Years ago when my boys were very young, their friend’s cat died. Their friend’s mother told her son that the cat had run away thinking she would protect him from the sorrow and grief that would result from knowing his cat had died. Now, I totally understand a parent’s desire to protect their children from the harsh realities of life. It is hard on a parent’s heart watching their children experience hurt and loss. Over the years I, like other parents, wished my three sons never had to face illness, rejection, betrayal, death of loved ones, disappointments, pain or struggles. I also desired to protect my sons from hardship and worked hard to provide them a “good” and “happy” life.
I think these efforts to insulate and protect our children from the harsh realities of life may work in the short term. But in the long term, efforts to shelter children from life’s hardships are more likely to cause them significant grief when they have to face bigger battles and more significant losses later in life. And count on it, they will have to face battles and loss. One of the few certainties in life is that there will be troubles. As Ecclesiastes 9:1- 2 states: “no man knows whether love or hate awaits him. All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, and those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.” It is equally certain, however, that God will be with us in every moment.
When we try to shelter our children, we lose the opportunities to teach them how to cope with life’s hardships. We deny them the chance to learn and practice the language of pain, loss and grieving. And if they do not practice and learn how to cope with the small losses, they will not gather the experience and words to help navigate the considerable losses they will certainly face throughout their lives.
Like any skill, emotional vocabularies can be learned. In school we don’t just jump into grade 12 math or calculus classes. We understand that students need to learn and practice the basic skills such as recognizing numbers, adding and subtracting, and then through gradually adding on more complicated skills, they progress to being competent in a high level math.
Likewise, if we want our children to cope well with the losses they will encounter, we need to start teaching them while they are young. If we can help them learn age appropriate skills and vocabulary related to loss then as they grow they will be able to deal courageously, compassionately and comfortably with their own emotionally difficult moments, as well as those of others.
We need to accept that no matter how much we try to prevent our children from experiencing hurt, loss or pain they will inevitably face such adversity. We just can’t protect them from all of life’s hurts. Pets will die. They will not always get the teacher they want or get into a class with their friend. They won’t get invited to every birthday party. Other children will hurt them or exclude them. They will not always make a sports team or get picked for the school play. They will get sick. A close friend can move away. A grandparent will pass away.
So rather than trying to protect our children through strategies that attempt to distract, “fix”, ignore or minimize the emotionally fraught situations, we can teach our children to cope appropriately. These emotionally challenging experiences are rich teaching moments. Moments where we can teach the age-appropriate skills and language that will help them to process painful experiences. Walking alongside them as they process these tough moments allows them to learn the words associated with loss and helps them to build a confidence that they are capable of handling the tough stuff of life.
They start building feeling vocabularies. These are words that they can attach to what they are feeling – words such as sorrow, grief, betrayal, sadness, vulnerability, disbelief, fear, anger, bereavement, rejection, hurt, heartbreak. Building a basic feeling vocabulary provides them with words to negotiate what they are feeling. Acknowledging and accepting their feelings, leads to a greater self-awareness and a greater capacity to communicate clearly with others. Skills and language allowing them to be more loving, empathetic and supportive with themselves and others when facing loss.
If we want to raise children to have the capacity to be authentic and genuine, and capable of engaging in sacred exchanges, we need to give them the tools. We need to help them learn and allow them opportunities to practice the basic skills, so that they can become fluent in using the sophisticated, mature and necessary language of loss, pain and suffering.