My daughter, who is almost 3, comically controls her universe. If I scold her, she stamps out my words by saying, “Stop talking! Stop talking!” If I give her a disapproving look, she responds by closing her eyes so that she can’t see me. My son, on the other hand, is 4 ½ and developing a conscience. He can’t tolerate disapproval and will often respond with, “I want you to be dead forever!” “Ok,” I reply, “but I still want you to help clean up this mess.” It speaks to his level of trust in me that he can wish me dead and know that I’ll still love him. It’s a trust that I cultivate because I felt very differently as a child.
When I was a kid, I had some adults in my life with a variety of emotional injuries and substance abuse issues. It was common for fights and disagreements to result in hurt feelings that were nurtured for years. I saw old transgressions brought up months or years later, the emotions just as raw and painful as they were when the incident first occurred. With some people in my life, anger almost always resulted in the withdrawal of love. I learned to be wary of conflict, especially with loved ones.
My fear of conflict wasn’t always warranted. My dad is a man who can blow up, calm down and not hold a grudge. He never withheld his love but I had seen too much to trust that. I avoided his anger at all costs because to have him angry at me meant that I was unloved and unlovable. It was the same with my husband in the beginning of our relationship but he had learned how not to use anger as a weapon and told me straight out that he could be angry with me and love me at the same time. Eventually, I stopped going to that injured little girl place during every argument and trusted that he meant what he said.
Children are naturally resilient and I’m in awe of how my kids can be screaming at each other one minute and best friends the next. We practice forgiveness in our house, even if the real meaning isn’t always understood. (Like when my son had a fever and I told him that I was sorry he wasn’t feeling good and he said, “It’s ok Mommy, I forgive you.”) Sometimes, it’s hard to accept an apology so we say, “Don’t be sorry. Be different.” After all, conflict is a chance to grow and make different choices.
I want my kids to be peacemakers but not run from conflict when confronted with it. I especially want them to not fear the anger of people they can trust. That’s the real issue, isn’t it? We can’t always trust that a person’s anger won’t result in the withdrawal of love or friendship. We can only have the courage of our convictions and hope that the other person trusts us enough to work toward resolution. We can do our best to not resort to sarcasm and name calling and to not turn a cold, silent shoulder. We won’t always communicate as cleanly as we think we are, we’ll make mistakes and hurt each other’s feelings. But we won’t turn away from each other’s pain.
At least, that’s the goal. It takes work. My kids are learning how to deal with anger by watching how my husband and I react to them, each other and other people. They’re watching every move.