Love is not a universal, one-size-fits-all thing. I used to think it was, but then I had children, and I learned — the hard way — that love is more than a feeling that guides actions like keeping everyone happy and healthy. It is also about acknowledging where my kids are in their development and meeting them in that exact spot with compassion and kindness. It just took me awhile to get that point.
One day, after a particularly nasty glitch with my oldest child — where we yelled at each other, he threw a pair of shoes down the stairs, and I made threats of taking away everything and grounding him until kingdom come — I realized that we had a serious problem: Our way of communicating was not healthy. What’s worse was that in sharp contrast, my youngest and I almost never glitched and seemed to always find a way to resolve conflicts quickly and calmly.
I began to worry that my oldest would think I love him less. This fear damn nearly broke my heart. The more I thought about it and the more I tried to watch our interactions with as much objectivity as possible, I realized that it was not about loving one child more than another. It was about me not understanding that I cannot expect my oldest child, who has a strong will and stubborn personality, to be as malleable as my younger child, who is naturally more emotionally flexible.
My willful oldest child did not need to change; I did. I needed to figure out how to empower my relationships with my kids on an individual level. For my oldest, that meant dramatically changing the way we communicate so that glitches don’t melt into instant, combative egos throwing their weights (or shoes) around.
Not only did I need to pay attention to the ways in which my kids and I communicated with each other, I also had to learn to check myself quickly when I noticed things heading south. Today, I remember to breathe while reminding myself that conflicts are not emergencies and that just because my oldest child questions my authority all the damn time doesn’t mean he’s a bad kid. Actually, if I nurture that in him in a more productive and respectful way, it will encourage his natural leadership qualities.
Ultimately, this is about me learning that my kids need to be loved in different ways. One love does not fit all. My youngest needs physical affection. He needs tickles and snuggles more than he does cerebral conversations about attitudes. My oldest needs me to support his growing sense of self and to help him guide his emotions from reactive to responsive.
Parenting is fucking hard. It isn’t hard because of the lack of sleep or the constant cleaning or the little things we joke about. It is hard because it constantly requires us to examine our own fears and limits and requires that we challenge and push those limits in new and sometimes truly scary ways.
Parenting forces us to grow while we simultaneously show our kids how to be the best people they can be. Love may not be one-size-fits-all, but it is a powerful and life-altering force that can mean raising self-confident and self-aware kids.