In this week’s podcast, Janet breaks format slightly by sharing back-and-forth interactions she’s had with listeners and her reflections about these exchanges. In the first, a parent eloquently describes a revelation about his children’s challenging behaviors and how they can bring out his best self. The second exchange explores the nuances of navigating boundaries and the messages we unintentionally give children by walking on eggshells vs. welcoming their feelings. Janet connects these discussions by noting how they both express what putting love into action really means with our kids.
Exciting news: Janet’s “No Bad Kids Master Course” is available now at: NoBadKidsCourse Check it all out and receive an introductory discount!
Transcript of “Love Doesn’t Mean Walking on Eggshells”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I’m going to be doing something completely different. I’m sharing some correspondence back and forth between me and some people that reached out to me. In one case, it’s a comment on Instagram that I decided to give a long, drawn-out answer to. And I’m sharing these in hope that they’ll clarify some things, get a little deeper into the nuances of some of the issues that we have as parents. And I guess also kind of to let you into my world a little bit. I must love my job a lot because, as busy as I’ve been lately, I still get certain comments or notes that I feel compelled to respond to, because I want to explain. I want to help people understand the view that I’m sharing. And I believe this episode will help you clarify your role with your children and frame boundaries, these things that are really hard for us to do sometimes, in the most positive manner.
Okay, so first I am going to read to you an email that I received. Here it is:
I’m a dad to an extremely impulsive four-and-a-half-year-old and an extremely sensitive two-year-old, with baby number three due in three months. So you can imagine we have an exhausting house at times. As I’ve been listening to your podcast, I’ve come to understand parenting in a new way and wanted to share it with you.
It goes like this: Everything my child does is a different way of asking me, What does love mean? Thinking about parenting this way has completely changed my perspective and given my parenting a purpose. What does love mean when it’s time to clean up, but I say no and keep playing? What does love mean when I’m sick and wake up crying at 3:00 a.m.? What does love mean when I can’t stop grabbing things off the counter? What does love mean when we lay in bed talking at night? What does love mean when you tell me not to hit the TV with a toy and I grin at you while doing it one more time? What does love mean when mommy has morning sickness, but I’m hyper, playful, and mischievous? What does love mean when I’m having a meltdown, when I scrape my knee, when my sibling takes my toy, when I’m scared of monsters, when I’m supposed to take a nap, but instead take out every single piece of clothing from my drawers and throw it on the floor— again? I know I’m not supposed to bang the kitchen cabinets open and closed, but what does love mean when I do it anyway? What if I do it when we’re being playful together or when you’re busy making dinner or when I’ve already just done something wrong? When you’re in the middle of disciplining my sibling, when I’m already feeling mad about something else? The list goes on.
I think this is such a beautiful way of looking at my interactions with my children. It’s also a huge responsibility knowing that everything I do is a different way of answering that question for my kids. How I handle it in the good and bad times, or when they’re acting up, will define what love means for them for the rest of their life. How do I handle it when I’m already stressed or impatient or frustrated or exhausted from work is defining what love means for them, and they’re listening carefully. So thank you for your wisdom and advice and guidance. It has put me in a position to be really intentional about how I handle the day-to-day moments with my kiddos. I’m not always perfect, of course, and then I get to show them what love means when I need to apologize.
Here’s what I wrote back to Adam:
I love this beautiful perspective. What a lucky family you have. I wish everyone understood discipline this way. Unfortunately, people might also think that love is spanking and other punishments to teach right and wrong, et cetera. You obviously don’t, but maybe there’s something you could add to this that would make that clearer. I have a quote from my book, “Boundaries are one of the highest forms of love,” and I believe that 100%. I’ve seen proof time and again. Again, your family is so blessed to have you.
And Adam wrote back:
Thank you for your feedback. It’s funny that you bring up the different answers to, What does love mean? That’s the double edged sword of parenting, right? My wife and I are defining what love means to our kiddos. It’s solely within our power to decide if the message they subconsciously internalize is: love is manipulation, intimidation, fear, and painful consequences. Or, love is patient, empathetic, grace-filled, and affirming. Our kiddos are going to get an answer to their question, whether we’re intentional about it or not. I can scream, spank, banish to a bedroom, and force the behavior I want, or I can connect, listen, guide, and still expect the behavior as I lead them with my hand on their back. The confident momentum you talk about a lot. Either way, I’m going to hold my boundary, whatever it is, but I’ve got to be okay with the picture of love I’m painting in my child’s mind. And you’re right, it is unfortunate that some parents do define love for their kids through spanking and punitive, arbitrary punishments, maybe unintentionally or maybe because they think they’re providing a good definition of love. But when my kiddos look for a spouse in 20ish short years, the person they pick will be a reflection of their internalized sense of what love means. I hope they have a healthy perspective by then.
To clear things up in my original message, I would add this paragraph: I can define love for my children one of three powerful ways. I can generally do nothing, be passive, inattentive, and permissive. I can lose my temper, scream, spank, intimidate, and manipulate. Or I can connect, attune, regulate, empathize, and guide. Our parents likely defined love for us in one of these ways. I know which definition of love I hope to embody for my kiddos.
So that was that exchange with Adam. What an amazing parent and person, right? So now I would like to share an exchange that I ended up having, spontaneously, on Instagram. A parent responded to last week’s episode, Weird, Worrying Behaviors That Our Child Keeps Repeating. So in that episode, I responded to notes from a few different parents, but the last one was from a parent whose daughter was turning four. She was going to have a birthday party, and the little girl had expressed that she would like to invite two of her good friends this time. I guess usually it’s been a family affair, just with relatives. But she offered that up and her parent seemed like she wasn’t that sure, but her daughter persisted, so she did go ahead and invite the friends. Then this happened. This parent says:
Tonight she’s been unsettled and unable to sleep. She’s called me into her room multiple times. She asked me if I could talk, so I laid in bed with her as she told me she no longer wanted the two girls to be invited to her party, that she wanted me to contact their parents and uninvite them. I just listened calmly as she told me in various ways that she’d like to take back the invitation. I know that she’s probably nervous and that this party is totally foreign to her. It’s probably scary anticipating something she doesn’t know anything about. No matter how much we plan, who can reliably prepare a four-year-old on what to expect? And I know it’ll be overwhelming with grandparents and family wanting to love on her. My question is, what do I do? Do I honor her feelings?
So that’s the gist of it. And my response was:
The key is to welcome your daughter’s understandably wound-up feelings, but not accommodate them, because that gives an unintended message: When you feel uncomfortable or in conflict, you need me to fix that for you. I don’t feel safe when you are upset and demanding. When in truth, these mixed feelings she’s having are a normal part of life. If she disinvites friends, she will likely regret that too. So the answer I recommend is to hold the boundaries while welcoming the feelings however she shares them. Something like, Ah, unfortunately, disinviting people isn’t an option because that’s hurtful and unkind. I hear you, though. It’s normal to change your mind or have second thoughts about a decision. You wish we could disinvite them. You wish they weren’t coming. But just reflecting back what she’s actually saying, not adding on.
And I went on to say:
The more solid you feel about this decision/boundary and the more confident you feel about allowing her to blast you about it, the sooner this will blow over. I can almost guarantee you she’ll be glad she had her friends there. But if you’re uncertain or go at this hoping to please her in the moment, this can become more about the two of you and something she needs to keep pushing and testing, even at the party. Hope that makes sense.
So I had written that back to this parent before sharing that exchange on my podcast last week, and when I did, the parent gave me a short note back:
Welcome them, not accommodate them. Such a great reminder. I appreciate you diving in and going into detail for me.
So that was that. So then on Instagram, another parent commented:
I love your work. I’ve listened to every single one of your podcasts at least once. And to say that your teachings have been invaluable is an understatement. However, for the first time ever, I actually disagreed with some of your advice today, and I’d be interested to hear your feedback.
It was regarding the young girl who was anxious at night because she had changed her mind about inviting a couple of friends to a birthday party. You emphasized a lot about not wanting to be unkind to the other children, but I’d be inclined to disagree. I think that at three years old, you can make a decision and then realize that it wasn’t the right decision. And if that results in feelings of anxiety, I think it’s our job to help ease that for our kids, even if that means uninviting some kids to a party. I am 100% for allowing kids to experience upset, disappointment, rejection, et cetera. But the thought of a three-year-old dreading her birthday party in order not to upset people doesn’t sit right with me, especially as I’m always trying to teach my children not to go against our guts to please others. I know it was mentioned that maybe she would have regretted it if she didn’t invite them, but I’m not certain that’s the case. My daughter is extremely sensitive, and if she had realized that she made a mistake by inviting her friends, I know 100% that, for whatever reason, she didn’t want them there. Hopefully I’ve explained this clearly.
I had this incredible urge to write her back. Instagram, to me, isn’t really conducive to these long conversations, but I couldn’t resist. So I said:
I’m so glad you shared this feedback with me. You really got me thinking, which I love. Here are some thoughts I have about that particular situation.
First, I took note of the fact that this wasn’t the parent’s agenda to invite the friends, but the daughter’s, and the daughter persisted in her request and decision: “This year, she expressed she’d like to invite two girls from her class. I said that sounded good, and we moved about our day. When it came time to fill out invitations, she mentioned the two girls from her class again. Again, I acknowledged and made sure to make them invitations. When I let her know that they RSVP’d yes over dinner tonight, she was excited.”
Then, as you noted, she changed her mind. But honestly, I never sensed dread at all, but anxiety, which is par for the course for a child anticipating their birthday party. To me, it sounded like she began focusing her nervousness on that one decision she had made, which is what children and all humans tend to do when we’re excited, anxious, whatever. We doubt ourselves, question everything, sometimes obsess on one specific thing. I do this. As this was something new for this child, inviting friends, it made a lot of sense to me that she might focus on questioning that aspect. I didn’t suggest that she would regret not inviting her friends, but that once she did and was happy about that at first and then later changed her mind, she might well regret disinviting them.
And that brings up the main point I want to make, and maybe where we are seeing this differently. Where would you draw a line? Where would the boundary be for you? If the friends were disinvited and then the girl regretted that and wanted to change her mind again, would you then re-invite them? What if she focused her anxiousness on a particular family member who was set to attend? Should they be disinvited? Or what if her nerves about the party made her want to call the whole thing off? Would that be a decision to leave up to her too? In other words, for me, this is an instance of a child needing help from an adult to navigate, i.e. set a boundary, around a decision that originally came completely from her.
I would trust that innocent voice that told her she’d enjoy sharing her birthday with her friends this year over the birthday nerves voice. I would not be concerned about disappointing her friends or upsetting them at all. My concern would be leaving a child high and dry when they have worked themselves up to a state that makes thoughtful decisions really, really hard. Children say a lot of things they don’t mean when they’re having strong feelings. My sense is that this child might be disappointed in herself at her birthday because she canceled the friends. And that’s where I would be protective and try to be the adult in the room. If she was coming from calm thoughtfulness when she said, I don’t think having my friends there is a good idea, that would be another story. But this is also about knowing our child, and I’m sure you know yours better than anyone.
Okay, so then this parent kindly replied back to me:
Thanks so much for taking the time to reply. This is also interesting to read and has made it much more clear in my mind the reasons you felt it’s so important for the boundary to be set. I loved what you said about hearing the child’s innocent voice over the birthday nerves voice, and that children say a lot of things they don’t mean when they’re having strong emotions. I’ve always realized this was the case when children were feeling angry or upset, but hadn’t considered that it would be the same when they were feeling anxious.
And then she added: P.S. Dreading was the wrong word for me to use.
So all of that exchange is on my Instagram page. And then, just in case, I decided to reach out again to ask that original parent of the soon-to-be four-year-old for an update on how the birthday went.
And the parent said:
Her party was great. She was thrilled to see her friends. She was actually disappointed one couldn’t make it due to the weather.
It’s also worth mentioning that following your simple advice, Welcome feelings, don’t accommodate them, has helped in so many other interactions with my now four-year-old. I didn’t realize that I was walking on eggshells a lot of the time, trying too hard to make her world positive and happy, which is both unrealistic and exhausting. I think within myself, I was afraid of conflict or calling her out, probably a reflection of having a mother that enjoyed conflict and calling me out. Whether we have a conflict or a meltdown or strong negative feelings, I repeat, Welcome, don’t accommodate, in my head. It’s become my mantra. In doing so, she has a clear leader, I have firm boundaries, and we both seem to communicate better. I feel a million times more confident. I think so many parents that follow respectful parenting have this blurry line of trying not to be a “mean, authoritative figure” that we lose sight that we are their biggest teachers. We need to allow all feelings to flow and take the opportunity to teach whenever we can.
Wow, I feel like the luckiest person in the world to be able to be in communication with these thoughtful, insightful, eloquent people. And for me, this all circles back to Adam’s note, What does love mean? What does love mean when I’m anxious, in nervous anticipation, questioning everything, indecisive? For most of us, being loving could mean getting drawn into our child’s feelings and stuck in that awful suffocating space of discomfort that can seem like it will never end. We’ll want to resolve this for them, right? We just want our kids to feel better. That’s being a caring parent.
And then maybe out of that passionate love for our child, we do the brave, really awkward thing of going back to those parents of those children and telling them that they shouldn’t come after all. But then later, maybe not until the actual party’s there or even afterwards, maybe our child expresses their regret that the friends weren’t there. And how hard is it for us not to want to snap back, Well, you were the one that told me you didn’t want them. How disappointing and discouraging that could be for us, right? And maybe even make us resent our kids a little? Understandable. It’s the same as if our angry tantruming child says, Go away! I don’t like you! I never want to see you again! Do we hold them to those kinds of decisions? Or maybe, I hate all of these toys! I don’t want them anymore. Do we give all those toys away? And then when our child asked for them again, Well, you said you didn’t want them. We gave them away. We can’t take everything children say in a state of emotion as fact. But instead, we can be the adults in the room that see beyond the moment to that bigger picture, understanding our child’s immaturity and what help and love really look like when they’re struggling.
And yes, this thing about walking on eggshells. I remember feeling this way, and so many parents mention this to me in consultations, in notes. Try turning this around and imagining how it feels to be a child when your parent, this tower of power in your life, this pillar of strength, is walking on eggshells around you. How can that make you feel safe and comfortable? Feels like there’s something to be afraid of, right? Because our parent is acting in that tentative way out of these beautiful intentions: We don’t want to be the mean guy. We don’t want to be the mean person. We want our child’s world to be happy and shiny and without all these explosions and discomforts that they might have. But that doesn’t help children to feel their own positive power. Instead, it feels like they’re very powerful in a kind of scary way. They’ve got their parent scared.
This is the looking beyond the surface that actually makes our experience as parents much richer and more interesting. But it’s challenging. That’s where the answers are, though. They’re not in words that we say or our child says, or in certain actions that we’re taking. It’s really this understanding and connecting from that place of intimacy, that knowing place, or at least that curious place that wants to know.
Again, I want to thank all these parents for sharing with me and engaging with me and giving me a chance to explain myself. I value all of your viewpoints so much. So please keep them coming. I wish I could offer a personal response to every single one. Unfortunately, that’s not possible.
But I do have something now that just feels good to finally get it out there in one whole package. And that’s my Master Course, where I teach respectful discipline, boundaries, helping children when they need our help. All the elements that we need to absorb this deeply for ourselves. And many of you have noted, we don’t have that many models out there around us of what it looks like to frame boundaries as love, as Adam does. So if you haven’t already, I hope that you’ll check out my No Bad Kids Master Course, because there’s a lot of modeling going on there, including many actual demonstrations. And this is all designed to give you self-confidence so you can stand tall and be proud of the way that you’re parenting. Be proud of the way that you’re engaging with your children and the relationships that you’re building with them. So anyway, if that interests you, it’s at nobadkidscourse.com. Or you can always go to my website, janetlansbury.com. Tons of free information there for you, tons. And you can also get information about the Master Course.
Thank you so much for listening to and supporting this podcast. We can do this.