"Is there anything mama is doing right now that hurts you?"
I'm not sure where I even got the idea, but I am certain that it has forever strengthened my relationship with them and others. It actually goes against anything I experienced as a child with the adults in my life and produces results that are both challenging and life changing.
It's become a key to the hearts of my kids-particularly to the areas that I have hurt, but still have time to make changes that will heal, nurture, protect.
It has taught me to accept criticism for the areas of my life that could improve. "Lilah, is there anything that mama is doing right now that hurts you?" Lilah, "You sometimes hurt my feelings when you are on the computer and do not answer my questions." Ouch. It's true. By listening to her feelings I'm able to dig deep into my own feelings about things that I already know are a problem, but haven't had the motivation to change. We're also able to work on positive solutions such as, "Mama has to get work done and my work is often on the computer. What if you play with Adaline while I finish up here and then you and I can spend some quality time together later?"
My own selfishness has risen up time and time again. For example, my kids love to make me things. For years I wasn't very welcoming of the large volume of arts, crafts, and treasures that they would provide for me. One time when I was asking Elizabeth the question she answered, "I worked really hard on making you a flower corsage and I had hoped you would wear it." Ugh. She was right and I knew it. How hard would it be for me to simply accept her gift and see the sacrifice of time and loads of love that she put into it. Why couldn't I love that gift just like I love her-because through her creation it is her.
It's helped me grow as a mother at the same pace that my children of different ages are growing. For example, "Carter (age 4) is there anything mama is doing right now that hurts you?" Carter, "You tell me that you will hold me during nap time, but most of the times you don't." Years later the same question gets a very different answer from Carter (age 11). "I don't always want you to touch or hug me in public. I'd like us to set aside a special time each night where you hug or hold me, but only when I feel like it." Asking the question helps me to know how my growing children have very different needs than the little ones.
In fact, my littlest little always answers the question with, "Mama-I love you. You are perfect". One day though. One day she'll start to answer that questions with real hurts and I want to be prepared for that.
It offers me the opportunity to explain my decisions and behavior rather than leaving them feeling alone or neglected. For example, during busy seasons of life when I am just not as tentative and available I've learned to use this as a tool to open up communication so that they understand what I can change and what I cannot. I have deep seeded memories of feeling alone as a child-when the reality is that the adults in my life were most likely just busy with something that was very important. Had I known the truth I would have been able to form a much better self image and healthier internal messages. I may have even been able to be involved in a positive solution.
Asking my children to verbally express how they are seeing, feeling, and experiencing the world helps me get to know them better and most importantly teaches them to express their feelings while listening to others. Because of this habit I believe my kids are much more open to me when I suggest habits or behaviors that they could improve. It's not magic, but the question has been something that I cling to in order to love my family better.
Practically speaking-I don't think too much about when and where I'll ask the question. I just wait until the time is right-when I sense that there is this pushing or pulling happening between me and them. I don't act too serious or "mom" like. That said, my best advice is to always, always have your heart ready for the answer. It's hard to hear that you might have done something to hurt someone else (especially your children), but living life and never having the opportunity to change it or do something about it would be unbearable. It's not about being the perfect mom-it's about being open to my imperfections and being willing to change the ones that hurt the most.