Small things make great routines!
One of my favorites has always been gardening. From the time my oldest was a toddler, we've been growing some of our own food, but in a small way. We moved into our house when my son was a tiny baby and inherited a major project in the backyard that made it nearly unusable for the first year. Gardening spaces were very limited!
I remembered, not so fondly, the veggie gardens of my own childhood. Being sent out to weed nearly an acre of kitchen garden, yuck! But even then I loved to eat green beans and other vegetables as I picked them. I knew that I wanted to give my kids some of the same experience.
We started with a tiny bit of garden in partial sun and grew just one thing, carrots. My son and I planted seeds in the rocky soil. We kind of forgot about them until mid-summer, when we realized there were feathery, soft leaves everywhere. He was thrilled to pull on the leaves and find a baby carrot!
As we could, we added a bed of herbs in the backyard near the sandbox. On their long summer days outside, my boys would sometimes get into the herbs. They discovered that chives worked like straws and would drink through them (kind of gross, right, but they loved it!). A neighbor gave me a wonderful, big mortar and pestle and the kids would grind up herbs into paste, tasting along the way.
As the years went on, one of our backyard trees fell and we were finally able to plant vegetables that needed more than a little sun. By then the boys were old enough to build raised bed boxes with me. That was fun!
We have really enjoyed the small experiences of picking our own food. Every year, we have harvested something, strawberries, sunflowers, greens, basil, tomatoes, hot peppers, and cucumbers. Usually we plant a lot and harvest a little, but it's enough. We enjoy eating things right out of the garden and have learned to make things including jam, pesto, picked hot peppers, and pickled cucumbers.
One of my favorite gardening rituals happens in the early spring--we plan together. As the spring goes on, we begin to eat from the garden. Just this week we just had our first 'garden meal' of the year--mint from the garden was in tabbouleh I made on one of the warm days this week.
My kids don't spend much time in the garden anymore, but I have a feeling they'll plant a garden for their own kids one day. And maybe start to enjoy it like I do!
“Each of you is perfect the way you are ... and you can use a little improvement.”
When a small child is angry, we can tell! They may lash out, hitting or kicking to express the uncomfortable feeling they're having. They may yell or cry. The feeling they are having is important! It tells them there's a problem. As children develop, they can learn to understand the feeling and take care of it without necessarily acting it out.
We help them to do this by listening to and acknowledging their feelings. We help them recognize the discomfort that underlies actions by slowing down, getting on to their physical level, and being interested in their feelings. We attune to their feeling, providing the template for them to become aware of their own feelings. Over time and with support, their awareness grows so that they can choose how to respond to the feeling rather than act on it impulsively.
At the same time, we can and should help children to stop their bodies from hurting us or other people. When a child has an angry outburst, we have an important role. We can stay close to them, setting a limit by holding them in a firm and loving way. "I'm here, I'll sit and hold you until you're safe to stop kicking." We can offer an acceptable alternative to hitting--"Here, I'll hold you and you push my arms as hard as you can. Now pull." This allows them to use up the physical energy that comes with being upset without hurting anyone. We can help them to take big breaths or do lion's breath to channel the energy. Children can learn practices that help them handle their feelings.
Each child's nature is perfect and wonderful. They come into the world needing support, though, needing loving connection and guidance to handle the complicated feelings and ideas that come up in them. That's part of the 'little improvement' that Shunryu Suzuki speaks of. Adults are the same, already wonderful and needing a little improvement through love, guidance, and support.
Everyone in the life of a child brings a mix of elements into the relationship. As parents, it can be tempting to close off from the imperfect people, protecting our precious small (and big) ones from the challenges that come with extended family, some friends, neighborhoods, and community. We naturally want our children to have the best experience.
Of course we know that we are an imperfect element in their lives! We are aware of the ways we fail our kids. We may wish we were more patient, clear, energetic, calm, or whatever.
When our kids are with other people, it can be all too easy to judge those others. Whether grandparents are indulgent or strict, absent or needy, we can struggle with their relationships with our children. Our siblings and extended family may be wonderfully supportive or may be difficult, subtly judging some kids favorably and others unfavorably. Spouses and partners can mishandle family routines, forgetting to feed kids until they're starving and cranky, riling them up before bedtime, skipping parts of the routine that are important to us. Neighbors and friends may have different rules than we do about food, play, acceptable words, and entertainment.
There are people and situations that we need to protect our kids from, and it's good to recognize those and be willing to say 'no' as needed. Most people in our children's lives, though, are not dangerous. They may be annoying and challenging for us.
So how do we handle those people and situations?
I was outside, weeding and fretting about college. My son needs to decide this week where he'll go. I'm freaking out because it's so expensive. We haven't saved enough money for it. He didn't get as much financial aid as I would have liked. The whole college system is pretty *#@*ed up.
And then in a moment, I realized how lucky I am to have these worries. I wasn't trying to talk myself out of worrying, I just suddenly saw what a privilege it is to worry about this. It sounds dramatic, but I am truly lucky that he is alive. There are parents who don't have the luxury of worrying about how to pay for college. We are so fortunate to have this problem!
It could have been a different situation. Honestly, I can get worried about so many of the small things. The problems in my life are mostly in my own thinking, in my habit of arguing with reality. Having a mindfulness practice has brought me more peace over the years as I've learned to recognize the thoughts as they happen. Still I've got this habit of getting lost in thoughts of what I want and what I think 'should' be. Today I was lucky, I came back to the here and now with gratitude.
I was driving a few days ago and saw something beautiful. A mom was standing on the sidewalk with her daughter, maybe 10 years old, just holding her. They were both very still and quiet. This mom was so tender, patient and present. The daughter was so open, so trusting, not only allowing her mom to hold her but also letting her emotions be seen and cared for publicly.
This kind of moment matters so deeply. The time that we stop, let go of what we were trying to accomplish, and care for our child. It doesn't happen often but when it does is better than a thousand words about love and acceptance.
When your child is upset, sad, or hurt, try this. Just hold them. If they're open, put your arms around them and hold them with no words at all or only a few affirming words. Don't fall into the trap of fixing a problem or getting past it, but embracing your child just as they are in the moment.
Sometimes a child doesn't want to be held. When that's the case, we can still hold them with our awareness. An angry, hostile child needs holding just as much as a crying and helpless one, but they need a different approach. When your child is angry, don't wish their feelings away and try to get them into a better frame of mind. Open to it, allowing them to be exactly as they are. Offer a strong, clear 'yes' to their current mood even when it makes you uncomfortable.
If you are a parent of teens, or will soon be a parent of teens, do yourself a favor and read Breathe Through This: Mindfulness for Parents of Teenagers by Eline Snel. What I most love about this book is that it offers mindfulness tools that help us to be with the complexity of parenting teens in an open-hearted and vulnerable way.
Eline Snel has taught mindfulness to many parents and teens, but more importantly she writes from her experience as a mom. Her voice is real and authentic as she offers suggestions for showing up in a clear and firm, loving and forgiving way. She offers practices that can help you to do that rather than just feel like you should do that.
Excerpts that you may enjoy:
"These are the principles for genuine communication with your child:
Take your child seriously
Talk with respect and honesty
Put off giving ready-made answers
Ask yourself whether your words are helpful or hurtful
Be prepared to listen to what you may not want to hear."
"If there is tension about an issue that cannot be resolved very easily (computer use, boundaries, household tasks, nights out, alcohol, and so on), start by looking at your intention, your initial impulse to say something, and your nonverbal attitude. What can you notice about the sound and tone of your voice? What questions are you asking your teenager to find out what's really going on? Become aware of all of those moments when you expect yourself to help, want to resolve something right away, or want to impose your own will where you may not need to."
Children are beautiful, right?! They are perfect exactly as they are. Until they make us uncomfortable. Until we are in a restaurant with a child with special needs who is making noises that make us feel awkward. Or until there's a 'bad kid' in our child's class, a kid who is angry, who fights, or who is oppositional with the teacher. Or until our child makes friends with a whiner, then it's not so great! Or until we hear about a child who is having sex and doing drugs in middle school. Or until our own child does one of these things, one of these things that makes us feel deeply awkward and uncomfortable.
Beautiful ideals of childhood are harder to sustain in these challenging circumstances. A part of what makes children so special is that they are not fully indoctrinated into our world. They say beautiful and surprising things because they still see the world through clear eyes. For some children, probably for all children some of the time, we experience this as beauty, as connection to the Divine.
But for some children, maybe for all children some of the time, we experience this as scary, bad, and wrong. There are times that young people respond to the world in ways we think they 'shouldn't.' Our belief about what 'should' be collides with our experience of what is, and something in us has to change.
Lots of the time that a child isn't what we think they 'should' be, we stick firmly with our should. "Why do her parents even bring her here? It's disruptive." we may think. Or "He doesn't belong at this school, he's having a bad influence on other children." With our own children, we may put pressure on them to cover up the awkward behavior, "You don't need to act that way."
Instead, I invite us all, myself included, to bring curiosity and interest into our interactions with fellow human beings. Rather than judging, condemning, or turning away from people, what if we start by witnessing, by showing up and seeing people as they are. We can work with the feelings it brings up in us rather than escape them. If our own child is relating in ways that make us uncomfortable, can we investigate our feelings deeply, with support from clear and brave friends and family and/or counselors as needed? With our own and all children, can we get beyond wanting the surface to be nicer and be curious about why they are acting as they are? Why are they whining, making noises, having sex, doing drugs, talking back? As we investigate, we may find a deeper connection with our children, with any child or person, that helps us to get them, to love and accept them, and to offer deep support.
My life and work are guided by the these core understandings: that all beings (including me!) are capable of transformation and joy, that healthy parenting matters profoundly, and that simple practices can support each of us.