Family is [not] magic

My babysitter happens to be a talented artist, and my daughter puts this talent to swift and ruthless use, commanding her to draw various and insane images from her fertile imagination.

  • Once it was two boy Pete the Cats and two girl Pete the Cats, all in dresses.
  • Another time it was a soda can in a recycling bin, shouting a complaint about his predicament.
  • Lately it’s been a lot of characters from My Neighbor Totoro. 

Not long ago, she commanded her babysitter to draw mommy, daddy, herself, and all of the babysitters she’s ever had…as fairies…with wings…and wands…and dresses.  And of course, our babysitter complied, rendering a beautiful tableau of my daughter’s extended “family” of enchanted caregivers holding hands, a riot of colors and power.  She completed the work with an all-caps declaration:

FAMILY IS MAGIC

This large-scale announcement of love and unity became a prominent source of investigation, discussion, and contemplation in our home. While other drawings were made and discarded, this one stood the test of time, remaining in circulation and being brought out periodically to be admired and spark warm familial feelings in all who beheld it.

Until one day.

It was a Monday. Mondays are challenging around here. As a hard working couple with non-traditional employment, weekends are workdays for us, and so Monday morning tends to be our first (and often only) family time of the week. We’re all in the same place at the same time, and this often means that whatever tensions have been building up between my husband and me over the preceding week (or, let’s face it, the preceding months and years) finally have an opportunity to be released.

On this particular Monday, I thought we were doing a pretty good job of having one of those silent, deliberately ignoring each other kinds of passive-aggressive fights. One that was way better and less impactful on our young daughter than an all-out, down to the mat scream-fest.

I was terribly, terribly wrong.

I was hard at work ignoring my husband icily, playing cheerfully with my daughter, when I got up for a minute. When my back was turned, I heard the distinctive sound of paper tearing. I turned around to find my daughter fixedly and methodically tearing the “FAMILY IS MAGIC” picture into long shreds.

“I see you’re tearing up the picture,” I somehow managed to say.

“Family is all torn up. Mommy and daddy have mixed up feelings,” she said, matter-of-factly.

I was not expecting this. As I struggled to regain control over my lower jaw, in walked daddy.

“Honey, what are you doing to that picture?!” He said, somewhat less calmly than me.

“Family is all torn up.” She repeated. “I will throw it away now.”

She gathered up the pieces in her arms, trotted off to her bedroom, and carefully deposited the tattered remains of our once-charmed family portrait into her garbage can. This process took several trips, her face set in determination as she ferried the remaining pieces to the trash.

I was gobsmacked. Shocked out of silence, my husband and I exchanged a worried glance. Not only was she unequivocally not blissfully unaware of what was going on, but she knew exactly what was going on between mommy and daddy that day, and darn it if we hadn’t helped her build the capacity to express just how much she was not okay with it. 

This experience resonated as, later that week, I read a chapter by pioneering 0-5 child psychotherapist Louise Emanuel from What Can the Matter Be? Therapeutic Interventions with Parents, Infants and Young Children. In it, she describes a mother who:

talked about how bewildered and upset she had felt when [her daughter] Tanya had drawn a beautiful picture, which mother had admired, then thrown it in the bin. We thought Tanya was giving her an experience of how it felt when something beautiful, like the picture of a perfect family in her mind, got spoilt and how Tanya needed her mother to receive and contain these feelings for her.

-Louise Emanuel

From: Emanuel, L. (2008). Father “there and not there:” The concept of a” united couple” in families with unstable partnerships. In E. Bradley (Ed.), What Can the Matter Be? Therapeutic Interventions with Parents, Infants and Young Children (pp. 187-199).

My daughter was showing us just this; that something beautiful, the sense of safety and togetherness of her family, got spoiled. She told us in the clearest way she knew how, and we worked quickly to receive and contain the feelings she was picking up.

“Yes, mommy and daddy are having some big, mixed-up feelings,” we told her. “We are working those feelings out together, and even when we have big feelings, we are still here to take care of you.”

We then turned our attention squarely to her for the rest of the day, enjoying her play, reading stories, and eventually turning to our bedtime ritual. For all intents and purposes, it seems that the incident had been processed and put in its place.

Renowned child psychologist and parent educator Haim Ginott encapsulated the essence of this dynamic quite well:

I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the [relationship]. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a [parent], I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.

– Haim Ginott

Indeed, it’s both terrifying and reassuring to know how much influence our internal world has on our children’s well-being. Such an immense responsibility is not to be taken lightly, and we can take comfort in knowing that we have created a safe, secure relationship when our little ones can tell us exactly the influence our inner world is having on them.


For additional reading:


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Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!


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