The Hurt We Can’t Fix

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A common fantasy we have as parents is the eternal preservation of our children’s innocence. It would be so nice if we could shelter them from the harsher realities of life.  And if we can’t prevent the inevitable bumps and bruises that life deals, we’d at least like to have the power to fix the damage; kiss our kids’ booboos and make them all better.

In this post, my husband Mike shares his personal realization about the limits of his power as a parent – when intervention is appropriate, and when sometimes just being present is good enough:

There are tangible moments in everyone’s childhood when a layer of precious innocence is stripped and replaced by some less fanciful, arguably less reassuring truth. These moments come faster and faster as our kids mature and stray further from our oversight into the big, bad world. As a parent, I have not been privy to most of them. They happened off camera, and my kids processed the information without the value-add of my analysis or input. But I have witnessed a few, and I have never felt more impotent. While on the one hand I am privileged to share these ‘growing up’ experiences, I desperately wish my kids didn’t have to go through them.

My boy is a superb soccer player. Not just because of his physical ability, but also his demeanor as a competitor, what used to be heralded as sportsmanship: offering bruised teammates and opponents a hand up; showing empathy for hurt limbs or feelings; finding joy in others’ success and acknowledging his own mistakes. Though fiercely competitive, he plays at every game with a purity of heart and intention that not only makes me proud, it fills me with admiration.

When he was eight years old, toward the end of a particularly intense soccer game against the league favorites, a very frustrated older boy picked up the ball and threw it at my son’s head. He missed, dinged the referee instead, and the boy was dealt with. I will never forget the look on my son’s face. Never. Amidst the howls of righteous indignation from players and parents, what I saw in my dazed boy was utter confusion. The action of the other player was completely foreign to him. Did this guy hate him? Did my son do something offensive or wrong? Weren’t they all just trying their best? Weren’t they having fun?

I watched silently, feeling entirely helpless. I am not overly emotional (you may fact check that statement with my wife), but for me that moment was pure heartbreak.

After the game, we talked a lot. Actually, I talked a lot, driven by my paternal instinct to protect and fix. While in this case it was too late to protect, I was desperate to fix. My great fear was that the incident would decimate forever the pure joy my son got from physicality and competition, and that somehow it would translate into ‘if I excel, the other kids will hate me.’ I assured him the other player’s reaction wasn’t his fault. He had done nothing wrong except play really well.

‘To parent’ is a verb, and, as such, it demands action. But as kids get older and are allowed appropriate independence, they are inevitably going to find themselves in confusing, sometimes inappropriate, sometimes scary situations. And while I can’t (and shouldn’t) be around 24/7 to supervise every critical juncture of my kids’ lives, I can protect them from casual, day-to-day exposure to adult realities before they’re old enough to understand and process them for themselves. Part of being a responsible (grown-up) parent is having the stomach to go against conventional parenting wisdom (much of which, I’m convinced, evolves for our own convenience).

It begins, of course, with media. Any shrink will tell you, kids cannot filter and process torrents of visuals and sound bites designed to entertain adults. They don’t have the knowledge base, experience or perspective. PG-13 action, horror, even comedy movies are not all right for a pre-pubescent, even if we’re sitting with them. Single shooter Xbox games are not healthy for a young mind with an undeveloped moral compass, no matter how cool it is to have an in-house gaming buddy. And local news (‘if it bleeds, it leads’) is not appropriate background noise while my kids are doing homework.

I have come to know that parenting needs to be practiced in the real world with extreme conviction, follow-through and consistency.  It is not easy telling your friends, neighbors or relatives your five-year old boy cannot attend his buddy’s birthday because you don’t think a John Carpenter Film Festival is appropriate. It means saying ‘no’ to – and for — your kids a lot of the time, even though other parents will feel judged. Not a great way to win friends and influence people, but this parenting thing demands backbone.

There is nothing I could have done to avoid my son’s soccer experience. Surely, it was an age appropriate rite of passage (and I do pat myself on the back for not getting involved and embarrassing my boy by demanding some false apology from the other player).  But I would never knowingly place any of my kids in a situation they weren’t cognitively prepared to handle. That is something I can control, and it’s probably the best any of us can do as our kids grow up. In fact, it’s the least we can do.

It’s quite possible that parenting becomes more difficult as our kids get older, because there are more grey areas and judgment calls. Figuring out where to step in, when to hold the line, and when to stand back are constant challenges, and I imagine they always will be. I comfort myself knowing that if I make decisions and act from a place of respect, I can’t go too far wrong.



(Photo by Jack Mallon on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. This was very interesting to read. I just had my first kind of experience with this yesterday when at a party I watched as a boy pushed my 4 yr old son out of a cubby house and shut the door on him and then told him he couldn’t come in and play. My son stood there politely knocking on the door and asking if he could please come in and play. The boy screamed at him and my son just stood there trying to understand, continuing to politely ask if he could go back in. Then finally he came to me in tears totally confused. I found it such a tricky situation. The boy did the same thing to another child and that boy’s mother got his mother and an apology was forced and faked. I did not want to do that. So, my son played elsewhere and later we talked about it. I felt so upset because I hadn’t known what to do. But maybe having read this I can see it is just part of the parenting experience and I’ve plenty more to come!

  2. Great post from ‘DAD’! Thank you for sharing your experience which makes a lot of sense and hits home.
    I am also part of the ‘black-sheep’ parenting group. I call it black sheep because I get shunned for a lot of my parenting quirks but you know what?
    I DON’T CARE!!!!!
    keep it up !xxx

  3. Black sheep – that’s funny. And I envy you not caring. I think I do care, but as my older kids have flourished, I realize that for the most part I/we are doing the right thing. And so do many of the parents — who remain our friends — that may have been put off by our quirky parenting way back when.

  4. Im struggling with my son reading the newspaper banner/board each day. Words such as horror, murder, rape, even one the other week about baby being killed by its father in huge print outside the newsagents. I have considered asking the newsagents to consider removing it? We dont have a tv or newspapers or radio in our house (mostly because they dont interest me) but we walk past this newsagents every day so im worried the impact it will have on my innocent boy (2 years old) once he learns to read. What do you think?

    1. Hi Karen

      You can’t shelter your child from all that is bad. When he is old enough to read that newsagent may not even be there. Focus on enjoying “now” and take the negatives as they come up. Try not to let future worries rob you of the joy you can have right now.

    2. I had a similar issue recently when we drove home from school and my almost 3 year old asked “what is in that man’s hand”? It was a poster for a theatre show. He had a hammer in one hand and a gun in the other. I said “a hammer”. Of course he wasn’t going to let it go. He wanted to know about the gun. What is it for? Why is he holding it? What does it do? I told him it was for shooting, and that some people like to shoot at targets as a sport. Then a few days later he came home after visiting a friend with his nanny, talking about shooting people 🙁

  5. That’s such a complicated question, such a common concern. Obviously, we can’t shelter them always and forever… maybe the best we can do as parents is be available for our kids to help them filter the bad stuff so they aren’t trying to sort if out on their own. Encourage them to ask questions etc… Otherwise, (in my experience) a child will assume that those extreme incidents happen every day, in his/her neighborhood, and that he/she is vulnerable.

  6. Great article! You can’t protect your children from everything. With our help kids are resilient and able to handle much more than we give them credit for. You learn to appreciate good times by facing tough times. Tough times also build a sense of compassion for others. As you can only have compassion when you have experienced a few bumps along the way. None of us escape childhood unscathed and the majority of us turn out to be happy productive adults.

  7. Excellent!!!! I appreciate Dads perspective!!! Forwarding to hubby.

    Seriously I appreciate the honesty of your heart an openness to share this with us!

  8. hey
    my son has had an experience like that too

  9. Listening to a child’s interpretation of an event is vital too as sometimes we project our own feelings onto a situation. Being open minded and asking open ended questions before adding our own labels based on our own experiences. I struggled the most with this when my relationship with my daughter’s father broke down. I was so hurt that he couldn’t seem to change his behaviour in order to continue our relationship and be there for our child. I was projecting my own abandonment issues onto her when she was in fact fine and just processing him not living with us as no big deal! I need to careful with any girl conflicts when as she is getting older too as I was bullied by ‘friends’ for most of my school years. I am hoping to help her cope with friendship challenges in a more constructive way and not just react emotionally when they crop up.

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