Last week, my oldest daughter was scheduled to attend a student orientation day at her new middle school. How the words “oldest daughter” and “middle school” are sandwiched in the same sentence is beyond me, but that’s a different blog post! As I tucked her in the night before the event, Maddox turned to me with wide eyes. “Mom, I’m scared,” she whispered. And there it was. A moment of vulnerability and a three-word statement requiring my response.
I don’t know about the rest of you mamas, but I am just winging this parenting thing over here. I can train my kids all day long: my older babes wash dishes, fold laundry, clean bathrooms, and fix beds. Graham and I feel equipped to love them well: we tell stories, tickle backs, offer long hugs, and give the gift of time to our children. But bring feelings into the mix, and my parenting skills freeze up. My default setting is to solve. I am an encourager by nature and I just want to pep those babies up and get them ready to take on the world—”Blue skies in”. . . (inhale). . . “gray skies out”. . . exhale.
But that’s not always what they need.
“Mom, I’m scared,” she says with tears spilling over.
And instead of dismissing, deflecting, instructing, or even encouraging, I say, “Thank you for telling me. I understand.”
Later there will be time for all the words. I’ll tell her my own stories of starting sixth grade and being assigned to a different teaching team than all my elementary school friends. Graham will remind her that he moved to an entirely new state when he was 11 and didn’t know a soul on his first day of middle school. We’ll talk about what she’ll miss from her current school and what she is the tiniest bit excited about at the new. We’ll stop ourselves from the canned responses: “It’ll be fine.” “You’ll love it!” “You’ll make all sorts of new friends.”
As our children grow, the need to feel understood by their parents overrides the desire to feel cared for by them. This is a hard shift for us moms and dads because, from infancy, we’ve been telling our crying babies that it’ll be okay. What’s broken, we fix. What’s wrong, we right. What’s hurt, we mend. What’s closed, we open. But as they enter adolescence, we can’t take that tactic anymore and remain relevant in their lives.
Listening, acknowledging, validating, seeking to understand, and empathizing are the virtues of pre-teen parenting. The rewards are honesty, vulnerability, connection, familial belonging, and growth.
By the way, Maddox went to that orientation a bundle of nerves. Watching her walk down the crowded hall alone was really, really hard. When I picked her up, I purposefully didn’t start in with a bunch of questions. After a few minutes she said, “Mom, I’m so, so sad to leave my school, but I’m also excited to start something new.” She paused. “Do you think it’s normal to be sad and excited at the same time?”
I took her hand. “Totally normal, Mads.”