In many towns across America, today was the first day of school. This morning, kids were anxious and teachers were preparing to do their best to help them succeed.
Like many other parents, I dropped my daughter off at her first day of kindergarten today. And like many other kindergarteners, she was a little apprehensive about the whole idea. We stepped into the classroom and put her backpack down next to another little girl’s. Her name was Violet*, and her parents had just left. Tears were streaming down her face as a room full of strangers went about shuffling kids to their seats and hanging sweaters on pegs. I wanted to tell Violet that I understood why she was sad; that missing her parents and facing a room full of strange faces–many of which were attached to people 3-5 times her size–could be upsetting and that I, too, had felt anxious and afraid at times in my life. But I was too busy helping my own daughter hang up her sweater to give Violet any real empathy.
That’s when the teacher approached. I’m sure she wanted Violet to trust her and feel safe in this unfamiliar environment, but probably no one had ever explained to her the importance of giving children–and adults–emotional visibility. Instead, she towered over Violet, smiling tightly. “Violets don’t cry,” she said. “They blossom.”
Upon seeing this, my own daughter’s eyes started to well-up. “You can cry if you need to,” I reassured her as she watched Violet continue to sob instead of “blossom” for the teacher. I was squatting down so my daughter and I could make better eye contact. “Sometimes things are sad and it makes us want to cry,” I said. “Do you want a hug?” Interestingly, she didn’t start to cry. She took a deep breath, and her eyes dried up a little, even though she was clearly still anxious. That’s when the teacher descended upon us. She stood over us with a warm, friendly, smile and offered to show my daughter around the classroom.
My daughter agreed, and as soon as she and the teacher were a few steps away from me, the teacher turned to me and waved her hand to shoo me away as if to say, “go ahead–sneak away now while she’s not looking–now’s your chance!” My instinct was to obey the teacher–I guess that was the little boy in me responding–but I realized how horrible that would have been. I know the “leave-while-the-kid-isn’t-looking” method is popular, but I think it’s shameful. My daughter and I hadn’t yet said our goodbyes. Did I want her to look up a few minutes later and realize that her teacher had deceived her so that her dad could sneak away? How would that make her feel? Would that give her the signal that her dad was honest with her and could be trusted to support her, or would it incite her to feel isolated and alone in the world? And what about her teacher? What would she learn from this first interaction with her? That her teacher was out to deceive her? That her feelings were so intrusive and burdensome to this new adult in her life that they’d better be avoided through manipulation or simply dismissed out-of-hand? How is that a rational, honest, way to interact with children?
In Parenting from the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell discuss the importance of using the right-brain storytelling function of a child’s mind to integrate and make sense of the information from left-brain functions (autobiographical information, emotional state, etc.). What kind of story, I wondered, would the teacher be communicating to my daughter? What story had she already communicated to poor Violet? What does Violet conclude when the narrative about her feelings of sadness over the sudden absence of her parents and fear of a new situation is that those feelings are wrong, unexpected, and make no sense; that Violets are expected never to cry, but to simply “blossom” instead?
Psychological “visibility” is a concept I first encountered when reading The Psychology of Romantic Love by Nathaniel Branden, but its importance is by no means limited to romantic relationships. It’s a concept at least a few decades old, and the basic premise is that one of the key benefits of having a relationship is that the person with whom we are relating can act as a sort of emotional and psychological mirror for us, validating that, as Branden puts it in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, “the other person and I are in the same reality, the same universe, metaphorically speaking.” Visibility isn’t about agreement, but recognition and understanding. Branden writes, “If I say or do something and you respond in a way that I perceive as congruent in terms of my own behavior–if I become playful and you become playful in turn, or if I express joy and you show understanding of my state, or if I express sadness and you convey empathy, or if I do something and I am proud and you smile in admiration–I feel seen and understood by you. I feel visible.”
Today, Dr. Gabor Maté, a best-selling author specializing in both addiction and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, routinely emphasizes the importance of parental relationships in children’s development of self-realization (or self-negation, as the case may be). With respect to brain development in children, “which circuits develop and which do not depends very much on environmental input,” he explains. “So a child who doesn’t see light, they’ll be blind after a few years because the visual circuits need lightwaves for their development–they just don’t otherwise. Our capacity for intimate relationship– for connection, for self regulation, for attention, for stress regulation–these all depend on crucial brain circuits. These brain circuits require the right conditions as well. The right conditions are the presence of non-stressed, non-depressed, emotionally available, consistently available, parents and caregivers.” I don’t know if Dr. Maté is familiar with the concept of psychological visibility, but I can’t help but wonder, based on what neurobiologists now know about the importance of emotional attachment, what impact a lack of psychological visibility might have on a child’s healthy development. How will those brain circuits get wired? “In contrast [to visibility]”, explains Branden, “if I say or do something and you respond in a way that makes no sense to me in terms of my own behavior–if I become playful and you react as if I were being hostile, or if I express joy and you display impatience and tell me not to be silly, or if I express sadness and you accuse me of pretending, or if I do something I am proud of and you react with condemnation–I do not feel seen and understood. I feel invisible.”
I have several friends who scoff at me for taking my daughter’s emotions so seriously. They often think that because I care so deeply about her emotional state, I must be constantly acquiescing to her requests. But that’s not what she needs, either, and parents who think that the only two alternatives are to ignore/invalidate their children’s emotions or to coddle and appease them are doing both themselves and their children a disservice. The attitude of these friends is that she’s, “just a kid,” and that kids are irrational, unpredictable, and emotionally unstable. They’re wrong about the first two, but they may be right about that last point: kids are emotionally unstable because they’re dealing with their emotions for the very first time, and it’s up to us adults to teach them how to recognize and accept their emotions without being overwhelmed and controlled by them, and without repressing or ignoring them.
As for the situation with my daughter, I waited for the teacher to finish showing her the classroom and for her to take a seat, and then I hurried over to her to kiss her goodbye before I left. She watched me walk out, not crying, but obviously anxious about being left alone on her first day. I don’t know how kindergarten will go for her, but I am confident that she will be better off knowing that someone out there sees her. At least at home, she is not invisible.
[*Names have been changed to protect the identity of children.]