Oct 152013
 

 

The other day as we sat down to have snack I mentioned to my kids that our new friend would be coming over the next day. I told them that we would need  prepare food thoughtfully for him because he has a peanut allergy.

 

My five-year-old put his hands over his head and groaned, “Can’t we just ever enjoy our snack without talking about nutrients and allergies?”

 

I was taken aback. First, by the adult-like sentiment he was expressing, second, by his seeming lack of empathy for his friend and, third, by his utter exacerbation.

 

I paused, took a breath and then reflected, “You’re feeling overwhelmed by the way we talk about food?”

 

And what he said next really resonated:

 

“Yes! Sometimes I just want to eat my snack in peace. Sometimes I just want to enjoy my food and think about how good it tastes. Not about what it does for my body or what it does to someone else’s body. Why can’t snack just be snack sometimes?”

 

Touché .

 

I thought for a moment. Well, actually, it left me thinking for weeks.

 

Why can’t snack just be snack?

 

On one hand, I am proud of the fact that my children, at the ages of 3 and 5, know more about food than I did when I was 20.  They know about protein and vitamins and food coloring and fruits and vegetables. They know about how their body feels when they have too much sugar and how they feel when they don’t drink enough water. They know the difference between organic and non-organic and the difference between artificial and natural colorings. They know about farms and buying local. They know about gluten- and dairy-free diets and can tell you what foods are gluten free. Sheesh.  And I don’t think it’s just my kids. Walk into any preschool and these conversations are present. When I was five, I knew that the cheese slices were in the drawer in the fridge, that the popsicles were in the freezer and not much more.

 

More and more families are raising their children to be involved and thoughtful and educated about the food that they put in their bodies. And that is amazing.

 

And more and more families are impacted by food allergies, and our kids are having discussions about those allergies. And that awareness is amazing.

 

But maybe, just maybe, the joy of food is getting lost.

 

So where is the balance?

 

I am not willing to give up having my kids be aware and educated about what food does for their bodies.

 

I am not willing to give up raising my kids to be empathic and respectful of what some foods do to other people’s bodies.

 

But I do need to realize that it’s a lot for a kid.

 

Sometimes, snack needs to just be snack.

 

So from now on I will be more thoughtful about

 

1)   letting my kids just enjoy food without the pressure of “learning about it” or even talking about it;

2)   taking the pressure off of every meal having to be meaningful. We can enjoy popcorn and pizza night without any commentary on nutritional value;

3)   making sure that I am enjoying food more myself; and

4)   within reason, letting them have more flexibility, choice and control about food. Sometimes it can just be fun and delicious!

 

The pendulum is always swinging, and it’s usually somewhere in the middle where we find the most peace, balance and good health. Some of us need to move more towards the side of food awareness and some of us need to move more towards the understanding that, sometimes, snack is just snack.

 

How do you find balance?

 Posted by at 10:03 am
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
Aug 032013
 

It is my belief that one of the biggest challenges in parenting is remembering that our child is an individual, separate and unique from us. They are on their own path and developing their own self that is outside of their relationship with us, their parent.  When we hold this truth, our interactions with our children change drastically. We can see their own struggles as steps to their own successes. We can see their own emotions as valid and important. And we can step out of the way so that we can support them in their growth, rather than getting entangled and stonewalling them based on our own struggles and emotions.

But, maybe the second biggest challenge, next to honoring our child’s separate identity, is honoring our own.

We have to ask ourselves, who am I as a mom? What does it mean to be a parent? Where did the person I was go and where will the person I turn into come from? Who am I? What drives me, defines me, what makes me have a good day versus a bad day?

Having kids changes everything. We are probably all in agreement with that. We are forced to rethink how we operate in the world, what our expectations are and how we thrive. For some people this seems to happen flawlessly. Some new parents seem to naturally embrace a whole new identity, and others seem to have some superhero ability to balance parts of their previous lives with their new worlds. For many of us, however, it isn’t so easy.

Why is it that some of us cling tightly to our old selves, even if they don’t seem to fit anymore? It’s like those old jeans in the back of the closet that remind of us the way life used to be. You know the ones. The ones that made you feel sexy and young and vibrant. Because you were sexy and young and vibrant. But they will never, and I mean never, fit right again. Not that we are not sexy and vibrant. And maybe we are still young. But we are different. Our bodies are different, our sleep schedules are different, our responsibilities are different, our finances are different. Everything is, well, different. And those jeans? Well… They. Just. Don’t. Fit.

Some of us hold tightly to the idea that those jeans, and all the things we used to hold to be true in the past, are the only things that define what it means to be vibrant. While some of us see a completely new world of vibrant. And herein lies the difference. When we try to hold on to our old ways, we are prone to feeling alone, resentful, hopeless. When we fail to fully embrace the current path we are on, the old path becomes more and more enticing. We stay acutely aware of the path we are NOT on, and, while our attention is locked in on what we are missing, we miss what we have in front of us. We become blind to the beauty of this path.

So, how do they do it? How do those parents who slip gracefully and fully into the role of parent actually do it? There are some common threads that help these parents hold their new lives to be as vibrant as their old lives. Here are four that I think are particularly important:

1)   These parents build a support group of other parents who are at the same stage as they are. This is not to say that they lose all connection with other friends and family. They may keep those too. But, almost across the board, those who are thriving in parenthood spend lots of time with other parents. Daddy groups, mama groups, play dates. It’s less for the kids and more for the parents. New parenthood is a tricky developmental stage for us and we need our peers to help us negotiate through it.

 

2)   If asked to list out who they are, these parents put “Parent” in the number one spot. However, it is not the only spot. Parent, wife/husband, professional, friend, rock climber, poet, shopper, runner, jokester, whatever, the list remains long. But parent comes first. These parents seem to be able to make time and space to support and embrace their passions and identities outside of their children, but don’t get burdened down with resentment when the kids have to come first. Which they do. A lot.

 

3)   These parents spend time talking about the good stuff that parenting brings. Venting, complaining and talking about the hard parts of parenting are tempting. But negative narrative begets negative feelings. The more we talk about how hard it is, the harder it feels. The truth is that no matter how hard things feel, there is always something good that we could be focusing on. Happy people tell happy stories. Sad people tell sad stories. Parents who embrace their lives as parents talk more about how great their kids are.

 

4)   These parents build new family rituals and traditions. Pre-kid life is full of rituals that parenthood interrupts. Whether it was Wednesday night wine with the girls or Sunday golf or morning coffee at the shop before work, these rituals often get interrupted, put on hold or just plain forgotten. But, just because kids change the structure of our lives, doesn’t mean that we can’t find new rhythms and create new rituals. Rather than pining away over interrupted routines, these parents find what works with the new family system, kids included.

 

So, what do these four things have in common? Identity. They all anchor our identity as a parent. I often read lists of things that parents should do to take care of themselves. Find time alone, get a hobby, take a bubble bath, get sleep, ask for help. Absolutely. We should be doing all these things no matter who we are. But if we want to really thrive in parenting, if we really want to LOVE parenting, we need to find out who we are as parents. We need to embrace our identity as parents just as much as we need to embrace our children’s identity as individuals. We may not be able to fit into our old jeans anymore, but we certainly can rock the new ones!

 Posted by at 9:17 pm
Jun 132013
 

Look closer, stuff is happening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look closely, stuff is happening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look closer, things are happening. All the time.

 Posted by at 11:09 pm
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
Dec 122012
 

Baby, You Rock My World!

Oh, I know what your thinking. But no, I mean it literally. Children ROCK our world. They take what we think is true and right and normal and they squish it up in their chubby little fists and throw it into the toy box to be lost among a myriad of other forgotten treasures. Nothing looks the same, nothing feels the same, nothing is the same. And there is no way to explain it. The only way to get it, is to live it. And even then, sometimes it isn’t clear.

I remember distinctly having the belief that children would be a wonderful addition to my life. I talk to people every day that echo this same sentiment. It was clear to me that the world my husband and I had designed and planned would continue on, simply with the addition of a small person sitting in the back seat. Our plus-one. Our course was charted. Our understanding of the world was clear. Our plans were laid. Our baby-to-be would easily and naturally fit into our scheme, and we would continue on. As you were, soldier.

Yeah. Right.

And along comes baby. Sweet and innocent and amazing. And a vicious destroyer of previous lives.

And we emerge from a sleep-deprived baby fog to find a world that bears little resemblance to the way we thought things would be.

Friends change. Priorities change. Finances change. Energies change. Jobs change. We are suddenly regretfully aware that the words “Yo gabba gabba” have a meaning. We are suddenly regretfully unaware that weeks have gone by and we haven’t returned a phone call to a once-close friend.

Time and time again I hear parents ask the same questions: Who am I? Where did I go? I used to have thoughts, opinions. I used to know things and think about politics and like music. I used to love to travel and I had such dreams and plans. And now?

Well, this baby, who is the love of my life, rocked my world.

And maybe, a part of me is a little bit bitter about that. Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone.

I was recently reading a post by Authentic Parenting that talks about a paradox between parenting strategies that seem to hurry kids towards autonomy versus parenting strategies that seem to keep kids dependent. It rang true. In our culture we want kids to potty train early, but make pull ups for kids well into elementary school. We want kids to wean early, but encourage pacifiers. We want them to speak up for themselves (in theory), but not question their elders. We want them to eat solids early, but still have them using a sippy cup in their preschool years. The list goes on and on.

At first glance, it does seem paradoxical. But then I realized, all these things are the same. They are, in essence, attempts to have the child fit into our adult world with as little impact on us as possible. When we want our newborns to sleep through the night, it is not because this has any developmental relevance for them, but rather because we are tired and are used to sleeping through the night. When we want our children to potty train early and wear pull ups longer, it is because it makes it easier for us.

And what’s wrong with that? We have needs too right? What happened to the idea that my baby would fit into my world? What parenting strategies can I employ that will help them fit into my world? I want to sleep through the night. I want to travel and go to restaurants and relax at the end of the day with a glass of wine and a bubble bath. Show me the book that tells me how to do that and that is the parenting strategy that must work.

And maybe, that is what is inherently wrong with all those parenting strategies. Those strategies are aimed to meet parent needs rather than kid needs.  Maybe, rather than trying to figure out how to make our plus one play by our rules, we need to figure out new rules that work for everyone. Parent needs, kid needs, family needs. There is no such thing as “us plus a baby”. There is only a new us.

Our kids enter our world and change it. Completely rock it to the core.

And we hang on for dear life to the idea that we can get our old selves back. If only our kid would (fill in the blank)…. We hang on to the idea that it is possible to have a quiet, well behaved, go to sleep early and wake up late, potty train by themselves, happy to stay with a babysitter, self soothing, I-don’t-really-need-you-because-that-parenting-strategy-nipped-my-developmental-needs-in-the-bud kind of kid, because that is the kind of kid that would allow my world to turn the way I thought it would.

Only it never works that way. Because their needs are constant and changing and ever evolving, and we are their parents. And our needs are constant and changing and evolving. And that is that. It’s not that there is something wrong with them. There was something wrong with the idea that they would be our plus-one to the party.

 

Nope. They are the party.

 

And the party is pretty amazing. As long as we can stop fighting it.

 

 Posted by at 6:55 am
Sep 042012
 

In my work as a psychologist with adults in therapy, I am reminded time and time again of the importance of our inner dialogue, the stories we tell about ourselves. The way we think and talk about ourselves not only reflects who we are, but also defines, reinforces and shapes who we become. The power of these stories can move us in one direction or another and can quite literally change the course of our lives.  Our identity is intimately intertwined with the stories we choose to focus on.

How much can these stories really change who we are? It’s a question of Nature versus Nurture: While there is ongoing discussion about the weight and importance of one versus the other, it is clear that both are at play in our developing selves. How is the book of our life written? Genetics, predisposition, temperament are the paper, the binding, the cover. Experiences, thoughts, and beliefs are the words, the sentences, the paragraphs. The story we become would not exist without both. The self-view and beliefs about ourselves and the world are innately part of our person, our own individual book.

So where do those beliefs come from? Children are constant absorbers of data, of information about how the world works and how they relate to that world. In short, they collect stories. The power of this becomes clear when we consider the fact that we are, essentially, the storytellers for our children. When we talk about them, they listen.  When we make defining statements about them, they believe us.  They incorporate the information into their belief system about themselves and then act accordingly.

The other day, I heard my son tell someone, “I would rather ride bikes than anything else in the world.” Admittedly, this is a fairly benign statement in and of itself. But what impacted me the most was that I had said that about him. Word for word. I was talking on the phone to a friend and hadn’t even realized he was listening. He absorbed it. It may or may not have been true before I said it, but now, it seems, he is beginning to incorporate it into his understanding of himself. My simple statement to a friend shaped his understanding of his identity.

But what if the statement weren’t so benign? How many of us say things like:

“He is such a picky eater.”

“She has trouble with aggression.”

 “Math is not his strong suit.”

“She is shy.”

All these statements are global and finite. They send the child the message that this is a true and stable fact. A true story.  As a child starts to incorporate this view of herself, she will act accordingly.

But what if, instead, we said this?

“Today he didn’t feel like eating broccoli.”

“She was having strong feelings and didn’t know what to do with them.”

“He is working really hard to figure out math. It’s hard right now.”

“Today at the playground, she was feeling nervous with the other kids.”

 All these statements reflect what the child may be feeling or experiencing in the moment, without attributing it to a global trait. There is room for the child to change or grow or do things differently next time. There is room for the child to experiment with different stories and, in the long run, find the ending that is right for her.

The stories we tell about our children not only impact how they act, but can also profoundly impact how we treat them.  It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. If a parent believes his child is a picky eater, he may worry and stress and make comments about a child’s eating. The parent may offer or restrict certain types of foods. The child is busy collecting information about this, incorporating it and acting accordingly until, in the end, the child refuses to eat certain foods and grows to believe she just doesn’t like them. It’s the chicken and the egg. Maybe the child really didn’t like them, maybe it was just a phase, maybe it was just a fluke. There is no way to know because, in the end, the story has been told.

Letting a child’s story unfold naturally may be one of the hardest things to do. Maybe, in the end, it is impossible to completely avoid shaping their stories with our perceptions and beliefs. But being aware of the profound impact we are having on a child when we label, diagnosis, or otherwise define a behavior can change the way we think and talk about our children.  Our children are ever-changing, growing, developing, thriving beings. They are learning about themselves and the world. Sure, they have temperaments and proclivities and natural strengths and weaknesses, the structure of their book. But there are also infinite ways the words can arrange themselves on the page. Uncountable ways their story  can come to fruition. To declare that we “know” the ultimate truth about their journey is to sell them short.

So I challenge you to become aware of the stories you tell about—and to—your children. What kinds of things do you say that may be defining their path? And how might the stories you tell be impacting their behavior? Here are some things to practice:

 1)      Become aware of times when you are talking about your children when they are not around. Listen to yourself. Are the stories respectful, accurate, loving? Do they leave space for growth? We all need to vent sometimes, but the way we talk about our children in their absence can definitely color the way we interact with them later on.

2)      Become aware of times when you are talking about your children when they are around, even if you think they aren’t listening. Assume they are listening. (They probably are.)

3)      Become aware of times when you are talking about your children when they are actually listening. Change the way you do this. Include them in the conversation. Ask their permission to tell a story. Maybe they want to tell it themselves. Maybe they don’t want it told at all. Realize that not all stories are yours to tell just because you are bigger.

4)      Become aware of the language you use in talking to your children about their behaviors. Does your language suggest a global and permanent truth about them (“You are a picky eater”)? Can you change this language to reflect what is happening in the moment (“Today it seems like you don’t feel like eating much”)?

The balance of honoring the innate qualities in our children and allowing their stories to naturally develop may be subtle and tricky at times. It means being present and supportive of what we observe and understand about our children right now, while at the same time being open and excited about the changes and developments that are to come. It means being flexible in action and respectful in the stories we tell. It means more time spent reflecting on the moment and less time spent labeling in the broader sense of the word. And, in the end, it means remembering that our child’s life is her story, not ours.

 Posted by at 12:32 pm
Aug 212012
 

Over the past week or so, I have found myself having very similar discussions with various parents. Whether it is a mom of a two-year-old boy or a father of an 11-year-old girl I hear the same question: “How can I get them to stop tantruming?” The toddler who wails at the top of his lungs and throws a truck across the room. The child who yells with fury and clenched fists. The preteen who stomps and slam doors and sobs about the unfairness of it all. Oh the pain, the agony, the drama. The emotion!

But what is a “tantrum”? What is it really and what does it all mean? In the heat of the moment, tantrums can feel overwhelming to everyone involved. The child may feel out of control, the parent may feel at his/her wits’ end, other children in the home feel unsettled or even unsafe. From an adult perspective, all of this drama because the eggs were scrambled instead of fried, or because the blue shorts are in the wash, or because a friend can’t be called until chores are done. To our adult brain, the emotional output does not match the input. “All this over something so silly?” Our frustration rises. It can be hard to make sense of it when we think about it with our rational, problem-solving, goal-oriented,get-the-kids-in-the-car-and-on-to-the-next-task parent brain.

When someone asks me “How can I make this stop?” (or I hear myself asking the same question, because I do), I immediately counter with, “Why do you want the tantrum to stop?” Usually this is met with a blank stare, as if I were an alien. What a silly question. “No really, why do you want it to stop?” And here is what we come up with:

Because I don’t want them to turn into adults who tantrum. Okay, so clearly, we wouldn’t want our children to learn that throwing themselves on the floor and crying for 30 minutes when the eggs are scrambled instead of fried  is a reasonable response. But when is the last time you saw an adult do that? Children have been “tantruming” since, well since children have existed, and I would venture to say that the number of adults who do that is statistically insignificant. I’m not saying that adults know how to handle emotion. Many of us don’t. But worrying that your children will forever throw trucks across the room is just unrealistic.

Once we get past the fear of raising tantruming adults, we get to the real reason we want the tantruming to stop. It bothers us. It’s loud. It’s inconvenient. It’s annoying. It’s disconcerting. It’s scary. It’s emotionally draining. I could go on, but in short, we want it to stop because we can’t or don’t want to tolerate emotion.

In reality, adults who have difficulty identifying, processing, displaying, or recovering from emotions do so not because they did or didn’t “tantrum” as a child, but because they somehow got the message that emotions were not safe, tolerated, or respected.  They somehow came to understand that feelings should be avoided, should not be shared, create distress in others. They somehow never figured out what to do with big emotions when they arise, much less what they mean or what they feel like. So in reality, if we are really worried  about our children growing up to be adults who throw themselves on the floor, we should be working towards encouraging as many opportunities as possible to work through big emotion now.  That way, they can become well versed in the language of emotion and develop an intimate understanding and awareness of what emotions feel like and what works and doesn’t work for dealing with those emotions. In short, we may want to actually embrace the tantrum.

Maybe we can start by redefining what a tantrum is. The word itself is fraught with strife, negativity and connotations of “spoiled,” “rotten” children who “manipulate” and “connive” to get their way. I wish this idea could be deleted from our lexicon. Rather, let’s see the moment more clearly. It is Big Emotion in a Small Body. The eggs or the shorts or the phone call are not the point. The emotion is the point. And the emotion IS REAL. And real emotion presents an opportunity for children to learn about themselves, their feelings, their work in this world. And we, as their parent or teacher or caretaker, have the opportunity to help them, or shut it down. They are having big emotion and they don’t quite know what to do with it.

Have you ever had big emotion that you shared with someone and they responded with, “Well, that’s silly, you are overreacting.” Or “I know exactly what you should do instead.” Or, “Well, it’s your own fault, you did it to yourself.” Generally, these responses don’t feel very good. What we want is to have someone say, “Wow, you’re in pain. I’m here for you.” We want empathic connection. We want to know it is safe to feel how we feel. In the moment of big emotion, we don’t want to be told it is our own fault (even if we know that it is). We don’t want to be told that we are over reacting (even if we are). We don’t want to be told how to solve it (even if we really need help). In that moment of crisis, we want to know that the other person recognizes and respects the feeling we are having. In crisis, we want connection. It’s true if we are two or 82.

And if we can do this for our children in the moment of the big emotion, amazing things happen. When we reflect the emotion to them, we help teach them to recognize their feelings. We connect with them and they feel validated and heard and safe. Simply saying “You’re so angry. I get it!” can go a long way. Just feeling validated can often ease the pain and lessen the intensity of the moment. When we give them space and time to feel their emotion and help them process different ways of handling it, we actually work towards our first goal of creating emotionally competent adults. They can learn that feelings are safe and they can experiment with what happens when they do different things.  So here are simple steps to begin practicing a new way of thinking about and responding to big emotion:

1)     Breathe, observe, wait, and tolerate emotion. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Throughout the entire process. Continue to breathe, observe, wait and tolerate.

2)     Reflect what they are feeling. Let them know that you are there, you see them, you hear them. “You’re so disappointed right now. I can see that!” “It’s so frustrating!” “You’re so angry.”

3)     Set safe limits on behaviors, not emotions. “You can be as sad as you need to be, or as frustrated as you need to be, but I won’t let you (hit, throw, bite, etc.)” “I know how angry you are and I see you stomping. But I also know that the stomping is really scary to your little brother. If you need to stomp the basement is a great place to do that.”

4)     Let them be the experts on their feelings. Ask what they need. “What can I do to help you through this anger?” This doesn’t mean that you do whatever they ask. We have to remember that the lesson here is working through the feelings. If the child responds by saying, “I need you to make new eggs” we don’t need to do it. Instead try “Oh, I know you’re disappointed about the eggs. New eggs aren’t available, but I would be happy to support you in another way.”

5)     Back to step one. Repeat.

So the next time your child has big emotion, change the way you think and see and respond in the moment. Change your thoughts from “Oh no, not again!” to “Yes! Another opportunity to practice emotional competence!” Take a deep breath and be amazed at the hard work your child is doing. Learning about emotions is difficult, engaging work. Be there, by their side.

 Posted by at 11:23 am
Jul 312012
 

Life. Death. Babies. Love. Sex. Relationships. Bullying. Guns. War. Racisim. Politics. The list is endless.

No matter how badly we want to shield our children from harmful or scary or uncomfortable topics, these issues will undoubtedly touch their lives. Parents wonder and agonize over how and when to talk about these things. We want so badly to believe that our children can be protected from these issues and we mistakenly think that by talking about them we are somehow making them lose their innocence. Heading for a “big talk” can feel like embarking on a long, stark road to nowhere.

 

A recent death in our family left me anxious about “having” to talk to my preschoolers about death. The loved one was unknown to my children and they would not be attending a funeral, but I knew it would not be possible to hide the loss from them. After ending yet another phone call, I was notably emotional. My son approached me, offered me a hug, and asked his questions. The conversation went like this:

Him: “Mama, did someone die?”

Me: “Yes, I’m pretty sad. I have been on the phone a lot this morning.”

Him: “Who was it?”

Me: “My grandmother. You met her once when you were very small. Would you like me to show you a picture?”

Him: (Ignoring my offer to show him a picture.) “Do you mean my grammy?”

Me: “No. Not grammy. None of your grandmas died.”

Him: “Can we talk to my grammy today?”

Me: “Yes, of course.”

Him: “We saw a dead bird at school yesterday.”

Me: “What did you think about that?”

Him: “It was kinda sad, but I don’t really know about that.” He paused and asked for a hug and then asked, “Do you know where my truck is?”

He got what he needed in that moment and ended the conversation. He recognized that a big issue was happening and that it was laden with big emotion. He wanted to connect and make sure that he understood that the people he was close to were all right. He related it back to the concept of death that made sense for him. He told me clearly when he had reached the limit of what he needed (by ignoring my offer to show him a picture and then changing the subject to trucks).

Topics like death are big. They are multifaceted and complicated and intricate. Understanding and processing them requires us to use many parts of our brain, multiple coping skills and a lifetime of acquired knowledge. We integrate our memories, understanding of social codes, belief systems and interpersonal dynamics to draw conclusions, formulate ideas about the situation, and relate emotionally. When big things happen in a child’s world, the child is doing all of this, too. Children just do it more slowly, in smaller chunks, and by relating it to what they know. If we support them in their process, rather than trying to process these issues for them, the idea of “talking” to our kids about these issues becomes much less daunting. Here are some basics.

What You Need to Remember

Kids are always getting information about these topics. It may just not be on a level that resonates for us as adults. When a child squishes a bug, she is learning about death. When children play house, they are learning about relationships (the foundation of learning about sex). If the radio or television is on in the home, children are learning about guns and violence and war and sexual objectification. These underlying themes are in books, cartoons and movies. Disney movies are full of lost parents and broken families and death and bullying. Literally every day there are multiple opportunities for children to take in and process information about these things.

Kids are always getting information from us on 1) how we handle these types of topics and 2) whether we are safe to talk to about these topics. Over time, they learn if we get anxious, or angry, or distant. They learn if we offer too much or too little. We may inadvertently give signs that their questions scare us or make us feel uncomfortable. We may avoid or shut down conversations. Or, on the other hand, we may have a habit of giving long-winded lectures or overly detailed information that overwhelms children and discourages them from engaging in future conversations. What we say about the little stuff matters.

Kids will ask for more information when they need it and are ready to process it if they have a safe venue for doing so. This means that, rather than determining when and how we should bring the information to them, we should strive to build a culture of openness and safety around dialogue within a family that allows a child to ask for what she needs when she needs it. Kids will often ask for little bits at a time. They will ask a small question, take time (maybe days or even weeks) to process it, and then ask a little bit more. Giving them the information at their pace will help them to incorporate hard truths without feeling overwhelmed. A few days after our conversation, my son asked, “Is your grandma still dead?” It may not have looked like it, but he was still processing and needed a little more information.

Processing does not necessarily mean talking. A kid’s work is play. When children play, they are processing, integrating, learning, feeling and thinking. It would not be unusual for a child to incorporate recent big issues into his play, and in fact it is healthy. Younger children may need to move their bodies and may need space for large, physical movements. They often incorporate heavy themes of love, death and life into their imaginary play. Children may pick out books that relate back to the theme. After the death in my family, I noticed my son asking to read Charlotte’s Web, which deals with death on various levels. I don’t think this was a coincidence! Older children may retreat into music or video games that mirror back their emotional state. All of this is processing.

What You Need to Do

Be open and responsive to all questions – Helping kids with the big issues starts with being there for the small ones. If a child wants to talk about his bug that got squished, it is important to remember that this is in fact a conversation about death, about loss, about grief. Responding in a respectful and open way to these little questions not only helps children process big issues in small stages, but also allows us as parents or caregivers to practice talking about these things as well! Think of it as baby steps for all parties!

Don’t over-think or plan big lectures – Keep it simple. Answer their questions. Give them the information they ask for, and not more. Think about it. If you went to your first math class ever, asked about addition, and the teacher went into a lecture on trigonometry, you would feel anxious, overwhelmed, and incompetent. You probably wouldn’t want to go back. If you have built a safe relationship in which questions are respected, you can trust your child to ask for just as much as she needs.

Give them a chance to process – Remember that kids process at different rates. Don’t push them into processing something too quickly. Be patient, both in the moment and in the bigger picture. Answer the question and then pause. Take a breath and wait for the child. Maybe he will ask another question. Maybe he will tell you a story. Maybe he will change the topic. All are okay. If he changes the subject, it’s okay. It just means that he has gotten what he needs in that moment. He will undoubtedly bring it up again in some way in the future.

Make yourself available – Occasionally telling our children that they can always talk to us isn’t enough. In fact, it may be pointless. Children will know whether or not they can talk to us because of the countless number of interactions, responses, and opportunities that they have experienced with us over the course of their life. More importantly, opportunities to process big issues are not planned-out,-sit-down, formal affairs. They happen in quiet, surprising moments. They happen during work, during play, during downtime and up-time. In short, we need to be available to our children on their terms. For younger children, this may not even look like talking. It will likely look like play. If you hear your children playing with big topics, don’t interfere or stop them, but be available. Sit down in the room and observe. If they invite you into the play, join in!

Phrases to Memorize

Sometimes (maybe even most of the time) helping children process is less about talking to them, and more about helping them talk to you! Asking them questions can help you determine what information they need, what they are thinking about and what level of processing they need at the moment. Rather than give advice, ask:

What do you think of that?

How does that feel?

What do you think you need?

What could you do?

How did it work?

How can I help?

What would you like to know?

So take the “big talk” off the to-do list. We don’t need it. If we do this today, tomorrow, and every day, we will be building a foundation of communication and a relationship that allows our children to feel supported in dealing with life in all its glory. They will be able to come to us, we will be available, and processing will happen. We won’t even have to plan it out.

 Posted by at 6:29 am
Jul 242012
 

Over the past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about the primary principles of parenting that I and so many others embrace. As I read blogs and articles written by various experts and bloggers and mothers, I am struck by a commonality of underlying assumptions that is moving the parenting world forward. The collective voice is growing. I believe that it has always been there, but the voice is gaining strength and momentum and courage, and it is impacting the lives of children in an amazing way. We are moving away from viewing children as merely an extension of ourselves to be controlled and molded, toward an understanding that children are in fact people in their own right. As our consciousness shifts, our parenting truths shift. Here are my top ten principles in no particular order:
• Practice gentle communication with our children.
• Be truly present in our interactions with our children.
• Build deep and enduring connections with our children.
• Respect the person each child is in their own right.
• Support and validate children’s experiences, thoughts and emotions.
• Encourage the personal growth and development of our children.
• Create a safe and nurturing environment in which our children can thrive.
• Understand that parenting matters. What we do and say has real impact on our children.
• Learn from our children. Relationships are reciprocal.
• Trust our children to be exactly where they should be in life.

As I read over my tenets, I replaced the word “child” with husband, partner, friend, employer, neighbor, stranger. And it hit me. Perhaps gentle parenting really is a bridge to a gentler world. I know when I am practicing these principles with my kids, I feel better inside. Softer, kinder, relaxed, connected. My relationship with my children is fuller and more rewarding. I see a difference in them and I see a difference in myself. I hear the same thing over and over again from other parents. And so I wonder, Why am I limiting my practice and awareness of these ideas to my children?

I am struck by the realization that as we practice these types of interactions with our children, not only are our children more likely to engage with others in the same fashion, but WE are more likely to engage with others in the same fashion! Imagine it: A whole family, community, region, world where people approach each other in the same way we are striving to approach our children! That is the world I want my boys to live in. That is the world I want all our children to live in.

The Center for Non-Violent Communication lists as one of their visions a world in which “people joyfully and compassionately contribute to each other and resolve conflicts peacefully.”

Joyfully and compassionately contribute to each other. Let’s do that.

 Posted by at 1:46 pm