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Do you harmonize?

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By Jamie Roach

We don’t know how to harmonize. We no longer know how to hold the tension between two different notes. We live in a world where it is “My way or the highway.” Every week as a counselor, I sit with children who feel invisible to their parents and with parents who feel abandoned by their kids. Almost always, it comes back to neither one being able to think and feel their way into the other’s heart and mind. They can’t harmonize. They can only sing what’s familiar, the melody.

Musically, I try to sing harmony but I can’t. The problem for me is an inability to let go of what feels safe and familiar. Whenever I try to leave the melody for the harmony, my voice takes on a mind of its own. I quickly notice my voice traveling all over the place like a leaf in the wind. It’s embarrassing and I quickly shut my mouth and quit trying. I’ll stick to the melody, thank you very much. In order to harmonize, one must be able to hold the melody in their mind while also daring to discover a different set of notes, the harmony. It requires “both/and” thinking rather than “either/or.” The beauty, depth, and textures come from holding both lines together.

Lately, I have been wondering if the number one tool of parenting is the ability to empathize. Being able to empathize with our children is like singing harmony. It requires the ability to hold two parts in one’s mind simultaneously, knowing both are true and valid. It is natural and easy to hold our own viewpoint firmly in our minds. “As long as you live under my roof, you will live by my rules,” “Because I said so,” or “I am the adult and you will respect me” are examples of what I’m calling singing the melody and an inability to harmonize, a failure to empathize. Those statements may be right, but they lack goodness, beauty, and ring hollow.

Maybe an example would be helpful. Let’s say your teenage son arrives home 30 minutes after curfew. You have become worried, which makes sense. When your son walks in the door, the first words that fly out of your mouth are “Where have you been?” And even though it sounds like a question, it is 100 percent accusatory with not a hint of curiosity or compassion. He starts to make some excuse of losing track of time, but you need to teach him a lesson for his own good and so you launch into a lecture that upon later reflection was more intense and sharper than you intended. The terse exchange ends with him stomping off to his room and you going to yours with a gnawing emptiness in your heart. The pain is real.

If we can learn to harmonize, things can be different. We begin by holding our perspective in our mind, “keeping curfew is important.” But to harmonize, we must be able to also feel our way into their mind where we can understand and validate their perspective. This is hard work but makes for beautiful music. So as he opens the door, you are taking a few deep breaths because you recognize worry buzzing around in your body. The breaths appeared to have helped, you sense your body calming down just a bit. You greet him at the door and let him know how glad you are to see him home safe. With gentle curiosity, you ask what happened that resulted in him being late. You listen as he shares about having so much fun with friends that he lost track of time. You are able to recall that exact feeling in your own mind. You let him know you get it. You both share a knowing smile and then you bring up the curfew and the importance of arriving home on time. Together you discuss how this can be avoided in the future. You are harmonizing. You have held onto the need to keep boundaries while also holding onto what is really important to you, your son, by understanding and validating his experience. As you go off to bed, your son gives you a hug and instead of entering your bedroom with an ache in your heart, you notice it is singing.


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