The first phrase I remember finding re-remarkable as a parent was: thank you. I certainly had said thank you to my kids when they were babies and offered me a handful of their smashed bananas or their slobbery stuffed animal or something like that. This wasn’t the thank you that gave me pause. It was when they were old enough to start to take on tasks, either by request or their own motivation. It was that first time I dropped something and they picked it up for me. Or, the first time her sister needed help and she scurried over to provide it. Or maybe, that first time I asked them to go get something for me in another room and they happily did so – proud to be able to help.
Regardless of the specifics, when I said this kind of thank you to my girls for the first time, it felt like a sincere validation of their contribution – their proactive and meaningful presence making purposeful contact with me, with the world. It overtly acknowledged their power to help other people – hopefully reinforced by some sense of what that means, or at least how it feels to do so. Because of this, I have found myself more mindful of sharing my gratitude with my kids not merely as a tool to reinforce the behaviors I want or expect but as a way of telling them they have the power to create meaning with others. I don’t know: maybe I’m just a tired, somewhat defeated, overly emotional parent looking for “a win”, but that feels like something profound to me.
Sometime, maybe a year or more, after thank you took on new meaning, another mundane phrase also resurfaced with a sense of newness: I’m sorry. I am certain I had said I’m sorry to my daughters previously for accidentally bumping them in the head with an errant elbow, tripping over them as they crept up behind me in the kitchen, or doing something in the wrong way. But, the I’m sorry that was so meaningful was related to my being wrong about or mishandling something. I’m sorry I raised my voice. I should have handled that better. I’m sorry I got after you without really understanding what happened. I should have listened to understand the situation better. I’m sorry I forgot about or minimized that thing that was so important to you.
In these cases, I wasn’t sorry because of an accident; I was sorry because I was wrong. And, those are profoundly different in nature.
I want my children to know I am human and I am flawed and I am willing to admit it, because I want them to grow up and be the same way. I don’t want my children to look up to me and respect me because they think I have all the answers. I want them to do so because they know I don’t and they know I know I don’t. In other words, I want our relationship to be based on truth and for that to be a prism through which they seek to know and impact the world around them.
Along the lines of truth-seeking, I have most recently found myself thrilled by the random, inane, brilliant, innocent, and humbling conversations I am beginning to have with my kids. In these, I have heard myself repeatedly saying: that’s a great question. Again, this isn’t much of a mind-blower under normal circumstances (it’s often just a way to buy time to concoct an answer), but as I heard myself start saying it to my daughters, it felt like the most important thing I could ever say to them. You have questions. Questions are important. You should ask them. You should seek answers. Please, always ask questions!
Beyond the gratitude and power and humility of the thank yous and I’m sorrys, I don’t know what I could wish to instill more in my children than an insatiable curiosity and confident exploration of their lives, relationships, and anything and everything else that makes them wonder. I’ve written previously about two of these questions: 1. What is freedom? and 2. What is peace?
I obviously don’t have all the answers, but I think validating the question is more important anyway.
I am sure there will be more words and phrases that take on new meaning as my children and my parenting continue to grow up.
What word or phrase will be next? Well, we will obviously have to wait and see.
But, I think it’s a good question.