It had snowed heavily all night and six year old Matt was excited. As he left for school he made us promise that we would take him tobogganing in the afternoon. We picked him up at 2pm and headed straight for the park.
His mother, Kathy, and I had met in the late 1970’s in Tokyo where we both taught English at a language school. After returning to the USA she had met and married Bill and settled with him in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. I was visiting the family for a couple of days. I hadn’t seen Kathy for some years and this was the first time I had met their only child, Matt.
“Hurry up Mom!” shouted Matt as we parked the car. Kathy got the bright red plastic sledge out of the trunk and handed it to him. He grabbed it and ran off to join some of his friends who were already racing down the slope, laughing and screaming with delight. Kathy and I watched the children from the top of the slope and chatted.
After about an hour Kathy looked at her watch. “Time to go home Matt!” she called. Matt looked up in dismay, “But I don’t want to go home yet.”
“I understand Matt,” Kathy responded, “I can see that you are having so much fun. You can slide down one more time but then we need to go home.”
Down he went, staying a little longer at the bottom this time before climbing back up to us. “OK, let’s go,” said Kathy.
“But I don’t want to go now,” objected Matt.
“I know Matt. But you see, John is here and Dad will be coming home from work soon and I need to go home and prepare dinner for us all,” reasoned Kathy.
“I don’t want to go!” shouted Matt.
I wondered how Kathy would handle the situation and how this clash of wills would play out.
“Well, Matt, if I was having fun and my Mom told me I had to stop and go home, I guess a part of me would be pretty upset too,” she said calmly, “So I understand how you are feeling. And we are going home.”
“I hate you!” exclaimed Matt.
I flinched. Had I ever said such a thing to my parents I would definitely have received a clip round the ear accompanied by an injunction such as, “Don’t you dare tell me you hate me!”
Kathy’s reaction was calm yet firm. “It’s OK that you hate me Matt. I know that a part of you is really mad with me right now. And we’re going home.”
We got into the car - Matt sulking in the back seat, Kathy remaining composed and unfazed. When we reached the house Matt ran off into his room and slammed the door. Kathy and I went into the kitchen and continued chatting as we peeled vegetables.
After about ten minutes, the kitchen door burst open and Matt came rushing in, ran up to Kathy and her gave a big hug. “I love you Mom!” he said.
“I love you too Matt,” replied Kathy.
I was so impressed. Kathy had managed both to accept Matt’s feelings and at the same time to set a clear boundary around his behaviour. Because she had honoured and validated those feelings Matt had not needed to suppress them. This allowed his anger to move through, and after a little while he found that he still loved his Mom. Furthermore, by saying, “a part of me would be pretty upset,” and, “a part of you is really mad,” she let Matt know that he was made up of different selves with different feelings. She did not lock him into a singularity. This made it OK for him to feel both love and hate.
I once heard someone say that emotion is energy in motion (e-motion). If as parents we judge certain emotions as wrong or bad, blocking their natural flow, we encourage our children to develop a kind of garbage dump of the psyche into which these unaccepted energies are thrown. Here they can surreptitiously stagnate and fester - the garbage dump becoming the breeding ground of the disowned selves.
Matt recently paid me a visit at my home in London. Now in his early 20’s he was backpacking around Europe on his own. Although still young, I found him to be a very self-aware and balanced person. I told him the story of what happened on that snowy day in Denver. He had no memory of it but smiled warmly and said, “Yeah, I guess I lucked out having such a great Mom.”