Parents Have Feelings Too: Setting Emotional Boundaries with Your Child, Part One

My daughter made me cry during dinner. Twice.

About a month ago, my husband and I were sitting at the dinner table with our 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. My daughter was not happy with what I had cooked. What a shocker. (You can just hear my sarcasm, can’t you?) She tends to run hot and cold on various foods. For example, she used to like pizza. Then one day she declared, “I’m sick of pizza” and refused to eat it any more. That went on for a couple of months. Now she likes pizza again.

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So the first time she made me cry at dinner, hot dogs were apparently the newly boycotted food. Unfortunately, I had not received notice of her hot dog strike. Also unfortunate was the fact that it had started raining while I was grilling said hot dogs on the patio. I had trudged in and out of the rain numerous times – tracking pine needles into my kitchen – so that I could tend the grill while also baking french fries in the oven and hastily slicing apples as an afterthought. Plus, it’s an undeniable fact that kids turn into degenerates when dinner is being cooked. (Our momentary distraction with the meal gives them time to practice corruption.)

Anyway. We sat down to eat and I was in a grumpy state. I commented with disappointment that the burgers were over-cooked, and I sadly felt the irony of simultaneously having under-cooked the french fries. (Would anyone like a recipe for al dente oven fries? Believe me. You wouldn’t.) My husband discreetly kept his eyes locked on his plate and kept eating without comment. My daughter’s non-helpful contribution to the conversation was, “I didn’t really want a hot dog.” We went through several gradually escalating rounds of her complaining and me responding THIS-IS-WHAT’S-FOR-DINNER-JUST-EAT-IT.

Sometimes, my kids hurt my feelings. This was one of those times. For some reason, I always feel like it’s my responsibility to suck it up. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe I worry that if I express negative emotions, I’m laying an unnecessary guilt trip on my children. Or that I’ll frighten them by admitting that I’m not always tough.  My inner self says,  A kid hurt your feelings. So what? You’re a grown up. Shake it off. But this time, I couldn’t shake it off because my eyes were filling with tears and my throat was constricting. I decided this was a good time to teach a lesson in empathy. In the calmest voice I could muster, I said, “Honey, your complaints hurt my feelings. I worked hard to cook this dinner for our family. Maybe instead of complaining you could say, ‘Mom, I don’t really care for this food but thank you for your hard work.'”

With eyes downcast, she quietly repeated, “Mom, I don’t really care for this food but thank you for your hard work.” I said “You’re welcome” and she ate her apples and oven fries. We finished our less-than-stellar dinner, the offending hot dog got pitched, and the incident was forgiven.

However, it wasn’t forgotten. Fast forward a month to today’s lunch. She picked at the various foods on her plate, eating only her strawberries. She looked up at me and said, “Mom, I don’t really care for this food but thank you for your hard work.” I was so touched by her empathy that I cried. Again.

We are parents, not puppets. In teaching our children how to treat us, we are also teaching them how to treat others. In part two of this series, I will talk about how to appropriately express emotion to kids. That is how we begin to set boundaries.

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