Our children learn lessons from every single thing we say and do. It's a lot of pressure, and there's really no point in worrying about it too much. But sometimes, you step back from yourself and you see the lessons you're teaching in sharp relief and, if you're lucky, you learn a lesson yourself.
The other day, I had such a moment. Adeline, my just 2-year-old daughter, was demanding chocolate and lying on the floor screaming when I said no. She screamed when I tried to walk away but refused to let me touch her or comfort her in any way. I was managing OK, but then she took it to the next level: She grabbed one of her brand-new toys and threw it, hard, against the wall, breaking it. I wanted to scream back at her, but I didn't. I took a deep breath and stopped myself.
"Adeline," I said, my voice dripping with disappointment and as much guilt-inducing tone as I could manage, "you're making mama very unhappy."
She stopped screaming immediately and looked up at me, her lower lip quivering, on the verge of tears. But not the angry, "I can't have chocolate" tears; these were real, "mama please don't be sad" tears. I opened my arms and she ran over to me, burying her head in my lap. It had worked!
For a moment, I was proud of myself. I didn't scream or yell; I kept calm. That makes me a good mother, right? No. No, not really at all.
For one thing, think about the undertones of that sentence, the message hidden in-between the seemingly innocuous words. What I'm really telling her when I say something like that is that, above all else, she needs to make me happy. That she needs to put aside her own wants and desires to please me and to be sure that my emotional needs are met. And, more broadly, that she needs to put aside her emotional needs to please whomever it is that she thinks she loves. Which isn't terrible when her emotional needs are for more chocolate. But it's pretty terrible when her emotional needs are for respect and boundaries but she puts that aside to please an over-reaching new love interest. Or when her emotional needs are for freedom and safety but she puts that aside to keep the peace with an abusive husband.
Of course, it's important to teach our children that their behaviors affect other people. That other people also have emotions that we must respect. But respecting someone else and being a caretaker for someone else -- responsible for their happiness -- are worlds apart.
But there's an even more insidious problem with this method of discipline. If I try to stop the tantrums by telling my daughter that she's making me unhappy, the not-so-subtle message is that I am not in control of my own happiness. And nothing could be more dangerous.
You see, to the extent to which she thinks she needs to make me (and others) happy, she'll also expect others to make her happy. If trying to make other people happy is a recipe for making bad decisions that don't adequately reflect what you as an individual really need, then expecting other people to make you happy is a recipe for a lifetime of unhappiness. Which, in the end, is much worse.
Because the truth is this: Every single person is completely and unconditionally responsible for his or her own happiness. Other people, external circumstances, our kids, our parents, even the weather can make us feel up or down. But how we choose to react to that is always just that -- our own choice.
I don't want to teach my daughter that she should always be looking to someone else to make her happy. I don't want her to think that there is some magical external circumstance that will make her life complete. I don't want her constantly striving to find whatever that is, and losing her life in the pursuit.
I want to teach her that happiness is a choice that she will make every single day of her life. I want to teach her that no other person can make her happy and, conversely, that no other person has the power to take away her happiness. That her external circumstances are just that: external. That she might not be in control of anything else, but she's always in control of her own responses, her own emotions. Most of all, I want to teach her how to keep laughing, even when everything falls apart.
Next time she breaks something in the throes of a tantrum, I swear to do better. Maybe I will yell, just a little, if that's what I need. But only for a moment. Then I'll try to laugh. Maybe I'll ask her if breaking her toy did any good. Maybe I'll tell her that she needs to respect her things. I'm not really sure -- I haven't figured out the perfect thing to say yet. But at least I'm narrowing down the things not to say: I will not tell my daughter that she's making me unhappy.
Because honestly, I couldn't be happier than I am every single moment I spend with her, broken toys be damned.