“We worry because we love you.” Have you ever said this? Have you ever had this said to you? It seems so natural, doesn’t it?

But is it really? And is this the message our kids receive from our worry? That we love them? It turns out, at least in my case, that I was relaying a message far different from the one I wanted to convey. And now I’ve learned that parents have not always worried so much about their children.

Currently, the ethos prevalent in the North American middle-class, is that parents are responsible for much of their children’s character, success, failure and suffering. This has not always been the case. A historical perspective shows that children were not viewed as very special or different from adults until fairly recently in Western history. In addition, seeing children as fragile and precious is a view that, along with parents’ worry and anxiety about their children, has increased dramatically since the early 20th century.

As middle-class children were deemed both to be fragile and to live in a world where they must succeed, be the best in their class, go to a good university, enact the American dream, parental worry and anxiety became an obvious consequence of such beliefs.

Add to this the influence of mass media that spreads terror in the hearts of parents while misinforming them about the preponderance of kidnappers, sexual predators and poisoners of Halloween candy. While concerns for children living in a seemingly dangerous world make sense, parents often continue to worry when those children are grown.

I was reading about this one summer afternoon while I was at a lake where I sat on my beach chair, close to the shore. A mother duck bobbed by with her ducklings behind her. Occasionally, one of them strayed to explore a piece of driftwood and once, even a piece of red plastic which it swallowed after much effort. Mother duck didn’t appear upset. She simply swam along the shore and farther into the center of the lake when a dog or person neared. It reminded my of Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” in which he says

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief.

While my sons were growing up, I worried all the time.

I cringe when I think of the tension my worrying created. I feel sad that I put myself through so much unnecessary suffering.

Once he was grown, my older son, informed me that my worrying conveyed the message that I didn’t trust him or his brother to be able to handle the challenges life brought them, that I was anticipating their failure. Wow. I had no idea!

Now, when worry comes, I do what I can to make an informed assessment of the level of danger that exists and then practice antidotes to worry as I take reasoned action.

I remind myself I don’t know more than universal wisdom. I don’t know the future. I don’t know what’s best for another person. I go for a walk and practice trust that those I love, including myself, will handle whatever comes and are capable of reaching out for help. This trust is a bow, a show of respect.

I don’t want to minimize situations when a son or daughter lives in violent circumstances, like war for example, or domestic violence, or when they seem to be in a high-risk situation because of a health issue or risky behaviors or a dangerous environment. Our caring as parents is going to keep us hyper-alert. And yet, expressing our love with a message of trust and confidence will be more helpful than our worry, anxiety or suffering.



Applying 3-D

NVC Brings 3-D to Life

Recently, I had my first 3-D movie experience. I had imagined a flimsy blue and red cardboard mask I would struggle to keep over my eyes. Instead, I joined a crowd of people wearing dark glasses in the theater. I waited before unwrapping mine. I watched previews in regular D go on and on, irritatingly loud, and triggering feelings of helplessness and desires to complain that I paid to see something else, not this parade of advertising. Eventually, I succumbed and put on the 3-D the glasses and eventually the feature film began.

My choice for this first was Life of Pi, a fantastic visual feast. The experience affected me so much that I am now applying a 3-D metaphor to other areas of my life.

For example, my study of When Parents Hurt by Joshua Coleman, PhD becomes more significant and more relevant when I apply the 3-D glasses of NVC.

One of the topics he discusses is “Unenforceable Rules” a concept that comes from the work of Dr. Luskin and other researchers, primarily at Stanford University, developing work on forgiveness. Luskin is the author of several books including Forgive for Good.

Dr. Coleman applies this teaching about Unenforceable Rules to parents of adult sons and daughters. Here are some of the examples he gives.

“I am entitled to my adult child’s respect, no matter what.”

“My adult child should be able to balance out whatever mistakes I’ve made with all of the good that I’ve done as a parent.”

“If my adult child rejects or mistreats me, then I must have done something terrible to deserve it.”

I can relate to all of them and I have several more I of my own.

While I was sweeping my very long driveway before the freezing winter weather, I started thinking that I wanted help and soon it occurred to me that I wanted my adult sons to phone and say “Hi mom, I’m in town and would love to come over and give you a hand. Is there some way I can help you with something?” The likelihood of this happening is akin to my surviving a week on a raft with a Bengal tiger in the middle of the ocean.bengal-tiger-why-matter_7341043

It didn’t take long for this little thought to turn into a story about how my sons should want to help me. Isn’t this what adult sons of a single mother do? What’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with me?

You can see the downward spiral.

I recognized this as an “Unenforceable Rule” and putting on my NVC 3-D glasses, I saw these “Unenforceable Rules” or assumptions as a combination of Demands and what Marshall Rosenberg has dubbed “Suicidal Strategies.”

The first NVC tool I applied to the situation was Observation.

Now I was back on the driveway sweeping. Just that. I decided (Choice) that I didn’t have to sweep the whole darn driveway. I could leave some of it for another day.

The next tool I chose with my 3-D lenses was Self-Empathy.

What Need of mine would trigger this kind of “Unenforceable Rule?” A stream of them came along, help, support, connection, trust that when I really do need help it will be there.

Then I made a Connecting Request to myself. “How do you feel when you become aware of this?” I asked? “Much more calm and happy,” I told myself as I finished my chore, for today. Self-connection.

As I put away the tarp, the rake and the broom, I wondered what Unenforceable Rule my adult sons might be burdened with? Maybe that their mother will always, into eternity, be there, both available and wanting something?12284003152h508c

And what Needs, I wondered, might generate such an “Unenforceable Rule?” After this spontaneous Empathy fantasy, I asked myself “How do you feel when you have that thought?.”

“I feel like having a piece of chocolate,” I answered. And I did.

PS. Just weeks after I wrote this, my older son was in town on a job and offered me a few hours to “take care of some things for you, if you like.” Wow!