Jun 182012
 

Recently, my husband and I went hiking with our boys. I ended up with a four-year-old on my back as I made my way up a pretty strenuous two mile trail. Not being one to waste an opportunity, I decided to turn this into a training exercise and kicked it into high gear. It was rough. My son was heavy, the path was steep and I was feeling pretty toasty. As I neared the summit I could feel my energy waning and my stamina failing me. “What do you think?” I huffed and puffed to my son. Don’t judge me, but what I wanted him to say was, “You are doing a good job, Mama!” And if he screamed it at the top of his lungs, that would have been all the better. I have to admit that I wanted him to praise me. I wanted encouragement; I wanted him to notice how hard I was working and pat me on the back and tell me how great I was doing. In this time when the use of praise in parenting is being thoughtfully considered, when even I have written about avoiding praise in general, I fully admit to wanting  a “good job, Mama” from him.

But he didn’t give it.

Instead he said, “I think that the uphill seems longer than the downhill.”

Huh. “Anything else? Do you notice anything else?” I REALLY wanted him to tell me I was doing great.

“Yep. I notice that you’re very sweaty and you need a shower.”

I couldn’t argue that, but it wasn’t exactly encouraging. He kept going. “I notice the hill is getting steeper.” “I’m pretty tired of riding; are we going to be there soon?” “I’m hungry for my sandwich, I think it’s past lunch time.” “This is taking a long time.” “Can I go back and get that stick?” “I wonder if Mr. Incredible would jump right off this cliff.” For the last 10 minutes of my workout, I got a steady stream of four-year-old consciousness. When we got to the top, he went about his business of scouring the area for bugs and sticks and bad guys while I tried to regain feeling in my legs and convince my lungs not to explode. After a few minutes I shamelessly tried one last time to get some praise.

“I didn’t think we would make it, did you?”

He looked at me blankly. “Why wouldn’t we have made it?”

I realized in that moment that he didn’t feel any need to praise or encourage me because he had no concept that I wouldn’t accomplish the task. He also had no idea what the task was or why I was doing it. For him, saying “good job” would have been meaningless. (I also realized that it shouldn’t be his job to praise me and the fact that I was hoping for it was a little bit silly, but that’s another story.)

But, in that moment, I also recognized that while we may be questioning the use of praise in general, maybe there is a time and place for cheerleading in parenting. There are many times when children struggle just as much with a task as I was struggling up the hill. Maybe they are laboring to complete a new skill, working hard to accomplish something that may be taking all their energy, concentration and effort. Maybe they are on the verge of giving up and what they really need is a cheerleader. Someone to get excited and urge them on and say, “Look at you! You’re doing it! Hooray! Keep working!” at the top of our lungs. I think that this type of praise is different from the “good job” we throw out 10 or 20 times a day for meaningless things. In fact, I think it is less about the words we use and more about being present in the moment. Sometimes the moment calls for reflecting, sometimes it calls for stepping out of the way and sometimes it calls for cheerleading.

And, maybe even more importantly, I realized that we as parents sometimes need the same thing. Parenting can be strenuous, difficult, trying, tricky, stressful and downright exhausting. Our backs creak and our hearts ache and our heads hurt. Sometimes it can feel like we will never make it up the hill with the kid on our back. And not only are we carrying the kids, but we are balancing work and home and partners and day-to-day responsibilities. And, on top of that, we are becoming more and more conscientious of how we parent and why we parent and how we say something and why we say something. We don’t just stop at being loving parents, we have incredible expectations. The mountain is high and sometimes we just need someone to yell at the top of their lungs that they think we are doing a great job.

So maybe we don’t always respond to our kids the right way. And maybe we gave praise when we could have reflected. And maybe we used “time out” as a way to take a breather. And maybe we zigged when we could have zagged or turned left when we could have gone right. Today, more than ever, parents seem to be driven to consider their parenting styles, work to improve their parenting skills and really think about themselves and their roles as parents. And for that I say: “GOOD JOB, MAMA and PAPA!”

I notice how hard you are working!

I appreciate how thoughtful you are about your parenting!

I love that you are struggling and succeeding in being a different kind of parent!

It’s hard and you are doing it!

Keep it up! It’s so worth it!

So, while we may never get it from our children, we should get it from each other. Praise, respect, encouragement, cheerleading, from one parent to another. Parenting can be a doozy of a hill. Together, we will make it to the summit. And, I hear, the view is spectacular at the top.

 Posted by at 3:03 pm
Jun 072012
 

Parenting does crazy things to couples. So much attention goes to the part of parenting that is child-focused. Philosophies, advice columns and blogs focus on the child’s development and what we as parents can do to help them thrive. Our kid-focus is justified; thriving children turn into thriving adults. But what seems to be talked about less, and what I really love, is the family behind the child. The Parent. The Couple. The people who are so deeply and profoundly impacted by children. A profound impact that, while beautiful, can create challenges for us as individuals and, especially, us as couples. The reality is that having children brings out parts of us that we never really knew were there and changes us to the core. Going from single, to partnered, to pregnant, to being a parent and a family brings on identity shifts and challenges that often go ignored. The identity that we form as a couple gets shaped and challenged and reshaped as the landscape of our family changes. Just as our children are constantly going through developmental changes, so are we as individuals, as couples and as families. And, while we pore over books and blogs and talk endlessly with our friends about the developmental stages of our kids, we have little connection to what is happening to us as individuals or as a couple.

So often I hear couples say things like, “We used to…” “We don’t talk anymore…” “When the kids aren’t around we just stare blankly at each other until we eventually start talking about the kids….” Just when a couple thinks they know each other, you throw a kid into the mix and the whole world tips upside down. Suddenly they don’t care about (or have time for) many of the things they liked to do together. Suddenly they are too tired to give each other the attention each partner needs. Suddenly life is about focusing on the child (and finding a way to take care of the rest of life so that we can focus on the child) and everything else gets left for another day. It can feel like our relationship is overshadowed by our children.

We  talk about the struggles that children have as they take on new developmental challenges. Child/parental conflict is often really about a child learning to differentiate from the parent, express themselves in new ways or take on new responsibilities in the world. They are figuring out their role in the family and in the world and sometimes that is a frustrating, tricky and even painful endeavor. In the same way, couple conflict may often be viewed as a symptom of developmental changes. Parents suddenly have different agendas, different priorities, different needs and they are trying to figure out their roles with their children, their partner and in the world. They are figuring out who they are and how to get their needs met, and, just like for children, this is amazingly difficult. In the same way that the toddler can’t say, “Mother, today I want to get dressed on my own and this is going to be frustrating, but I just want you to sit by me and support me while I try,” but instead grabs clothes from our hands and screams, we have difficulty identifying and articulating what we really need, and rely on arguing, blaming, criticizing and isolating. Sounds a lot like a tantrum!

So often new parents come into therapy with a “parenting” problem focused on their child and, through their work, it becomes clear that their main conflict is with each other. They are negotiating their roles with each other and in the family and struggling with it. In fact, many of the same things that parents struggle with with their children, are actually being acted out in their relationship as well. Power struggles, neediness, not listening, responsibility, trust. These are common themes discussed in child development, but what about between couples? What if couples were able to consider their own developing relationship in the same way that they consider their child’s development? What would happen if we looked beyond the complaint and tried to connect with what each person was really trying to communicate? Here are some common themes. Let’s call them Developmental Triggers:

Power Struggles: “Every morning it’s a power struggle.” So often, couples end up in stalemates when it comes to every day conflict. Many times, when it comes down to it, neither partner really knows what it is they are power struggling over. Both people dig in their heels and refuse to back down. When toddlers power struggle, they are saying, “I have my own ideas, thoughts and opinions. I may have some control here. I think I will test out this boundary and see what happens!” When couples are power struggling, they may be saying to each other, “Everything feels so out of control right now, I have to find the limit somehow. I need to know where I stand.”

Independence/Autonomy: “He thinks he can just do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.” Children need to slowly gain independence and autonomy and interact more and more with the world on their own. As parents, we recognize that in them. But we forget the importance of this for ourselves and our partners. Prior to having children, we likely enjoyed the freedom to make decisions, go places, do things that were spontaneous and unplanned. Couples develop a pattern or routine that involves interactions with each other and with friends and family as well as having time to themselves when they want it. Kids enter the picture and that all changes. It takes weeks of planning to go to dinner with friends. There are babysitters to secure, bags to pack, logistics to consider. Not to mention, many parents just feel too tired at the end of the day to go out afterward. Independence all but disappears for both parents. And while we may love the newfound responsibility of parenting, the loss of independence is huge. Finding a way to support each other’s autonomy is tricky. Hearing “I need space from you and from the family” often results in hurt feelings, even if we know that giving that space results in happier, healthier parents. When couples are fighting about this, what they may be actually saying is, “I need to find myself again.”

Neediness: “It seems that she always needs something.” Kids may act “needy” when they feel insecure or need adult support. They may come up with unending and creative ways to get your attention. What they are really saying is, “I need to feel connected with you. Be here with me now.” With never ending child care needs and demands added to the already long list of everyday living responsibilities, both partners may feel that their to-do lists are overwhelming and that their own needs fall to the wayside. Often in therapy both partners will equally profess that their own needs come last in the hierarchy. This can lead to two people who feel lonely, overwhelmed and isolated. Fighting about this may be more about trying to communicate, “Be here with me now. I need to know I am not alone.”

Recognition, Responsibility, Respect: “I am tired of picking up after them. Why can’t they do their share?” Most parents will profess that they do more than their partner. More cleaning, more parenting, more shopping, more cooking. Feeling like the division of labor is unequal can often result in feelings of anger and resentment. But when couples are asked to empathically think about what the other person actually does, most can make long lists of the things that their partner does as well. It seems that usually this fight is less about division of labor and more a cry for recognition. Parenthood is about doing a million things every day that go unnoticed, undocumented and unappreciated. It can feel lonely and tiring and endless. The rewards are often subtle and long-term. On a day-to-day basis, we want to know that our partner gets how hard we are working for the children, for the family, for each other. Even if that means fighting about who did the laundry and who took out the garbage. The real message is, “I want you to recognize what I bring to the family. I want you to see me.”

Listening: “It’s like I’m talking to a wall. They never listen to me.” Communication is hard when you’re stressed, tired and overwhelmed. Listening is hard as well. It’s easy for partners to blame the other one for not listening, but the truth is oftentimes there is more to it than that. We aren’t identifying our real needs, we are fighting instead of talking, we are lecturing instead of communicating. Couples may choose times to try to talk that are so full of barriers to effective communication that it’s a lost cause (when one person is exhausted, while the kids are running frantic, while the family is trying to get out the door in the morning). And then we say, “Once again, you didn’t listen to me.” What’s really happening is that paths aren’t crossing. The real message is, “I feel like we aren’t connecting. We aren’t on the same page.”

Trust: “They question everything I do.” There is so much discussion about trust in parenting and its impact on child development. Trusting a child encourages them to develop naturally and with confidence. In the same way, we often fail to give our partners that same trust in their own development. Parents are each developing their own relationships with each child, their own nuanced communication patterns and identities as parents and often this can look and feel different from our own. (Moms are often the worst offenders here, not letting dads explore and define their own relationships with the kids, being quick to jump in and parent when things are tricky.) Partners need to trust each other so that each person can feel free to explore and optimize their role in the family. The real message here is, “Trust me, support me, learn with me.”

So what can we do to start to experience things differently? Many parents of older children (at least those whose relationships don’t end in divorce) will confirm that they eventually found each other again and things got easier. That’s good news for sure, and it’s important to remember that these struggles are transitory and will likely pass. Kind of like the “terrible twos.” But what if, like with our parenting, rather than just grinning and bearing it, we tried to engage with each other in a way that would encourage each other’s developmental growth, deepen our relationship with each other and strengthen our family during this amazingly challenging time? Here are some things to try:

1)      Make a sacred time and space to talk about these issues. This is not a date night where you talk about the kids. Nor is it 15 minutes after the kids fall asleep when you are both struggling to stay awake. I’m talking about a regularly allotted time, both people fully alert and present, fully dedicated to talking about what’s going on. Maybe even take the list of Developmental Triggers that are listed above as conversation starters.

2)      View each other with compassion. Remember that relationship stressors are normal at this time and that you and your partner are both experiencing amazing personal challenges. Letting go of frustration, breathing and looking at the situation through your partner’s eyes can allow you to see things differently.

3)      It is human to resist change and try to hold on to what we think we know. Parenthood brings on such drastic changes to our family and to ourselves that we sometimes don’t know which way is up. Realizing that our relationships and our own identity may look very different and being open to that allows us to let go, relax and enjoy the new roles and relationships that are in front of us.

4)      Talk about parenting! Embrace your new roles, encourage each other to explore parenting ideas and theories. Debate and discuss and read together. Rather than trying to hold on to your pre-kid relationship while each of you individually tries to figure out what your post-kid relationship is all about, dive in, let go of the past and relish in this stage of life. Soon enough, the kids will need you less and less and you will find yourselves sitting in a quiet house, staring at each other saying, “What do we do without the kids around?”

5)      Find ways to support each partner’s development both as a parent and as a person. Make time in the family for individual interests and find ways that the family can honor and support them. How can the family, including the children, support the parent in developing their own thing? Does someone love to cook? Maybe they get a kid-free night to take a cooking class, then cook a new meal once a week that everyone enjoys together.

6)      Rather than just missing the things you used to do as a couple, build new traditions, routines and shared experiences that fit into your new and changing life.

It’s all about embracing the change, the ups and downs, the challenges and struggles. It’s all about growing as individuals, as a couple, as a family. When we do this, when we really connect to ourselves and our partners, we will thrive in our own development and in our relationships. And when we thrive as individuals and as a couple, we can thrive as parents. And thriving families lead to thriving children, which as we know, lead to thriving adults. And that’s a cycle we should absolutely perpetuate.

 Posted by at 3:19 pm
May 212012
 

How present are you for your children? When I ask this question, the response is usually both quick and vague, something like, “I’m pretty present, but I wish I could be more.” Most of us go to great lengths to be there for our kids. We provide them with a safe environment, we take them to museums and to the park and to the library. We attend story hours and play groups and make healthy meals and provide opportunities for art and interactions with other kids and help with homework. We work hard to ensure that their lives are full and busy. In fact, some of us can run ourselves ragged filling our children’s day with these opportunities.

But is that all there is to it? Is this the same as being present? And what does “being present” do for the parent?

When I think of being present with my children, I think of the times when I am truly and genuinely focused on them, in the moment. They have my full attention. I am not thinking about my phone, or my work, or dinner or the house payment. I’m not thinking about whether we are late to an activity or whether their lives are being developmentally enriched or whether I am saying the right thing or doing what my other mom friends would do. In fact, in these moments, I am not thinking of parenting at all. In these moments, when I am truly present, I am simply there, with them, doing whatever the moment calls for, while everything else falls away.

This weekend I took my boys to the park. I automatically took my place on the side of the jungle gym and watched them while they climbed and slid and swung. My mind wandered to work and what I was going to make for dinner and the laundry that was piling up. I looked at the time and nodded and smiled as the boys continually called out, “Mama, watch!” “Look, Mama!” “Want to see this?” That was when I realized that they didn’t really need me to see them go down the slide. Their constant calling was kid language for “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now.” I turned off my busy mind and started to play with them. I mean really play. I became a yellow moon monster hopping through the lava. I chased and got chased and giggled and actually participated in their game. I played. It wasn’t until I saw another parent laugh at me that I realized I had been completely engrossed in the silliness of the game and the interactions with my children. It felt amazing. And notably different from how our outing to the park started.

Another opportunity occurred last week during the hectic madness that comes around 5:30 every night. While I struggled to get dinner on the table, my youngest repeatedly came into the kitchen with a new “owie” which required tending to. There were no bruises, blood or bumps, and my half-hearted attempt to show empathy while making the spaghetti sauce was obviously not doing it for him. He would go back to his activity for a minute, only to return with another owie. First his toe, then his elbow, then his knee. I found myself feeling frustrated and annoyed, wishing he would give me 20 minutes to finish dinner. My reactions to him got less and less empathic, while his attempts to get my attention got louder and more frequent. And then I realized, he didn’t really need a kiss on his elbow; it was kid language for “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now.” So I did. I put down my knife, turned off the burner on the stove and plopped down on the kitchen floor. “Do you need me? What can I do for you?” I asked. He jumped into my lap and nestled his head into my neck, his arms wrapped around me. He held on for dear life. I have no idea what was going on inside his heart, but he felt sad and I found myself holding him tighter. I held him quietly for two or three minutes until he pulled his head away and looked me in the eye. “I love you, Mama” he said, smiled and stroked my cheek. Following his lead I offered him the same, love and gentle touches to his face and head. After a few more minutes, he started laughing, hopped up and ran into the living room to play. I got to finish making dinner without any more owies.

When I consider these two moments, I realize that there is a big difference between providing opportunities for my children and being truly and genuinely present in the moment. Providing opportunities is important. But, the truth is that forced to choose between an “opportunity” with a distracted parent or a few moments of your undivided attention, our kids are going to choose us. And when I think back over the week, it is these moments that stand out for me, too. These are the moments when I really feel the rewards of parenting: these unplanned, unscheduled, unstructured moments when I am truly connected to my children.

Lovely, right?

But, then there is reality. Dinner has to get made, bills have to get paid, laundry must get done. The kids are fighting, work is overwhelming, schedules are full and sometimes we just feel like there isn’t any more of us to go around. How can we be present with our children when it doesn’t feel like there is even room to take a breath? It would be so great if someone could just tell us the secret to easy, sure-thing parenting.

Well, I’m sorry to say, there isn’t a quick fix, magic word or parenting technique that works in all situations with all kids. What I can say is that finding a way to be present, for even a few moments a day, is the closest thing to a magic wand that I have found. So what is it about being present that works?

1)      Being truly present tells your child, “I’m here,” “You’re safe,” “You’re valid”: In the end, this is what a child needs to know. That they are loved, safe, secure, valid. This is what builds healthy, strong, resilient individuals. Our children need to know that they are connected to us and that we are connected to them. And the truth is, they need this more than they need another scheduled activity.

2)      A little goes a long way: Four or five minutes of undivided attention can work wonders and allow a child to feel safe and secure. This feeling of being loved and heard and safe stays with them and bolsters their confidence and ability to trust themselves, which may result in more independent play and give us time to make dinner.

3)      Being present is about quality, not quantity: There isn’t a magic number of minutes per day that children need. Don’t focus on the clock. When the moment is over, you will know it. Both you and your child will feel ready to move to the next moment. Sometimes it almost feels like a magic trick.

4)      Being present benefits the parent as much as the child: Parenting can be an unending, thankless job of never ending demands and needs. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “Really, you need to eat again? I just fed you!” Being present allows us to really experience the connection that we have with our children. The joy, the love, the wonder, the fun. Yes, they need to eat…again. But, they also want to look into your eyes and stroke your cheek, and that feels amazing.

5)      Practicing being present allows us to feel the difference: Start to become aware of how present (or not) you are during your parenting moments. It may be surprising how much being present in the moment may impact our ability to know what our children need and to respond to them in a meaningful way, which in turn has a direct correlation with less tantrums, melt downs and power struggles.

So how can we start to increase the amount of time we are actually present for our children?

1)      Set an intention: Choose one of the activities that you have planned for your children and make an intention to be truly present and engaged throughout it. Commit that this time will be screen free (no TV, phone, texting, email, computer, Facebook, iPad). Really challenge yourself to focus only on your children. Sit on the floor, climb the slide, put yourself in their world. You may be surprised at how it looks from their perspective. Intentionally be present; mind, body and spirit! 

2)      Respond to a frustrating moment by becoming fully present and engaged: Often it is the times when I am at the end of my rope, frustrated, pulling my hair out that I know I need to take a moment to fully engage. Whatever I am doing to try to “get control” of things isn’t working, and I’m missing the boat. It’s likely that my kids are trying to tell me something (in kid language, which can often be tricky) that I’m too distracted to hear. We are in a power struggle and I’m probably losing. It is in these moments that I know if I stop, breathe and connect with my child, things will probably feel a whole lot different. Unfortunately, these are the times that I feel the least capable of being present; these are also the times that it is the most productive and rewarding for everyone.

3)      Participate in cooperative play with your child: Many parents can tell you that they were  aware of the moment that their child began engaging in cooperative play (engaging in play that depends on the interaction between two or more children) rather than just parallel play (children playing side-by-side, but not acknowledging each other). But, how often do we engage in cooperative play with our kids? Try it! One idea is to choose an obscure object and ask, “What should we do with this?” inviting your child to play with you. Rather than sitting back and observing, or directing or commenting, go on and actually play. The connection that develops may surprise you. I once asked my child what we should do with wood chips. “Build a boat.” Obviously. So we did, and, as we built, he asked about countries I have traveled to and wanted to hear stories of my life before he was born. We talked and built and dreamed and imagined. All because I was prepared to really be present for a few minutes.

In the end, remember that childhood only happens once. These moments are fleeting and while I will soon forget about the brilliant art project I set up or the fact that dinner was on the table at exactly 6 pm, I will likely always remember my stint as a yellow moon monster and that moment of tenderness on the kitchen floor. I will treasure the moments when they said, “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now!” and I listened. Those are the moments that make parenting great and those are the moments that can make us great parents.

 Posted by at 3:41 pm
May 122012
 

My husband asks what I want for Mother’s Day. Breakfast in bed, time alone, chocolate, wine, dinner, flowers? Of course I want all these things, but none of them really captures what is in my heart this Mother’s Day.  Perhaps I am feeling a bit wistful because I just put away the winter clothes that my youngest has outgrown, or I am exhausted from another sleepless night or exhilarated from the growth spurt that seems to be measurable in inches before my eyes. Maybe I am basking in the kisses of two amazing boys, or drowning in the bathtub that won’t ever get clean, or lost in laundry or stunned by the newest phrase that came out of one of their mouths.

Maybe it is a combination of all these things, but when I think of Mother’s Day, I can’t seem to stay focused on myself. Rather, I find myself feeling a communal connection with women all over the world. Women who live down the street from me who I know, at this moment, are having the same silly discussion with their preschoolers about poop that I am having. Women who live in my town who I know will be up at 2:30 with me giving tender kisses to little ones. Women who live across the country or across the world who no doubt have the same tears and fears and smiles and joys that I do when it comes to this thing called motherhood.

For me, this year, motherhood is about the sisterhood. It is about all the women for hundreds of generations who have laughed and cried with their children and with each other. The women who have whispered sweet goodnights into the ears of little ones and screamed on behalf of their children and left blood and sweat and tears along the path to ensure that their children had it one step better than they did. For me, this year, motherhood is about all of you: The mamas who have come before me and those who are walking with me and those who will face the same path long after I am gone. Because whether I know you and cry with you or not, whether you are a close friend or a distant thought, the stream of motherhood consciousness holds us together.

There is a collective power that mothers seem to hold, embrace and create. And, although at times it can feel like I am trudging down the path of motherhood alone, with no one but a small child to talk to, I can always stop and draw on the millions of mothers around the world that are my sisters. I know that in their hearts they understand me, even if they don’t know me. In their hearts they have been where I am. No matter what I feel or think or experience, another mother is thinking or experiencing the same thing.

Sometimes I sit and watch my children and feel a surge in my heart so strong that I cannot imagine how I can live through it. I cannot dream of how I could ever express what I feel or explain to anyone else just how much I love these small people I am mothering. Sometimes I sit and hold my child against my skin and wonder if I could ever put into words the emotions that I feel for him. The joy, the fear, the dreams, the wonder. The immense ball of emotion that pulses through my heart and veins and out my pores. And then I realize, I don’t have to put it into words. I don’t have to try to explain it. Because mothers everywhere feel the same thing. We are united in this indescribable emotion, and, in that, we are forever sisters.

So here is to you, my sisters around the world, my sisters throughout time. Here is to all the mothers everywhere that share in my experience of this amazing journey.

So, do I want to sleep in? Eat chocolate? Go to brunch? Heck, yeah. Because I wouldn’t turn any of those down any day of the year. But in my heart, Mother’s Day this year is so much more. I am eternally grateful to my children on this Mother’s Day for allowing me to have such a connection with amazing women everywhere. Whether our children are newborn or grown, whether we have one child or ten children, we can find solace in each other and in the common path our hearts take. It is amazing and precious and scary and encompassing and passionate and vital and true. It is motherhood, and it is ours.

Happy Mother’s Day.

 Posted by at 10:42 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
Aug 232011
 

I have not set my alarm in over 2 years. Who needs one when there is an intense scream from the next room of “mommy!”, “daddy!”, or “wake up!”? As I struggle to open my eyes, roll my body out of bed, feel around for my glasses and slide into my slippers, I greet my child for the day. I would love to be able to claim that our day together starts with him wanting to be held for a moment as we slowly adjust to being awake…instead he is singularly focused on a mission for food. “Eat!”, as he signals with his hand going to his mouth. “Yes, granola” repeated over and over until we finally begin the trek downstairs to fulfill his needs. There is some comfort in starting the cycle over again. Buckling my child into his booster seat, serving him granola and milk, turning on the tea kettle, letting the cat up, emptying the dishwasher. And we start another day. As the breakfast routine comes to a close, I reflect on the day and what it holds for us.

Did I manage to plan ahead and arrange an outing or do the next 10 hours (till Daddy comes home and it is not just me and my child) stretch out in front of us like a huge expanse? Am I determined to “get things done” like laundry, shopping or some other project in the house or am I going to surrender completely to the whims of a toddler? Either choice has proven to hold both inner struggle, outer struggle and mixed sense of satisfaction. The accomplishment of getting laundry washed and folded while supervising the play of a little one does feel significant – especially if it can be done with little to no whining, neglect or feelings of guilt. On the other hand, the constant battle of putting off a child to do something as trivial as carrying a laundry basket downstairs doesn’t seem worth it in the big scheme of things. These are those precious days of parenting. He will only be this young for such a short time. That said, when I hand over a whole day to my child – who in reality doesn’t need me 100% of the time, just 70% of the time or every 2-4 minutes, I often find myself feeling a lack of purpose, a sense of emptiness, particularly if I have no meaningful interaction with another adult.

For me, I pride myself in being attuned to my child – perhaps at the expense of staying connected to what I want. I try to stay open to what I’m really feeling but often after so much deferring to the demands of my child, my heart has shut-down in a way that it is not that easy to reconnect quickly. I shift to a mode of “doing” that makes sure food is provided, naps happen, appointments are made, and dinner is at least identified, purchased and perhaps started. After days of not being in touch with my own heart, various stirrings creep up and suddenly I find myself wanting to sneak a Little Debbie’s Nutty Bar into my purse so that I can eat in the car while driving to the store. My son has starting asking what people are doing. Sure enough as soon as I opened the crinkly wrapper, from the backseat (good ears since his car seat is facing backwards) I hear “Mommy doing?” and I feel busted! The guilt of eating it to begin with, then trying to evade his question…I had to laugh at myself for the ridiculousness of the situation I had put myself in and how much I was projecting on to a 2 year old.

It is this type of inner dialogue I have over and over again – trying each week to discern my needs as well as those of my child to spontaneously and with careful planning, design the “perfect” day. Too often finding the balance on a daily basis eludes me, but often enough I feel a splash of joy with a smile on my lips as I go to sleep at night.

 Posted by at 1:32 pm
Aug 122011
 

Breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, snack.  In between is wake up, diaper change, trips to potty, nap, get out the toys, put the toys away, into the car seat, out of the car seat….And repeat. As I moved through the never ending steps of day to day parenting I suddenly became aware of my thoughts. “Get through blank so we can blank.” Fill in the blanks with the appropriate duty. Other thoughts floated by. I should get them outside, we should go to the zoo, an art project would really enrich their day, the boys need their toenails cut, pick out their pajamas before bath, what are we going to have for snack, I can’t believe he is hungry again.

Admittedly all of these thoughts are parenting related. They are all important, necessary and wonderful parts of parenting.

But I realized that my mind was overrun with these thoughts while my body and spirit went through the motions of the moment.  While changing a diaper I was thinking about getting them loaded into the car. While I was loading them into the car I was wondering if I was going to have to use that obnoxiously huge car cart at the grocery store. As I was pushing my way through the grocery store I was wondering if I would make it home in time for lunch….My mind was always on the next parenting step while my body was left on autopilot, going through the motions of the moment.

I wondered to myself what is parenting? Is it all the planning, thinking, and worrying? Surely my day is smoother when I am prepared for the next step. But in doing so I lose out on so much. I lose This Moment. I lose this opportunity to connect and really be present with my children. And if I am always one step ahead, what is the cost of an infinite series of lost moments?

I stop thinking about what is next and ground myself in the moment. I make eye contact with my child. I smile and connect with him. In This Moment. He touches my hair and laughs. I notice how it feels to be in This Moment, whether it is changing a diaper or clicking a car seat or pushing a huge car cart. And it feels amazing. I realize that children are experts at being  in This Moment.  They engage fully in it with their entire body, mind and spirit, giving anyone who joins them the amazing opportunity for connection. And when I am here with them, parenting feels more joyous and real and less stressful and overwhelming.

Of course I can’t always be there. Someone has to plan meals and tend to schedules and see the future. But my goal is to remember that stuff is the secretarial work. No doubt it is crucial to a finely tuned family system. But it’s This Moment that matters. This Moment IS parenting.

 Posted by at 6:40 pm
May 312011
 
 Posted by at 7:00 pm