Mar 122015
 

The parenting fairy tale: When I have a child, I will finally know what love is. Having a child will complete our family. I will know joy so big it can fill the whole world. A child is a mirror into my own soul.  My new baby will fit so wonderfully into my world. When I finally have a child, I will know who I am and what I am all about. I will watch my child grow and thrive, and then I will watch them have their own children, and soon I will be the matriarch of this large and loving, growing and thriving family. And they will ride off into the distance on a beautiful horse….

 

Oh, the dreams we dream about what it will be like to be a parent. And sometimes it is those things.

 

Except when it’s not.

 

Despite the fact that most of us end up in therapy complaining about relationships with our own parents, we build sand castle dreams about what having a child means to us. Despite the fact that movies and literature and songs and poems are filled to the brim with painful experiences and stories of both parenting and being parented, we cling to epic fantasies about what it means to be a parent. Despite the number of parenting books that tell us how hard it really is, we build fairy tale myths about having a child that resonate so deeply with our subconscious that we hardly know they are there at all.

The child fairy tale: Family dreams of child. Family waits for child. Family gets child. And it is so good. Family goes skipping through daisies hand in hand.

 

Oh, the dreams we can dream about what our children will be like. And sometimes they are those things.

 

 

Except when they aren’t.

 

 

The fairy tale myths of happily-ever-after relationships depict a battle or struggle built around getting to the relationship or finding the right person or overcoming obstacles like dragons or evil villains that would prevent us from being with our true love. But once we prevail, and we have nailed down our mate, then our journey is over and all that is left to do is bask in love. The sweet-sweet, running through tulips kind of love. No more struggle, no more battle. It’s happily ever after.

Thankfully, we are starting to understand just how significant this myth is when it comes to romantic partnerships. We are coming to understand that the real quest, battle and struggle come once the dragon has been slayed and love is actually available to us. When we look our happily-ever-after straight in the eye and say “okay,  let’s do this tulip-skipping thing,” we go left and they go right and before we even take our first skip we have to figure out how to negotiate in which direction we are actually going. Yep, the actual work starts then. And, as it turns out, there is way more negotiating than skipping.

And so it goes with parenting.

We dream, we plan, we fret over wallpaper and sheets for the crib. We ponder names and wait for kissable toes and worry about every minute leading up to the birth. We slay the dangerous dragons with outlet covers and cabinet locks, and we await the moment when our baby will arrive and the happily-ever-after part will begin. When we can bask and glow and love and love and love and…..

Except that the reality is that parenting is more work than glow. When we give up the myth and really look at parenting, we realize that what we have is two (or three or four or more) human beings in relationship with each other. And at least one of those human beings is terrible at communicating in our language, has extreme difficulty with emotional regulation, is incredibly self-centered, needs an unimaginable amount of support to complete even the simplest of daily tasks, and is excessively preoccupied with their own body’s needs. (I am actually talking about our babies, but I am sure many of us may be tempted to raise an eyebrow in the direction of our partners as well, or if we are really honest, at ourselves.)

And that fairy tale myth? About how it will be all love and starry-eyed gazing upon our offspring as they grow and thrive? Well… not so much. In reality, there is all the love and joy and fun and awe and amazement. But, parenting is also messy and exhausting and boring and tedious and lonely and disgusting and humiliating and much scarier than the dragon. And frustrating. Oh so frustrating. And the worst thing is that when we believe and expect the myth, then feeling these feelings just feels wrong.

But on the other hand, we figured out that that the “happily-ever-after” with our partner isn’t the period at the end of the sentence, but rather the opening to a long road of struggle and growth and challenges and joy and connection and pain and love and that all that IS the path. It IS the relationship. It IS the quest. It IS the love. If only we could take every “and they lived happily ever after” from every fairy tale ever written and replace it with “And so began the adventure” then we would know that the real juicy stuff is always yet to come. The relationship. That’s what’s ahead. That’s what we are in for.

So it goes with parenting. Parenting is all those things because it is a relationship with another person. It is an ongoing, never-ending path that two people walk, and skip, together. And the gross, painful, boring, frustrating dragon-slaying moments are just as precious and important as the joyful ones. Maybe even more so. Because it is in those terrible moments that we have the opportunity to sit back and say to our kids, “Wow, you are a human. And I get to be in a relationship with you.” And so began the adventure.

 Posted by at 2:52 pm
Jul 282014
 

What happens when we don’t get the parenthood we expected?

Before we have children, we have very clear expectations about what it will be like to be a parent. What we will be like as parents, and what our children will be like. We look at other parents and know what we will do differently, and we know how it will work, and we know what we will love about it.

Before I had children, I was very clear that we would throw our kids in backpacks and travel around South America in the style I was accustomed to. Our kids would be flexible, would be able to eat in restaurants, would be able to sleep on busses. Our kids wouldn’t need rigid schedules because our parenting would support their ability to “go with the flow.”

Before I had children I knew I would love to snuggle up on rainy days and read chapter after chapter of Little House on the Prairie with my pre-teen. I knew I would love co-sleeping. I knew that part of the joy of parenting would be to throw birthday parties where my children would frolic, laughing and joyfully chasing balloons with all their close close childhood friends. Before I had children, I knew that I would never be the kind of parent that yelled in the grocery store, mostly because my children would of course know how to act in a grocery store. I knew that I would be patient and kind and set loving and solid boundaries. I knew that my favorite parenting moments would be breast-feeding and sitting around with other moms while we leisurely sipped our coffee while our dear little ones played nicely together. I knew that we would have lovely family photos that captured the sunlight dappling on our faces while we ran through fields of daisies.

I just knew it.

And then I had kids. And they taught me how little I knew about being a mom.

We have gone backpacking across South America exactly zero times. Co-sleeping worked for our family about as well as trying to sleep in a blender. I have lost my shit in the grocery store. My kids have never wanted a birthday party with friends and we almost had to leave one the other day because the balloons getting popped were sending my son over his limits. And sitting around sipping coffee with other moms? Well, we all know how that really goes.

So the fantasy was great, it was lovely. But it wasn’t real life. My kids, these little balls of human need and emotion are real life. And the reality of them knocked me down a peg…or 10.

The truth is that our kids are born with a path, a life, of their own to live. They come from us, they depend on us, they our legally bound to us, but their life…their LIFE is their own. And our job is to embrace, support, guide and nurture that path. Their path.

Sometimes their path is so far from what we expected that we get the wind knocked out of us. Sometimes their path, and being their parent, changes our path so drastically that life becomes almost unrecognizable. It is easy, in these times, to become disappointed, resentful, angry. We can hear ourselves wondering why this is happening to us. Why can’t we have the happy kids, the happy family, the easy-lovely-normal kid? Why can’t parenting look like what we expected? Why? Why?

We can get stuck in the fantasy and what we are missing. We can mistakenly start to believe that joy in parenting can only occur when our kids become the kids that we had thought we were going to have.

But the truth is, joy is not dependent on the path looking a certain way. Joy is not saved for the healthy, the capable, the kids who love balloons and birthday parties and peacefully co-sleeping and snuggling on the couch. Joy is not reserved for times when the path is paved with flowers and dappled sunlight.

Joy in parenting can be there when the path is muddy and hard and even painful. Joy is possible when we embrace our children’s path. Their struggles, their light, their process. Joy happens when we realize that parenting this child, in this moment, is the task I signed up for. Joy is taking a hand or standing close by or supporting from afar. It means holding them tightly or watching them as they run off in the distance. Joy is the privilege of walking alongside our children’s path. As rocky and muddy and tricky as it might be.

No one gets the parenthood they expect. No one. Joy is loving, cherishing, embracing the parenthood we have.

 Posted by at 12:05 pm
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
Jul 172013
 

Emotion begets emotion. When our friends are happy or sad, we feel happy or sad. Maybe we feel twinges of tears during tissue commercials, or serious anxiety while watching contentious political debates. Being in the room with an angry individual, especially a loud angry person with big aggressive movements, can (and should) cause anxiety or mirrored anger. And parenting is no different. We come face to face with our children’s mostly raw, unhinged, loud and pure emotion once, twice or a hundred times a day.

 

Knowing what your go-to response is when you are faced with emotion is crucial to mindful parenting. Emotion is contagious and while empathy is a crucial and important part of interacting with the world, we also need to be aware of how our response pattern to emotions may be impacting our relationships and, most importantly, our parenting.

When we feel an emotion, our automatic response is to do something about it. If I feel angry, I want to get rid of the conflict. If I feel anxious, I want to get rid of the threat. If I feel frustrated, I want to change whatever is blocking my way. It mostly boils down to, “I don’t want to feel bad. Stop the emotion.” See the problem here? We may be saying, “tell me how you feel!” to our little ones, but if we react negatively when they do tell us, then our message is lost.

In parenting we are given the opportunity to see this unfold over and over again. Our kiddo has an emotion, it causes an emotion in us, we are driven to get rid of our own emotion, which means getting rid of our kid’s emotion. When they stop crying, I will feel better. When they stop being angry, I won’t feel bad. Our parenting choices are driven largely by our inability to tolerate our own and, consequently, our children’s emotions.

Mindful parenting asks us to stop this pattern. It asks us to tolerate everyone’s emotions. To be aware of our own emotions and to allow our children the space to feel and express and sort through their own stuff, without us blocking them. Supporting the emotional growth of our children demands that we allow them to practice emotional expression. Once, twice, maybe a hundred times a day.

It also means that we help them go a little deeper into their emotion. And in order to do that, we have to be able to keep our own emotions out of it. Let me be clear, I don’t mean escape out of the house or send them to another room to cry. I don’t mean ignore or take on an “I don’t care” attitude. I do mean that we need to realize that we are not always the center of the universe. I do mean that we need to realize that this emotion that they are having is not about us, and it is not ours to squash. Imagine if you went to your best friend to cry about something and she said, “Oh, stop crying, I hate it when you cry. Don’t you know we are late for the movie? Why do you always do this to me?” What you wanted was support and love while you processed some heavy emotion. It was not about her, it was not her emotion to squash.

It’s true. We squash our kids’ emotions. All. The. Time. But we don’t have to. And doing it differently can feel so good. In order to do it differently we need to Connect, Observe, Reflect and Engage (CORE). And say to yourself, “This emotion is not about me. This is not my emotion to squash.” Once, twice or a hundred times a day.

 

Here is an example of how it can look:

My five-year-old sat close by while my three-year-old lay on the floor and cried. I sat down on the floor and waited.

To say he was crying doesn’t really give justice to the moment. He howled and spat, “Bad mommy! Bad mommy!” He kicked his feet on the floor. He yelled, “NO!” every time one of us tried to comfort him.

“He is really mad at you,” my five-year-old observed.

I nodded. “That’s what I hear him saying. And that’s okay. He is very angry right now. But I don’t think he is really mad at me. I wonder what he is really feeling?” I pondered out loud.

My three-year-old would not let such a question go unanswered. “I AM mad at you! But also at these shoes. They won’t go on and now you’re going to leave me!”

My five-year-old piped up hopefully, “Oh maybe he isn’t really mad at you, maybe he is worried about if we are going to leave him.” He moved closer to his brother. “Are you worried we are going to leave you?”

“YES!” he screamed. “I can’t do this and you will leave me behind. I want to go to the park.” His agony and tears were intense.

“I can ask Mama for you. Do you want me to ask her?”

“YES!” he shrieked.

“Okay, Mama, are we going to leave him behind?”

“No. We will not leave him behind. Right now we are all sitting in the hallway together, trying to figure this out.”

My three-year-old, still crying, calmed a little bit.

I offered my support. “Seems like you are frustrated that your shoes are tricky and you’re worried about keeping up. What can I do to help you?”

“Can you wait for me?” He needed to hear it one more time.

“Yes. We can wait.”

He took a breath, wiped his nose, sat up and got to work putting on his shoes. It took a while. The laces were tied and the tongue was pushed down. His brother and I sat in the hallway with him while he worked. We started talking quietly about the wood grain in the floor. He worked and worked, his breathing settled.

Success! His shoes were on and tied.

“I’m ready!”

We all jumped up and headed to the door.

 

It took a lot of breaths. It took of lot of saying to myself, “this emotion isn’t about me,” which is hard to do when your little one is screaming that it is your fault. It took a lot of checking in with my own emotions and keeping them separate. But what happened was bigger and better and deeper. It was about exploring emotions, showing my boys that emotions don’t have to be squashed, that they can be worked through, together. It was about showing them that what feels like anger may really be fear, or frustration, or worry.

 

And that is big work for a little person. Or even a big one.

And doing that big work makes parenting feel a whole lot better.

 

 

 Posted by at 10:01 pm
Mar 202013
 

Nine-year-old David comes home, throws his backpack on the floor and stomps off to his room. Several minutes later he is lurking around the kitchen while his mom cooks dinner, poking at his brother, whining to his mother. She tells him to go outside and play until dinner is ready. He goes to put on his shoes but can only find the red tennis shoes with the extra-long laces that are hard to tie, and the world comes crashing in. He screams that he hates these shoes, throws them down and then yells at his brother to “get out of his way.” 

So, what do we know about David? That he doesn’t follow the rule to put his backpack on the hook? That he is bored and has difficulty finding ways to engage himself in activities after school? That he is “needy” for his mom’s attention? That he hates red shoes and has trouble tolerating frustration? That he lacks empathy for his brother?

If we look at each of these behaviors as singular moments of time, completely unrelated to what may have happened in the previous moments, then these simplistic assessments make sense. But this may be one of the biggest parenting errors we make. We assume that we have all the information. We assume that our children’s reactions and behaviors are based solely on what we can see and hear and feel AT THAT MOMENT. We have a tendency to assume that our children’s worlds are only as big as the information we have.

So in that moment, David’s mom may redirect him from dropping the backpack in the middle of the floor. She may redirect him from poking at his brother. She may redirect him when he is in the way in the kitchen. And then she will redirect him when he explodes over the silly shoelaces. Her frustration grows. She throws up her hands and pretty soon, David isn’t the only one having a meltdown, everyone is.

But, what if we also had this information: Today at lunch, David’s best friend didn’t want to sit with him. At recess, a ball hit him in the head. The math equation he had to do on the board came out wrong and, even though the teacher helped him through it, he still felt like the whole class thought he was dumb.  At the end of the day, his teacher told him that parent conferences are happening next week. He remembers that his last conference didn’t go so well and he has to give the letter to his mom tonight. Then, some kids on the bus were teasing another kid and he wanted to tell them to stop, but he didn’t. It made him feel horrible. On top of it all, he is hungry because he gave part of his lunch away and didn’t eat enough. He walks in the door of his house and throws his backpack on the floor….

A kid’s life is complex. They are learning everything about the world. They are not only accumulating information, but social rules, codes, language, physical movement, coordination, body growth, relationships. It’s exhausting. And it isn’t easy.

Kids have stressors that we are unaware of. They move through their day, just like we do, accumulating stress and anxiety and ups and downs. And, just like us, it’s pretty common that when these stressors come along, they just have to pull it together and keep going. They may not have the opportunity, or luxury, of processing through them fully. So they move from moment to moment, doing what they have to do, until they get home and they can “let it all go” so to speak.

We, as parents, are sometimes pretty bad at remembering that kids have a life outside of us. They have peer interactions and expectations from teachers, disappointments, struggles and joys, surprises and fears that we will never know about. Even if they are little and are home all day with us, they have an inner dialogue, aches and pains, thoughts and perceptions that we simply cannot know. In short, they are their own people, from day one.

Being mindful of this can allow us to respond differently to our children’s needs. Rather than seeing each behavior as a singular and discreet moment, we can see our children as people with rich and complex lives. With moments that build on moments and emotions that build on emotions.

We are their safe spot. We are their anchor. We are the place where they can “let it all go” at the end of the day.

Which doesn’t mean that we ignore or tolerate behaviors that threaten others or cross family boundaries and rules. It doesn’t mean that David won’t have to pick up his backpack or check in with his brother or figure out his shoes. But it does mean that we respond differently to each of those situations.

When we are aware of the reality that our children come to each moment with a buildup of other moments, instead of saying, “How many times have I told you not to throw your backpack on the floor?!” we may say, “Wow, it looks like you had a hard day! If you want to hang up your bag, I can cuddle on the couch for a minute before I start dinner.” Or instead of saying, “You’re in the way, go outside and play,” we may say, “Seems like you really want to be close right now. We could talk while I cook or you could help with dinner.”

We don’t really have to know all the details. Sometimes we will, but often we won’t. Kids may not need to, or be able to, process all their experiences verbally. But when we recognize that there is more to this moment than just this moment, when we accept the fact that their lives are bigger than just what we can see, we can offer a wider variety of support to meet their needs and be the anchors they need us to be.  

And, just as importantly, we can give them a framework to start to better understand their own complex web of emotions. We often hear that children live in the moment, and it’s true that they do. They can commit more fully heart and body to whatever it is that is in front of them, like a shoe with extra long laces. But they also carry emotional and body stress around with them from moment to moment, just like adults do. Which means in the moment, it is harder for David to separate out school stress from his shoe, resulting in a blow out that seems blown out of proportion. But if we can help them recognize there is more going on, they can develop a deeper understanding of their reactions.  If we can empathize with the buildup of stress and emotions, even if we don’t know the whole story, we can help them figure out ways to process. And if we can connect with them as they are, another human being moving through this world, building up moments, we can strengthen our relationships with them in a profound way.

A kid’s life isn’t easy. It’s life.

 Posted by at 2:24 pm
Feb 192013
 

I often find myself writing about parenting young children. But in my day-to-day work, many of the parents I interact with are parenting older children or adolescents. The funny thing is that whether I am talking to the parents of a 2-year-old or a 12-year-old, it seems that the themes underlying the struggles are the same. The good news is that when gentle, respectful parenting strategies are the focus, there isn’t any need to change course as your child gets older. As I read through my “go-to” parenting books (like Dr. Markham’s Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids or Myla and John Kabat-Zinn’s Everyday Blessings) and my favorite blogs (like Janet Lansbury or Finding Joy or Momma Zen or Abundant Life Children), I realize that all of these became my favorites because they share fundamental parenting premises. Fundamentals that hold true across the ages and stages.

For our kids, these writers encourage us to:

  • Support their emotions
  • Respect their space/bodies
  • Trust their intentions /ideas/abilities
  • Let them climb, let them fall
  • Share their journey
  • Maintain expectations (boundaries) with love and support

And similarly, for ourselves, they encourage us to:

  • Be aware of our own emotions
  • Respect our own space/body
  • Trust our own intentions/ideas/abilities
  • Take some risks, understand that sometimes we will fall
  • Know that this is our journey, too
  • Accept and honor our own expectations

These fundamentals apply if our 1-year-old won’t sleep through the night. If our 4-year-old starts showing increased aggression towards their younger sibling. If our 9-year-old suddenly develops school anxiety. If our 15-year-old is hanging out with a sketchy crowd. If, if, if. Our kids will do all these things and more. Every stage is new, every challenge is different in the details. Every struggle is painful and confusing. But at the heart of it, it’s all the same. It’s life.

It’s big emotion. It’s difficult transitions. It’s greater autonomy and higher expectations. It’s tricky negotiations. It’s learning who we are in relation to others. And all that applies not just to the kids, but to us as parents.

So often we can’t see beyond the current struggle. And we think that if we can just figure out how to “deal” with this particular challenge, we will be home free. We will have arrived at the top. But this journey actually never ends. And when we make it through one challenge, our kids will be two steps ahead of us, starting the next one.

It’s what they are supposed to do. Challenge by challenge, they grow. Challenge by challenge, we support them in that growth.

And gentle, respectful parenting helps us do that. With ONE philosophy that spans the ages. Support, Respect, Trust, Allow, Share, Maintain. Let’s break it down:

Support: No matter what the situation or the age, we start by supporting emotion. Reflect emotion. Everyone’s emotion. No one has bigger emotions than 3-year-olds, except maybe 16-year-olds. At the heart of slamming doors and bad crowds and thrown toys are very powerful emotions. Fear, anger, anxiety. Reflect and embrace emotions, your kids’ as well as your own.

Respect: Our children deserve and are entitled to live in a world where their body and space are respected. It’s just that simple. Respect theirs and expect them to respect yours.

Trust: We are often quick to assume our kids can’t do something. Or they won’t do something. Or they don’t want to do something. In the end, that may be true, but it’s a horrible place to start. Believe in your kids. Start with trusting that they are starting with good intentions and good ideas and the ability to follow through. It won’t always work out. They will mess up. But that’s okay. We all feel much better about taking the next step when we are surrounded by people who trust us. On that note, trust yourself. You’re doing great!

Allow: Swallow your anxiety and allow them to do just a little bit more than you’re comfortable with. Let them go a little bit further. Let them climb a little higher. Let them learn to trust themselves. As they grow older, the safety bubble we put around them expands. It’s their job to push it out. It’s our job to let them.  It’s a balance. Yep, they are going to fall. Or fail. Or stumble. They need to. It’s called learning. It’s painful, but necessary. As parents we take risks, too. In that way, we all grow together. One deep breath at a time.

Share: When we see this tiny person (or this humongous kid who is suddenly taller than us) as a fellow human being who we are sharing a journey with, we can suddenly let go of some of the control we tend to want to maintain over them. We need to protect them, but if we try to control their lives, we miss out, not only on their journey, but on our own as well.

Maintain: Gentle, respectful parenting is not about parenting without boundaries. In Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids, Dr. Markham talks about the need for maintaining high expectations paired with providing high support. Respectful parenting means that we (1) know what our expectations are, (2) have a realistic understanding of what our kids are developmentally capable of and (3) are available to support them in being successful. So, if our expectation is that our 2-year-old will clean up all the toys, we need to also make sure they have the support they need (staying with them, singing the clean up song, encouraging them, helping them move blocks….). High expectations. High support. (I recommend you read this book for more on this concept.) Likewise, if our 14-year-old cannot go to the school dance because her homework isn’t done, we need to be there to support her through the painful anger and disappointment she will feel. (Her life is likely to be over as she knows it. That feeling is real and shouldn’t be dismissed, but it doesn’t mean that the expectation has changed.)

Support. Respect. Trust. Allow. Share. Maintain. It works across the ages. It’s basic relationship stuff and that’s really what parenting is. A relationship. Maybe our most important one ever.

 Posted by at 4:12 pm
Jan 232013
 

Photo by Tumbleweed Infant House

Remember in kindergarten when we learned the golden rule? Treat others as you would want them to treat you. Remember last week when you heard that parent say to their child, “If you want them to share with you, you might try sharing with them”?

Now, remember that old, wishful parenting saying, “Do as I say, not as I do”? And, remember how that doesn’t work at all? Remember how the research keeps telling us that kids who grow up in houses that utilize spanking generally exhibit more aggression with peers? There seems to be a pattern here.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Maybe he was on to something.

I recently wrote a post called Sit Down and Breathe advocating that calming a storm within a child or house may actually start with us literally sitting down and breathing. This works because the child sees us and feels us do something different. The behavior is contagious. The child learns a new skill because we are modeling it, not because we are trying to force them to do it, too. They step into the new moment with us because it feels better. We have become the change we wanted to see.

It is no secret that if we treat people with respect, we are likely to get respect back. Gandhi knew it. Our kindergarten teacher knew it. Heck even most preschoolers know it. How many of us have asked our child why they hit someone only to have them say, “Well, he hit me first.” We recognize things like this all the time. But, for some reason, when it comes to our own parenting, we don’t get it.

We think we can tell, lecture, bribe, coerce, force, trick or teach our children into being the people we want them to be. Or better yet, we want them to just naturally be born perfect. But the truth is that no matter how much we tell, lecture, bribe, coerce, force, trick or teach our children, in the end our own behaviors will have much greater influence over the people they become. We have to listen to Ganhdi. We have to be the change we want to see.

We have to be the person we want our children to become.

Photo by Tumbleweed Infant House

The other day I told my child that it was time to clean up. He continued to work on the puzzles he had spread all over the floor. I asked him again, my voice raising a little louder, my intention stronger. He continued to work and then finally he said, “I’m in the middle of this right now, I will talk to you in a minute.” In that moment, I saw myself. Cooking, cleaning, whatever. Brushing off his questions to me, focused on my task and saying…well…those exact words. And then I remembered him trying to get my attention, getting louder, his intention getting stronger. Our roles reversed.

If I want him to interact differently with me, I need to be the change I want to see. I need to show him some other options: “I’m really focused right now, can you give me five minutes?” or “I can tell you really need me, let me get to a stopping point and I will give you my full attention” or “Yep, you’re right, we are supposed to be going to the park and I’m not ready yet. Can you help me finish this so I can get through it quicker?”

Be the person you want your child to become.

Ever found yourself yelling, “STOP YELLING!” only to have the child or other person yell back, “I’M NOT YELLING!”? Crazy, but it happens. Be the change. Get close to a loud child and speak very, very quietly. Chances are they will lower their voice to match yours. Magic? Nope. Be the change.

Two Degrees of Suburbia recently wrote, in my opinion, one of the most poignant posts ever. She wrote, “If you want your kid to say please and thank you….just say please and thank you.” Hallelujah. No more, no less.

Be the person you want your child to become.

If you want your child to listen, then you must hear them out. Look at them when they speak. Don’t interrupt them. Respond fully and genuinely.

If you want your child to trust, then you must trust them. Give them opportunities to lead as often as you expect them to follow. Value their opinions and efforts.

If you want your child to be respectful, then you must respect them and others. Speak thoughtfully and graciously. Understand that their bodies and minds are theirs, and behave in a way that shows you understand and value all the other bodies and minds that share this world of ours.

If you want your child to move through life with integrity, then you must show them the value of standing up for what we know is right and challenging what is wrong, even when that wrong came from our own selves. Admitting mistakes and making amends when we break the trust of others, including our children is vital. You can tell a child to say, “I’m sorry,” but if they see you saying you’re sorry in moments when you have let someone down, they may actually see the beauty in it.

If you want your child to be kind, you must be kind.

You get the picture.

If you want your child to be X, then you must be X.

If you want your child to be Y, then you must be Y.

What if it really is just as simple as that? Gandhi was a pretty smart guy. The next time you find yourself feeling frustrated with something your child is doing, or not doing, do a little soul searching yourself. Is there any way you may be modeling this? Is there anything you can do to be the change you want to see?  What are you seeing in your child that is truly just a reflection of yourself? And then, be the change. Think of it this way, even if it doesn’t have an immediate impact on your child, it will have a pretty immediate impact on you. We don’t want our children to be kind, patient, trusting, thoughtful, gracious, respectful, etc just for the heck of it. Nope, we want to help them embody these attributes because we know it will make their lives better. Maybe it will work for us, too.

 Posted by at 5:26 pm
Dec 042012
 

It’s one of those moments: The energy is high. The emotion is flowing. The scales are tipping. The fists are clenching. The conflict is rising. The mood is escalating.

It’s one of those days: We make it though one crisis only to turn around and face another. And another. You know this kind of day. I know them, too. We have all had them. We will have them again.

Even as I write about it, I can feel it welling up inside of me. A feeling of being out of control. Of being one step behind the next outburst, sibling conflict, injury, tantrum. Of just knowing everything is about to fall to pieces. A sense of urgency, a sense of doom, an exhaustion that knows no rest. I can feel my chest tightening, my breath quickening, the frustration building in my thoughts, the tension spreading through my body.

And we want to yell out (and maybe we do yell), “Why are you doing this to me?” “Why can’t you just listen?” “I can’t take this anymore!” “I need peace!” “I need a break.” “Stop it!!!”

Oh yes, the old adage: he who yells loudest… Only, it never works. Not really, not in the long run. Sure, we may temporarily stun them into silence, but the heart of the energy still beats hard and heavy in the environment; and, make no mistake, it will find its way out into the open again.

In order to really help our children be able to find calm, we need to embrace one fact.

No matter what, our children will learn what we do, not do what we say.

We only need to watch our children when they don’t know we are listening to know this is true. How many of us have seen our children play “phone” and copy our words and mannerisms to a tee? How many of us have been shocked by our children’s perfect use of our favorite saying? If we are open, and we watch carefully, we can see ourselves in everything they do. They are learning from us every moment of every day. And, if there is a time when they are not really taking things in, it is probably only those times when we are telling them what to do!

When the emotion runs high and the chaos runs deep, we cannot plead or logic or yell our way to quiet and calm. Rather, we must do it.

Be the calm you want to feel.

Sit down and breathe.

When the world is in chaos, move to the center of the storm, sit down and breathe. I am not talking about taking a “parenting time out” (although I am a full advocate of these as well). I am talking about moving close to the action and DOING the calm you want your children to experience.

 

 

Here is a scenario (and, one that occurs in our home frequently):

The boys are in conflict. This toy, that toy, rules are debated, voices rise, space is violated. I can feel the pulse quicken. Rather than intervene with words, I simply move as close to the epicenter of their conflict as I can, sit down, close my eyes and breathe. Loudly. Long, deep, slow breaths. I connect with my own body and feel it relax. I take my time before opening my eyes. Making sure to give myself time to really slow my breathing and clear my mind.

It’s contagious. The boys notice. Even if they stay engaged in their struggle, I notice that my breathing triggers their breathing to slow. One of them takes a deep breath. The other stops and copies us.

I continue to breathe and stay quiet, but open my arms. A silent invitation for them to join me. I keep breathing.

Almost always, one or both will join me. Sit close, breathe and calm. I can feel all of us melt a little into the moment. The energy dissipates. The urgency falls away.  The storm has passed. The toys lay on the ground between us, untouched.

When everyone is breathing and still, I open my eyes. I say simply, “I wonder what you guys are going to do now.” An invitation to talk about it or move on or make a plan, whatever they need. Usually at this point, they are now able to work it out on their own.

Everything feels different. For me and for them.

I didn’t tell them to calm down.

I didn’t tell them to solve their problem.

I didn’t even tell them why breathing worked.

I didn’t need to tell them anything.

They learned it, and so did I. Of course we need to practice again and again and again. But when the practice feels so good, that may not be such a bad thing.

 Posted by at 3:02 pm
Sep 182012
 

Today I heard a story from a man about the moment he first knew he loved his wife. He saw her across the room. She was in the kitchen, making tea, unaware of his presence. He paused and observed her. The color of her hair and how it fell just so across her forehead. The way she held her shoulders, the way she stirred her tea while staring out the window. They were dating at the time and he was suddenly filled with an unexplainable emotion. Strong and pure and deep and true. He was swept away and drawn to her and could essentially feel the essence of her being in every cell of his body. He loved her.

And in that moment, she didn’t have to do anything. She didn’t have to return the love or be grateful for his love or even know about his love. He loved her just for the sake of loving her. He smiled quietly at the memory. I could tell he could actually feel it in that moment.

As I listened to the story, it resonated profoundly with me.

It immediately brought to mind the feeling that I get when I see my child asleep, or when I watch them from afar. That huge ball of emotion that fills you to the brim, that brings tears to your eyes and raises goose-bumps on your arms. The wave of joy and awe that sucks the breath out of your lungs. For a moment, you can’t breathe, but it’s okay, because you don’t need air when you have pure, life-sustaining, true love. In that moment, you don’t love them because they make you smile, or because they say the funniest things, or because they gave you a hug, or because they need you or don’t need you. You simply love them because you do. Because they exist. They don’t have to earn it or return it or even know about it. You just love them, pure and simple. As I sit here right now, I can feel it. Welling up within me. My kids aren’t even in the room, but I know that the love I have for them is profound and deep and untouchable.

And then the man went on. He talked about how he sometimes wonders whether he is still in love with his wife. About how she doesn’t give him what he needs. About how she frustrates him and doesn’t listen to him and doesn’t appreciate all the things he does for her.  And the anger wells up and the frustration grows and the disappointment lingers until he wonders whether or not he really loves her after all. His smile fades.

Countless poets and thinkers and philosophers have long debated the difference between loving and being in love. For me, this man’s story captured the essence of it all. Loving someone is about what you bring to the picture. It is about embracing someone with empathy and awe and a full-hearted connection, simply because. Loving someone requires nothing from the other person. Nothing. No acknowledgement or reward or returned affection. Loving someone simply is.

On the other hand, being “in love” with someone is about what they give you back. It is the mirror they hold up to us that reflects our good and bad. It is about the twinges of excitement we get when we know we are loved. It is about the feeling of security. It is about the things they give us that make us feel amazing, fulfilled, connected. Being in love is tremendous when things are good. But, in the end, no one can give us all these things all the time, so we are destined to also feel disappointed, hurt, frustrated and resentful.

What does this have to do with parenting?

When you think about it, the true-love versus in-love conflict represents one of our deepest struggles—and maybe also one of the simplest solutions to our parenting challenges.  An amazing mother I know gave the most beautiful example of this when, in the angst of one of those nights we have all had, said to her child, “Can’t you think about me for once in your life?”

Her painful statement resonated with me, not only because I have surely thought those exact words before, but also because she is speaking to the heart of this issue. We love to love our children, but let’s face it: our children are horrible at giving us what we need. They don’t care about our agenda. They live in the moment and they always put their own needs ahead of everyone else’s. We find ourselves feeling disappointed, hurt, frustrated, and resentful.  “Why are you doing this to me? Just get in the car!” “Another meal you refused to eat.” “Don’t you know how exhausted I am?” These thoughts and feelings are hints that we are operating in the what-does-this-relationship-give-to-me mode rather than the pure-true-love mode.

I don’t think it is crazy, unusual or even unhealthy to enjoy the conditional type of love. Our kids give us lots of things that make us feel amazing. The challenge lies in our awareness. Realizing that our feelings of disappointment are impacting our parenting. Understanding when our feelings of resentment get in the way of our ability to be present. Accepting when our feelings of hurt stop us from seeing our children with empathy and awareness.

Mindfulness in parenting means that we become aware of and stop reacting to the internal struggle that wages war on us. We have to work at detaching from our “in-love” reactions, which are based on what our child gives to us, and instead approach and interact with our children from a “true-love” place where our empathy, compassion, love and support of them requires nothing in return.

I find it incredibly difficult to hold two conflicting feelings about someone at the same time. In that moment of complete awe I feel while my children are sleeping, it is almost impossible for me to invoke the feelings of frustration and anger I felt only hours earlier as we struggled through their bedtime routine. In the same way, the feelings of anger and frustration interfere with my ability to feel that no-strings-attached, pure love that I know is somewhere inside of me.

So, this week, I am challenging myself to be aware of which love I am driven by. Is it the one that my children have to live up to? The one that fuels the inner voice that screams, “Why can’t you just think of me for once in your life?” And if it is that one, can I quiet that emotion, acknowledge it and gently put it aside, and invoke the deeper true love I have? Because it is from this space that I will be able to engage with empathy rather than blame, understanding rather than frustration, and patience rather than resentment.

Maybe it isn’t as hard as it seems. Here is the practice.

1)      In quiet moments, find the image of your child that you hold in your heart, the one that brings up that “true-love” reaction. Let it fill you. Pay attention to it. What is it that really hits home? Is it the way she smells, the sound of her breath, her laugh, the way she scrunches up her nose while reading? Allow it to resonate in your awareness.

2)      The next time you notice your frustration, short temper, and anger creeping up, invoke the image. Tell yourself, “This is the same person.”

3)      Breathe out, letting go of the frustration.

4)      Breathe in, embracing the memory of your true love.

5)      Repeat. Remember, usually there is no need for immediate reaction and you have time.

Like the man with the lovely story of his wife, a smile may creep across your face as you connect to your own gentle, compassionate, true love for this little person and are reminded of what is real.  The moment, and your child, will undoubtedly look different to you.

Want to take the challenge with me? Give it a try.  Please share your experience!

 Posted by at 10:59 pm
Sep 112012
 

“Mindful parenting is a continual process of deepening and refining our awareness and our ability to be present and act wisely. It is not an attempt to attain a fixed goal or outcome, however worthy. An important part of this process is seeing ourselves with some degree of kindness and compassion. This includes seeing and accepting our limitations, our blindnesses, our humanness and fallibility, and working with them mindfully as best we can.” Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting

There is no time in life when our ability to be mindful and present in the moment is more challenged than during times of transitions. The process of getting from one place to another is full of stress and strife.  And not just big transitions. I’m talking about everyday, moving-from-one-thing-to-the-next transitions.  Sometimes, getting the kids in the car can feel like the accomplishment of a lifetime. Parents often hear themselves reminding, nagging, begging, yelling, threatening, “Come ON! Let’s GO!”

The other day a parent said to me, “Why is it that as soon as it is time to go somewhere, no one in my house can do anything without me doing it for them? Suddenly no one can put on shoes or pick up toys. Suddenly everyone needs to eat or drink or poop. Suddenly everyone feels sad or mad or crazy. Suddenly the world is chaos and it stays that way until we are all in our respective seats in the car and then everything is fine.”  I smiled, because I could relate. Completely.

I have always believed it was my kids who had trouble with transitions. But then my son taught me something about myself that made me rethink the whole transition trouble. My older son has recently taken it upon himself to teach my younger son everything there is to know about the world and that is exactly what he did on this occasion. It was time to go. I was focused on the fact that we were going to be late and I said (for maybe the tenth time), “Come on, boys, we have to get in the car now.” I moved from room to room, getting my things in order. My younger son started to put on his shoes, when my older, wiser son said, “No, we still have time. She isn’t really ready yet. We still have time to play. She just gets like this when we have to go somewhere.”

My impulse was to snap back. We don’t have time. Get your shoes on. We need to leave now! But, instead, I looked around. It was true. I was still getting my bag packed. My shoes were not on. I was running from room to room. He was right. I wouldn’t actually be ready for a few more minutes.

My body was here, getting ready. My thoughts were there, focused on the future. Getting to our next destination.  There was a disconnect between the two.  And the result? A feeling of rushed, anxious chaos. I clearly was not present in the moment and I realized that it felt pretty uncomfortable.  My children, who are always in the moment, were reacting to me. The interaction was becoming clear to me.

1)      Transition is imminent.

2)      I get anxious about making that transition happen and my thoughts become future-focused.

3)      I try (unsuccessfully) to get my children to focus on the future rather than in the moment.

4)      I feel more stressed.

5)      The children, in this moment, react to my stress.

6)      They escalate their behaviors to get their needs met: “Mama, be here with me!”

7)      I feel more stressed.

8)      They feel more stressed.

9)      We somehow force our way through the transition and relax only once we have made it.

10)   My belief that transitions are hard is reaffirmed (so, next time, I may feel even more stressed from the beginning).

As this realization came to fruition, I began to ponder the meaning of transition more deeply. What is it really and why do we have such difficulty with it?

Getting out the door in the morning. Moving from bath time to bedtime. School drop-offs and pick-ups. These types of transitions happen on a daily basis. But are they really any different from bigger life transitions? Developmental milestones; changes in family dynamics; a new baby, divorce, or marriage. The death of a pet, the death of a loved one. Starting a new school. Starting a new job.

At the heart of each of these challenges is the same theme: change. Whether we are big or small, transitions seem to throw us for a loop. We are engaging with our world in one specific way and then, due to some circumstance (because it is just that time of day or we hit a developmental milestone or something happens that propels us forward against our will), we need to move to the next stage of life. And this process, this transition of moving from here to there, seems to be a source of pain and angst. There is even a formal diagnosis for it: Adjustment Disorder, which essentially means that one is having trouble transitioning to the next step.

Getting from here to there means we have to let go of what we think we know and embrace something unknown. It means we have to utilize many different complex and higher-level brain functions (or executive functions). Whether we are getting out of the house in the morning or changing our career path, we use skills such as planning, focus, self-control, goal-setting, perspective-taking, and delay of gratification. We have to integrate emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, and anxiety (over the loss of this moment, activity, or way of life) and embrace the excitement, fear, hope, and anxiety (over the possibility that lies in front of us: a new moment, activity, or way of life).

In reality, there is a ton going on in the space between what was and what will be. We were at Point A, going to Point C.  But what gets lost is B. This moment. What I was missing, what so many of us miss, is that THIS moment, the moment of transition, is a moment in and of itself. We lose this moment, because either we cling too tightly to the past or we allow our mind’s focus on the future to get ahead of our body. This moment, the B moment, gets lost.

So when we yell at our children to “Come on, already!” we need to understand what we are asking. We are asking them to leave this moment and implement a tremendous number of executive functions. We are asking them to make cognitive and emotional shifts towards a future state of being. And if you are anything like me, you are asking them to do it while being unavailable in the present moment.

So what can we do?

Take some time to consider how you handle transitions in your own life. Big ones and little ones. Do you avoid them until the last minute? Do you deny that they are happening at all? Do you stay stuck when you should move forward? Do you emotionally and mentally move into a future-focus way ahead of time? Do you get anxious? Angry? Looking at how we handle big changes can give us insight into how these same patterns may be present (although much more subtly) in times of smaller change.

Remember that young kids need us to help them negotiate transitions. In order to do that, we need to actually be present. Taking time to get yourself ready BEFORE you start to prepare your kids for the transition will allow you to be ready and available to them. Pack your bag, get your own shoes on, load up the car first. Then allow yourself to be fully present in the moment of transition.

Remember that the transition is a moment. It exists. Something is happening, someone is feeling something. This moment is life, it just happens to be a transition. Putting on shoes is the moment. Cleaning up toys is the moment. Being between jobs is the moment. Be in this moment with your kids.

Remember your audience.  If you have preschoolers, it is not reasonable to say, “We are going to go to the zoo. We need to get in the car, so pick up your toys, go to the bathroom, get on your shoes and get your hat.” You lost them. Before you speak, ask yourself: What do they need to know and do in this moment? You might say instead, “We are going to the zoo. I am going to get our stuff ready, you can keep playing.” Then, as the time gets closer, help them move through the process one step at a time. “We are getting ready for the zoo. The first step is picking up the toys.” This moment is picking up the toys. This moment is not the next five things they will also need to do to reach the ultimate goal. As kids get older, it becomes more reasonable to expect them to demonstrate increasingly complex abilities to negotiate the transitions. Telling a 15-year-old, “We will be leaving in 30 minutes, see you in the car,” is realistic, especially if we have helped them develop the skills they need to move through transitions peacefully along the way.

We may discover that finding a way to be fully present with our children during transitions takes less time in the end than when we struggle through transitions the old way, with our mind in the future, our body still in the past, and the feelings of disconnect growing.  There really is no better time to practice mindfulness than when we are in transitions, big or small. After all, when you stop to think about it, life is simply one transition after another. Learning how to embrace a transition as a moment in and of itself may just be the key to peaceful living.

 Posted by at 4:05 pm