If your children were magically put in charge of you, how would they treat you?
Many years ago I attended a workshop at the Parents Anonymous conference and, as always, I was ready to have fun. I met parents and facilitators from other groups across New Jersey and learned more about parenting and myself. The woman leading the workshop, whose name I can no longer remember, spoke about parental relationships with their young children. I thought, ‘this will be another activity for us to bond like before.’
The woman talked about how children see us in their world, that they see us as all-powerful and all-knowing. She talked about how we remember the house we grew up in and that in reality the house was smaller than we remembered. I listened to every word because she was a talented storyteller and she spoke with a very calm, serene voice.
“Pull your seats closer,” she asked and everyone shuffled chairs.
The woman continued, “We are going to close our eyes for this last exercise and I don’t want you to open your eyes until I say you can.”
As I bowed my head I peeked to see if everyone shut their eyes. They had so I closed mine too and folded my hands in my lap. The woman told us to imagine ourselves as we were as young children, perhaps wearing a favorite outfit. I was wearing jeans, a jersey with the number 33 and carrying a pocket knife I used to clean hooves and carve on trees. It was all very clear today as that hot summer day many years ago.
Next we were to picture our house and all its rooms. The kitchen had a black-speckled tile floor and a beige telephone by the door. My room was open since it was where the dining room was supposed to be. My brothers were crammed into a small bedroom with a tiny closet. The living room was large, had ugly green carpet and a flowered couch. We were not allowed to play in the living room after it was cleaned.
“Now I would like you to think about the people who lived in your house and were part of your family, picture their faces, their eyes and what they looked like,” she said, “Do you see your parents?”
My dad was tall, average build and muscular; he worked hard in his business. My mom was about 5’ 3” and had black hair; she was in the kitchen most of the time and constantly moving – a real workaholic. My older brother was not yet six feet and had dimples; he was mean to me, very mean. Then there was my little brother who was very precocious; he was mischievous but I could never be angry with him.
“I want you to turn your attention to negative things your parents said you,” she said, “what were some the things you remember?”
This was difficult for me and I immediately felt uncomfortable; I peeked to see if anyone was looking. My cheeks were burning and I felt ashamed. My mother’s words came flooding back:
“Good for nothing”
“Like tits on a boar”
“Just look at her and she cries”
“It’s just alligator tears”
The woman interrupted my thoughts by saying there was a lot of negative energy in the room and announced the last part of the exercise. She reminded us not to open our eyes just yet, that she would tell us when to open them.
“Keep the image of the parent who said negative things in your mind,” she instructed us, “I want you to change the face from a frown to a gentle smile.”
Wondering where she was going with this, I was ready for it to be over.
“You are looking at a warm, pleasant smile,” she continued, “Now I want you to hear this loving person saying the things you wanted to hear them say so many years ago.”
My mother stood in front of me in the back yard and as I looked up at her she began to speak.
“I am sorry,” she began, “I shouldn’t have whipped you, it was wrong.”
“I do love you, Jackie,” she said.
“You are just as important to me as your brothers,” Mom said.
“I should have believed you and I am sorry I did not protect you,” she said.
With that statement the flood-gates opened and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop the tears. I dabbed my eyes and looked around the room and found I was not alone. Many of us in that workshop, whether we were abused previously or not, had longed for validation that we did not receive up to that point in our lives.
The deeper message to those of who attended that workshop was that we may never get validation from our parents. And if we did not get it before their deaths, then it would not matter because the only opinion that truly mattered is the one from deep within us. Was I lazy? No. Was I worthless? No. Do I get emotional and cry? Yes I do, but they are not alligator tears and have nothing to do with my self-worth. It only matters what I think of me.
Each of you can try this exercise as I have shared it with you: Picture yourself as a child, and then your parents giving the words you choose.
Fast-forward a few decades and our children stand before us and look up into our eyes. This is your cue, moms and dads, what are the words your child would most want to hear?
Jackie Saulmon Ramirez has served as a volunteer with Parents Anonymous® of New Jersey, Inc. for more than twenty years, giving and getting support. Find her blog here contact page.