My daughter is currently going through the difficult stage of accepting losing in games (which didn’t used to be such a problem). I’m sure we all know the one because I actually have yet to meet a child that doesn’t experience it to some degree. The other day she experienced a loss in Candyland coupled with being hungry. Needless to say, a full-on meltdown ensued. She went to her space (under the dining room table), asked me to leave her alone, and so I told her I’d be over by the sofa when she was ready for cuddles and a discussion and sat down to read my book for a bit while she wailed under the table. (I know some people will think it sounds cruel to sit by reading a book while a child cries, but a 5-year-old who has asked for space deserves that courtesy. Especially as I know my daughter will come to me when she’s ready.)
About five minutes later she came over to me. We hugged a huge hug and cuddled up on the sofa. She was still crying, rather loudly, because she had lost and that was not a good thing, thank you very much. In fact, it seemed to be the worst thing ever. At this point I knew I had to be very clear to her about one thing. I knew it was so important that I made sure she was looking at me, that my voice was very firm about it, and I left no room open for any debate about it.
“Sweetie, I love you with all my heart. No matter what.”
Before talking about games or ways of handling losing or the rest of it, this had to be made clear. I hope it is always something she knows and I hope that she doesn’t need to hear that, but kids interpret things in the oddest of ways and feel things that don’t make logical sense to us adults. What happened when I said it confirmed this for me: She cried harder. She nestled in more and just sobbed. I imagine that somewhere in her was something telling her she was “bad” or “not deserving” of love because she had lost control and melted down (despite us never having made that a bad thing in our house that would get her punished). She needed to know that she was loved and that she is always deserving of love.
This is something that I find I fight against regularly online and in person. People have the belief that a child that has “misbehaved” or acted out is somehow going to learn the wrong lesson when we offer our love and care to them in this difficult time. That somehow there are periods in which our children don’t deserve our love.
How? How can our children ever be not deserving of love?
It’s a question I know I don’t have an answer to and don’t expect that I ever will. And here is why: Our children are learning. They are learning about social norms. They are learning about how to express emotions. They are learning how the world works. In learning all this, it’s going to be overwhelming, frustrating, scary, and unfair at times. It’s also going to be wonderful at times. Our role as parents is to be there with open arms at all times.
I understand the fears that some parents have. Despite psychology having moved away from first-wave behaviourism, our parenting advice seems wholly stuck in it, and this outdated theory has us believe that our children respond to our external behaviours in a manner we can predict. Our children do respond to us, but not in ways that many of us imagine. Children are forever interpreting the world and our actions in ways that baffle the most logical and intelligent of humans.
In the case of “misbehaviour”, we are given a choice: We can condemn and shame the child to make them stop that unwanted behaviour – the common, modern-day approach – or we can love and teach them. Condemnation and shame will change behaviour, but not because the child has learned a lesson about that particular behaviour. Instead the child has learned that they are unlovable at that moment and so will do what you want so as to be loveable in the future (until they have enough and start acting out in a serious manner, whether that’s at 6 or 16). Your child learns compliance is the way to the heart; that if you don’t do what someone wants of you, you aren’t worthy of love. This doesn’t just hold for parents though, it holds for the coach who wants a bit of “special” time, the boyfriend/girlfriend that wants to have sex… exactly what you don’t want, right? But you’ve already set the stage for that being this child’s mindset.
On the other hand, we have love and teaching – or “discipline” as it used to be known (funny that, eh?). Here you make sure your child knows that s/he is loved at all times because hopefully you do love your child at all times. You make it clear that your love isn’t dependent upon a specific behaviour, and that you can be upset about a behaviour while still loving your child. Your child doesn’t have to feel unloved to learn that screaming and throwing things isn’t a good way to express ourselves (though sometimes it can be very cathartic). In fact, I would say that when your child feels loved no matter what, they are far more likely to learn the lessons you want to teach them. Feeling loved means knowing you can screw up and someone will still hold you. It means knowing you can say “no” to someone and still be deserving of love. It means knowing you don’t have to be perfect to be loved.
For us parents, it means we need to make our kids feel loved then take the time to help talk about the frustrations and anger, the expressions of these emotions, and how we might deal with these situations going forward. In our case, we talked about losing, how much it sucks, but how her winning means someone else loses. Others seem okay with losing because we’re enjoying the time together and that it’s nice to win, but it’s not everything.
That night, we sat down to play Old Maid as a family and on our second game, my daughter lost for the first time ever (which is odd as we don’t cheat to ensure she wins and we’ve played a fair amount, she is just that freaking lucky when it comes to this particular game). She looked upset, turned away from us for a moment and my husband and I waited to see what would happen, honestly expecting another meltdown as these lessons take time. About 30 seconds later she turned back around, gave us a big smile and said, “That’s okay I lost because I had fun anyway!”
I’m not sure that would have been possible without love and the awareness of deserving love, even when we’re having a hard time.