“Where’s your happy heart?”
It’s a question we’ve asked our daughter since she was a toddler, a gentle reminder to consider her words and actions when she’s behaving inappropriately or moving towards disobedience. On a good day, she smiles, points to her chest and replies, “Here’s my happy heart!” On a bad day, that readjustment is a longer, more torturous process, especially in the midst of the threenager stage that has been testing every last reserve of my goodwill and patience.
During a recent week of solo parenting while my husband was on a business trip, I came to a breaking point. My youngest is an mischievous one-year-old boy whose daily goal seems to be figuring out inventive ways of putting his life in danger or creating disasters that rival a hurricane (as I write this, he’s upended a salt shaker all over the dining room floor), and I was OVER IT with the emotional and defiant threenager. I had no desire to once again go head-to-head with someone schooled in the art of psychological warfare, princess dress and sparkly shoes notwithstanding. I was the mom that most of us don’t want to be— yelling, short-tempered, and less than kind. As I considered selling my offspring on eBay, a little voice interrupted my anger-laced pity party and asked, “Where’s your happy heart, Mama?”
I’m here to tell you that having your daughter turn your own go-to teaching moment on you is more than a little humbling. But she was right.
My heart wasn’t happy and we both knew it.
In the midst of our conflict, I was so focused on trying to correct her behavior, I was failing to model the attitudes and behaviors that I am constantly after her to display. And she was picking up on my anger and frustration.
Not only was I part of the problem, I had failed to own up to it. I’ve been blessed with the charge of ensuring that two little people become kind and decent big people, and that includes nurturing their hearts, minds, and souls as well as their bodies and behaviors. I’m responsible for laying the groundwork, teaching them how to act and love others. And like it or not, children are sponges and they tend to learn by example. I wasn’t leading by example that week, and the effects were painfully obvious.
My natural inclination is to beat myself up when I make mistakes, but that is neither helpful nor productive, especially as a mom. My husband often likes to tell me “do better next time.” In an effort to do better next time, to hold the mirror of scrutiny up to my heart, I’ve been asking myself these questions:
1. What am I focusing on?
When I choose to only see the negative in my life, negative emotions and attitudes follow. I can focus on the misbehavior, the dirty floors, and a growing to-do list, but if I’m doing that, I’m missing out on the good things in my life, the things that bring me joy and fill my heart with gratitude. When I choose to focus on the positive, the incredible richness of my life and family, a happy heart naturally follows.
2. What am I feeling right now?
Angry? Stressed? Tired? Hangry? And if I am feeling any of those, how are they seeping into my words and actions? If I’m stressed and snappish, my children are going to feel the effects of that stress. If I haven’t had a moment to eat lunch, low blood sugar and a foggy head is going to make dealing with a sibling fight a lot more difficult. And while not all emotions have a quick fix, recognition is half the battle, and then I can take steps to amend and adjust before I turn into the Hulk after the eleventy bazillionth request for a snack.
3. What are my children feeling?
It’s far too easy for me to dismiss their emotions and hardships because they seem so insignificant by comparison. But their little hearts are tender and their struggles and frustrations are just as valid as my own; I need to treat them with compassion and love, especially if I’m responsible for the hurt feelings and frustration. Those interactions can be used as opportunities to teach them about empathy, healthy ways of dealing with emotions, how to apologize and ask for forgiveness.
So on the hard days, the looooong days when my attitude isn’t the best and I’m having a hard time speaking gentle words and smiling instead of feeling sorry for myself and gritting my teeth in annoyance, I’m learning to stop, take a breath, and do a quick heart check.
And if all else fails, there’s always eBay.