My best friend’s dad had some parenting advice that I loved. When one of his kids messed something up and said “I didn’t mean to…”, his reply was, “You need to mean NOT to”. I can report in no uncertain terms that she didn’t love that response, and neither did most of my kids years later when I repeated the phrase to them. I still think it’s awesome, so now I keep it as part of my own personal mantra. When something goes ‘wrong’, I’m generally aware of what I meant to do and what I didn’t, so a little bit of intentional planning keeps me from the missteps that I might otherwise take. For me, knowing what I want to happen in any given situation is valuable. Seeing a way to make it happen helps to ensure my success. And being able to recognize when something isn’t meeting my intentions in real time allows me to shift on the fly, as the situation calls for, without carrying any feelings of failure with me. I feel them deeply, and I recover quickly, using nothing but intentional breath to guide my thoughts, because I know that will support me, from the inside out.
If there’s any easy way to understand the nuances of intention it is through the eyes of a parent. Parenting is full of intentions, both met and unmet. From the time our kids can talk, they begin to express ideas that we haven’t even thought of. We are baffled and amazed by the way their minds work and how certain confidences and fears develop, seemingly overnight. The way we acknowledge and handle their feelings is important, but knowing deep down that you will probably screw it up is life-changing. You heard that right. As parents, we WILL make choices that alienate our kids, make them angry or upset, and go against what they think is fair or right. This is the natural state of the human condition and the very thing our souls signed up to teach them. They learn how to love and appreciate through their own mental and physical struggles, failing and succeeding in a world they feel both connected to and disconnected from.. Very similar to the parent-child experience we move through watching them grow into adults.
Our well-meaning, considered approaches have very little to do with the way our advice and decisions are received, and that is never more true than when our kids are teenagers. This is usually the time period where the individual child embarks on their own version of a ‘hero’s journey’, temporarily abandoning the comfort (or discomfort) of what they know in order to foster personal growth through the people they meet and the circumstances they encounter. While it can be a challenging time for the parent-child relationship, it is among the most important intentions behind parenting in the first place: To teach our children to be self-suffiecient so they will eventually leave us, prepared to weather the many ups and downs life offers with a keen sense of passion and purpose.
We cannot accompany them on this journey, largely because it is most often a challenge to what we have taught them. If we have done our jobs well, their unique journey will reinforce the values and intentions we have laid out for them, while also bringing in their own chosen philosophies and intentions that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Our job as parents is foundational. Emotionally, spiritually, mentally and physically, we are tasked with providing guidance in areas we have not mastered ourselves. At some point, the lessons all lead to accepting the things around us, even (and especially) when we don’t like them and they make us feel ‘bad’. Every parent sees life through their own lens, and those viewpoints and behaviors become the foundational view that our children’s lives are built upon. And since every single parent has a slightly different take on what that should look like, we have a lot of conflicting intentions in the mix.
You don’t have to look far to watch a group of professional, educated, adults devolve quickly into something less flattering if an unresolved childhood issue gets poked without warning. Our reactive selves take over when our stirred up emotions start driving our responses. The things we teach our kids about those moments are critical to how we will connect with them as adults and how they will relate to their own life experiences. When we scramble to cover our own vulnerabilities, we teach our children to do the same, even if we are outwardly encouraging openness. We deny our own feelings so naturally as we go through our days, that we can easily miss what messages our kids are picking up about how to handle our emotions and follow our dreams (or not!).
There is a big divide between all of the things we would like to do and the things we are actually able to make happen. Our minds are busy creating possible intentions all day long. We learn something, evaluate its usefulness in our own lives, and if it strikes us a certain way, we create an intention around it. By the end of each day, we have produced an entire set of intentions that may or may not come to fruition. If we tried to recall them all, we would probably have trouble because of the sheer volume. I once tried writing down the subject matter of every thought I had. I was going to do it for a whole morning, but I was 20 minutes in when I gave up on the exercise and focused on the huge list before me instead.
My thoughts felt like they were pinging in several places at once, so I started making tallies next to certain thoughts to try to keep up with how fast my mind was able to move. Trying to collect the detailed matter of each thought was an obviously futile intention, but it revealed a pattern of subjects that were fascinating. My thoughts were flipping through things that had been slightly pressing on me, but just barely. The types of things that I don’t have any control over, but still stir some emotion in me when triggered. I could trace my thoughts to a news story from earlier in the morning that dipped into the undercurrent of my life’s unresolved and unsettled feelings. The types of things I have to simply accept, so that I can breathe deeply… Things like not being the exception to perfect parenting I truly believed I had the ability to be. No joke, my concept of how the parent-child dynamic would play out with my kids missed the mark a lot. In nearly 35 years of parentlng, my connotation of the word perfect has been in a perpetual state of renovation, and I like to believe it always will. The less defined I am about ‘perfect’, the more successful I feel about meeting the intentions that matter to me.
My personal parenting intentions were initially grown from an effort to be everything I had wanted in a parent. I loved my parents and knew they had taught me some really great stuff, but I firmly believed I could improve on their rigid foundation. My parents were a lot of fun–unless they were responsible for your potentially stupid choices–and I fell hard into that category. Watching them be wonderful, cool people and tough parents all at the same time was a shock to my system and it took my own hero’s journey to become comfortable with having multiple feelings at once. As soon as I could see positive and negative thoughts sitting right next to each other without an explosion, I started to understand the importance of becoming comfortable in my inner conflict, rather than avoiding it.
Objectively, it’s easy to know the difference between positive and negative. In life, these lines get blurred to the point that what one group of people sees as positive, another group sees as negative. Even my own kids had opposite reactions to my parenting techniques. They each held different beliefs about what I thought, or what I meant, and the lines of intention became crossed and confused often. This can wreak havoc on communication without a willingness to move past impressions to get to intentions. My kids are now grown. They are all incredibly smart, talented, and armed with intentions. I feel lucky that they still check in on childhood memories as their feelings shift, and I look forward to those conversations, even the hard ones.
At this point in my life, I spend more of my time in thought than action, grateful for the privilege of reflection. My intentions center around seeing conflict, breathing with it, and being grateful when it resolves. I intend to remain passionate about the things and people I love, and to appreciate the experiences in front of me for exactly what they are–life and love, as it comes…