As soon as the minutes ended, it started: the shouting, the flailing, the rising blood in the cheeks. My son glued himself to his stool and refused to budge. When I finally urged him toward the door, where his sisters waited, he slapped his palm into the wall. He needed me to know his anguish had no bottom — and for the next hour, neither did mine.
The most intense of my children, my son has always been my most challenging, and I often feel helpless in the face of his outbursts. That day, after leaving the store, I made one bad parenting move after another. “Take deep breaths!” I commanded him, as if inner calm could be summoned by decree. On the walk to the car, I scolded him for making a scene in public. On the ride home, I pointed out his sisters’ abilities to cooperate — which, of course, only worked him up more. With each misstep, I could feel the tension rising, and yet I dug myself deeper, unable to see my way out.
Later, in the quiet of bedtime, I read my son one of his favorite books, an illustrated collection of Shakespeare plays simplified for kids. As we made our way through the shadowy turrets of “Hamlet,” I thought about the concept of the “tragic flaw,” which I taught for years as a high school English teacher.
Sometimes called a “fatal flaw,” a tragic flaw is a character trait that leads to the downfall of a literary hero or heroine. Despite its name, and how it often plays out in literature, this “flaw” isn’t necessarily a negative trait — in fact, it’s primarily positive. Hamlet’s thoughtfulness, Macbeth’s ambition, Juliet’s youthful idealism: All of these are admirable qualities. It’s only when they fall out of balance, or are misapplied, that things go awry.
I looked at my son: He was biting his lip, his brow furrowed in concentration, his eyes darting over the page. And in that way literature has of illuminating things more wholly, I suddenly saw his being with fuller clarity.
Yes, my son falls into paroxysms of despair over the feel of his socks. Yes, he crumbles, howling, when his big sister gently ribs him. But he’s also the first to throw his arms around someone when they’re hurt or sense when someone is upset. He hails his friends each morning as if he hasn’t seen them in months. He covers us in so many kisses before leaving the car at school drop-off that we’ve been honked at for holding up the line. The sensitivity that can be so trying in some situations is exactly what makes him shine in others.
Michael Collins, a professor of English at Georgetown University, has given talks to parents during visiting weekends on the lessons Shakespeare can offer about raising kids. When I describe to him my son’s personality, he draws a parallel to Romeo: “Like your son, his passions are his strength, but at the same time, those passions can go haywire,” he says. “Romeo’s capacity to love with great depth is pushed so far that it becomes ‘I can’t live without her.’ And it’s this extremism that makes him so dangerous to himself and others.”
In tragedy, the hero is felled by his own shortcomings, and this makes for a good, nail-biting story. But in real life, there’s always the possibility of a happier trajectory. Maybe, it occurred to me, the key to parenting my son — the key to parenting generally — lies not in fixing “flaws” but in nurturing those strengths that are their mirror image.
As parents, it’s easy to find fault with our kids, scanning for trouble while overlooking much that is right. Psychologist Rick Hanson, author of “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,” attributes this to our innate negativity bias as humans.
“We have a brain that’s like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones,” he says. “This is useful for dealing with a lethal threat in the wild, but much of the time, it makes us swerve away from opportunities and underestimate the good in life.”
For parents, he adds, the negativity bias is intensified by our determination to avoid mistakes, which often means “overlearning from the few things that go wrong, and not learning from the many things that go right.”
The good news, says Hanson, is that parents can train their brains to resist this bias. In high-stress moments, like my AT&T store standoff, we can learn to recognize our negative thoughts and to use mindfulness techniques — conscious breathing or putting our hand to our heart, for example — to detach from them. But equally helpful, he says, is noticing all that’s going well with our kids during calmer periods. His advice to me? “Offstage, really build up the deposits in your emotional bank of sweet moments with your son. This will help you develop a sense of the big picture, and a sense that he’s going to be fine.”
All of us come into the world with a particular disposition. But unlike tragic heroes, who are doomed by their temperament from the start, humans can steer themselves toward a better fate. Laura Markham, author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting,” says that parents can be instrumental in this regard. “Challenging traits don’t become tragic flaws unless we fight with that trait in some way, unless we exacerbate it,” she says. “If a child’s behavior leads us to think, ‘He’s being difficult as always,’ we’re going to respond differently than if we think, ‘He’s having a hard time, and he needs my help.’”
Everyone, Markham points out, has certain traits that can hinder them, “but once we’ve learned to manage these, they can also be really helpful,” she says. She adds that it’s never too early to talk with our children about these qualities, being careful to avoid negative labels: “What we want to communicate to our child over time is, ‘You have a superpower, and it can be a challenge to manage.’ Sensitivity, persistence, even a love of reading could be a negative if a child reads all night instead of turning out the light.”
It’s also important, says Markham, to point out when these traits show up in positive ways: “We can say, ‘Wow, see, there’s your superpower at work. That’s a wonderful thing that you did,’” she suggests.
My son, characteristically, takes longer than my other kids to put to bed. Often, I rush through the steps in our routine, eager to get to those two peaceful hours of the day between the children’s bedtime and my own. But lately, I’ve made a point of slowing down. We read our two books; we share our day’s highs and lows; we snuggle side by side in the quiet dark.
The final part of the ritual is the “stand-up hug.” My son backs up as far as he can on his bed, then sprints into my arms, hanging from my shoulders like a monkey. He clasps my face in his hands. He kisses me on one cheek, then the other cheek and then on the forehead. Then he throws his arms around me once again, with the strength of a boy who feels things deeply and truly.
I tuck him in, and I tell him all about his superpower. I put my hand to his heart to show him where it comes from. “I can’t wait to see all the beautiful things you’ll do with it,” I say.
Nicole Graev Lipson writes frequently about parenting, motherhood and gender. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Marie Claire, Nylon, Creative Nonfiction and the Hudson Review, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @NicoleGLipson.