influence. The “shoulds” start at home, before kids have a clear sense of autonomy. In so many subtle ways, kids are taught that to be okay and right, they have to be like THIS or THAT.
“Many of us have grown up with parents who gave us messages about where we fell short and how we should be different from the way we are. We were told to be special, to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to work harder, to win, to succeed, to make a difference, and not to be too demanding, shy, or loud,” said Tara Brach, author of Radical Acceptance. “So the basic message is, ‘Your natural way of being is not okay; to be acceptable you must be different from the way you are.’”
Instead of feeling at home inside of our bodies and minds — instead of feeling wholly and completely accepted — we learn to construct ourselves in a way that gets approval from our parents, our teachers, and society in general.
We’re social beings, after all — we look to our parents, and then our friends and surrounding culture for cues on how people respond to us. And all of these “shoulds” work to reinforce that our worth is defined by how others perceive us.
The “shoulds” are external markers of goodness and appropriateness and all things NORMAL and right.
Even if they’re well-intentioned, the “shoulds” cloud our minds with comparisons and judgments and resistance to what is.
When we can see who our kids are, rather than all of the imaginary things they SHOULD be, we can get to the root of what they need in that moment.
Of course I’m only human, and the “shoulds” are deeply ingrained in the way I think. In many ways, it’s impossible to completely eliminate the word from my parenting vocabulary (yes, he SHOULD look both ways before he crosses the street), but I can be conscious of its usage and intention.
Instead of lecturing him on violence until his eyes glaze over, or making broad-stroke rules like no guns, no video games, and no ninja fighting (all things that bring him JOY, whether or not they “should”), I can accept his feelings and acknowledge his interests. I can meet him where he is, not where I want him to be. I can enroll him in a martial arts class to direct that aggressive energy in a more positive, disciplined way. I can honor his inner self without making him feel bad or wrong or not enough.
His thoughts and feelings are REAL. It’s not up to me to judge them as good or bad, or to predict how they will or won’t affect his life. It’s up to me to see him for who he is, and respond to him with clear eyes and an open heart.
Today I will accept you for who you are.
I will do my best to step away from the image of who I want you to be, or who I think you might be, and see you.
Today I will pay attention to the things that bring you joy and the things that bring you pain, without judging whether they’re good or wrong.
Today I won’t absorb your feelings, outbursts, or mistakes as my personal failures. I’ll acknowledge your thoughts and feelings as being REAL, without trying to fix, change, or condemn.
Today I will tell you that you are okay, just the way you are. It’s okay to feel anxious. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to feel angry. It’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling, as long as you don’t act in a way that hurts yourself or someone else.
Today I won’t attempt to control your personality, label your feelings, or resist reality with “can’ts” and “shoulds” and “if onlys”.
Today I won’t compare you to a standard, or a person, or a timetable. I will meet you wherever you are.
Today I’ll notice your strengths over your shortcomings. I’ll encourage, not criticize.
Today and every day, I will be the one person who unconditionally accepts and loves you. The one person who sees you, even when the surrounding “shoulds” make it hard for you to see yourself.More On