It is Monday morning, and my daughter drags into the kitchen. She sits on a bar stool, slumps her shoulders, and casts her eyes down at the bowl of Cheerios I slide in front of her.
She moans and groans and tells me how tired she is. Part of me is irritated. I need her to step it up because I have four kids to get to school in thirty minutes. I don’t have time for this.
But then I remember – I get tired, too. And like me, this child really needs her sleep. So instead of rushing her, I take a minute to let her wake up.
“I get it,” I tell her, remembering the many times I’ve struggled to get out of bed. “Mornings can be hard for me, too.”
It is Wednesday afternoon, and I can tell by the look on my daughter’s face as she walks toward my car that she’s upset. As she buckles her seatbelt, she blurts out what’s troubling her.
Once again she didn’t place in the school art contest. Once again her friend won first place.
With a bitter tinge in her voice, she complains that it’s not fair. Part of me wants to correct my child. I want to tell her to be happy for her friend.
But then I remember – I get jealous, too. And being jealous of a friend is the hardest kind to overcome.
“I get it,” I tell her, remembering the times I’ve felt overshadowed. “You worked hard on that piece, and I know you wanted to place. I get jealous of my friends sometimes, too.”
It is Sunday, and on the way to church I argue with my daughter because she didn’t brush her teeth like I asked. We’ve had this argument so often I feel compelled to describe how her mouth will look when her teeth begin to rot.
During the church service I think about our argument, and I feel bad about being so harsh. I wish I’d controlled my tongue. I lean over to my daughter and whisper an apology.
She shakes her head and pushes me away. She’s mad and not ready to forgive me. Part of me is hurt. I want closure to ease my guilt.
But then I remember – I need time when I’m mad, too. Forgiveness isn’t always instantaneous.
“Okay,” I say, kissing her head and giving her space. “I get it.” I ask God to forgive me and to work in her heart so that arguments like this don’t build walls between us.
The mistakes I make as a parent are relatively common. When it comes to our children’s moods, we often expect them to have mastery over their emotions. We expect them to get over their most unpleasant feelings, soldier on, and not need time to process them.
But our kids are human, and like all humans, they have messy emotions that need to be acknowledged and worked through. They have good days and bad days, highs and lows, shining moments and moments where we wonder what on earth has come over them.
I am learning, as my kids get older, the importance of being empathetic. Taking even a minute to listen and understand how they feel can make a big difference in whether they open up and talk through their feelings or keep them bottled up.
My tendency is to react too soon. I throw out quick solutions or express my thoughts on how my children should feel without taking into account how they do feel. And of all the tools I’m using to help break this habit, the most effective one is compassion.
Because sometimes what my kids need most is permission to feel what they feel with complete honesty. They want a sounding board, not a problem solver. They find it comforting when I nod and say, “Yep, I’ve been there. That happens to me all the time.”
Everyone knows the cornerstone phrase of parenting: I love you. But if you ask me, there are three other words that belong in our vocabulary, too, words that build bridges between hearts and strengthen the parent-child relationship.
I get it.
I get it you don’t feel like going to school.
I get it you’re jealous of your friend.
I get it you need time to cool off before we talk again.
Saying, “I get it,” isn’t a green light for our kids to act on unpleasant emotions or dwell on them. It doesn’t lower our standards or compromise the expectations we have of them. More than anything, it connects us with our children and reassures them they aren’t alone. It reminds us that they are human, and sometimes it helps to cut them a little slack in honor of that fact.
A little empathy can go a long way in growing a relationship. So can the right words. One goal I have in parenting is to have less of a lecturing mouth, and more of a listening ear. Because the conversations that result when my kids express their real emotions reveal priceless insights into their minds. They teach me about my kids and teach my kids to feel comfortable in expressing their inner reality.
I want my kids to know that if I get it, others may get it, too. Whatever messy emotion they’re wrestling with, there is someone who wrestles with the same thing and is brave enough to admit it. Knowing this makes the world a more approachable and comfortable place. It gives kids the courage to be real, and the power to build relationships based on truth, empathy, and perfectly normal human emotions.
This article originally appeared at KariKampakis.com.