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  • Writer's pictureSydney McCall Patel

How Close is Too Close?

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

Uncovering the right distance for kids to thrive

by Sydney McCall Patel, Marriage and Family Therapist, Marin County, California

I was tense and hopeful as we dove into our family therapy session. My classmates sat in chairs circling my family who had volunteered to be observed for a therapy demonstration, my professor stood in as our therapist. Just minutes into the session we stumbled across deep and unresolved issues that would not be sorted out by the end of class. We decided we would continue therapy outside of the fishbowl.

Within weeks of beginning family therapy I was fired from my role in the family. As a budding therapist, and maybe because of how I was nurtured, I had the tendency to throw myself into trying to understand and resolve others’ issues, especially relationship issues. I often found myself jumping in with the intention to help, only to find myself quickly ensnared. The therapist told me this was dangerous and my job was to be a daughter and a sister, not a therapist in my own family. This was the beginning of my discovering a healthier role for me in relationship to my family and what appropriate levels of involvement look like. Until that point, I had believed helping others to resolve their problems was a reflection of our intimacy.

My dad has a beautiful garden in Muir Beach in Marin county. He likes to teach my 3 and a half year old life lessons while they work in the garden together. He uses the plants and dirt as teaching material. Their conversations are some of my favorite to overhear. Last time I was eavesdropping he told my son about how a baby plant cannot successfully grow if it’s too close to its parent, or if it’s too far. My son caught on and said, “Yeah, the baby kinda has to be right in the middle if it wants to grow big and strong.” As a mother, I’m curious about my role in regards to what this middle looks like. How much do we leave our kids in the dark to protect them and bring them into the light to grow? There is a tension between these two necessary directions as we prepare our children for the world.

We want our son to be ready for relationship bumps, we see such challenges as inevitable. For this very reason my husband and I don’t hide our disagreements from him. We value these conversations and hope he learns from our process about how to stay connected while holding differences. We work to remain curious and open during these conversations as we monitor our level of intensity so he isn’t too activated, knowing that nobody really learns when they are nervous. It’s also important to us he doesn’t have a role in resolving our differences, we don’t want him to carry that burden.

Even so, as much as we try to avoid it, all intimate relationships have ruptures and it’s certain at some point our son will witness ours and experience it directly. He will get upset and activated. And when he does, we can be there to hold him and support him to slow way down and find the words to articulate his inner experience.

Relationships are the one thing we can’t escape, we are desperate for them, we need them to build families, run countries and for our businesses to succeed. We depend on them in almost every aspect of our lives. But somehow, understanding our roles and how to move through relationship difficulty, is overlooked in our educational system, in our value system. Imagine if it was as important as algebra or entertainment.

From what I see, so many of us are bumping around in the dark, not understanding how relationships are more resilient when we step outside of who is right, and into what actually happened internally for those involved. I hope this exposure to our gentle disagreements, where we listen with interest and try not to simply prove our points, helps our son to uncover another way. And when we surely fail to succeed at this, our reparative conversations can help us to find home again. Maybe through this process our son will discover that healthy middle, where he can let in enough light and water to grow, and so he is prepared for the inevitable.

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