you act just like your mom

“You act just like your mom!”

This one-liner has featured in many a household. Sadly, as an accusation. I am yet to hear a husband use it to compliment his wife. On that note: how do you feel about your parents? Pay attention, though – the question is not: “What do you think about your parents”, but which emotions do you feel when you think about them?

Does your stomach pull in a knot from anxiety, or is there a lump in your throat from nostalgia? Do you clench your teeth in anger, or sigh and roll your eyes in resignation?

Our bodies tell us a lot about what really happens in our hearts… if we know how to pay attention to them. No matter how you feel about your parents, though, the chances are that – in more ways than you want – you act just like them. The good, the bad and the ugly. And, most probably, your kids may feel similar about you, as you do about your parents. Even couples who aim to practice exactly the opposite parenting style as their own household, often repeat the mistakes their parents made. Why is this?

Missing the Mark

Go ahead and burn almost every parenting book on your shelf. Today. Most of the advice and self-help guides out there, focus on mechanisms and consequences. Very few dive into the heart and soul of how we love and hate each other. Books like don’t really sell – it’s too confronting. With all the advice flying around, we still find some families ripping each other’s eyes out, while others drown in affection.

Ironically, the model-homes, where the dad has a doctor’s degree, top-performing children and a perfect housewife, often end up on the front page: adultery, a sudden divorce and/or an anorexic teenager who cuts herself. What have they missed?

The Heart of the Matter

Our feelings are powerful. Your passion to help the poor can move you to sell your possessions and live in the slums of India; my rage at the traffic can burn me to the point where my fist is senselessly beating the blood from the face of the driver in the car ahead of me.

It can be a liberating, or frightening place.

And, it is in this area of passion and pride, agony and ecstasy, that our relationships blossom or boom. It’s a volatile space. Those of us who can regulate it, have a chance of survival. However, even better: those of us who can harness it, flourish, and can potentially move mountains. So, how does it work?

Where it All Begins

When you went to school, you learnt to read and write. But, how did you learn to speak? You simply mimicked your parents. More specifically, though, how did you navigate the complex rules of grammar and tenses before you knew them? You may not have been perfect at it, but you didn’t just repeat ‘cat’, ‘hat’ and ‘pat’ after your mom: you actually, subconsciously ‘picked up’ most of the rules of grammar before you even knew they existed. You followed them by intuition, and later, someone pointed out and refined those rules you’ve already been following all your life.

This is how our brains work: We absorb the world through our senses, actions and relationships. We often know things, before we understand them:

We could hear the nervous tone in mom’s voice, and see dad’s eyebrow raising when the nanny arrived. This was before we learnt the rules of relationships – the ‘is’, ‘are’ and ‘am’. This was before we were taught how to spell ‘intercourse’. We only noticed the glow on mommy’s face the next morning. 6 months later, we smelt a new scent through her pores, as our little brother surfed the waves of hormones inside her womb.

Parents don’t teach their children about life with discipline, nutrition and education. The children – like sponges –  absorb their parents through their eyes, ears, noses and skin.

They are the people we are most likely to become:
In how they hug and hold, or fold their arms.
In how they quietly fume, or slam the doors.

They simply show us who we will become. Therefore:

Starting With the Heart

A parent who can harness their own emotional vulnerabilities; even better – two parents, who can love and engage each other’s roller coasters of feelings, have much better odds at raising kids who are emotionally healthy.

The kind of discipline, and type of education comes secondary. The parent’s attitude, heart, emotions and internal sense of self comes first.

Why and how we feel and are, make much more weighty and lasting impressions on our children – and our lives –  than what we do, and how we do it.

The first step to managing these difficult emotions, is by simply getting comfortable with the discomfort. We refer to this as emotional resilience, and the good news is that it can be practiced. How resilient are you?

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