It's my bet that we all have the memory of one or more seemingly trivial events from our childhood that nonetheless had a deep and lasting impact on our emotional landscape. It strikes me as strange then, that it’s so easy to forget this in our communications with our own children.
I have a cousin who happened to be round at our house when we had a mouse trapped behind the cooker. I think we were about six at the time and happily playing outside when we heard the shrieking and came in to see what all the commotion was about. Both my parents were in the kitchen and squabbling about how best to coax out the timorous wee beastie.
My cousin said she thought she could get it by reaching under the cooker, and this she did, her long thin arm sliding easily into the rather insanitary gap. The rest of us stood guard with various receptacles to try and capture the mouse if it ran out.
“I’ve got it!” She cried, and went on to explain that she had the mouse’s tail trapped under her finger. However, she couldn’t manage to drag it out from under the cooker, so we were all unsure what to do next, deliberating until she let us know that the mouse had wriggled free. So we were back where we started.
My father then took over, and I’m unsure what happened next. But what I do remember is my cousin asserting, “I did have it though, I really did”, and my father totally dismissing her claim, “No you didn’t, you couldn’t have.” *
This left my cousin distraught, and as we went back out to resume our play, it was clearly of utmost importance to her that I believed her story, and I did.
She went on to have four children, and I never once heard her dismiss or disregard anything they told her - if it was clearly fabrication she would listen attentively before she picked holes in their story.
She still remembers The Mouse Event and can clearly recount how wounded she felt, with that intense feeling of injustice that children harbour, and how it coloured her attitude towards my father. Not only that, but to this day she recognises in herself an enhanced sensitivity when someone refuses to believe a truth she is telling them.
We may not mean to wound a child, and often the words that do damage don’t even register with us, they’re just throw away comments. But we fail to hold in mind exactly how important we are to our little ones, how much they look to us for validation. So if you, as we all will at some time, make a careless remark and see that little face fall, take the time to reassure them, to really listen to what they have to say, to be that pillar of security that they need you to be.
I’m talking teens here too, a broken heart at 14 or 15 really does feel like the end of the world, and it doesn’t help to dismiss it as a fleeting sting that will soon be forgotten, no matter how true you know that to be.
It seems counter-intuitive, but the more seriously you take your children at the time, the more likely any event is to slip unnoticed into the forgotten past, rather than to take up residence as an always remembered grudge.
*We did eventually manage to extract the mouse, a lovely little harvest variety, despite the urban environment, who lived in a shoebox until we had the opportunity to take him to the countryside and free him.