“Emery ripped my new shirt that I let her borrow, and she doesn’t even care!” Makenna wailed from the top of the stairs. She had recently celebrated her seventh birthday, and three-year-old Emery coveted the Little Mermaid shirt Makenna had received as a gift from Grandma.
“What happened?” I asked Emery after pulling her into her bedroom and shutting the door.
“It was an accident,” she said as tears spilled down her cheeks.
“And she doesn’t even care!” Makenna called through the closed door.
“Why would Makenna think you don’t care?” I asked Emery.
“I don’t know,” she sobbed. “I feel really bad.”
“Well, honey, a feeling is only obvious to the person feeling it. If you don’t tell your sister, ‘Thank you for letting me borrow your new shirt,’ she will not know you appreciate it
. If you don’t say, ‘I’m sorry I ripped your new shirt,’ she will not know you regret being careless. And there is no fight like a sister fight involving clothing.”
This was the logic that led to Feelings Aren’t Actions being added to our family values.
The flip side of this principle is important also.
“Drake is whopper mad at me because I beat him at Super Smash Brothers,” Josiah told me. He had watched a Burger King commercial about the Whopper and translated the term to mean, “the very most,” and adopted it into his ten-year-old boy vocabulary.
“You know, Josiah, it is okay for people to feel angry or upset with you. Feelings aren’t actions.”
“Yeah, but look,” Josiah said pointing out the window. We both watched as Drake marched across the backyard and popped Josiah’s football with a steak knife. “Feelings are actions now,” Josiah said.
I hope my kids have learned that it is okay for people to have unpleasant feelings toward them. Feelings, even unpleasant ones, are not an action. Hurt, upset, and angry feelings show us a chance to listen and decide what we can do, if anything, to fix what is wrong.
We discussed this with our children once they became teenagers, and Mike explained, “We are pretty quick to judge other people by their actions, but we always judge ourselves by our intentions.”
“I totally do that,” Makenna fessed up. “I get upset with people for things they do, but I hate it when they get mad about something I did because I know I didn’t mean it the way they took it.”
“Adults do the same thing,” I said. “I was running late and decided I’d fill out the forms Josiah needs later, but then I was tempted to be annoyed when he hadn’t emptied the trash by the time I wanted him to. I gave myself grace for not having time, but it was harder to give grace to Josiah because I was judging his action instead of his intention.”
“Well,” Josiah said, “in that case, you probably should have been annoyed because I probably forgot.” I love that kid.
In parenting, this value snuck up on me.
“I’m pretty sure Emery hates me,” I told Mike late one night. “She can’t stand to be around me, she never wants to talk to me, and the last time she wasn’t irritated with me was over two years ago.”
“We are in a really rough stretch with her,” Mike said. “But, feelings aren’t actions. You are dealing with her actions of animosity now, but, this is a long life, and there is a lot of history and a lot of future. The actions we are seeing right now are not a true picture of her feelings.”
“I’m pretty sure she feels like she hates me.”
“Maybe, but she also feels unsure, insure, afraid, confused, lost. I’m sure you already know this, but it is really important that our actions toward her don’t reflect the hurt feelings we have. We need to be consistent and loving.”
“Don’t tell me what to do smarty pants.”
Don’t call people names is not one of our values.