Love that makes us crawl

April 8, 2010

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

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Lindsey April 8, 2010 at 9:02 am

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 April 8, 2010 at 1:20 pm

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.


Justine April 8, 2010 at 11:44 am

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.


privilegeofparenting April 8, 2010 at 1:32 pm

I know what you mean about words escaping the grasp of what I really wish to say… but I appreciate hearing that this post meant something to you.


BigLittleWolf April 8, 2010 at 2:04 pm

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.” :)


privilegeofparenting April 8, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Sometimes normal is still a handful, and sometimes more than a big bowlful… :)


Marcia April 8, 2010 at 10:53 pm

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!


privilegeofparenting April 8, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Thanks for the encouragement to those of us at the various stages of the parenting trail.


Beth K April 9, 2010 at 5:57 am

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 April 9, 2010 at 6:17 am

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


krk April 10, 2010 at 12:16 pm

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.


privilegeofparenting April 10, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Sending virtual attention… and the remembrance that those 8 year old also are so cute in those calm moments. And how fast they turn teen.


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