I know it is hard to believe that I learned something about relationships from my cats. You may be saying to yourself, “They are solitary and aloof animals and not very interested in relationships. Why is a psychologist who works with children talking about these animals that prefer to be alone?” But the more I think about these two creatures and their interactions in our house, the more I feel I need to share what I learned.
We have an older cat, named Malcolm who has always been cuddly and personable. He loves his people. He was rescued from injury and starvation when he was itty bitty and we have had the pleasure of loving him since. As a family, we decided he (and we) needed an additional cat. We adopted a young kitty, named Martina, labeled “feral” by the humane society and who was scared of everything including her own shadow. We were told the best way for her to feel comfortable is to have her in a room with everything she needs and to sit and visit her quietly and give her time to acclimate. We were told to keep the older cat away until she seemed more confident. After a little while, we introduced the two cats with hesitation and a watchful eye, since we were unsure how each of them would react. They walked cautiously toward each other, gently but thoroughly sniffed each other and then began to rub noses. We were amazed! It was like they were old friends reuniting after years apart. Malcolm took her on tours of the house, showed her the cat tree, and shared his eating area with her. Now, four years later, Martina is still hesitant and shy, but she has gained confidence and comfort in our house. She and Malcolm are best buddies and are often found curling beside each other in the sunlight. Martina needs us to walk slowly toward her and to talk softly and gently. She needs both her quiet attention and moments of space from us. Their story makes me think of our relationships with our children and with others.
The Lessons I Have Learned
- Kindness: Watching Malcolm help Martina feel safe and comfortable in our house reminds me of the importance of kindness in our relationships with others. He offered help and guidance in her new environment. He was often seen checking on her when she slept or when she felt like she had to hide. As people, kindness in our relationships is just as important. It fosters safety and feelings of comfort and belonging. When we extend kindness toward others and toward our children, our children learn how to extend it too. They carry on that kindness in their future interactions.
- Patience and Individual Differences: It has been four years of caring for Martina, and she is still shy. We have been patient in our relationship with her, knowing she needs us to wait until she feels comfortable. We need to honor her view on the world. She is different than Malcolm. He always wants attention, and she lets us know when she is comfortable with getting attention. In our relationships with others, we need to extend patience to each other by honoring our differences, understanding opposing points of view, and having perspective about the needs of others. With our children, we need to know that their timelines for trying new things and being ready for certain experiences are their own and we have to understand that sometimes we need to show patience and understanding of their views of new situations or activities. We model how to take the next steps or try the new things, but we have to be patient for them to feel comfortable and confident in trying them. Showing this patience in our interactions with others and in our connection with our children will enhance our children’s ability to relate to other people and honor differences in their relationships.
- And lastly, Trust: Trust is something that was not a given in our interactions with Martina, and her trust is still hard-won. Malcolm built trust by showing her kindness and being patient with her hesitation to do something new, like sit on a lap or come out of hiding to play. Her early experiences, before we had her, helped define how she felt she could trust people. Only with kindness and patience were we able to begin to build trust with Martina. Only by honoring her individual needs could we show we were trustworthy. It is the same way when we relate to people. We need kindness and patience to build a trusting relationship. When we know someone will treat us with kindness and be patient with our thoughts and needs, we begin to trust them. Trust is not easy to come by, but something we need to work on with others. When we show our children how to build trust in how we interact with them, then they can extend those skills to people they meet and build solid foundations for friendships and relationships.
Malcolm and Martina have taught me a lot about relationships through their interactions with each other and with us. I think with kindness, patience, and honoring individual differences, we as parents and people can build strong, trusting relationships with our children and other individuals we meet. In addition, the more we extend kindness and patience, the more likely our children learn these relationship skills and build trusting relationships in their lives – now and in the future.