Much of my learning has come the hard way–making the mistake and then coming to understand it. For instance, I learned about “mystification” and how bad it was for a child the week after I used it on my daughter. I felt horrible, but there it was in my child development text in graduate school–clearly what I had just done in black and white.
She hadn’t wanted to start school, and I mistakenly gave my six-year-old a choice that was too big and would have life-altering affects.
We had been alone almost three years after her dad left for the last time, and he had recently been diagnosed with Lupis, and support stopped coming. I was in grad school and forced to go back to work. I gave her the choice to go to Grandma’s or start school because I was a big believer in “better late than early” education and giving choices.
But I didn’t realize there are choices a child isn’t equipped to make, and by giving them your power you abdicate and make them feel unsafe. The best mother I knew then had said, “I think children know what they need,” I was impressed by that and based too many decisions on it. I totally disagree now.
So she chose Grandma’s house but when it came time to fly alone, she didn’t want to go. Then I just said, “But you chose it. You’ll be fine. Grandma will meet you at the airport,” quieting my own fears as well. What kind of mother puts her child on a plane alone at six?
I comforted myself with, In a month she will turn seven. (Which is also a transition time for a child. They began to realize they aren’t the center of everything. It can be difficult. But I didn’t think about it. I don’t think I knew it yet.
Three months later I went back and spent Christmas with her and Mom. She desperately wanted to come home with me, but I knew it would be hard. So I put it on her again! This time more artfully. I told her, “You can if you want, but you’ll be miserable. I will be working long hours getting ready for a big event and you will have to go with me either to the office or the computer lab.”
“I don’t care. I’m going home with you!” she said.
I said “Ok, but I don’t think you’ll be happy,” (in that tone of voice that says you are making a big mistake).
Over the next few days it came up again and was basically the same conversation. I cringe now even remembering. I wasn’t a strong enough person to say, “No. I know you want to, and I love you and would like to have you with me, but it is better for you if you stay with Grandma for another month. I’ll be working too much.” And just made the decision.
I didn’t want to be the bad guy, so I put it off on her. I kept saying she could come home but I didn’t think she would want to if she knew how miserable she would be.”
Just before she and her dad took me to the airport, I told her she could come home but she would be happier here with Daddy and Grandma. She flatly said she was staying with Daddy. Anger flashing in her eyes. I had never seen that before. She knew what I had done inside, even if I didn’t yet. She wouldn’t even say good-by at the airport. She turned and walked away with her dad.
I got on the plane and cried. I felt awful but I didn’t know why. I told a friend what had happened, and he said, “She felt like you didn’t want her. It would have been easier for her if you had just said, ‘You can’t come home yet because I have to work too much.'” I was amazed. How did he know that? At his suggestion I wrote her a letter telling her I was sorry for letting her make the decision. I should have. I loved her and missed her and wanted her with me, but I felt it was better for her to be with Grandma for another month.
That very next week in class I learned about “mystification”: making children think that they have the power, when clearly they don’t and shouldn’t. You give them the choice, pretending it’s theirs, but you are manipulating them with words or bribes to make the choice you want them to make. Perhaps even worse than that is really giving them the power. It’s way too heavy. (You may remember I had done that when she was four after her dad left, and then had worked for two years to take it back.)
But here I was with a more sophisticated form of power–manipulation, because I was too weak, too afraid she wouldn’t love me or like me. I was sick at heart, and it really worked havoc on her development. My mom had told me she wasn’t the same child when she got off the plane. I think she must have decided on that four-hour ride that I didn’t want her. Magnified by what I had done at Christmas. I didn’t know until adolescence when she referred to it as the time she was “sent away.”
Then I nearly turned inside out trying to correct it. I hope we did. I had much better tools by that time. But it hurt just as much. And even then, I was stupid and said, “You chose to go to Grandma’s, I didn’t send you away. I gave you a choice between that and school and you chose that. Yes, it was wrong to give you such a huge choice so young, but I didn’t send you away.”
Now I’m saying, “I’m so sorry I didn’t know better. If I had it to do again, I would have kept you with me and put you in school. I would never have given you the decision, and then mystified you, by pretending it was your choice, and manipulating you to make the one I wanted you to make. You should never have had the choice to make. You were too young. And I am so sorry for the pain it’s caused you.”
The pain from that experience became beliefs that she wasn’t wanted and was in the way. And she carried them by herself for almost ten years! It’s painful for me think about even now. But it’s important for you to know so you won’t make the same mistake. Parental strength is important and makes a child feel safe. Making hard decisions, saying “no”, and holding the power is important.
If you lack the strength or wisdom to make hard decisions, ask God for help not your child. God promises to give you both.