Little Pitchers, Big Ears? Children are sponges. They are meant to be so. Absorbent. It facilitates learning the art of being human. Parents swell with pride when describing the latest juvenile achievement, seemingly spun from some invisible loom. Yet this sponge-like quality of growing children is recognized by proud parents when it suits us, and denied when it does not.
Denial In Family Matters: CNN had a special Saturday evening exploring the roots of infidelity in powerful men. Though host Don Lemon asked intelligent questions of his well-spoken experts, no one questioned what the adulterers were thinking vis-a-vis their children when they began to walk on the wild side. Some, such as Jesse James, appearing on Piers Morgan Tonight, may talk about concerns for their offspring post-scandal. Noticeably absent in the discussions is the notion of anticipated consequences, i.e. of the impact of these choices on the children prior to the decision to go forward. Whether it is to consummate a sexual act with the housekeeper or keep her in your employ for ten years hence, amongst your wife and children, what is clear is that porous little people take in data from their surrounds, no matter if boxed for them or not. Magical thinking, self-absorption, sexual conquest all seem to obliterate parental cognition.
We Never Fight In Front Of The Children: Really? Many troubled couples seek solace in believing that their children are immune to the friction in their parents’ Coupledom. Tone, Look and Word, a post I wrote last year, discusses the powerful tools of unhappy communication so often utilized in the home, amongst the children as well as in the bedroom. When couples tell me they don’t fight in front of their kids, frankly I’m never sure what to think, how to assess whether this is a gain or a loss for the children? Is there a more ambiguous word in the English language than fighting. With fists? With curses? With tone? Is it a fight to disagree? Not to me. Is it a fight to draw different conclusions from the same data, no. Perhaps a good argument where parents identify differences but don’t attack personalities while doing so is a great learning moment for their children. Silence and avoidance do not offer tools to deal with problems. They paralyze instead.
The Seduction Of Appearance: Talking about seduction, I have observed folks living a lie for the purposes of “appearance”; the drive is to seduce others into believing what “sells”: as a family, as a couple, as members of a religion, a political party, a profession so that we can live a myth, as if dressed in the emperor’s new clothes. For couples in the public eye, this is a huge motivation. If Maria were not a Shriver/Kennedy, would she have confronted the housekeeper after seeing mini-Arnold appear in her living room? Would Anne Sinclair, the powerful wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, have minimized the many claims of sexual inappropriateness and abuse, if she were not intoxicated herself with the notion of his possible rise to the presidency of France? Am I being unfair or unkind here, judgmental or realistic? We all are subject to seduction and self-delusion.
Teaching Denial: If you use denial in your Coupledom, chances are you are teaching denial to your children. Age-appropriate honesty, straight talk and not fudging on the details should be Coupledom rules and parenting tools. Did Maria Shriver learn denial and avoidance in her family of origin? Did Anne Sinclair? Or did ambition and notions of maternal protection get tangled up with B.S. and emotional blinders.
What Do Our Children Know About Our Coupledoms? Tons! Know or feel. And feeling over the years becomes knowledge. Or worse, creates mistaken notions or becomes a coping mechanism that perpetuates denial in their future child rearing and coupledom. This is a legacy passed down. I see it with couples all the time. They learned from their parents to step around that big white elephant of unhappiness in the family room, whether it be depression, infidelity, alcoholism, parents’ unresolved rage at each other, abuse, sociopathy, or unacknowledged mental illness.
Blind Comfort: I have spent hours with parents going through divorces or just wicked phases in their marriages, whether related to infidelity or the range of hurts that couples sustain, financial setbacks, in-law ugliness, too much time away from each other, and hear them insist that the children are either too young or too busy or too self-absorbed, to pick up on anything. Blind comfort. More important than keeping children out of rough stuff is helping them build TRUST!
Trust is Learned: Much is instinctual in child development but trust is learned. Its forerunner is in the instinct to bond, to root to the breast, to cling to the soft chest. But if trust is not nourished, or if it is undermined, it doesn’t grow and solidify in the psyche. And children need to trust that their parents are dealing straight with them. When parents perpetuate a myth at the expense of honesty with their children, than trust is bruised and perhaps broken; it is like a limb that suffered a fracture, and though seemingly healed, remains fragile, and is easily fractured throughout life.
No Illusions Here: I think it behooves parents, and is in the best interests of their children, to assume that children do know, can feel, are absorbing the difficulties that surround the family. Even without the verbal development to articulate the meanings of the emotions flying around them, they are stored in their emotional membranes. What does that mean? Simply this: don’t fool yourself that the little pitchers have small ears. When you are about to walk on the wild side, or deny that betrayal or abuse is happening in your Coupledom, or anger dominates the conversation, however subtle you may think it is, your kids are sponging up the moments. Be straight first with yourselves…then you will be able to know how to deal with those precious people, the children.
Find An Expert: Stepping Into Truth isn’t easy. If you need help, hire a guide.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W, L.C.S.W. 2011