On the way to work this morning, I was thinking about a couple of kids I know who are almost completely emotionally cut off from their parents - or, more appropriately, how the parents have cut the kids off themselves. This just breaks my heart, because it simply does not have to be this way. As adults, we have our own unique perspectives on how we interact with our children, and it is often difficult to view our own actions with a critical eye or listen to criticism from others. We want things for our children, we have goals for them, we have desired outcomes in mind, and we want things to go our way because the wisdom of our own experience tells us that we know the best pathways through which to overcome life's obstacles and challenges. Misguided though that may be - after all, much of the control and impact we assume that we have is actually illusory - it is, at least, noble to wish the best and easiest path for our children. But the danger is in focusing so much on these ends that we choose means that create gaps instead of bridge them - often just at the precise moment when our children need to be able to trust in our unconditional love.
When I see emotional distance between parent and child, it is often because a parent put it there. Somewhere along the line, they put up a wall that separated the child from the parent's love. Sometimes this is by withholding the love or making it conditional on "proper" behavior. Sometimes it is simply by being distant or unavailable. Sometimes, sadly, it is caused by some sort of physical reaction or abuse that leads the child to want to stay as far away as possible.
As I was thinking through these things, I began to wonder what a child might say or write to their parents about emotional distance. Maybe, if they still cared and had enough concern left, they would write it in a letter. And maybe the letter would read something like this.
Dear Mom and Dad -
Hello. I am writing to you from over here in the corner. You remember the corner, don't you? It's where you told me to go stand when I was "bad", or did something "wrong", or in some way displeased you. I do not like standing in the corner, but you put me here anyway.
I once read a book about a child who was sent to sit in the corner of their school room when they were bad. I guess that's how things used to be in school. For some reason, the teacher thought that being singled out like this in front of all of their friends was a good way to impress upon a student how important it was to be prepared, obey, and conform. That has never happened to me, but I can try to imagine how it must have felt to be so publicly shamed and rejected, and how that could lead a person to want to stay in their shell and hide their true selves for fear of being rejected so publicly ever again. I can imagine what it must have felt like to be labeled "bad" or "wrong", and how for many people labels like that become self-fulfilling prophecies over time, leading to lifelong doubts about self-worth and value. I can imagine what it must have been like to be conditioned to perform a certain way, learn certain things, and do it all within a certain time frame, forcing a person to have to choose between following the thoughts and dreams that fed their heart, or learning the boring things that would keep them out of trouble because the learning the boring things made other people happy. I am glad that schools don't put people in the corner anymore. Now, at least they send the "bad" students to the principal's office, where some of their shame can be in private.
You have never sent me to stand in the corner at home, but I spend a good deal of time there anyway. Not in a physical corner, of course, but in an emotional one.
I don't like standing in the corner.
Sometimes when I am "bad", you send me to my room, or ground me, or take away my toys, or restrict my access to TV, books, or computers. This tells me that your point of view is more important than mine. It tells me that what you want is more important than what I want. It tells me that when I fail to meet your standard, regardless of whether or not that standard is attainable or even important to me as me, then I am so bad that you do not even want me around anymore, or that you don't think I am worthy of having fun or enjoying a favorite toy or activity.
When these things happen and I am 6 years old, I feel confused because I have no point of reference for terms like "actions have consequences"; I have no real idea about how to please you; and I have no way of knowing if you're just having a bad day or if there are some other forces at work. When these things happen at 9, I am resentful because you just don't seem to able to find a way to give me a chance to learn and make mistakes. When they happen at 12, I am angry because I am becoming my own person and your swift, thoughtless judgments are demeaning to me. And when they happen at 15, I stop caring and disengage, because I am obviously not good enough for you to even want to be near me. And if that's the case, well, I don't want to be near you either.
And so I send myself to the corner. You can send me there yourself for a few years, I guess, and for a while I will dutifully go and act disconcerted and contrite. But knowing that I am not good enough or worthy enough to be accepted and respected for my gifts instead of criticized and punished for my perceived shortcomings, I will only hold my heart and mind open to you for so long. Eventually you won't have to send me to the corner anymore. I'll go there and stay there, just to get away and try to create a place where I am accepted and loved for what I am, not reviled - or worse, ignored - for what I am not. If and when I do that, you may criticize me for going to the corner, and point the blame in my direction for the fact that there is distance between us. But I know something that you would never admit; although I walked to the corner, you did everything in your power to ensure that I went there, either through acts of commission or omission.
If you want me again, you know where I'll be. I hope you come find me before it's too late.
Okay, that wasn't really any fun at all to write. But, I tell you this - it is true.
I have written over 100 blog posts, writing over 175,000 words and spending countless hours both in thinking about and crafting these posts. At end of the day, they almost all boil down to one simple message.
Be respectful of and nice to your kids. Hold them close with your words and deeds; show them the love they need and deserve. Don't send them to the corner of your life, physically or emotionally.