Hey guys! Remember me? I’m the mom who lovingly told you to “stop talking to your kids so much.” If you missed it, I obviously don’t mean that we shouldn’t communicate with our children. It is a challenge to be more mindful of the moments and the messages we give. And now I’m back with a relevant extension of that lesson.
As mothers, it’s likely we’ve spent more time than ever this year considering, reconsidering, panicking (inwardly), strategizing (ad nauseam), succeeding, and failing. In doing so, I’ve noticed an exaggerated over-correction presenting itself in the form of toxic positivity. Even I, whose parenting was recently described by a mom I’d just met as “cynical” (she’s not wrong), have found myself wanting to offer a positive perspective in situations of disappointment.
But much like the toll this abundance of enthusiasm (to put it diplomatically) is taking on the mental and physical well-being of mothers the world over, I think it’s especially important to take a look at how it’s affecting our kids. It can be oh-so-tempting to rush to our precious babe’s aid when something upsets them, especially during a tumultuous period of American life, but what is that teaching them? And, perhaps more importantly, what is it taking away from them?
Why Your Toxic Positivity Is Harmful
Our kids will fail
Any woman who has ever woken up to her toddler’s eyes terrifyingly close to her face in the dead of night can attest to the fact that these little sponges don’t miss a beat. They may not have the life experience to contextualize events, but they will remember emotional life cycles. It’s great to remain strong for your babies, but I’d argue (as would many mental health professionals) that it’s equally as important to demonstrate perseverance, disappointment, and recovery — in the most authentic of ways.
My kids love a Fitz & the Tantrums song with lyrics that say, “We rise, we fall, we get back up and try again. Some do, some don’t. Some will, some won’t.” It’s great to encourage them, but our kids really can’t do everything — or anything — perfectly, at first. There will be disappointment, and if they don’t see you model those feelings, then they won’t see how to ask for help with them. And if you don’t give them the chance to try it for themselves, they won’t learn how.
Our kids will get hurt
Let me preface with: I know that COVID is f*cking scary. This whole pandemic environment creates a hamster wheel of panic and anxiety that most of us have never experienced in our lives. What I’ve noticed happening, and understandably so, is that we’ve taken our babies and clutched them even tighter, literally and figuratively. We need it as much as they do. In fact, I think we may need it more — and they’re picking up on it.
Imagine we lived in a world where we were allowed to “overreact” to minor injustices. (The way Karens react to wearing a damn mask. Or, the way my husband reacts when he stubs his toe.) We’re whining, we’re crying, we’re super pissed at an inanimate object. And then another well-meaning, adult gets in our face and starts rapid-fire asking questions: “Ohhh, are you okay? Do you need a kiss? A Band-Aid? Can I get you an ice pack? What if we get a piece of candy? Do you want Mommy? What’s wrong, baby? What do you want, honey?” AND, OH MY GOD MY HEART IS RACING JUST FROM TYPING THAT. I’m not sure about you, but I’ve never seen a toddler soothed by the third degree. Which leads me to…
Our kids might not be alright
…and that’s alright. Think of the countless memes in which we find comfort. “It’s okay to not be okay.” I follow a well-known author and behavior specialist, Janet Lansbury, who is a proponent of treating even infants as individuals. She says it best when she says:
“Parents are hardwired to make it all better, so listening without fixing is much easier said than done, but crucial. Let it be okay to just be there while your child cries rather than trying to comfort them with ‘it will be alright.’ Don’t try to fill the silence. Children don’t open up unless we offer them an attentive ear and a wide-open, accepting space.”
This is borderline impossible. I get it. The sounds that come out of them, from the most guttural sobs to the excruciating whines, can prompt all sorts of emotional responses from us. But guess what? This is the part where I tell you that you get to do way less again! Less talking, less fixing, less everything except sitting there. If you need motivation, call on one of the times from your own memory where all you wanted was for someone to sit and listen to you. Someone to validate your existence with their presence, instead of demonstrating their superiority with their advice. If we’re able to establish this kind of relationship now, I can only imagine it will help bridge the great puberty divide down the road.
Less toxic, more positive
Mom culture is always looking for a way to be better and do better for our kids. This can look like buying organic, reducing waste, ditching chemicals, and plastics. This can look like self-care for us, or coping strategies for them. Or, it can look like nothing at all. In the hyper-stimulated, keenly curated childhood many of us are creating, let’s not underestimate that at the end of the day, less will always be more.