As people who spend a lot of time with toddlers, we try to be careful about turning wants into needs. One day your child requests a snack in the car. You hear that they are hungry, are pleased that they communicated that need with you, and honor that by providing a snack. Three weeks go by and if you don’t have snack ready and open in the car the second your child enters it….Suddenly what was a want, has morphed into a need. This is why we have such firm boundaries at Elm House in regards to bringing lovies to school, having pacifiers, etc. We don’t want wants to turn into needs, because then the children are living in a constant state of feeling like their NEEDS aren’t being met, and that can be incredibly difficult for everyone.
We noticed at the beginning of this year, and every previous year, that children returning to Elm House obviously have a strong preference for returning teachers. And why wouldn’t they? No one wants to be comforted by a stranger when a trusted friend is right at hand. We try to leave an insulatory bubble at the beginning of each year where returning students can be with their previous teachers. But after awhile, we begin to mix up the groups so that a desire to be with a certain teacher doesn’t morph into a NEED to be with a certain staff member. This is also crucial to our anti bias work. We want the groups of children and teachers mixed so that we are constantly learning from, and teaching, new people.
With all of this in mind, we invited SM to join me in the Nest a couple of weeks ago. I feel a strong connection to SM because we share a lot of similarities. We are raw people. When I say raw, I mean that all of our emotions live under the thinnest veneer. Honestly, it’s like an egg, the tiniest bit of pressure and we are going to immediately offer up EVERYTHING inside of us. We are intensely connected to all that is happening around us. If we need to cry, we are weeping. If we are happy, our laughter is echoing off the walls. If we are angry we wrap ourselves in it like a cloak and throw it wide. I knew that SM is a great help with the younger children, and that they enjoy spending time with her. I also wanted to get to know her better myself. I hoped she would be happy to join us, but I also know she loves routine, so I was prepared for anything.
I heard her coming down the stairs. SM was not happy. She did not want to be with me. She did not want to be in the Nest. She did not want to visit the younger children. She wanted Megan. Period. I took a deep breath, and waited to welcome her in. Megan said goodbye, reminded SM she would see her soon, and left SM in the Nest.
I opened my mouth to greet SM and she screamed to me, “Noooooo. NOOOOOOO! I WANT MY MOMMMYYYYYY”
I let her anger and her grief crash into me like a wave. “You want your family. You love them so much.” I tried to echo and honor what I was hearing.
“NOOOOOOOOO!” SM cut me off again. She was sad and angry and she wasn’t interested in being anything other than sad and angry in that moment. She curled her body up at the crack by the door and I could feel her desire to turn into mist and seep back under it.
ZC approached, her brows furrowed and her arms outstretched. I knew she was worried and wanted to help SM. Maybe SM would accept comfort from someone else in our community. “ZC sees your sad. She wants to help you. I think she wants to offe..”
“NOOOOOO!!!! MOOOOMMMMYYY! DADDDYYYYY!” She howled her displeasure.
SM was having none of it. She did not want our comfort. Then I began to feel uncomfortable in my own body. I was hot, and starting to get nervous. I wanted SM to know she was safe with any of us, and valued by all of us. I did not want to turn her want into a need. I also didn’t want her to feel scared, upset, or sad. What was I going to do? Sometimes it feels perfectly acceptable to let a child process their feelings alone. They want, need, and have a right to that space and autonomy. This did not feel that way to me. I was unable to cheer SM up, but I couldn’t leave her in that kind of sadness. I took a chance, and made an offering of my own grief.
“You’re crying for your Mom and Dad because you miss them so much it feels like you can’t stand it. I cry for my Mom and Dad like that too, sometimes.” I said softly.
SM’s protests quieted, and she glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. I think she heard the truth in what I said, and it resonated, but she was worried I was trying to trap her…distract her out of Sadness.
I purposefully averted my eyes, so that SM didn’t feel pressure in my message, just my truth and my hurt.
“My Mom, Dad, and Brother live together, but their house is far far away from here. It is so far that I cant see them. I haven’t seen them in years. The last time I saw my family was before Elm House was even a school.”
“Why, Bee?”came the tiniest whisper from the door.
“It is hard to explain.” I said. “But I miss them very much. Every day I think about them and I wish we were together. I wish I could laugh with them. I wish they were here to help me when I am sad. But they aren’t. And sometimes, SM, that makes me feel very very alone.”
“And you’re sad?” she ventured, scooting closer to me and away from the door.
“Yes. It makes me very sad. To be honest, SM, I feel sad a lot of the time. I feel sad about many many things. I’m kind of a sad person. But I also love to laugh, and dance. I love to sing songs and feel happy. It just so happens that a lot of the time, sadness is what I feel.”
“Yeah.” she mumbled, looking down at her lap. And for a moment, I wondered if I had burdened her, or even scared her.
“Bee….” she whispered, on the faintest of breaths.
“Sometimes I get sad too.” The words gushed out quietly, and I saw the weight of them slide out of her shoulders as she folded in on herself.
“I know. I know you do. I see that. Sometimes it is easier for people who spend time in Sadness, to recognize when other people are there too. It is a gift we have. And sometimes, when we are feeling strong, we can sit with other people in Sadness, and be sad together. It still hurts, but it’s not as lonely that way. All of us get sad sometimes, some people more than others, and it feels nice to be able to help when we can, just by being sad together.”
She looked up at me, eyebrows knitted together. I noticed that as she was puzzling over this her breathing slowed and steadied, her body relaxed.
“And..and..and…GR gets sad. And WS. And and and MS.”
“Yes. You’re right. We all get sad sometimes. And you know what? I have seen you help each one of those people when they were sad. You recognized they were sad, and you were with them, and then they felt better.”
“And then they were happy?” she asked?
“Yes. Then they were happy. We can’t always make other people feel happy when they are sad, but we can always be with them, and then at least they won’t be alone.”
“Bee? I don’t feel sad anymore.”
“I’m so glad. I have a hug for you if you want it. I am happy to be with you when you are happy, sad, mad, or anything else. We can feel big feelings together.”
“We can!” she giggled, as she jumped up.
I sat and watched her join the younger children in their play, and reflected on the power of what had happened. I was unable to help SM when I tried to pull her out of her sadness, but when I joined her in it, when I offered her some of my own sadness, everything changed.
SM and I bonded more in that five minute conversation than we had in all the weeks prior, and I think Parker Palmer said it just right when he reflected,
“The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed…exactly how it is.”
This week I challenge you to have a raw moment with your child. Find a time to sit with them in Sadness or Anger by sharing about when you’ve truly felt that way. We are the only window that the children have to the human experience. If we don’t tell them about times when we’ve felt sad, slighted, petty, or hurt, they may believe that they are alone in this world. They may feel like they are they only ones who feel that way. Let them know that to make mistakes is human. To hurt the ones we love is human. Let your children know that Sadness and Anger are places we all dwell, that they can be places of connection, instead of palaces of isolation.
To know that someone hears you is one thing, to know that someone has felt the way you feel??? That is a whole separate level of connection. Gift it to one another, as there is nothing more valuable.
Feel free to leave any questions, comments, or wonderings in the space below.