Aug 272013
 

You know those moments in parenting when your body and mouth take over and move through the motions of parenting without your more thoughtful, intentional self being involved? Moments when you suddenly realize, “hey, who is driving this car anyway?”

Sometimes these moments are life-saving. Like when you have to get up for the tenth time in the middle of the night and your conscious self refuses to come to the party. Somehow, your body gets up, walks down the hallway, feeds and comforts a child and gets back into bed.

Or when a child is about to run into the street, and you somehow move faster than an Olympic sprinter to catch a kiddo with one hand, while kicking the ball back into the yard with a move that should only be seen on a soccer field? I once moved across a room and stopped a dresser from falling on top of my child. It wasn’t until after it was over that I realized that (1) I wasn’t capable of moving that fast and (2) I wasn’t strong enough to stop the dresser by myself. Yet somehow I had done both.

Yes,  these autopilot moments can be amazing and life-saving.

Except when they aren’t.

Sometimes they are embarrassing.

Last month, while camping, my fear of snakes kicked in while hiking with my family. Yep. I have a huge fear of snakes, which I had thought I was mostly over. But there, curled up against a tree by the trail was a tiny, insignificant garter snake. Auto-pilot took over and I literally pushed my children out of the way to get away from the snake. It was wasn’t until I was 50 yards up the path that I quit running and realized I had left them to fend for themselves. (Of course my husband was there and the snake wasn’t deadly, it was more of an oversized worm… but still.I Left My Children.) Auto-pilot had disengaged my brain and my body reacted on its own.  When my brain caught up, I was fully aware of all the other choices I had in the moment, but the truth is, it took my brain a while to catch up.

So sometimes auto-pilot is helpful, sometimes it’s embarrassing and sometimes it really gets in the way.

Sometimes, auto-pilot kicks in when we are tired, stressed, overwhelmed or triggered in some other way. Sometimes auto-pilot looks like running away from a snake and sometimes it looks like yelling, screaming or worse.

It’s those moments when we are interacting with our children and somewhere along the line our brain says “stop,” and we just keep going. Do you know those moments? Where you can feel your body and mouth moving through space and time, but your mind is elsewhere?

Maybe we suddenly realize we are screaming at our kids to quit screaming. Or we are in “lecture” mode and, even though our brain is telling us that our kids have checked out minutes ago, our mouths just keep moving and words keep pouring out. Or maybe we feel so angry and out of control that our bodies are frantic and tense and moving with aggression and force.

Each of these moments has something in common. For some reason, the situation creates a kind of flight or fight response. Our emergency response system kicks into gear and our body just reacts with one goal. Get Control Now. We are not interacting with the moment, or with the people around us. We are simply reacting as if the situation is an emergency.  And at some point, our brain catches up, our body slows and we can make some judgments and decisions about what to do next.

So this works when it really is an emergency (the dresser falling), but not so much when it really isn’t (almost all other parenting moments).

The truth is, very few moments in parenting are emergencies. And while we tend to go on auto-pilot pretty frequently, it usually isn’t helpful. Most of the time, our thoughtful, conscious, aware selves would make some pretty different decisions if we just invited them to the moment.

The question is how. How do we (1) recognize that we are in auto-pilot and (2) learn to listen to that voice inside our head telling us to stop when we are in the moment.  And, even better, (3) how do we recover when we do pull ourselves out of it and (4) learn to turn off auto-pilot all together?

Try this:

1)   Recognition is half the battle. In order to recognize that we are in auto-pilot, it is helpful to learn our own tell-tale signs. Physical cues are sometimes easier to become aware of. Start collecting data. When you are stressed or yelling or in a parenting moment you want to change, notice how your body feels. Are your teeth clenched or your arms heavy? Is your voice loud, does your head hurt or are you moving fast? Once you become aware of these cues, you can use them to trigger awareness. It is often easier to recognize body states than it is to recognize emotional processes.

2)   Learn to listen and stop auto-pilot midstream. This is probably the most difficult part. Most of us have the experience of knowing we are doing something we don’t want to do, but we just keep doing it. Our bodies are physiologically tense and engaged in “fight or flight,” a train moving full-steam ahead, while our brain is trying its best to get control of the situation. We can help our brains out by essentially letting the steam out of the engine. If we change the physical state of our body, it is easier for our brains to take over. Think about it, if a boxer goes into a ring to fight, they don’t want to be relaxed, they want to be as tense and hyped up as possible. If we relax our jaw, release the tension in our fists, expand our chest, drop our shoulders, breathe deep into our diaphragm, it will be almost impossible to fight the good fight. Our body immediately feels different and our brain has a chance to catch up and take over the decision-making process. In the moment of auto-pilot, rather than trying to force ourselves to feel differently, we simply change the structure of our body and give ourselves a minute. Breathing. It really is the cure all.

3)   When we do catch ourselves, and we change the moment, it is an amazing opportunity to model coping skills. We can narrate and process with our children. Saying something like, “Wow, I just realized how loudly I am yelling. It feels really bad to me and I bet it feels really bad to you. I am going to take some breaths and try interacting differently.” We can show our kids that it is possible to change directions when we feel out of control, be accountable for the impact we are having on the moment and people around us, use coping skills to change the way we feel, problem solve with others, get support, etc. What an opportunity!

4)   Learning to turn it off all together means taking pre-emptive measures. It’s about knowing what our triggers are. It’s about knowing when we are operating on fewer resources. Are we tired, stressed at work, particularly triggered by the new high-pitched squeal our child is trying out, feeling disrespected,… afraid of snakes? What we do with this information BEFORE the parenting moment arises makes all the difference. Self-care, support, practicing awareness and breathing are just a few steps we can take on an ongoing basis. Aware and gentle parenting requires us to recognize that we are human, with human reactions and auto-pilot responses, AND be accountable for these patterns in our parenting.

We will practice steps one through three over and over and over again. Some of us will get better at step four, but even then, auto-pilot is destined to pop up from time to time. Remember, there are times when it is actually helpful. Most of the time though, turning off the auto-pilot will let us find a little balance in the rocky path of parenting.

 

 

 

 Posted by at 10:04 am
Jun 132013
 

Look closer, stuff is happening.

A preschooler comes home from school; he is edgy and vulnerable. Maybe something happened at school. Maybe a friend made him sad. Maybe the work was hard. We may never know. But we do know that he is poking and prodding and pushing and pulling. We can feel it rise. We are on guard. If we only look at the surface, we may try to shut down behaviors: “Don’t do that.” “Be nice to your brother.” “Find something to do.” We engage in reactive parenting with the goal of avoiding a meltdown, of avoiding our own discomfort. We are focused only on the immediate behaviors we can see on the surface.

But look closer, stuff is happening. When we observe more closely, we may see sadness or tenderness. Our preschooler doesn’t have the words to express deep complicated emotion. So he moves his body around, waiting to crash into something or someone, emotionally or physically, that can help him “get it out.”

Inevitably, if we don’t look closer, if we can’t make space for the bigger, deeper issues, it will happen. And sometimes, even if we see that there is more there, it will happen anyway. Explosion. Sometimes a kid just needs to blow up.

If we react to the surface behaviors, we may miss the real action.

Look closer, stuff is happening. Children’s behavior is not random. It is the physical representation of what they are feeling and thinking. Just like adult behavior. Just like you and just like me.

It’s our job to use the child’s behavior as clues. Use their actions to remind us to look deeper. What is happening? What are they telling us? What do they need?

Our preschooler starts throwing stuff around the room. Our instinct tells us to stop him. But instead we look closer. We see that he is actually choosing objects carefully. Things that won’t break. He is making a mess, but not doing damage. He looks angry. He looks lonely. He looks sad. He is, also, very much in control.

We choose not to stop him. Instead we say, “You look angry, you look lonely, you look sad. I am here if you need me.” We step back and give him space, watching closely and prepared to intervene if the behavior becomes more out of control or unsafe.

He continues to throw things, clearly choosing carefully. The mess is pretty big. We control our own instinct to intervene. Messes make us uncomfortable, but that’s our process, not his.

We wait, keeping the house quiet and still, keeping ourselves available from a distance.

Eventually, he comes to us, saying, “I need a hug.” “I can see that,” we say and wrap him in our arms. The living room is a mess. He melts into our arms and cries and cries. We can feel his sadness. Life is hard. It really is. Sometimes, we just need to explode. His body changes, but he isn’t done yet.

Look closely, stuff is happening.

“That’s a pretty big mess you made in there. You were really angry. What happens next?” we ask.

His crying escalates. “I have to clean it up!!!” he wails.

“Seems like the right thing to do. When I break stuff or make a mess, I like to leave things better than I found them. It helps me feel better,” we say.

“No one will help me! I have to do it alone!” he sobs.

“Seems like it, I know you can do it. I have faith. I will be right here if you need me.”

His sobbing continues as he slowly moves to the living room. Bit by bit. Block by block. Game piece by game piece. He struggles to put everything back in order. He is crying loudly. Sobbing. But we look closer, stuff is happening. He is taking meticulous pride in putting things in order. He is organizing things that he didn’t mess up.

He works. And works. And cries and cries. Every few minutes, he comes back to where we are sitting and asks for a hug. We give them freely. There is no time limit. This is his process. There is no need for him to be calm or be quiet or do things our way.

The mess is cleaned up and he is breathing deeply and slowly. He sits down in the middle of the room and looks around. “I think I will clean the windows.” We smile. “That would feel good I bet. Leaving things better makes me feel good, too.” He cleans them and then pushes a candle into the center of the table. He stands back and smiles.

Look closer, things are happening. It is his living room. It was his mess. He went from angry and furious to sad to calm and proud.

We may never have any idea about what he worked through in that time. But he worked through some feelings that were pretty big. A closer look allowed us to interact rather than react. It allowed us to give him space, to stay close and supportive without interfering.

Look closer, things are happening. All the time.

 Posted by at 11:09 pm
Jul 092012
 

We all have issues. No matter how wonderful our parenting skills, no matter how peaceful and loving and gentle we strive to be in our interactions with our children, at the end of the day we all have issues.  Often, our issues are clear. We know about them and work on them on a daily basis to try to keep them in check. Other issues may be more subtle or buried deep in the depths of our psyche. Or maybe we feel like we have conquered them. So when our children, our sweet-faced, big-hearted, little bundles of love bust out with something like, “Mama! Your butt looks like a million monsters stuck together!” we may be surprised at our own reaction.

True story. I will give you the full picture.

There I was, getting out of the shower, my children running in and out of the bathroom (I am sure all of you can relate) when my preschooler says, “Mama, you have a very big butt!” Now, he didn’t say it in his maniacal, I-need-attention-so-I-am-going-to-squeal-at-the-top-of-my-lungs kind of voice. Nope, he said it in the way one would notice a lovely tree or flower or maybe an overripe tomato on the vine. A sing-songy, quiet and sweet voice. A just-noticing kind of voice.  I swallowed and held back all of the societal beliefs and pressures and unrealistic notions that were welling up inside me. “Really?” I tried to respond as neutrally as possible. “Oh yeah, it’s like a million monsters all stuck together.” And though I tried to hold onto my self esteem, I could feel it going down the drain with the water.

We can laugh. I laughed at the moment and I laugh now. But I am also aware of how it impacted me. I was acutely aware that he had, quite innocently, triggered an issue for me.  I am also well aware of the fact that he is four, has no idea about body image or ideals or the struggles women in general deal with in our culture surrounding their body. He has no idea that big butts are considered differently from small butts any more than he would think big rocks are different from small rocks. They are just that, different. There was no judgment in his voice, no motive, no devious plot to bring me down. It was just his observation, mashed together with what he was thinking about moments prior. My butt is bigger than his butt. Fact. He was thinking about monsters. Fact. They merged together. He spoke it out loud and went on his merry way. The drama happened inside of me.

So, back to the beginning. We all have issues. We have body issues and food issues and anger issues and love issues and relationship issues. We have guilt issues and mother issues and control issues.  We have deep issues and shallow issues, big issues and small issues. And the unavoidable truth is that our children will trigger these issues.  When our issues get triggered, the drama inside us unfolds. And when the drama unfolds, it tends to come out in ways that we don’t intend. When we react to our children based on our inner drama, a couple of things happen,

1)      We react to situations with misplaced anger, shame, guilt or control. We lose sight of what is actually going on with our children and steal the show, so to speak.

2)      When we let our inner drama lead the way, we have difficulty following through with our parenting intentions and find ourselves saying or doing things we don’t want to say or do.

3)      Maybe most importantly, when we let our inner drama lead the way, we make our children responsible for our issues. When we make them responsible for our issues, they lose their right to learn and explore the world in a safe and genuine way. They now have to learn to manage us as well as themselves.

So what do we do? Or, as a friend expressed it more eloquently,

“What to do when your preschooler rips out your soul, throws it on the ground, and goes number two on it?”

(the true and rightful title of this blog).

1)      Become aware of your issues. Use whatever method works. Journal, meditate, seek therapy, think, have wine with friends, whatever. Just be willing to take inventory and become aware of what your issues are. If you know that one of your buttons is being late, and you know that you become irritated and anxious and irate when people are late, it may explain why you hear your voice rising every time you have to get your family in the car. Dawdling children may trigger something in you that interferes with your ability to respond gently. But children are dawdlers. They just are. Feeling like they are doing it to spite you is your drama, not theirs. Can you identify your patterns and triggers? Can you notice how your responses to your children may be drama-led rather than child-focused?

2)      Once you have a grasp of your bigger-picture issues, practice becoming more aware in the moment.  Breathing and becoming aware of the thoughts and emotions that guide us can have a wondrous impact on our ability to respond gently in the moment. I strongly believe that the number-one, most under-appreciated parenting tool is simply breathing.  When we take a moment to become aware and connected with our breath, we have a chance to also become aware of the thoughts and triggers and emotions that are coloring our vision. This gives us an opportunity to assess the situation. I like to use the acronym CORE. I have written about it in other blog posts, but basically it is:

C- Connect and center. Breathe, take a moment, notice yourself, notice your child.

O- Observe the opportunity. What is actually happening? What do you need? What does your child need?

R- Realize the moment. What path do you want to take?

E- Engage. Sometimes this means doing something, sometimes this means doing nothing. But often, it means doing something different from your first impulse.

The whole process takes the space of a breath and can change a moment drastically.

3)      When you feel yourself triggered in the moment, take note of it and mentally file it away. Then respond to your child in the way that your child needs. Later (and this is the important part), process the issue in some way, shape or fashion. How is up to you. Use whatever you know works. You might try laughing about it with friends, journaling, getting help from a mentor, therapist, or coach, or just thinking it over.

So what’s the bottom line? The issues are our issues. Not their issues. And unless we want our issues to become their issues, we better make sure that we are fully aware of moments when the drama inside us is leading the way.  Because when we feel like our children are “ripping out our soul and throwing it on the ground and going number two on it,” they probably aren’t. They are probably just being kids.  And it’s our job to make sure our issues don’t get in the way of that.

 Posted by at 7:10 am
Jun 052012
 

Recently, through blogs, communication with other parents and discussion with my own family, I have heard myself talk about helping a child to learn to trust herself. I have become aware that for me this issue is at the heart of raising healthy, resilient children. A child who trusts herself is able to experience the world through her own eyes and heart rather than relying on an adult’s interpretation of things for her. A child who trusts herself can confidently take risks and try new things and also know when she needs a helping hand. A child who trusts herself knows when something doesn’t feel right and can ask for help. On the other hand, she can fully enjoy when something is right and feel empowered, taking ownership over her experience.

I have come to realize that so many of the childhood, adolescent and even adult issues that our children face boil down to trusting and knowing themselves. Three specific topics come directly to mind.

1)      Sexual Health. – In order to be sexually resilient, stand up to abuse and make sexual decisions that are healthy for them, children need to be able to trust their inner instincts. So often abusers use grooming techniques to blur the lines and confuse the child so that the line between fun and abuse is cloudy, grey and easily missed. Sometimes, the only thing that may signal that a playful behavior has turned abusive is an internal red flag. A child has to be able to trust that tiny voice in the back of their head that says, “I don’t like this.” And often, it means saying something bad about someone who is respected within the family. What a huge burden! In order to do this, the child has to trust that tiny voice, they have to trust themself, and they have to know that we trust them.

2)      Food. – Eating disorders and food issues are rampant in our society. We want our children to have a healthy relationship with food and a healthy relationship with their own body. In order to do this, in the face of overwhelming media and peer messages about food and bodies, our children have to trust themselves. They have to know when they are hungry and when they are not. They have to trust that when they feel hungry they really are and that food is a nurturing part of life.

3)      Bullying. – In order for our children to resist bullying (either being a bully or being bullied) and stand up for others and for themselves, they have to trust their own feelings about themselves and others. They need to have confidence that they are powerful, healthy, strong individuals and that others are as well. They need to have confidence in their own feelings and empathy for the feelings of others. But how can we expect them to understand or even consider what others are feeling if they don’t know or trust their own feelings?

I could go on and on. But you get the point. If I could only give my children one thing, it would be this: Trust in themselves.

Of course we all want this. We want our children to have a deep and profound understanding and connection to themselves. It is easy to see how verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse would undermine and destroy children’s ability to trust themselves. But it may be harder to recognize the subtle and tiny ways that we, with all the best intentions, whittle away at children’s ability to trust themselves. How often do we tell a child how they feel or don’t feel. Most of us have responded like this on at least one occasion:

“My leg hurts.” “I don’t see anything, you’re okay.

Or, “I’m done eating.” “Take one more bite, I know you’re still hungry.”

Or, “I don’t want to kiss grandma.” “Go on, kiss her, you love her so much!”

In each of these scenarios, our best intentions give an unintended, yet pretty clear, message: “You don’t know how you feel. I do.

The examples are endless. Statements like, “There is no reason to be scared.” “Don’t be angry at me, this is a natural consequence.” “I know you have to pee.” “She is your friend, you like playing with her.” “This is your favorite color.” “Stop crying, this is not something to cry about” all send the same message. “You don’t know how you feel. I do.” A child who hears this message repeatedly learns that they can’t really trust their own emotional or physical sensations, they don’t know how to interpret internal cues, they can’t communicate these internal cues to others and if they do, someone will tell them they are wrong.

Of course none of us actually wish to transmit this message to our children. Rather, we respond this way for a variety of reasons:

1)      We don’t know what to do. – Children often have unexplained emotions. They have aches and pains and heartaches and struggles and frustrations that we can’t see and can’t fix. When a child is complaining that his leg hurts, and there’s no blood or scratch or bruise, we can’t diagnosis it. Maybe he is having growing pains. Maybe he needs a hug and doesn’t know how to ask. Maybe he needs an adult to come close because he feels anxious. Maybe he saw a sibling with a hurt leg and is expressing sympathy. Who knows! It can be overwhelming and frustrating to a parent, so we respond with, “It doesn’t hurt. There is nothing there.”

2)      We think it’s in the child’s best interest. – Parents worry that their child isn’t eating enough. Parents worry that their child will be cold. Parents worry that their child isn’t playing well with other children. So we tell them to do something because we feel it is best for them. “Eat all your food.” “I know you’re cold, put on a jacket.” “You like Jane, play nice with her.” But the problem is that we are negating and overriding a child’s experience of their own body or feelings. It doesn’t actually help them in the end.

3)      We think we are teaching them something. – Mind your manners. Be polite. Say hi to the stranger. Kiss Grandma. Don’t embarrass me. What we are actually teaching them is how to comply with parental or adult demands to make us happy and ignore their own internal cues. That’s great if we are training show dogs. Not so great if we are trying to raise emotionally intelligent and resilient adults.

Rather, our goal should be to help our children identify their own emotional states and trust that they can get their needs met by communicating this in some way. In order to do this, we have to be willing to let them own their own feelings, experience the world in their own way and explore possible outcomes. We also need to let them know that we trust them to do this.

Rather than directing or telling a child how they feel or what they should do about it, we can strive to support a child through their own process. We can do this by reflecting, sharing and asking.

Reflect what you see: We can help a child understand social context and cues by reflecting back to him what is happening.

Share how you feel: Reflecting our own feelings models a pattern of communication which is genuine and trusting.

Ask what they think: Asking them what they think or feel tells them that you trust and value their thoughts and feelings.

Through doing this, we can help them negotiate the outcome, rather than dictating one. Let them know that you are there to support them through it and that you will be there to help. Finding realistic and healthy solutions is part of the process. So instead of, “I don’t see anything, your leg is okay,” it may sound like this:

 

I notice you are very sad and hurt right now. You’re really holding onto your leg. (Parent reflects what is happening in the moment.)

I feel really worried and confused because I can’t see the owie, I don’t know how to help you! (Parent shares how they feel.)

What does it feel like? What do you think you need? (Parent asks what the child thinks and feels.)

It feels pokey and I think I need to go to Disneyland! (Child identifies a feeling and a solution.)

Oh, I love Disneyland, and I wish we could go there, too! That would probably distract you from the pokey feeling. But since we can’t, is there anything else I can do for you? (Parent validates child’s feeling. And asks to problem solve.)

 A kiss. (Child is empowered to find his own solution.)

Absolutely. (Parent sends message that they are there to support their child.)  

 

Reflect, Share and Ask. It works for any situation. What if a child refuses dinner?

-I notice you didn’t eat any dinner. And I’m worried that you’re going to be really hungry later. What do you think? How does your tummy feel?

– My tummy feels bubbly and I don’t want to eat.

– Is there anything else you need?

-Ice cream.

-Oh man, ice cream is yummy, but it isn’t available for dinner. Anything else?

-No, I’m just not hungry.

-Okay, snack will be ready at 7 if you’re hungry then.

 

This process encourages a child to self-identify and communicate emotions. It sets a stage for a pattern of communication in which each person is responsible for their own emotions and is part of the solution. It tells children that they can be responsible for themselves and ask for what they need. All of these are things that many of us struggle with as adults. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we learned how to do it when we were toddlers? When we encourage a child to explore their emotions and physical sensations, and we believe and support them when they do tell us, we are giving the message that we trust them. And if we trust them, they can trust themselves. And if they trust themselves, they can experience the world on their own, instead of needing others to do it for them. And that is the basis for authentic genuine living.

 Posted by at 3:00 pm
May 102012
 

“No.” “Stop doing that.” “Share the truck.” “Don’t lick your brother’s forehead.” “Don’t roll your eyes at grandma.” “Don’t use that word.” At the end of the day, most parents have unwittingly made statements such as these too many times to count. It seems that if we aren’t careful, we can get sucked into a never ending stream of what I call “micromanagement parenting.” We can feel like we are hanging on by a thread, trying to keep some semblance of calm while the storm continues to wear at us. We can feel like we constantly have to redirect, maintain control, referee, sidestep disaster and prevent chaos. It’s not very fun (for us or our kiddos), not very rewarding and the biggest downside is that it never seems to end. Just when we get one situation under control, another arises, like we are one step behind in a losing battle. This pattern can leave us feeling frustrated and exhausted as parents.

So, what is really going on here? Childhood is a time of incredible learning. Children are learning not only facts and skills such as math and reading and how to tie shoes and ride bikes, but they are learning how to negotiate social interactions, how to process feelings, how to empathize with others, how to relate. Parenthood is a time not only of protecting and nurturing, but also of teaching and providing opportunities for learning these skills. Essentially, as parents, we are given the job of being our children’s “life manager.” Thinking about how we fulfill this role will give us insight into our own parenting strengths and weaknesses.

Micromanaging. It is about getting people to do specific tasks: when we want them to and how we want them to. End of story. In a business setting, it may sound like, “Take this file, put it in a red envelope and write this address on it.” The manager doesn’t care at that moment if the employee understands why this process is important and they are not thinking about creating long term skills that benefit the employee or the company. They simply want the task done now. Similarly, in parenting, micromanagement might sound like, “Stop hitting your brother, give him the truck and pick up your toys.” This is an immediate solution to a moment in time that feels out of control for some reason. The parent is saying that they need quiet. They aren’t thinking about whether or not the child develops an empathic understanding of why she shouldn’t hit her brother, they just want everyone to stop crying and screaming right now. Micromanagement may lead to an immediate solution, but frustration lies in the fact that it has little impact on future behavior. So while she may stop hitting her brother right now, she will likely need to be told again tomorrow (or in five minutes).

When a child learns to read, we teach them to understand the letters, the sounds and the relationship between these components, along with rules and patterns of language. It would not be possible to simply tell a child to read and have them succeed. This is also true of social skills, empathy, emotional knowledge and relationships. We have to help children understand the nuances of interactions so that they can incorporate and, more importantly, utilize this information later. This learning does not happen when we say: “stop doing that” or “be nice” or “share.”  Saying such things is equivalent to saying: “read.” Rather, healthy social skills develop when we teach a child the rules, nuances and components of social life. When we help a child figure out what is going on in the moment, what options they have and what the outcomes may be based on these options.

When a child is frustrated and hitting, they are doing so because they feel something or think something that they cannot express or solve. The micromanaging parents says, “Stop hitting.” The teaching parent says, “I can see you are so frustrated, and when you hit your brother he got really sad. I wonder if there are other options right now? Let’s figure it out.” The teaching parent is helping a child to develop a language for identifying and expressing their feelings; they are communicating to the child that their feelings are valid and they are taking the time to help the child figure out how to negotiate the social interaction in a way that may be more productive in the future. These are skills that over time, with practice, the child will be able to do on their own. Just like reading. Every parent’s dream!

I often help parents to get out of micromanager mode and into teaching mode using the CORE acronym:

C – Center and Connect – We are all more likely to find ourselves in micromanager mode when we are tired, overwhelmed and distracted. Making dinner, talking on the phone, paying bills, doing laundry and taking care of life can often challenge our ability to be present for our children. It would be great if we could all be present for our children 100% of the time, but this isn’t realistic (and maybe not even healthy). However, it is a worthy goal to be able to redirect our attention when we need to. Taking a moment to breathe and center ourselves first may allow us to have a different view of the situation.

O – Opportunity – After we have taken a moment to breathe, we can get a better idea of what opportunity is presenting itself. Rather than seeing situations as “problems to be solved,” we can start to view these moments as opportunities to help our children learn to negotiate the world. “Not again! They are fighting over another toy” becomes “Great, another chance to practice communication of needs!” We aren’t born with these skills, we need to learn them and the more practice the better. It is amazing what a difference reframing this in our own minds can make.

R – Realize the Moment – What really needs to happen in this moment? This is where we consider all the external forces and situational factors. Is someone going to be hurt? Does this chore need to be done right now? What are the actual demands? Usually when we are in micromanaging mode we feel like something has to happen NOW. In reality, this is usually not the case. If we are honest with ourselves, the truth is that we often want something to happen now simply because there is discord or loud voices or a mess, and we crave quiet and order. Once we have taken a moment, and a breath, we realize that things aren’t so immediate and that the opportunity for learning can in fact be the top priority. What do I want my child to learn here?

E – Engage, Explore, Experiment and Educate – At this point we can think about how to engage our child in this learning opportunity. We can reflect feelings, we can brainstorm options, we can talk through consequences. We can support our children as they practice a new way of doing things. We become guides, teachers and mentors. As a parent, this feels so much more rewarding than being a micromanager.

Admittedly, this can sound like a giant task. But in reality, this process of centering/connecting, considering the opportunity, realizing the moment and engaging our children may not take much more time than the micromanaging style. The first three steps may happen in the time it takes to inhale and exhale a couple of times, and the difference it can make in our interactions with our children will be beyond comparison. After all, unless we plan on being there every moment of their lives to remind them not to hit when they are frustrated, micromanagement parenting is not a sustainable plan. And it certainly isn’t very rewarding. And while no parent is going to get through parenthood without the occasional “just do it because I told you to,” it is reasonable and admirable to expect ourselves to be engaging more than hovering, exploring more than directing, experimenting more than arbitrating and educating more than micromanaging. And, I promise, the outcome will be worth it.

 Posted by at 2:30 pm

Bubbles of Independence

 child development, Control, Independence, Tantrums  Comments Off on Bubbles of Independence
Oct 102011
 

This week I found myself pondering and meditating on the issue of tantrums. We as parents use this word pretty indiscriminately to describe a wide range of behaviors that our children display in an even wider range of situations. From the three-year-old who throws himself on the floor in a rage of exacerbated screams, to the nine-year-old who stomps off to her room muttering under her breath, to the 14-year-old who rolls his eyes and posts nasty things about his mother on Facebook. We seem to lump all of this into one general category: Tantrums.

But what is really going on? What is the point? What is the child really trying to tell us? Open any parenting book and the message seems to be the same. It always seems to boil down to control. Children want more control than we allow them. Maybe they want more control than is good for them. But maybe the other side of the coin is just as important here. Maybe we, as parents, in return want more control than our children allow us. And maybe we want more control than is good for them.

From birth on, parents and children engage in an intriguing dance of giving and taking control. Sleep-struggles, food-struggles, and putting-on-shoe-struggles plague the relationships between toddlers and parents. And then it’s homework-struggles, chore-struggles, staying-out-too-late-struggles. No matter what stage of development, children seem to be screaming, “I can do it!” while parents scream back, “You need my help!” Only after seemingly endless battles do parents and children find the right combination of independence and support, and then almost immediately the dance begins anew with the next step of life.

Whatever the step, independence is the name of the game for kids and the challenge for parents is to know how much help to give and when help is really necessary. I have noted, time and time again, that “tantrums” seem to increase at times when children are on the brink of being able to master something. Sometimes their own abilities limit their odds of success at independence, but more often, I think, it is the parent’s belief that the child needs their help that is really getting in the way.

Sometimes I imagine my own children with little bubbles around them. Inside their bubble is what they can take care of themselves. It is their bubble of independence. Outside their bubble is what they need my help and support with. Maturation, or development, is the process of expanding their bubble, until they grow into healthy well-functioning adults who have all the skills they need to negotiate the world on their own terms. (That’s the goal, right?) In order to do this, they have to push the bubble from the inside out. My job is to help them grow their bubble and to protect it from popping. Guard their bubble, support their bubble, nurture their bubble without hindering its expansion.

I have noticed that when there is a lot of friction between me and my child, it may be that I am pushing in on their bubble while they are pushing out. Instead, I need to assess the situation. What independent actions are they capable of that I may not be acknowledging? Sometimes it may feel counter-intuitive to give more freedom at times that a child seems to be acting out more, but maybe, by giving their bubble room to grow in one area, they can be more receptive to our support in another. And, who knows, they might just blow our minds at what they really can do on their own.

 Posted by at 3:00 pm
Oct 032011
 

Recently, my children blessed me with about an hour of freedom to get some housework done. It came at a cost of course, but it also resulted in some amazing developments, for them as well as for me. The scenario went something like this:

My three-year-old asked if the boys could play with chalk and draw on the chalk wall that is in our kitchen, his younger brother bounced up and down, pointing at the chalk wall in excitement. Sure, it seemed like a great idea for a soggy morning. I brought out the box of chalk and the two of them went at it. I sat and watched them for a minute and relished in the vision of the two of them, drawing side by side. I held back from commenting on their activity or getting involved, impressed with the moments that they play and interact together so comfortably.

I ventured out of the kitchen and thought about my to-do list. I wondered if their activity would last long enough for me to clean the bathroom. I started with something simple and swept the bathroom floor. The house was quiet. I tiptoed into the kitchen and peeked around the corner. Still working. I saw my three-year-old tell his younger brother, “It’s a space ship,” and my younger son smiled and nodded.

I went back to the bathroom. Not trusting fully in the longevity of what was happening, I cautiously pulled out the cleaning products, sure they would bound down the hallway at any moment. I took a deep breath and told myself to stop wasting time. I started cleaning. Alone, in the bathroom.

I checked on them several times, sure that I would find them in some precarious position, climbing countertops, eating chalk, smothering each other in some dangerous way. But each time, I found them in unbelievably cooperative play, creating a work of art. It was too good to be true.

I left them to it and continued my chores. I finished the bathroom and moved on to my bedroom. This was amazing. It couldn’t last. The house was quiet. I ventured out one more time to the kitchen, and there it was. I just knew it. The boys had developed a method for turning the chalk into powder and were diligently working together to cover the entire kitchen floor with a rainbow of fine powdery color. Green, red, purple, white, and orange dust blanketed the floor and covered them from head to toe.

I froze and felt my breath catch in my throat. My immediate reaction was to intervene and put a stop to what was no less than a messy disaster, but something stopped me. Perhaps it was the knowledge that the moment I intervened would be the end of my relative freedom to finish my chores. Perhaps it was an understanding that my intervention would also put an end to the cooperation and brotherly bonding that was going on. I took inventory and realized that the mess they were creating was a done deal and I made a conscious choice to “look the other way” and finish my tasks before tackling theirs.

The boys noticed me standing there and squealed with delight, “Look, Mama, we are making moon dust! We put footprints in it that will be there forever!” They stomped around the kitchen in their moon dust, proudly laughing and giggling as the chalk dust rose in the air. “Looks like fun,” I said and walked away.

I went back to my chores, trying to ignore the mess I was eventually going to have to address, and trying to hold on to the last few moments of precious peace I would have for the day. And then, perhaps because I had left them to their own devices, left them to negotiate and explore the world on their own without my help, they shocked me one more time. About 10 minutes later, I heard them getting into the towel closet. Worried that the chalk was going to infiltrate the entire house, I went out, prepared to put an end to this disaster once and for all and set the motherly foot down.

“We’re getting towels to clean up our mess, Mama.”

Wow.

I nodded and left them alone. A few minutes later, I went to the kitchen and found them both spreading watery towels on the kitchen floor, pushing wet chalk around. I asked if they needed help and they agreed.

Together we cleaned up their chalk. They were so proud of their creation and seemed even prouder of their decision to clean up when they were done.

I wondered to myself what happened.

I had trusted them to explore the world on their own. I had let them push the boundaries of what is normal and comfortable and refrained from engaging in any way, even to praise or encourage them. I had just let them be. While I would love to profess that I did this for some developmentally-driven, well thought out reasoning, the truth is that I simply did it because I was feeling a little bit selfish and enjoying my own moment of peace.

But, a miraculous thing happened. The boys created their own moment, experienced the world in their own way, flourished in their own imaginations, and showed a level of responsibility and awareness of the boundaries of the world that I never imagined they had in cleaning up after themselves. I never could have created all that if I had tried to formulate an experience or designated myself as the leader of their activity. They only really got all of that because they had the freedom and the space to start a task and see it through to the finish without me getting in the way.

And I got a little time to myself.

I wonder how often I intervene when I don’t have to. How often do I step in when situations get a little uncomfortable for me and, in doing so, limit my children’s experiences of the world? There are, of course, times when we must step in and guide our children away from danger. And there are many times when we have to guide our children to do certain things because things need to get done, we have places to go and things to do. But oftentimes, we are guiding them away from experiences not because anything drastic is going to happen or out of any kind of necessity, but merely because their way is messy or inconvenient or different from how we imagined it would be.

While difficult to do in the moment, I believe strongly that allowing children space to experience the world on their own terms is crucial at every stage of development. It allows them to develop a sense of who they are in the world, allows them ownership over their thoughts and ideas and experiences. The chalk was their moon dust… The mess was their mess. For toddlers, freedom happens in safe spaces like this. As children get older, parents have to expand the area and offer bigger and bigger opportunities for freedom. This means parenting may be a little less comfortable at times as we give up control. But it may also mean that we have a little more room to breathe and a little more room to grow. Sometimes, we need to get out of the way of our children’s development.

 Posted by at 2:48 pm
Sep 062011
 

Some moments it is easy to stay present and thoughtful and aware and centered as we interact with our little ones. In those moments things work out. They flow. They flourish even. We seem to move from interaction to interaction with our children as if this parenting thing is the most natural thing in the world.

And then, in an instant, everything changes.

Maybe something doesn’t go their way. Maybe something doesn’t go our way. But suddenly we find ourselves struggling to make sense of who this person is in front of us and what in the world we are supposed to do with them. Suddenly, none of the parenting tricks, rules, recommendations or advice work. We can feel our discomfort growing. It is small at first. A nudge in the back of our mind. A whisper really. What if I can’t handle this?

And, of course, it is usually in those moments that this little person in front of us is relentless. They push. They pull. They poke and prod. They have amazing accuracy when it comes to pushing buttons from a distance. At least it feels that way in the moment.

And the discomfort grows. It’s churning now. Maybe it feels like anger. Maybe it feels like fear. Or frustration. Or annoyance. It’s morphing and materializing. What am I going to do? I must get this under control.

And then it happens. We hear ourselves do the thing we hate. The thing we always say we wouldn’t do. It’s kind of like slow motion. We know we are going to do it. We don’t want to. Our mind flashes to all the “appropriate” parenting strategies we “should” be using in this instance.  But. We. Just. Can’t. Stop. Ourselves. You know what I’m talking about. It’s different for all of us. Maybe it’s yelling or using the dreaded words “because I said so.” Or “wait till your father gets home.” Or “no dessert.” Maybe it’s giving a spanking or slamming a door or whatever. It doesn’t matter because the point is, in the moment, we all wish we had it together, but we still find ourselves being less than perfect.

Of course it happens to all of us, but what does it mean? How do we reconcile the parents we want to be with the parents we are and, worst of all, the parents we know we could be? Do we pretend that our shortcomings don’t happen? Do we blame others? Do we give up and stop aspiring to be better parents?

The truth is that there are no perfect parents. And, if you ask me, that is a good thing, especially if perfect parenting means always being in control, always responding consistently and appropriately, always keeping our personal feelings in check as we interact with our children. If perfect parenting always means being calm and fair and well…perfect, then it also means missing out.

If parents were perfect, then how would children learn about real life? How would they learn about healthy adversity? How would they learn about emotions? How would they learn how to tolerate stress and ambiguity and how in the world would they learn that it is okay to be human?

Don’t get me wrong. We can be hopeful that most of the time we respond and interact with our children in a way that is consistent with our views on optimal parenting. We should strive for that and we should never resort to anything that is abusive or harmful. But we should also know that we won’t always be perfect.

Rather than expecting perfection, we can use our “human” moments to teach our children life lessons: how to admit fault, take responsibility, make amends, recognize the need for change. We all know that children learn from what we do rather than what we say. Why would we assume that we can simply tell them how to do these things when we can show them? Rather than expecting perfection and hiding in shame when we fail, we can talk to our kids. These moments can be learning experiences for everyone. We can apologize and role model coping skills like taking a deep breath or a moment to ourselves. We can show them that we are human and in doing so we give them permission to do the same.

But maybe more importantly, it gives us the ability to relax just a little bit. Remembering that there are no perfect parents helps me to take a step back. It allows me to say, “I’m not sure, I’ll have to think about that” or “I was wrong” or “I don’t know.” It allows me to say, “Mama needs a minute” or “I’m feeling really frustrated” or “I’m not quite sure what to do here, got any ideas?” Not only does this awareness help to avoid those dreaded reactions we all fear so much, but it might just help to shed some light on the situation. Maybe we think to ourselves, “I’m out of my league here, what would (my mom, my mentor, my friend) do?” or “maybe I should call in reinforcements.” Or maybe, we can even ask the kiddo.

It is amazing, but when parents do this, little ones may just surprise us with their response. One day as my three-year-old made his thirtieth or so lap around the house screeching at the top of his lungs, I caught him and whispered in his ear, “I just don’t know how to help you right now.”  He responded with a high pitched, “I NEED TO GO TO  SLEEP!!!!!!!” and took off for lap number thirty-one. Alrighty then…at least I knew what direction to head, which is more than I could have said a few moments earlier.  I had admitted defeat and he had given me a clue. But that was only possible because I reminded myself that I wasn’t perfect.