Taken from “Friedman’s Fables:”
“…One day, as she was walking home, Little John’s wife chanced upon a mother cat giving suck to her newborn kittens. As they scrambled over one another in their thirst, the mother carefully guided each one to its turn, stretching out a firm but gentle paw as she lay contentedly on her side. Then Little John’s wife noticed that one of the kittens had been born lame; its leg had not been fully formed, and it had more difficulty maneuvering than the others. Strangely, it was also the most aggressive. While the other kittens, when satisfied, went off to sleep, this one kept coming back to wiggle its way in front. Each time, however, the mother cat pushed it away, at first gently, and then with successively harder whacks…”
A Nervous Condition by Edwin Friedman
Is it a cruel mother cat or is there something here we might learn? Would her lame kitten be better served by sensitivity or care or was the kitten being served well by the discipline her mother instinctively delivered? When it comes to raising our children when is it about discipline and when is it about sensitivity?
What do we do when one or more of our children seems to have been born “lame” in some way, when they seem to be struggling more than the other(s)? Has your child been diagnosed with ADD or with some behavioral or emotional problem? Does your child seem to struggle with anxiety? If you’re like me, when you see your child having a problem, you worry…and worry…and THEN you get busy. Busy learning about what to do for the lame little beast. What do I feed him? Do we vaccinate? How do I discipline her properly? What is too much discipline? What is too little? How do I make sure she is growing up in a calm environment so as not to disturb her more delicate state? And when we do the best we can and they respond with increasing cantankerousness, ill-humor, and dyspepsia, those of us on the more neurotic side of the scale…just sayin’… ask the fatal and seemingly unavoidable question: WHAT-DID-I-DO-WRONG?!
We can rack our brains for years wondering what we did wrong and what we could do better, and when this automatic emotional process goes on long enough, and things get worse, we reason that we have done everything possible for the ungrateful little beasts-who-are-now-bigger-beasts, so it must be THEM!
But it’s a fallacy to think in such black and white terms when it comes to such complex issues and challenges as raising a child. It’s either them or me…it’s either the husband or the wife…it was either too much discipline or too little sensitivity. These black and white terms block us from thinking about things more objectively, from being able reflect upon the part we play, the part our ancestors play, the part our culture and physical environment play, and the part our children play—without the blame.
But what the heck does that mean…the part we play? The part we play in what?!
Dr. Murray Bowen, father of family therapy, identified and described 4 patterns of interaction that all families find themselves living out in one relationship or another. Knowing what these patterns are helps us identify not only which pattern(s) we may be enacting but also the part we play in keeping them going. Dr. Bowen’s idea was that emotional problems in families are merely the symptoms or direct results of these interactional patterns. Change your part and you change the pattern. If you want to read about them, I’ll copy a link later in this post.
The steps to change in any family relationship are simple enough but certainly not easy.
Step 1 is Education. What are the interactional patterns we get into when anxiety is high in any relationship? You can read about the 4 typical patterns here.
Step 2 is to Observe. Which of the 4 pattern(s) do you fall into with your lame little beasts? What part do you play in keeping it going? What part does your spouse play? Your children? The environment?
Step 3 is to Change YOUR part and to resist trying to change or “help” your child (or your spouse…or your mother-in-law) with HIS or HER part. Learning to tell the difference between what is yours and what belongs to someone else is key. If you find yourself having difficulty, find a family therapist. A neutral 3rd party can make all the difference.
Steps 2 and 3 in particular are more effective when you can approach things with an attitude of curiosity and an unwavering willingness to experiment and to learn from what you experience. Without thoughtful reflection, we are at the mercy of our automatic fears and worries, and so are our children.
The cool thing about Mama Cat wasn’t that she swatted her kitten. I’m not advocating going back to the good ol’ days of spanking children into submission. The cool thing about Mama Cat was that she wasn’t worried or angry. She was clear. Our children have real problems, ill-formed legs and all, but when we forget that our own anxiety and anger is more important to deal with than anything else, it is we the parents who grow lame.