What I learned when my kids didn’t want to move

By Christie Tate
@ChristieOTate 

Before dawn on my birthday, my kids crept up the stairs while balancing a tray with my breakfast and the presents they’d been hinting about at for days. I pretended to be asleep as they placed the tray next to my pillow. When my eyes fluttered open, they each thrust a homemade card in my face.

My seven-year-old son inched his folded-over piece of construction paper ahead of his sister’s. The front was a picture of me and him buying baseball cards and climbing a tree. In his all-caps, slanted handwriting, he declared me “the best mom ever.”

And then I saw his postscript: “P.S. I don’t want to move.”

I thanked my son for the card and said, “I know you don’t want to move. I hear you.” Then we repeated the whole scene with my eight-year-old daughter, who also loves me “a ton” but wanted to be sure I knew that she too was displeased about our upcoming relocation. I assured her that her complaints had been heard and appreciated, though ultimately, overruled.

A few months before—when my husband and I first started looking at houses four neighborhoods over, so we could simplify our lives by living closer to school—the kids protested. Literally. They made signs and marched through the kitchen and living room. We tried not to regret teaching them about peaceful protests and organized resistance. They were understandably angry that their votes didn’t seem to count. We explained that our family wasn’t a democracy and that some decisions, like whether to move across town, were for parents to make.

“I’ll handle the kids,” I said to my husband after we’d signed the contract on the new place. While I had no concrete plan for swaying their feelings, I had a few months to figure it out. Plenty of time to work some persuasive magic on them.

My opening gambit was logic. “You’ll be closer to school and your friends. And if we walk to school, there will be no more carpool lines or rides with the neighbor kid who has insisted on the Moana soundtrack for sixteen months and counting.” But they had rational comebacks for each of my points: they had plenty of friends in our current neighborhood. They didn’t care about the carpool lines. And we could ditch the carpool if I agreed to drive them to school every morning and let them play whatever music they wanted.

Stalemate.

If they were a little older and a lot hipper, I could have pointed out the cool Greek diner and the amazing used bookstore around the corner from our new house. Unfortunately, those features wouldn’t move the needle for my first and third graders.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try bribery. Because I did. There just wasn’t a bag of Skittles big enough to convince my kids that packing up all their stuff and moving it to a smaller, older house was a positive development.

I got some traction when I promised they could redecorate their rooms. It was technically bribery, but I made them measure the square footage and calculate the perimeter, so some math happened too. I heard genuine glee as they hunched over the table, side by side, transforming the raw space of their new rooms into wonderlands of their taste and interests on graph paper. However, when they discovered room decorating tips online, I had to break it to them that, no, they couldn’t have hammocks and zoo-sized aquariums in their rooms.

“I was picturing new comforters and decals for the walls,” I said and watched their delight dissolve into scowls of disappointment and renewed outrage.

They retreated to their rooms. Doors were slammed. Tears were shed.

I knew they would be happy once we got settled. We’d still be us—our family of four who eats dinner around the same scratched table, squabbles about screen time, and road trips during the summer. I was a hundred percent positive they would enjoy sleeping later and not driving up and down the highway to get to school every day. But they didn’t share my conviction. They’ve never lived through a transition this extensive and come out on the other side.

To be fair, my parents still live in the same house I grew up in so I can’t draw on my own experience of moving during childhood. I didn’t have to pack up my room until I was eighteen years old. But we are supposed to be building our children’s resilience and while moving across town isn’t the same as facing crushing poverty or organ failure, this unwelcome move is something for my children to face, have feelings about, and ultimately triumph over.

Who could blame them for balking every time I guaranteed that they would love it?

Each of my efforts to push them toward enthusiasm only served to exacerbate their resistance and apprehension. It was a classic power struggle, and in eight years of parenting, I’ve never won a single power struggle without paying an emotional cost.

So I stopped. I stopped promising it would be amazing. I stopped dragging them to the new neighborhood to have memorable experiences and gin up excitement. I stopped trying to block their negative thinking with a fusillade of positive points. No commute! Close to school! Close to Costco! A great neighborhood pool! This move was happening—the moving van had been scheduled and boxes scavenged from the trash. The only trick left in my bag was to join them in their feelings.

The next time my daughter mentioned how much she would miss the parks in our old neighborhood, I ditched the Chamber of Commerce speech about the abundant green space in the new neighborhood and simply nodded my head and thought about how I would miss them too.

And when my son said he would miss our next door neighbors and their impressive array of scooters and bikes, I told him that I would also miss living next to wonderful people who water our plants and join us for impromptu dinners on our patio during the summer.

Once I joined my kids in their sadness, rather than trying to score points for my side of the argument, I felt their resistance ease up. I began to understand that if I stopped pushing them into joy, they might arrive in their own time, after they’d had the chance to express their anger, anxiety, sadness, and fear about leaving the home they know and love.

The other morning, my daughter said she would miss driving by the lake every morning. I felt the impulse to remind her that our new house was less than half a mile from the lake, but I knew it would be another round of the power struggle. So yes I said nothing. A minute later, I heard her voice say, “It’ll be fun to walk to school with my friends.” My daughter, all on her own, moved from missing the view from the car to excitement about walking to school.

For months, I’d tried to convince my children to skip over their “messy” emotions and join me in unalloyed joy. But like every other part of parenting, there’s no rushing the process. In that inevitable space between where my children are and where I want them to be, I can choose my reaction. And next time I find myself in that gap, I hope I will remember to let the kids have their feelings and find their way. Resilience, after all, comes from surviving the struggle, not side-stepping it.

Christie Tate is a writer, lawyer, and mother of two. She lives in a new neighborhood in Chicago, her hometown of 20 years. 

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