My sister was moving and needed some help. I had some free time and by chance my son Isaac was off of school. He had just recently hit a growth spurt and had finally reached that stage in adolescence where he transitioned from awkward, tripping over himself gangly to young, strong and athletic almost overnight. It was a great opportunity for a real world lesson in the importance of family, charity, generosity and all that other stuff parents constantly preach at their kids. So the two of us road tripped to my sister's place to lend a hand - and a piece of a finger.
The shout of my son, followed by that of my sister, made it clear something bad had happened. I rushed up the stairs to discover Isaac holding his hand...and a fair amount of blood pouring out on the floor. He was cutting open a box with a razor and it had slipped. The blade split his finger at the tip, right through the nail, almost to the bone. This was his first real serious wound and he was clearly scared.
We drove to the only open clinic in the area and were processed quickly back into the emergency section. The doctor on duty relieved my fears and informed us that no real structural damage had been done. She then presented us with a real conundrum: She could perform the procedure of stitching, etc., right there...or we could go downtown to the children's hospital to have it done.
The children's hospital would have some sort of topical anesthesia that would be applied without any pain at all. To do the procedure at the clinic we were at would require lidocaine to be injected essentially under his nail. Fricken painful as it gets.
Isaac didn't take long to cast his vote. 'Let's go downtown!' However, I was not of the same mind. What he wasn't taking into account was drive time, intake time and wait time. He was in a significant amount of pain at that moment, and I knew that to go to Children's would extend that greatly. And I knew that, while a shot directly under the fingernail and into a wound would be extremely painful, it would only be so for a precious few seconds.
I looked him dead in the eye and and said 'Son, listen to me. To get the shot will be the most painful thing you've ever experienced to this point in your life. But I have a lot of experience with lidocaine and I can tell you that it will be only a second or two, and then you won't feel anything. To go downtown you'll have to have the pain you have right now for another two hours. Excruciating pain for a few seconds is better than a great deal of pain for a few hours. I know what you want. I'm telling you, I've been in this situation before. You want the shot now.'
I kid you not - the doctor at this point was packing up all the medical devices assuming a 'no dad, let's go downtown' argument that would inevitably lead to my acquiescence. Her eyes nearly bulged out of her head when Isaac simply responded 'ok dad, I trust you.'
And so in disbelief she had to ask a nurse for a new sanitized kit and a shot of lidocaine. The look she gave me was a mix of impressed unbelief with a hint of skepticism - I assume she wondered what type of voodoo I'd employed to get that response.
What she didn't know is that I've built an incredibly solid foundation of trust with my son - especially when it comes to things of physical pain.
Isaac knows all of my 'glory day' stories of wrestling and football injuries in the abstract. But not too long before this incident we just happened to have a bit of a dust up regarding his on-field football antics after being hit hard in the ribs. I was giving him some static on how he responded to a particularly hard hit and he was trying to justify his behavior. In frustration he finally shouted 'you don't know what this is like! You have no idea how much that hurt!'
I looked him in the eye and said 'excuse me son, I've broken two ribs and cracked my sternum. I know what that - and much worse - feels like.' He was visibly taken aback. It was suddenly clear that I knew exactly what he was going through; and that I knew it by experience changed everything. He stopped his protest immediately and began actually listening to me.
So when I said 'I know what a shot of lidocaine will feel like, and I'm telling you it's the way to go.' There was absolutely no reason to question me. Dad knows. He's dealt with something similar before. He knows.
The above probably makes perfect sense to you. Shared experiences are very powerful for our parenting of children. 'I know that hurts, I've done that before' is natural when our kid hits their funny bone.
But what about emotional pain?
For some reason parents tend to conceal their own experiences with emotional pain from their kids. I think there is some unfounded pressure to present ourselves to our kids as physically vulnerable but emotionally impenetrable. I believe that this can only result in false expectations and misunderstandings. Kids develop an impression of adulthood as a graduation from the emotionally vulnerable to a state of mastery of self that is unrealistic.
I feel that it is incredibly healthy for your children to see you sad. To see you disappointed or hurt - but to see you rebound from that soon after. Obviously they don't need to know the details of your emotional rollercoaster; but to confirm that the roller coaster exists today, tomorrow and into adulthood prepares them and helps them develop healthy coping methods when you model those healthy coping methods for them. Our kids should know that we've been emotionally hurt, and that we've found a way to heal. It will help them actually listen to us when they go through it. They need to know that we've been there before them, and we know how to survive.
The lesson is - find a way to balance sharing your emotional struggle with kids without burdening them with the heavy stuff of adulthood they may not be ready to process.
And also don't let an 11 year old use a boxcutter without a copious amount of instruction.