A tender heart

There’s a song I love which begins with these words:

Make my heart tender and pure,
Make me strong, help me endure.

Recently I’ve been thinking about that – the cultivation of a tender heart.

You know, so many parenting articles these days focus on building grit and resilience in our kids – hey, even I have blogged about that in the past! We want our children to be able to stand strong amidst the storms of life that will come their way; we want them to learn the value of hard work and never giving up, on getting up from failure and trying again.

I want that for my boys too. But how do we do it?

We have two boys who are as different as chalk and cheese.

One loves to sit at his desk for a long time, drawing insects and animals from his favourite non-fiction books; the other can’t stay still for more than a few minutes, and much prefers five-minute art sessions with no agenda.

One warms up immediately to a stranger and would happily trot off at the promise of sweeties (oh, my heart), while the other hides behind our backs when he’s meeting someone new, but goes all-out-wild once he’s warmed up to you.

One needs me to sit with him during his work time, so he can frequently check if he’s on the right track, while the other pushes me away and wants to do everything on his own.

But there is something that they both need – empathy.

Empathy is not quite the same as love, I think. We can love our kids a lot, yet push them away when they are hurting or overwhelmed, in the name of “You need to man up!” or “There’s nothing to be upset about.”

Ironically, we act out of love/concern for them, wanting them not to be so easily crushed and to learn to pick themselves up after a fall. In other words, we want to build in them a resilience and toughness that will stand them in good stead for life.

But you know, I don’t think that really works.

I’ve tried those methods myself, and I haven’t really seen them make any positive impact on my boys. In such situations, it normally goes one of two ways: Either they get more upset and erupt into meltdown mode, whereupon I am left with a much bigger baggage of emotions to grapple with and sometimes end up melting down myself, or they do chin up and sniffle their way to silence, but I am left with the unrelenting guilt and fear that I don’t really know what they are thinking inside. Do they think mummy doesn’t care? I wonder. Do they feel like no one understands?

Of course, I’m sure I have my own issues in the mix here to grapple with too. Still, I’ve come to the conclusion that “trying to toughen up my kids” isn’t the way to go.

Empathy is.

I don’t want to build up a cynical, jaded, hardened youth.

What do you do when your child falls? Perhaps you immediately run to his side to help him up, or perhaps you ignore him (no tears no fear) and carry on with whatever you were doing/saying. How does your child respond?

When one boy falls down, I normally don’t run to him or shriek in horror, knowing that if he’s fine, he’ll get up and carry on. But I do try to catch his eye to see his reaction or call out to him, “Are you ok?”. And in that split moment, I know that if he is truly in pain, he will come running to me, or call out for me to come over.

“But my child will immediately cry if I show that I notice he fell and make a mountain out of a molehill,” you may disagree. Honestly, I don’t quite know how to respond to that. Personally, I think such behaviour is learned, and a result of certain habits or responses that various caregivers have shown to your child. And I’m not sure how to work around that either. But I do think this is an issue of trust.

“But children are very smart these days; they know how to manipulate you.”

Oh, I’m sure that happens too. I’ve experienced it firsthand, in fact. But then, you see, there must be a reason why they feel the need to manipulate you, and perhaps understanding that is more important than trying to curb their attempts.

Let me share an example from a recent experience.

We were in the Lego store, and there was a TV playing Lego ads, as well as a play area for kids to construct things out of Lego blocks. Daryl was glued to the TV.

“We are only here for 10 minutes, so you should go play with the blocks like you wanted to, Daryl,” we told him.

“But I want to watch this, mummy,” he replied.

10 minutes later, “Ok time’s up! Let’s go!”

And he wailed and stomped, “But I haven’t played with the blocks yet! I want to play with the blocks!”

At that point, we could have (1) ignored his request, stood our ground (“We already told you 10 minutes, and 10 minutes is up.”) and left the store, with him screaming and kicking behind us or (2) relented and given him another 5 minutes to play with the blocks – only the scenario might then repeat after that because “5 minutes isn’t enough!”

And we have responded both these ways before – as I’m sure many of you have. But here’s a better way I’ve found that works.

I crouch down to his level, look him in the eye and explain to him that the time we gave is up. Before he can break out into tears again, I quickly verbalise how I think he feels – “You really want to play with the blocks right? You wish you had more time to play with the blocks. You spent all your ten minutes watching the show and now you wish you had more time to play. Is that right? You’re sad and frustrated because you really really want to play with the blocks, but we have to go. I’m sorry, but you made the choice to watch the show, right Daryl, and now there’s no more time left. I’m sorry you feel frustrated about your choice. Do you want a hug?”

And you’d be surprised – 9 times out of 10, he flings himself into my arms to sob his little heart out. And after awhile, the sobs abate, and he’s ready to go – not yet happy chirpy for sure, but no longer in dire straits as before. He didn’t demand that we extend the play time, and we managed to leave the store with no more tears.

And then the next time we’re in the store, I remind him how the last time he made a choice that he regretted, and advise him to choose better this round. And he does.

While David’s tantrums are few and far between these days, I’ve found that this method also works well with him. Earlier this year, he went through a rough patch with some classmates. Without going into too much detail, I’d say there was some emotional bullying going on, and my boy was on the receiving end of it. Naturally, as his mum, my heart ached for him. How I wished I could be in school to stand up to the perpetrators on his behalf.

What could I do? Sure, we talked about friendship and trust and making choices, and we had some long conversations about what makes a good friend. But at the end of the day, I think it was the time we spent talking and the hugs we shared that helped him to make sense of how could cope.

Over the months, I’ve seen him struggle and fall and get back up again. I marvel at how he never gives up on his friends, for better or worse. I grit my teeth and hold my breath when he makes choices I’d rather he not make. But at the end of the day, he just needs me to be there to listen to him, to understand how he feels, and to help him think through his options. I’ve seen him become so much more resilient in how he connects with stronger personalities now, and I’m ever so thankful that our line of communication is as open as it has ever been.

I’ve seen how empathy with my children builds a kind of resilience in them. Keeping the communication channels open gives me that precious glimpse into their tender hearts, and keeps my own heart tender before them. And I think it is the cultivation of that tender heart, together with the wisdom of hindsight and an awareness of the choices available, that will build a true resilience into my kids. One that isn’t the result of a hardened heart that has “toughened” itself up to deal with the pits and curveballs of life.

At the end of the day, I think it is that tender heart that will allow them to also better connect with the heart of their heavenly Father who loves them very much, and who welcomes us to run to him whenever we are troubled or in pain. We may go through great heartache and failure this side of heaven, but He is right there with us in our pain, to hold us close and help us get back up again.

True resilience, I think, isn’t borne out of a calloused and worldly-wise heart, but comes from a place of being unconditionally loved and deeply understood.

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