My friend Cathy once told me a story about her mom. Cathy was in high school and had saved up money to buy her first Coach purse (It was 1988 so this was as big as her hair was). After only a short time, Cathy lost her purse and was inconsolable. She cried and complained and whined for days. Her mother lent a sympathetic ear, but after a few days of Cathy’s complaints, she was done.
“Oh for crying out loud Cathy! Get over it. It was just a purse.”
Cathy was taken aback. And although her mother’s words may have hurt a little, they gave her something she didn’t have: perspective. It was just a purse. And suddenly, instead of being utterly depressed, she was a little embarrassed by her actions.
I’m not sure why Cathy ever told me that story or why it stuck with me, but it popped into my head again this morning as I was trying to parent.
My daughter Faye has spina bifida and her life is a struggle sometimes. I’m constantly torn between lending a sympathetic ear and giving her a dose of perspective. Two days ago Faye had a minor surgery on her knee. For my husband and I, this was like having her wisdom teeth pulled. We’ve clocked in well over 20 surgeries in her 11 years of life, and some of them were doozies. This time we were in at 8 and out by 4 with no pain and only a leg brace she has to wear for 13 days to keep her leg straight. Couldn’t be easier.
But not to Faye.
This morning when I made her go back to school there were so many tears over the leg brace. The leg brace people. She wears braces of a different sort EVERY DAY. She walks with a walker. Why would she care if she had on a soft cast? She was concerned that kids would make fun of her.
So what did I do? I choose perspective. There wasn’t an ounce of sympathy. “No one at school has ever made fun of you! They aren’t going to start now!”
I even told her to stop the crying – as if that ever works. Nor is it very nice.
It was a rough morning.
I walked Faye to her classroom and helped her get settled in her desk. The window was cracked and we could hear all the kids playing outside. The smell of spring drifted in. No one else was there. She was just sitting alone at her desk. It was time for me to go, but I paused. I could not have painted a sadder picture.
“Are you ok? Are you still feeling sad?”
“If I tell you I’m still sad, will you take me home?” She looks away and I see her chin quiver a little.
“No honey, I’m sorry.”
“Then what difference does it make how I feel?”
With that she put her head down on her desk and I ran to the car and cried.
Did I do the right thing? I don’t know. She needs me to be tough with her, to help her find the independence that comes naturally to others, but I just wanted to swoop her up and take her home with me.
Choosing between sympathy and perspective is so hard as a parent.
When you have a kid that struggles with homework every night, when do you empathize and when do you tell them to buck up?
My sister has a gifted daughter that struggles with being a perfectionist. I mean it’s a struggle. She loses sleep and is only in the 4th grade. How do you add perspective to that?
My son is extremely sensitive. Where do I draw the line between acknowledging his feelings were hurt and telling him he needs to grow some thicker skin?
No way are we going to get it right all the time.
When my daughter was younger and would whine about something she didn’t have, I would always bring up my missions trips or talk about how much the rest of the world doesn’t have. One time before I could even begin my usual response she clenched her teeth and said “So help me, if you tell me about the kids in the third world countries one more time I will have a breakdown. I don’t live in a third world country mom. I live here. Can you just listen to how that makes me feel?”
Fair enough Emily – that day I needed to hand out a little less perspective.
There are really no answers to any of these questions. We just need to plug along as parents and keep doing the best that we can do.
I guess we’ll know if we succeeded when they are adults. They will have felt loved, but have stories to tell their friends about the time their parent taught them perspective.
Cathy found her purse by the way. All that crying for nothing.
She has also grown up into a woman who loves people more than things and would not spend weeks crying over a lost purse anymore.
Her mom probably doesn’t even remember that story – but it just goes to show that sometimes we can get it just right.