By Dr. Allison Belger
The other day on Facebook, a good friend posted something that had happened to her kids. One of them, a pre-teen and budding photographer, had lost a file of treasured pictures from his hard drive. The other, age eight, had melted down after discovering that his Legos had been unexpectedly tidied up in his absence, though he was in the midst of a grand building scheme. As parents often do, my friend was reflecting on the events and the meaning she and her kids had each made of the losses they’d suffered.
So often, we talk about how to help our kids (and ourselves) maintain perspective when they, or we, encounter loss or endure an insult of some kind. In the example of my friend and her two boys, the parental message was one of a splash of empathy mixed with a big dose of perspective: bottom line? Nobody has Ebola, so it’s time to move on, right?
I am fortunate to have been raised by hardworking, successful parents who could afford some of the finer things in life and made a point of encouraging new experiences and opportunities for me and my brother. Their work ethic and desire to provide for their kids trickled down to me, and my resulting M.O. is to raise my daughters to have a work ethic and drive of their own, an inner sense of civic responsibility and the importance of giving back, and a childhood free of serious financial burdens. Sounds perfect, right?
Well, things aren’t always so streamlined and clear. Many people in our social circles struggle with the same questions my parents faced decades ago: How do we raise children in relative comfort without a sense of entitlement or tendency to overreact when confronted by minor adversity? How do we develop in our children an appreciation of their good fortune compared to the challenges faced by so many in the world around them? How do we instill a work ethic and solid values, while giving them so much “stuff”? These questions have been debated for years, but my focus here is slightly different: how can we provide genuine empathy when our kids hit bumps in the road—acknowledging their disappointments and distress while maintaining perspective and helping them stay grounded.
For those of us fortunate enough to have been raised within a loving family where basic needs were met and fundamental aspects of childhood were sustained, the “things could always be worse” mantra can loom large in our psyches… But what if we are never allowed to feel pain or disappointment because the message we continually receive is that we are fortunate and that others suffer more? What if things literally could always be worse and, therefore, our problems are never legitimate enough to warrant attention or sympathy?
So when our budding photographer loses his cherished photographs in middle school or our eight-year-old comes home to find his Lego village destroyed, our instinct is to remind them that it’s important to keep perspective. We tell them that “it’s not the end of the world,” that they can always take more photos and build a new Lego city. In fact, we might add in frustration how lucky they are to have fancy cameras and hard drives and Legos, which 90% of the world’s children can only dream about. And, besides (we might pile on), many kids with cancer or who’ve lost a parent, or who are in foster care, would give up their cameras and Legos in a heartbeat for a chance at health and stability. Indeed, when my nine-year-old daughter had moments of fatigue this summer while juggling her soccer ball to raise money for the kids at St. Jude Hospital, you can be sure I whipped out the “suck-it-up-because-you-don’t-have-cancer-message” one time too many.
Our intentions are good. We are doing our best to create grounded kids with a sense of appreciation and perspective. But here’s the problem: it can be all too easy to go overboard and raise kids whose cuts and scrapes never get acknowledged, because someone else lost a limb. We can create kids whose psyches resonate with the message of “things could always be worse,” and are never allowed to acknowledge any loss in their lives. Their dad might be away on business trips five out of seven nights a week, but at least they have a dad. Their mom might be starving herself to fit into her party jeans, but at least she makes their lunch every day, and it’s packed in a monogrammed lunch box. They may have lost their championship soccer game, but how lucky to be able to pay for the traveling team, to be healthy and have the experience of competitive soccer in the first place.
It’s a slippery slope, the perspective one, and I’m here today to give voice to the importance of having our little “owies” acknowledged, bandaged, and cared for. We all need to feel that we are heard, seen, and nurtured, no matter the big picture. And while this strategy refers mostly to parenting, it also applies to how we treat ourselves. If we grow up being told over and over that things could always be worse, that we are so fortunate to have what we have and be who we are, we just might end up trying secretly and desperately to find a REAL reason to be taken seriously and cared for, with outcomes that are far from ideal.
The lifelong message is to keep in mind the importance of acknowledging and validating the pain and disappointment of our everyday losses while also understanding and appreciating the big picture and the positive aspects of our lives. This balance is as tricky as life balances get, but with all the self-help and parenting advice that gets thrown around these days, especially in circles of privilege, it is well worth remembering.