Dawn Friedman MSEd LPC
therapist • writer
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Today as we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wanted to share some resources for incorporating more discussion about racism, civil rights and social justice in your day-to-day parenting life.
Why talk about racism?
- Here’s some research that shows that Children Are Not Colorblind (opens as PDF)
- And when we pretend that they are or that this is a worthy goal then, as the Southern Poverty Law Center site “Teaching Tolerance” points out, we help perpetuate racism
- A video from “A Girl Like Me” that illustrates the way children internalize racism and reminds us that we must be proactive
How to talk about racism?
- PACT, an adoption organization in California, has a great overview of your child’s developmental readiness in talking (opens as PDF)
- Here’s a paper about using right & left handedness to help children talk about privilege (opens in Google Docs)
- Mighty Girl’s awesome & extensive Prejudice/Discrimination book list
The bad news is that it’s also really hard because listening doesn’t mean:
- Giving unasked for advice
- Sharing unasked for parental wisdom
- “At leasting“
Parenting is pretty goal oriented. We spend a lot of time trying to help these kids grow up by teaching them, directing them and moving them forward. But sometimes when we do that, we’re stepping on their own trajectory. Sometimes we need to leave them alone to figure things out themselves.
That doesn’t mean we have to sit there doing nothing; it means sometimes we have to sit there and listen.
No advice. No fixing. No rushing to judgment. Instead say, “Uh-huh.” Or, “Really?” Or, “Tell me more.”
Use your words to join with them. Say, “That sounds hard.” Or, “How frustrating!” Or, “No wonder you came home so excited!”
If they try to get you to fix it for them, try handing it back. “I don’t know, what do you think?” Or, “It reminds me of that time you had that other thing happen. What did you do then?”
You may have to sit on your hands or do your Yoga breathing to keep yourself from jumping in. You may need to run a mantra through your head, “Don’t Talk Don’t Talk Don’t Talk Don’t Talk.” If you’re used to being a more active participant in the conversations, it’ll take some getting used to (for both of you).
I’m not saying that you should never ever ever give your child advice or help them more directly, but if you feel like you’re in the habit of leaping in during conversations, try hanging back and see what happens. It’s a simple (if hard) way to say, “I love you” without saying a word.
One of the things that therapists have to do is talk about the hard things that we are told never to talk about in the real world. For example, let’s say that in the real world one is never to speak of pickles. Pickles, we’re told growing up, are things best discussed in private. So therapists have to get comfortable talking about pickles. What kind of pickles do you like? Do you like gherkins? What about kosher dill? Have you tried pickling other things like eggs or beets or string beans?
Therapists have to not only get comfortable saying the world “pickle” and talking about all things pickle, they also have to learn to say it firmly, with confidence and without shame even in the face of the client’s discomfort.
This can be tricky because therapists grow up and live in the real world, too, and so we might have our own baggage about marinading cucumbers in vinegar and spices.
I was thinking about this because someone in my civilian life asked if clients talk about really secret things like sex and drugs and rock and roll and I said yes, they sure do. And this person said, “Don’t you ever get embarrassed?” And I said no but that got me to thinking about why not.
This is what I came up with.
When I’m talking to a client I’m working to join her in her world and so if something is important to her like, say, pickles and it needs to come up in counseling then it needs to come up, period. You know that story about the elephant in the room? Well, therapists know it’s our job to speak up about the elephants we all have sitting in the middle of our emotional living rooms and sometimes those elephants are pickles. We listen and we watch and we listen and we watch and we listen and then when we sense it’s the right time we stand up and point and say, “See that? There are pickles on that ham and rye!”
So that’s one thing. Speaking truth is just part of the job description of being a therapist and when you’re on the job, you kind of suspend embarrassment to talk about the things that need to be talked about because the talking is so important.
But other times the client brings up something that’s a pickle in the therapist’s world but not in her world, which is whole different challenge.
“You know,” she might say. “My mother makes the best half-sour pickles and she won’t give me the recipe.”
And the therapist might say to herself, “Oho there! Take a deep breath and carry on!” because the therapist might feel a bit over her head. In those situations we case consult, which means we go to our peers and our supervisors and say, “I need to work out some of my pickle issues so that I don’t bring them on over to my client’s work.” Because we all have issues and certainly therapists have issues, which is fine as long as we can keep our issues ours and not hand them off to our clients.
Here is something a little bit about this. Before I was a therapist I read the book In Confidence by Roberta Israeloff. On page 169 she’s talking about going back to her therapist, Dr. Marks, after her therapist has take some time off because her mother has died. Israeloff says to Dr Marks, “I want to ask you how you are … but I’m afraid that I really don’t want to know. I’m sure you have others to help see you through. If you came to work today I have to assume that you’re ready to have a regular session.”
When I read that as a non-therapist, I was appalled. Her poor therapist! When I read that as a therapist I think, “Exactly so.” You have to trust that your therapist can take of herself and that she can handle whatever topics you throw her way be they sex, drugs, rock and roll or a mix of all three.
It’s not your job to take care of your therapist.
That, my friends, is the story of pickles and elephants and why you should feel comfortable saying anything you need to say in therapy and trust that your therapist can handle it and will own her own stuff and not make it your stuff.
About twenty years ago I went to a training at the Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland presented by CARES Northwest about interviewing children as part of a sexual abuse assessment. During the second half of our day we watched videos of the practitioners interviewing the kids. I remember one child’s story in particular because it was a very hard story and because at the end, for the first time, you see one of the interviewers crack. The boy, who was about ten, asked her about what would happen at the end of the day, what would happen to the interviewer. The woman conducting his assessment started to choke up. We could hear the tears in her voice as she told him that at the end of the day she opened up all of the windows in that room and let the wind blow away all of the fear and sadness so that the space could become peaceful again and ready for the other children who would come there and need to tell her their stories.
That’s stuck with me over the last two decades.
Once a client said something to me that wasn’t so bad but to her it felt very bad to say it and after she said it her eyes got wide and she clapped her hands over her mouth.
“I can’t believe I said that,” she said behind her hands.
“But you did,” I answered.
“I did,” she said. Then she put her hands in her lap and we spent some time talking about saying it before we talked about what she said. But she left it at the office that day. That’s where she left it to be considered and examined and she did not feel the need to pick it back up again in her everyday life.
I think of my office as sacred space and as safe space. I want my clients to know that they can say whatever they need to say — whatever they’re most afraid to say — and they can leave it there. If they need to, they can leave it there and pick it back up at our next session or they can leave it there and let it go. I will hold it safe for them until the fear and the shame and the sadness are no longer so powerful and then they can set it free and know this secret — whatever it is — is no longer more powerful than they are.
Parents often feel guilty for getting mad at their kids or for not always liking their kids. But there are really great reasons to get mad at kids. For one, parenting is hard and children aren’t always easy. For two, it’s really important for children to see us get angry, see us manage our anger appropriately (and that can mean blowing up, calming down, then making amends), and to love them anyway.
We want our children to grow up being in touch with their feelings and able to express them appropriately but we don’t always allow ourselves the same opportunity.
I remember a friend of mine telling me about a group of moms who met each month for support and encouragement. Her cousin attended the group and told her about one meeting when the topic was anger. The women took turns sharing how they worked hard to control their anger.
“I hold my hands in fists,” said one. “I hold them tight to remind myself to stay in control.”
“I bite my lip,” said another. “So that I won’t say something I’ll regret.”
When they got to my friend’s cousin she laughed.
“What do I do when I get angry?” she asked. “I yell. I yell and I yell and I yell and then I feel better and we all make up.”
I’m not advocating that you go screaming at your kids but if you’re a loud family, loud voices are OK. (Some families tolerate yelling more than others so your mileage may vary.) Certainly being angry is OK.
Parents are human, too. Humans are imperfect. Learning to be an imperfect human (versus trying to be a perfect one) is a lifelong process. Being imperfect is a gift we can give our kids, especially when we are honest (and loving) about our imperfections.
Growing up is wonderful; it’s miraculous. New words. New accomplishments and abilities. But it’s also hard and scary and sometimes it’s sad. It’s not just the goldfish that don’t last a week or the blankies that get lost, there are the everyday losses of not being little anymore.
“I can sit under the dining-room table and make it my house … Grown ups can’t sit under the table,” says the heroine of Charlotte Zolotow’s I Like to Be Little, “That’s why I like to be little.”
I remember the day my daughter realized that she could no longer sit in the cupboard, squeezed next to the lazy susan and pretending it was her own cozy cottage. She was dismayed the day she couldn’t duck in. She wandered the house trying to find a new home but no little hidey hole was quite as lovely as her that corner cupboard.
“I guess I’m growing up,” she sighed and she was sad.
Part of our job as parents is to urge our kids to go forward at a pace that keeps them oriented to the wonderful future that waits for them. We tell them to pick up their clothes with the idea that we’re helping them grow into people who pick things up. We correct the way they slice the bread or direct them when to flip the grilled cheese. We cheer them on when they round the bases or put together the Lego model or finish the first chapter book. That’s right and good but it’s not all that parenting is. We also need to let them slip back a little bit when they’re going forward fast. Sometimes the child who finishes her first chapter book needs assurance that you will still read to her at night.
The everyday losses of growing up aren’t always clear cut; sometimes your child might have a gloomy day and not be able to articulate why. She only knows that she’d like to curl up in your lap although she no longer fits. Or you might find him watching Sesame Street instead of Teen Titans and when you smile at him curled up on the couch he asks if you’ll make him a PB&J and cut it into triangles just like you used to when he was small.
When you see them reaching back, go a little slower, lean into them a little more and be generous with hugs. Allow them to grieve the very real everyday losses so that they will be ready to celebrate the everyday joys.
You know, parents aren’t the only ones who get misty over old photos.