Love that makes us crawl

A reader inquires, “When is enough ever enough?  My eight-year-old is driving me nuts with this stuff!  No matter how great the holiday/vacation/ meal/present (fill in the blank) there is ALWAYS something lacking in his eyes.  It was either not what he expected, not what he really wanted, or isn’t as much as someone else’s.

I’m just at a complete loss on how to help him feel satisfied with what he currently has rather than what might have been.  I know I’m not alone on this, and maybe this is normal developmental stuff for 8-year-old boys growing up in Hollywood, surrounded by images of gluttony and excess.  But I still struggle with how to help him enjoy the moment and appreciate what is right in front of him.

We read Thich Nhat Hanh (Pebble in Your Pocket) and other lovely books on this similar topic (Three Questions, Zen Shorts), and I’m hopeful these are getting in to the place in his heart where this hole is, but I’m lost for what to do real-time.  We do lots of talking about what is going on at the moment (and follow-up later), but it always leads back to he simply *wants*.  He wants more of everything.  Help!”


I think that many a reader can relate to this at some level, although Hollywood, New York, etc. may further exacerbate the dynamic.

Firstly, I would encourage you to think about your kid as a bowl-in-progress; he is still developmentally a colander, and so it is natural for things to run right through and leave him feeling like, “what have you done for me lately?” even though you’ve just given him all the world you could muster.

This is exhausting for parents, and only further inflamed by our attempts to be super-parents, both fun, but also spiritual, grounded and socially conscious.  I’m also guessing that this kid is generally a pleasure, polite and exhibiting gratitude… to everyone except his parents.  First off, stop trying to fill the colander; second, don’t blame yourself or the colander.

Given that kids seem to drag us mentally through our own childhoods, I would encourage us to think where we were at eight years old (or the current age of our kids)?  Were our parents splitting up?  Did we have to move to a new school and make friends all over again?  If for some reason our lives felt like they crumbled a bit at that age, we might be unconsciously re-experiencing our old wounds (and trying to ward them off by making life for our kid everything our life back then was not).

After the scars left by our parents, I would look to romantic relationships.  Is the theme of “love that makes us crawl” at play?  Or has it been played out in the past (perhaps with the mother or father of this very child)?  “Love that makes us crawl,” is the sort of futile dependency where we endure all manner of disappointment, betrayal and hurt, but just keep trying to be more to that other person.  In such cases it is not uncommon to find a historical pattern of a parent who left, or who was checked-out due to alcoholism as the role model we currently try to surmount.  Thus a parent who was psychologically a colander to ourselves leaves us as kids feeling like we are never enough (which our own kids’ voracious needs seem to validate as marks of our own inadequacy).

This love that makes us crawl is all too easy to transfer onto our children, and this then puts us at risk of becoming co-dependent on their happiness.  Kids need strong parents who can tolerate being hated; if we can’t stand being the “bad guy,” we not only have trouble setting limits (which helps kids feel calm, like we’re a wall to shore up against and become more solid) but we tend to try desperately to make our kids happy.  But this tends to backfire, and we end up feeling like dancing bears or pathetic clowns.

It is better to strive to accurately understand, and compassionately reflect, what our kids are feeling (than to always “make” them feel better).  “I’m sorry you feel frustrated about not having a private jet.”  “It must be hard seeing your friend get a full spa treatment when you only live in a first rate boutique hotel.”

This “mirroring,” helps them become bowls, able to hold frustration and even emptiness and still be solid.  This is the essence of Thich Nhat Hanh’s encouragement to see to the soul of the other, beyond judgment and even beyond giving and pleasing at the material levels.  But we must live this a long time, like dropping a pebble into a very deep well, before we hear it make its splash… before our children come to be solid (think twenty-seven, not nine or ten, this way you settle in for the long-haul, as adolescence is fraught with mouthy discontent).

Besides mirroring, our kids grow solid by learning to hold the opposites.  Zen is taught by paradox, but kids can’t interest themselves in the sound of one hand clapping as they have one hand outstretched for more stuff.  Our task as parents is to make use of the opportunity afforded (demanded) by parenting to learn to hold the opposites (e.g. we love parenting, it depletes us; we are patient, we are not patient; life is beautiful, life sucks and hurts; there’s nothing but the present moment; our taxes our due next week).  When we become solid, our kids slosh around in the bowls of us until they become solid too.

Beyond any sort of advice, my hope is that this blog might serve as a vessel where we can place our frustrations and have them held (not by me personally, but by this space and the combined psyches of many parents who put their energy in, even if they do not comment or speak up).  If that in any way supports and empowers anyone to hang in, stay kind but firm, deepen understanding and feel less alone in the productive suffering that is both parenting and individuation, then my intention to help by facilitating a compassionate banding together in the service of our collective children becomes manifest.

Namaste, Bruce

p.s. For those who haven’t had enough of this discussion about how much is enough, consider subscribing to my non-existent absurdist magazine…Enough


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14 Responses to “Love that makes us crawl”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    I love the bowl and colander metaphors. Love. I only fear I am not strong enough for my children, but coming here helps me see what I need to do to keep growing. Thank you.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      None of us are, all alone, strong enough to hold it ALL… but together we grow just bowl-like enough (following Wininicott, we become the “good enough” mother, or father) to contain, to love and to find ourselves both within but also in our groupness.

  2. Justine Says:

    Bruce – I’m afraid if I attached a sentiment or adjective to describe this post, it would cheapen the effect it had on me.

    I will keep coming back to this, every day if I have to.

    Thank you.

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Helpful, as always. Particularly, for me, asking ourselves where we were at that age. And if possible, re-entering that older, “younger” head and reliving a bit of the emotional landscape.

    Suddenly, nothing seems so personal. Or hurtful. Just “normal.” 🙂

  4. Marcia Says:

    Oh how this touches a chord in me!! My kids are now 19 and 23, so I have had many years of “practicing” being patient with the process of not fulfilling their every whim. One of the things I got in touch with was how hard it is for me, as a parent, to NOT gratify the needs of my child. How much easier it would be if they just didn’t ask!!! But of course, they DO want, and they ask for what they want. Over time, I found it easier to empathize with their frustration about their unmet needs and I would get less angry at them for wanting what I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) give them.

    Thanks, as always, Bruce, for your thoughtful guidance!

  5. Beth K Says:

    Thanks, Bruce.
    Thank you for this post. I needed to hear this message again to help me to recognize and check my need to please my children (and other people).
    Your point about the strong need to please being related to childhood feelings of inadequacy while being parented by a “colander” is important. I think you’ve said this before, but sometimes repetition is needed in order for some of us to hear the message.
    The work continues.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I have learned as a psychologist that the right interpretation or explanation, in and of itself, does much less than the right words in the context of a trusting and healing relationship.

      Kind of like “be here now” is always a good idea, but often hard to live… and “I love you” is potentially an attitude toward the world and not an item on a to-do list.

      Thanks for voicing this sentiment, as I know that while my own lessons and the yoga of my own parenting distill down to a few core ideas, the challenge is to consistently live them.

      The work continues for me as well. Breathing in love, breathing out fear and desire. Again.

      Namaste, Bruce

  6. krk Says:

    As often happens, this blog is meaningful to me right now. Spending Spring
    break with an eight year old, and her wants, seem overwhelming at times.
    Thank you for the useful and gentle reminders of what really needs fulfilling.

  7. mamaC Says:

    Hello, I’ve been reading your blog a bit here and there since yesterday (I don’t get much computer time) and decided to comment here in spite of this being an older post. This issue (your reader’s inquiry) is a challenging one; I remember becoming distressed over what I noted as my young daughter’s increasing materialism, looking at mail order catalogs (that I too had spent a fair bit of time scanning and ordering….high quality natural & handmade toys, etc. But I wanted her to be content with what she had, etc.) I also (eventually) noted how I was deeply unaccepting of her, or at least of parts of her, throughout this struggle, and that it had become a power struggle and one of attention (with my attention going to what I didn’t want) through my control-oriented attempts to correct the problem by censoring what she saw, get the catalogs into the recycling bin. I would get authoritarian about not allowing access when I’d “slip up” and she would find a catalog I particularly didn’t want her to see (later I realized my reactivity always was worse when I had “meant” to take care of that but hadn’t gotten to it yet, or when I HAD slipped it away but she happened upon the recycling stash, or I thought it was stashed somewhere “out of the way” but her short height allowed her to hone in on it, etc. And I felt the harshness toward my own failing but it manifested as irritation at her, and of course she reacted to that because no matter what my disapproval implied about her, she wasn’t doing anything wrong!)

    Anyway, the power struggles and my inability to accept her (as long as this “materialism” was a problem) really made the whole thing distressing and unpleasant. (Even though, overall, it was fairly peripheral and she was mostly a self-directed, busy little kid making a lot out of “nothing” when it came to having fun and creating.) But since this is all about values, and our deepest hopes for our kids, and our fears, it can take on an urgency and a life of its own (in terms of control, etc.)

    As for “what to do real-time” in this kind of struggle with a child, I think minimizing the struggle (my resistance to her) has been key. If this reader’s struggle is/was at all similar to mine, a lot of the meat of it seems to be wishing she/he is something different, or thinking “this isn’t him,” or feeling anxiety about What This Means, to the point that “this” is unacceptable and we are resisting it out of anxiety and on principle and based on what we really want for the kid. (The urgency of values takes over.)

    Related to the idea of “holding the opposites” that you explore in this blog entry is the idea of “Who IS he other than who he is right now?!” Sort of relaxing into that realization. It doesn’t have to mean that this (right now) is the sum total of who our kids are, but it can mean that “fixated” and “insatiable” and “consuming” and “materialistic” (etc.–I realize that’s judgmental language; I’m sure there are less evaluative ways of observing and describing this stuff!) can be true of them without being Defining. In my experience, when I allow, when I give space and freedom and acceptance (of what IS, afterall, whether or not I accept it!), then there is opportunity and space for change.

    My reminders of how “we may not be able” to get the things that she wants, etc., are generally unnecessary. And she experiences my damping-down and generally unhappy teeth-gritting over all of her “look at this” or “Isn’t this cool?” or “I made this list of each thing I want” comments as resistance of her, which reinforces the whole thing.

    So, useful to me has been the concept of empathy as really seeing how someone’s thoughts and feelings MAKE SENSE FROM THEIR POINT OF VIEW. If I can observe for myself that I am stressed or unhappy or displeased, and notice all of that non-judgmentally rather than acting on it in a particular way, I am more able to look at her and see how what she likes or wants or thinks is pretty (even if I view it as cheap or low-quality or vapid) makes sense from her point of view, IT IS ENOUGH.

    It really IS enough. I learned that resisting her on principle (being honest about my opinions and evaluations of the stuff) and trying to convey what I thought was problematic about the particular toys, just left her asserting her opinions that much more urgently and stubbornly. Letting her HAVE her opinions seemed to offer so much.

    And the times when she is not satisfied just sharing her wishes and opinions, and instead wants to lobby hard for something I’m not going to provide or allow, then it’s the same thing again: presence for myself (if I am dreading going through her upset, or annoyed at the prospect of her having strong feelings, then I need to be together with that and not stuffing it), and empathy and validation for her. Because again, it makes sense that she feels the way she does. I know that I can handle the feelings she has in response to my limit. That acceptance of the reaction is the same thing I offer when I stop resisting her opinions and interests….I accept her feelings, and hang in while she has them. It’s usually if I’m feeling distress that HER upset seems intolerable and like I have to DO something, or that I OUGHT to do something, or that SHE’S wrong (and I’m irritated) if it doesn’t get resolved quickly.

    Anyway, that has been the way it has looked for me. Radical acceptance (but it always is most sincere and connection-promoting if the radical acceptance extends first to me, though it took awhile for me to figure that out. And until I did, I often was “accepting” on principle because I believed unconditional love was important, but because I wasn’t accepting my unacceptance, and instead was denying it because I “had” to accept her unconditionally, it basically translated into permissiveness that I resented. I didn’t want to be coercive with her, but I ended up being coercive with myself. Getting really present with what is going on in me was what helped to correct that, by extending the “radical acceptance” to myself, whatever is going on or coming up.) I find I don’t even have to know the “Whys” (it is because of X Y or Z specific childhood issues from particular ages, etc.) if I have the self-connection to know what is real for me, just that I have the urge to overpower, to “win,” to negate, to shut her down, whatever difficult thing that I’d wish not to be wanting or feeling. Being very present with that is what sort of puts a cap on it or neutralizes it and lets me see my child for who she is, and see how she makes sense and is acceptable if I consider her point of view. And I find that she also accepts reality, and is really connected to it, and only needs to be connected to me and allowed to have her feelings (without my irritation at them, feeling put out, feeling like they indicate something wrong or not ideal. They just are, and then they pass.)
    Sorry for the extreme wordiness….

    Anyway, thanks for your post!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Amy, There’s much to be said for radical acceptance—and the brilliance of pain as a teacher. So, here’s to compassion and empathy in the direction of radical acceptance for ourselves, each other and all our collective children.

      Thank you for sharing your words, feelings and insights here. Namaste

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