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What I Said and What They Heard

What I Said and What They Heard

Aug 28, 2018

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By Mo McElroy

I have three daughters; I call them my cubs. I am a mother bear running on instinct, teaching them to forage, hunt, and protect themselves. My duty is to help them survive the wild life of the schoolyard and then the real world. I started what I call our “talks,” when they were very young; the conversations back then were, like my audience, small: “You are safe.” “You can do it.” “Don’t touch the hot stove.” The act of mothering, of course, flooded me with memories of my own childhood. Some memories were blurry, others as vivid as a Technicolor movie. The common theme in all was loneliness. My mother wasn’t terrible; she was neglectful and left me to figure things out on my own—I’ve spent my life repairing the damage done. Hence, becoming a parent made me fierce: I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes my mother did. With a library of parenting books, a daily practice of yoga, and commitment to really care for my kids, I was armed for the mission of motherhood. This mama bear would give her children my undivided attention and love so that a child would never think she was weird, bad or wrong—she would know without a doubt that she was a divine gift.

I had my first daughter at the age of thirty-two and my last at age thirty-seven. During this time I was privileged to be friends with child psychologist, Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of The Magical Child and the Crack in the Cosmic Egg and a world-renown expert in child development. I thought I could raise the most perfect, well adjusted, and enlightened children, if I only knew the big, cosmic secret that Joe could teach me. So one morning over coffee, I asked Joe, “How can I raise the most perfect, happy, enlightened child?”  His answer wasn’t what I expected: “Just relax and take your signals from the child,” he said. “She will always tell you what she needs and wants. Then respond.”

Joe’s advice became my mantra, but waiting for my children to articulate their needs wasn’t always easy. I had to learn to be patient. I had to learn to listen. I had to learn to shut up. None of these things come naturally to me, or probably, to most parents. The dominant paradigm in parenting is that the adults do the job—we are the instructors, teaching our children the ways of the world, what’s right and wrong, which fork to use when, and how not to get pregnant (or get anyone else pregnant). But what I found was that if I sat back and watched, listened, and learned from my girls, I was better equipped to give them the advice they really needed rather than the advice I thought they needed.

And so, to the best of my ability, I allowed our relationships to be dynamic, taking my cues for our “talks” from them, rather than using my authority to determine what they needed to learn. This switch kept me from talking down to them. Maybe that sounds simple. It wasn’t. Sometimes a particular talk had earth-shattering consequences, other times, they bombed and I totally fell flat. Some of most useless talks include:“Don’t go to parties where you don’t know the people who live there,” or“Don’t own a dog larger than you.” And though our talks about flossing, saving for a rainy day, and sending handwritten personal notes by snail mail didn’t have the consequences I’d hoped for, I still believe their wisdom stands.

My children assimilated our “talks,” in their own fashion. Who could guess that my advice to never shave your legs before 8th grade would give me great credibility with Bonnie (then age 12) for the next decade when the hair did, in fact, return with the vengeance of a porcupine? Nor did I imagine that my talk about writing down dreams so that we could make them come true would launch my 18-year-old on an adventure to New York, where she graduated from college and created a beautiful life for herself. Whether the outgrowth of a talk was positive or negative, these conversations map my journey as a parent, and my daughters’ process of growing up.


Mo McElroy owns a consulting business specializing in strategic planning, customer service and volunteer management for the travel industry. She is also the Director of Operations for the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree traveling with the tree across America to the west lawn of the capitol each December.  Her global project Ask + Tell launched in 2017 and is expanding across the country in 2018.  Mo can be reached at 707.490.5079 or mo@momcelroy.com  askandtell.org or www.momcelroy.com

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