Nod, be Present & Listen

When my sons were taking piano lessons, I decided to steal the motivational technique of my first teacher, Mrs. Childs, and reward them with a candy bar whenever they memorized a piece. For me, chocolate has always been wildly motivating; perhaps this is why, according to my mother, no one ever had to nag me to practice.

At the time of this story, my sons were seven and ten, my father had just died, and my mother was dying. I felt that I was failing her–and everyone else in my life–in a multitude of ways on a daily, even hourly, basis, and was so desperate for solace that I decided to make one last attempt at psychotherapy. In the Midwest, where I was raised, the accepted credo is “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Hardly an attitude that fosters the kind of work that needs to occur in a therapist’s office.

This therapist, however, was different. Her technique was unusual. She’d get me talking–they all do that–but when I let my guard down and became loose-lipped enough to let slip with something honest, something vaguely not-nice, i.e. “I’m mad at her,” the therapist had me repeat more potent versions of that statement (“I’m angry at my mother for getting cancer,” or “I’m so mad at you, Mom, for dying!” etc.) over and over again, while at the same time making little tapping motions on the backs of my hands, the top of my head, the center of my chest. I’d cry. I’d feel crummy for awhile. But through the course of the session, eventually I’d move through and beyond that not-nice feeling to a place of calm, a place where—for some reason—I could at least function. It helped.

One afternoon, when my eldest son Noah failed to demonstrate that he’d memorized “Bill Grogan’s Goat,” he was told that chocolate would not be forthcoming – not today anyway, but surely tomorrow, because he almost had it, just a couple of notes, a little bit more practice, he was so close!

He burst into tears.

“What?” I cried. My son’s response was so sudden, so out of proportion that I wondered if he’d physically hurt himself. “What’s wrong, honey?”

“It’s not fair!” he wailed, shrugging off my attempts to hug him. “It’s not fair…”

Exacerbating Noah’s misery was the fact that his brother Sam had already finished his practice session and–having successfully memorized “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”–was sitting a few feet away on the sofa, blithely consuming his Almond Joy. I wish I could say that I had the good sense to ask him to remove himself to the kitchen. Maybe I did. I don’t remember.

After telling Noah how sorry I was that he felt sad, I went on to explain that it actually was fair, reminding him this was our policy when it came to practicing. What really wouldn’t be fair would be if I gave him a candy bar when he hadn’t memorized his piece.

This did not comfort him.

“But it’s not fair!” he repeated. “Sam’s songs are easier than mine!”

“That’s true, but when Sam is ten like you, he’ll have harder songs, and then—”

“It’s not fair!” Noah proclaimed again, head shaking, tears falling. “It’s not fair, it’s not FAIR!”

Okay, I thought. Not working.

Remembering another therapist from years ago, the one who encouraged me to think of intensely negative feelings as temporary, like billowy clouds in a variable sky, I said, “Okay then, let’s pretend that this big feeling of Unfair is a huge puffy cloud, and we’re going to blow it away.” Noah paused and frowned, still sniffling, but seemed game. “Are you ready? Are you ready to take a big breath with me and blow that huge Unfair Cloud away?”

He quieted long enough for us to inhale and exhale, our conjoined breaths creating an impressive gale force wind which sent several dust bunnies careening across the living room floor.

There was a pause, and then a resumption of inconsolable sobs.

That was when I remembered that the emotions-as-clouds metaphor hadn’t worked any better for me than it did for my son.

“It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s JUST NOT FAIR!”

I continue to be amazed by what a dullard I can be when it comes to my own children, how my response as a parent can sometimes lead me to relate to my sons in a completely unhelpful—and uncharacteristic—manner. Would I treat one of my friends like this? Would I try to talk her out of her feelings? Of course not. I’d commiserate. I’d buy her a glass of wine. I’d sit and listen. I’d let her moan to her heart’s content.

It’s not fair.

Finally I remembered the technique my therapist had been using with me: encouraging me to repeat the unvarnished, unattractive, unreasonable truth.

So I started to say, “You’re right, honey, it’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”

Noah joined in. We sang the It’s Not Fair lament for a few minutes and then, eventually, the sky cleared, the clouds passed, the tears ceased. Sam finished his Almond Joy without further notice. Noah got past his grief and went on to memorize (and earn a Three Musketeers) another day.

Now, when my kids let forth with an uncensored expression of unreasonable emotional truth—“I had a scary, bad thought” or “This homework is so pointless” or “I’m never going to get this!” etc.—I try not to talk it away with reason, or blow it away with a gale force exhalation. I try to remember to simply nod my head, be present, and listen. So much of childhood is baffling. So much of what our children experience emotionally is not nice.

We’ve abandoned the candy bar reward, by the way, as well as piano lessons. Noah, now thirteen, plays the trumpet, Sam plays trombone, and I do what most parents do when it comes to motivating their kids to practice: I nag.

I wish I didn’t have to. My mom never had to nag me to practice.

It is so unfair.

[This article first appeared on the Letters to a Parent website, April 13, 2008. Please visit for readers’ comments and more articles on parenting.]