Helping your child balance independence and connection starts with you.
What if I got it wrong?
And no poem or song
Could put right what I got wrong
…And make you feel I belong?
What if you should decide that you don't want me there by your side?
…That you don't want me there in your life?
-Coldplay, What If, from their album, X&Y
As you can probably tell by now, I am a huge Coldplay fan. I'm such a fan of this relatively young band that I just told my computer to add their name to my Word dictionary so it would stop telling me that “Coldplay” is a misspelled word.
What I appreciate about Coldplay is their ability, not unlike the Irish band U2, to encapsulate a very profound reflection about life in a few short minutes and a very catchy melody. This is a rare gift that so few have received, and even fewer have had the wherewithal to share. Whenever we can taste those reflections, even digest such melodies, we remember why we love music.
One of my favorite experiences with music goes deeper. I love when I have fallen for a song, learning and interpreting its deeper meanings, only to find that the author of the song had a different interpretation altogether.
Such is the case with “What If.:” Upon first and subsequent listens, I imagined the pain so often relayed in popular music, that intense hurt that can only come from a broken couple's relationship. In this song, Chris Martin empties his pain upon us in the form of the normally fruitless “What If” questions. He sounds tortured in a genuine way, recounting his mistakes and all the possibilities involved when two people choose to connect.
He is battling with both the celebration and consternation of that choice: if two individuals can choose to connect, then they can always choose to disconnect. To put it more accurately, then one person can choose to disconnect. There's no way around it; if we want to be freely chosen by another, then we have to accept that they can always choose not to be with us.
And most of us can relate to this quandary in our marriages, even in our closest friendships. What we want most is a freely chosen connection with the one we want most to freely choose us. So I can sing along with Coldplay and relate.
But then I learned what Chris Martin has in mind when he sings this song. “What If” is not some reflection on the paradoxical pain that comes with couples, or even friendships. When he's singing “What if you should decide that you don't want me there by your side?” he's not wondering what he'd do if his wife, the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, decided to leave him. No, I recently learned he's singing the song not to his wife, but to their daughter.
The song is a solemn consideration of the fact that his infant daughter is, even now and certainly destined to be, a separate individual. Despite his deep love and devotion in raising her to adulthood, she can always choose to disconnect. She can always decide that she doesn't want him there by her side, that she doesn't want him there in her life.
And your kids can decide that about you, too.
No matter how we parent our kids, no matter how wonderfully we love them and respect them and guide them, no matter how “ScreamFree” we become in our parenting, our kids can always choose to disconnect from us, even reject us from their lives. And it hurts to think about it, because we know we haven't been wonderfully loving and respectful; we haven't always been “ScreamFree.”
I'm currently on a plane, headed for Denver for a week of TV appearances, radio interviews, and meetings with folks interested in spreading the message of ScreamFree Parenting. Upon leaving my house, I had to pry myself away from the desperate longings of two adorable children wanting one more kiss, one more hug, and Daddy to take one less trip away from them. I find it difficult to imagine either Hannah or Brandon wanting me out of their life.
But that doesn't mean they won't.
If I'm going to truly respect these wonderful children, and truly accept my responsibility to prepare them for their own life, then I can never erase the possibility of their rejection. If I am ever to truly receive their love as that coming from a place of genuine choice, if I am ever to receive their company as their free choice, then I have to allow for them to choose the exact opposite.
In 2005, 22-year-old PGA Tour rookie Sean O'Hair, won his first professional golf tournament. This win was certainly momentous. Not only did it mean a single payday totaling almost $1 million, it meant an invitation to next week's British Open, the most prestigious golf tournament in the world. This skinny kid looked both overjoyed and overwhelmed as he embraced his young wife and daughter. He was then surrounded by his mother-in-law and his caddie, his father-in-law. All were celebrating together in this rarest of, and yet long-hoped-for, moments.
The only one missing was his father.
This is not because his father had tragically passed. No, Sean's dad was not present at this first golf triumph because he was not invited. These days, he's never invited. Sean intentionally severed ties with his dad over two years ago (they haven't spoken since) because Sean could no longer choose to have his dad by his side. Despite the years of intense closeness, Sean could no longer choose to have his dad in his life.
Sean's dad, unfortunately, had joined the long list of sports parents who pushed their child to achievement, even at the cost of the relationship. Through forcing his son to play and play, through berating his son at the slightest failure (making Sean run miles for every bogey), through eliminating his son's freedom to choose not to play, Mr. O'Hair has to live with the worst of all worlds-his son has succeeded and he's not allowed to live vicariously through that success. By not respecting his son's individual freedom to choose his own life, Mr. O'Hair has to live with the result of his son's individual freedom to choose his own life. As you may have heard me say before, emotional reactivity has the uncanny ability of creating the very outcomes we were hoping to avoid.
And that's the lesson here. Unless we are able to face, along with Chris Martin and Coldplay, the possibility of our children choosing to reject us, then we devalue their individuality and actually increase the likelihood they'll have to reject us just in order to have their own life.