Parenting can be feel so high-pressure--like we're supposed to understand our children, their needs, and how to support them proactively and effectively. It can feel like we should be professionals, experts in parenting. But we're amateurs. We're beginners. We don't know what we're doing until we do it. Every stage/year/day/moment brings a new set of opportunities and challenges, and even when we're doing the same thing we've already stumbled our way through, we may not recognize that it's the same until we've done it (or maybe that's just me?)!
The thing is--and this is something I literally remind myself of every few days--connection heals everything.
Every mistake we make, every one of their signals that we miss, every snarky thing we say is just a fleeting thing compared to the power of true connection. We can't help making mistakes because we are human, our conditioning is imperfect.
Our kids, my kids & yours, don't need perfection. They don't need expert parents. They need to feel seen and loved and connected to us. If we use each of our mistakes as an opportunity to reconnect, to try again, and to learn, things will work out fine.
Sitting in my house, noticing the obvious physical messes--crumbs on the table, a sink full of dishes, piles of papers--I know that they are just the tip of the iceberg. There are emotional and mental messes, too, hidden under the surface. All that I've done wrong, the Christmas traditions I didn't start that I wish I had, the many times I lost my temper instead of being present with my family, the countless things we aren't that I'm kind of afraid we should be.
And still, sitting here, my candle and frankincense incense lit, noticing the chaos in my mind, heart, body, house, family, world, I recognize that this is a sacred moment. Moments aren't sacred because they're perfect, they're sacred because they are. Because we are here. Because although we can't undo the old mistakes or change what has led to this moment, we can be here. We can breathe. We can see. We can choose.
I am remembering to love this moment, to surrender to the 'good' and 'bad' parts of it. To love my imperfect self and family and home and holiday and world, sitting in this moment rather than wishing for a better one. I am looking at the mess and recognizing that it is part of the sacred reality that is my life, and that each bit of the mess is also part of the holy (whole-y) truth of my life.
Will you join me? Let's honor the sacred that is already here and live this moment as though it is the very most special moment we will ever have, mess and all.
I used to jump into the middle of issues with my kids, reacting impulsively before I even thought about how best to proceed!
For me, that might have looked like:
Over the years, practicing mindfulness and taking care of my emotions has changed me. The reactive habits are still with me, but they aren't as strong. I appreciate this shift, and at the same time it makes me realize how uncomfortable it is not to know what to do. Because I often don't know what to do.
I do know that it helps me to sit and feel my feelings, but it's still not easy for me to do it. I usually avoid them first. I get busy with work, run mostly errands, spend time on Facebook, eat, think about how I wish things were. Sometimes I even clean, go for a walk, or balance my checkbook.
Eventually I realize that I have to direct my attention inward and sit with my feelings. Because knowing how I feel isn't the same as feeling it! Once I turn inward, feeling the discomfort of not knowing, my irritation or worry about my child, or my helplessness about something going on in the world, then I start to create inner space. I notice how my body feels, to feel my emotions, to watch my thoughts. I breathe into the feelings, allowing them to be here.
Sometimes there's a dramatic shift--I relax or cry or soften. Other times it feels like nothing much happens. But doing this creates the space for my wisdom to show up.
When you really know your child (see yesterday's post Knowing Your Child) you'll see things that seem beautiful, wonderful, and inspiring, and other things that feel worrying or hard.
Some of what we see worries us because it won't make our child's path easy. The child who is noticeably different--physically, emotionally, or mentally--may be excluded, teased, or just ignored by 'normal' kids. A very sensitive child may come to us sad or angry about incidents that would roll right off their siblings. A child who doesn't read social cues easily may be uncomfortable at birthday parties or play dates.
Other things will make life hard for us. Kids who are emotionally volatile may fight every transition or chore, making it exhausting (for us!) to get things done. Those who are loud, impulsive, or unfocused may be hard to be around at home and out. Kids who are not very compliant or flexible may make for some really difficult parent-teacher conferences.
But no matter what our kids are like, they need to feel embraced, loved, and cherished exactly as they are. We all need this! As parents, when we reject or dislike certain aspects of qualities, our kids know. Sometimes parents say it directly, "I just wish you weren't so sensitive about everything," or "Wouldn't it be great if he was more like his sister?" Other times it's clear to children when we frown as they tell a story or look away when they miss a goal.
Instead, let's be interested and curious about them, suspending judgment. When we are mindful of the body, we name sensations in a neutral way (naming 'warm' or 'tingly' sensations rather than 'good' or 'bad'). What if we observed a child the same way, noticing that they have dirt on their hands rather than that they're 'a mess'? Or noticing that they are showing another child a bug rather than identifying them as 'acting strange.'
When we observe rather than judge, we enjoy a child more. We invite them to feel more comfortable and peaceful with themselves. They need to feel loved just as they are much more than they could ever need to be what we think they should be. So if you've been struggling with something about your child, consider looking from a new and more open perspective. Watch their interactions and choices with curiosity. Suspend judgments. See what happens!
‘When we look deeply at a flower, we can see that it is made entirely of non-flower elements, like sunshine, rain, soil, compost, air, and time. If we continue to look deeply, we will also notice that the flower is on her way to becoming compost. If we don’t notice this, we will be shocked when the flower begins to decompose. When we look deeply at the compost, we see that it is also on its way to becoming flowers, and we see that flowers and compost ‘inter-are.’ They need each other. A good organic gardener does not discriminate against compost, because he knows how to transform it into marigolds, roses, and many other kinds of flowers.
When we look deeply into ourselves,we see both flowers and garbage. Each of us has anger, hatred, depression, racial discrimination, and many other kinds of garbage in us, but there is no need for us to be afraid. In the way that a gardener knows how to transform compost into flowers, we can learn the art of transforming anger, depression, and racial discrimination into love and understanding. This is the work of meditation.’
-Thich Nhat Hanh, from Touching Peace
True connection and intimacy are essential for human beings. They develop when we slow down and listen deeply to each other.
This week's posts have clustered around the issue of dealing with our kids when they're emotional. Today, we're considering some 'don'ts' because that can help make all of the 'do's' clearer.
Don't teach, explain and help. Maybe you've heard or said things like these:
Don't hurry them:
Don't shut them out:
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.
Parenting is really hard sometimes. We're exhausted, frustrated, shocked, disappointed, etc. When things are hard, a big part of me wants to run away!
When your little one is sick and needs to be held for hours after you wanted to be in bed, there's no real 'away,' right? But maybe you get hooked by being angry at your spouse for not being more helpful. Or jealous of a friend whose child never gets sick. Or you lose yourself in imagining all the wonderful things you wish you had--a beach vacation, a cleaning service, a donut. Each of these is a kind of running away.
There are many forms the 'hard' can take. As a parent of teens now, those hard days are different than when it was about cleaning up messes, dealing with tantrums, handling fights. Or actually maybe it's the same, just different content!
Right now I'm trying a three step response to hard things.
First, always, feel it. It takes courage, to be vulnerable, tender, and present with the feeling. How am I feeling in my body and emotionally? Feeling means we stay with this a while, not running into mental stories (blaming, telling a story, working, reading), or physical distractions (shopping, a drink, chocolate), or emotional acting out (yelling, criticizing, falling apart). Sit and feel it.
Next, open to it, saying ‘yes’ to the experience. ‘Yes, I can be with this. I am willing to be here right now.’ However crazy it feels to be with it, it's less crazy than running away from what is really happening.
And then attune to love within yourself and consider, ‘What would love do in this moment?’ That will lead you where you need to be. Consider how love would take care of you, knowing that it isn't likely to be the same as your first impulse. Consider how love would respond to your child, knowing that it may not be how your parents would have responded to you.
Let me know how this goes if you try it!
I was walking home yesterday and passed a truck left in the parking lot of a convenience store with its engine running. I was kind of indignant, thinking, 'Now who would do that?' My internal tone was self-righteous and even smug. Almost as soon as I thought it, I realized that I was judging, making this anonymous truck driver into the 'other,' the 'enemy.'
Noticing created a shift. As I walked, I contemplated the situation and explored my own feelings. I still felt uncomfortable with the truck running, it's one of those things that seems so unnecessarily wasteful. But instead of projecting my feelings onto the driver I never even saw, I felt them., noticing that I don't like it when people leave their cars running and that I felt annoyed. I noticed that I felt sad and helpless about the truck and waste, climate change, social change. I noticed that I felt uncomfortably separate and alone, different than this truck driver. I still feel confused, wondering what I should do in those moments, and scared of being a freak who goes into stores and makes a fuss, scared of speaking up in a way that makes it worse (leaving him wanting to leave his engine running more often), scared of doing nothing.
Judgment of 'the other' was kind of protecting me from the discomfort and complexity of my own feelings. Working with that complexity is allowing me to dismantle a bit of the wall between me and the world.
This kind of thing happens a lot. I judge a person or situation and fall into a stream of critical thoughts. I judge myself, thinking something like 'Now why would I do that?' or 'What a stupid idea.' I keep trying to notice the judgment and then get curious about what I'm feeling and sensing.
This judgment and self-judgment play a direct role in my parenting. When I'm aware of my feelings and thoughts AS feelings and thoughts (rather than Truth), I respond more sensibly and wisely to and about my kids. When I'm caught in unaware judgment of my kids, their friends, their grades, the cleanliness of their rooms,how quickly they get up when their alarms go off,, etc., I am more reactive, internally and/or externally.
I taught preschool years ago and noticed that almost every parent worried about their child and compared them with other children. The children that cracked me up, lifted my heart, and amazed me could be such a source of worry for their parents! I was constantly reassuring parents that their child was fine, a little quirky maybe, but fine. Some kids start writing their names when they're tiny, and they just love making letters. Some love to climb, to be with animals, to draw. There are children who don't even need their house 'baby-proofed' and others who create chaos wherever they go.
From the moment we first meet our children, we can see glimpses of their individuality. I hate to generalize about parenting, but I think it's probably true that every parent finds some things about their child delightful and finds other things really hard. And the delightful things can be pretty closely related to the hard ones. Sometimes we can see seeds of wonderful strengths in our children's challenges.
My natural tendency is a bit critical, focusing on what needs to be fixed. It's been important for me to cultivate more of the delight. I want my children to know that when I see them, it makes me smile. That it's not their ability to fit in or be 'good' that makes me love and admire them, it's just their presence. I want them to know that I appreciate the whole mess of who they are, that even when they overshoot the delightful use of their gift and cross into being annoying or foolhardy, I adore them.
So when I'm feeling frustrated or negative, I look deeply into the behaviors or qualities that are bothering me. This deep look reveals a hidden gift, an underlying truth about my child (Reactivity may have a hidden gift of sensitivity and empathy. Defiance may be rooted in an innate ability to lead). Once I see it, I can hold it in my heart and nurture my awareness of it. Sometimes I can mirror it back to my child, helping him to recognize this part of himself, to embrace the positive side and know that it is seen. Can you discover a hidden gift in your own child today?
There are things that I need to learn again and again and again. Each time they seem to come up as though they're brand new, and eventually I remember,' I've been here before.'
Right now, I'm remembering (again) that parenting is not about outcome. The discipline, the art of parenting is certainly about supporting my children to shine and be their whole selves, but it is not about performance, mine or theirs. It's not about looking good, outer success, admiration, etc.
Of course I really know that but it's hard. There are times that things just don't look great, they get muddy. Even though I am practicing mindfulness of parenting and becoming a more conscious parent and human being, there are times that I argue with my kids, over-talk, get too busy to pay attention, and feel annoyed with them about things that aren't their fault. There are times that they don't make good choices, at home and out in the world.
I have these inner 'should's' about this. If I'm doing a good job, they should be happy, polite, successful, grateful, etc. If I'm doing a good job, I should be kind, patient, giving, balanced, fulfilled, etc. But that's just the same old story that my job is to create a 'good' outcome. Even these should's aren't really a problem, they create discomfort that reminds me to wake up and remember.
I remember that parenting is just a practice of showing up, again and again, for reality as it is. Showing up for my children as they are right now, with love, acceptance, and honesty. Showing up for myself and my present moment experience. And showing up for the world, recognizing every being as my child and as my self, and greeting them with acceptance, love, and honesty just as they are.
I spend time on Facebook every day, and it's often a nurturing experience as the people I follow are pretty amazing teachers, healers, thinkers, and human beings. Today I read several things gave me a kind of mixed feelings. Sometimes political posts, news about people, and even comments about the weather carry opinions that I agree with but something about them doesn't sit right.
This morning what I felt (kind of judgmentally, I know) is that the posts weren't coming from love. Even when a comment is general or is directed at someone who will probably never see it, it kind of puts me off the opinion that I actually share.
I found myself asking, 'What would love say?" And because parenting is important to me, both as a central part of my own spiritual development and as something I talk and teach about every day, I quickly started to think about this in the context of parenting. What would love do? What would love say? Aren't these the only real questions I need to ask?
And it isn't as black and white as I initially thought. Because I need to also know, love of what? If I'm driven by love of my own child's comfort and he is hurt by a friend, love may want me to protect and defend him. But if I'm driven by capital-L Love, my response is not so simple. I may remember that I want to help him cultivate his own power and respond slowly. I may remember that all situations are complex and invite him to talk and share about his experience without doing anything. I may remember that loving him does not mean attacking someone else.
Similarly, if you have a small child and you're in the habit of indulging their wants, you may begin to realize that you're loving your own short-term comfort at the expense of your longer-term sanity and their longer-term health and emotional growth. How would it change if you were moved by Love? Would it be easier to handle the tantrums or sadness that come up when you say 'no' to a toy or treat? Would it help you to sustain the work involved in getting them into more sustainable sleep routines?
So I'm adding a step. When I start with wondering what love would do, I like to explore a little more deeply. Love of what? If 'love' wants to shoot off a snarky comment on Facebook, love of what? Love of being right or of standing up for an underdog? And would 'Love' agree? Or would it say nothing? Or say something privately? Or make a comment that speaks to the confusion within me? Or (and this is usually where Love takes me) explore my own being, wondering what this discomfort can teach me about myself and my own relationship to judgment or kindness or deep understanding? And maybe there's a loving or compassionate action associated with this exploration, or maybe there isn't.
This is what I'm wondering about today.
Some of the biggest challenges in our families grow out of discomfort with emotions. Last week I wrote about the importance of listening to feelings because many of us bypass feelings (children's and our own). Today I am approaching feelings from a different direction, that of having the courage to let kids get upset.
Life includes big and small upsets. Kids don't always get invited to birthday parties. They don't necessarily get the part that they want in the play. Many don't go to prom with their first choice of dates. Pets and even family members get sick and die.
These experiences are rough for parents and kids! When children are upset, they may express it in not-so-evolved ways. This can trigger our own big feelings, perhaps anger, shame, frustration, and/or fear. Many of us consciously or unconsciously work hard to avoid these moments.
Have you gotten into the habit of going for drives to help your child fall asleep? Making a special meal for your child when they refuse the one you prepare for the family? Buying a toy because your child saw it and wants it, even though you do not want to? Letting your child use the car even when they haven't taken care of a responsibility? For a parent who is uncomfortable with conflict, these choices can seem sensible and logical, but they actually limit a child's chance to build emotional resilience. Children, and all people really, need the experience of having big and challenging emotions within the context of a loving and safe relationship.
A child who gets upset that you won't buy a toy in the store may throw herself on the ground weeping. If you are able to stay both loving and firm, she learns that it's safe to have big feelings. Her emotions don't make you go away and they don't necessarily control your choices. A child who is managed so that upsets don't happen can't actually learn how to work with big feelings, can't test the safety of the connection, and has less experience with emotional maturation.
If you find yourself over-managing situations to keep your child from being upset (pay attention with this idea in mind and you will start to sense when you are doing it), consider what is happening for you. Are you afraid of their feelings? Or afraid of how your own feelings may get triggered? Are you worried about how other people will judge you? Can you imagine seeing emotional situations as teaching and bonding opportunities? A chance for your child to feel loved and accepted even during a tantrum or outburst? And for them to learn that the outburst won't trump your decision.
What do you think?
What if you and I are already enough? What if we are good enough parents? Good enough cooks and housekeepers and employees and whatever? What if the only purpose of this day is to be here in our lives enjoying it?
Would it change your day to know you are enough? Change what you do, how you are with your child, how you spend your time? Just the idea changes something for me as I roll into the day.
May you and I remember our essential goodness and worth today and all days. May we greet ourselves with openness and love and acceptance. May we have a beautiful day.
The biggest parenting struggles happen for me when I'm trying to control something that I can't control. That's had me reflecting on the tension between control and power lately.
Think about bowling. If you've ever bowled you may know that feeling of wanting to control the ball after you let it go. It's rolling down the floor and maybe you lean or talk to it or will it to go the way you want it to. Have you ever done that? We don't have any power over what happens to the ball after it leaves our hand, but there's an illusion of control.
As parents, the same thing can happen. We want to control what is out of our hands. Consider the struggles that happen in your family, whether you're the parent of an infant or grown ups. Do you ever want them to be happy, tired, or quiet when they aren't? Want them to eat the meal you made and like it when they don't? Want them to make a choice that you believe will be better for them than the one they are making? If so, you know how frustrating this can be!
At the very heart of mindful parenting is the practice of accepting what we can not control. This includes many of our child's behaviors as well as our own feelings and thoughts. Instead of wasting energy trying to control that which is not in our hands, we practice being present and choosing how to respond wisely. Right use of power is something I will write about soon, but let's start now with the first step, releasing the illusion of control. Today, if you start to react to something your child does, consider the question, 'Am I in control of this situation? Has the bowling ball already left my hand?' If so, slow down and be present. What is the wisest response you can make to the situation as it is?
I've been remembering adopting my first cat at the SPCA. To take her home I had to sign a paper saying that I would not let her go outside. I was not comfortable with this, but, having already chosen a sweet little kitten who was not going to survive much longer at the shelter, was not about to leave without her! The shelter volunteer explained the rule to me, saying that cats who go outside don't live as long as indoor cats.
I guiltily signed the paper, knowing that my new cat would go outside. This was years before I had children, but I remember thinking the same thing was probably true about kids. If we never let them outside they might live longer, but who would want that kind of life for them?
As a mom, I've remembered this story, but it isn't as easy for me to let my kids take risks as it was with my cat! Part of me wants them to stay in, to be safe. and to be careful. I want to know where they are and what they're doing. That's attachment. Fear of losing them or having to see them be hurt. Love is allowing them to live, to go outside and brave the sometimes dangerous world of friendships, driving, parties, even homework and school performance.
I know people who monitor every assignment their kids are given, and who use their child's cell phone to trace their movements. I've never gone that far, but do recognize the attachment in me that is similar. The work of parenting is to love them enough to let them grow through real and even hard experience. To be available again and again, supporting them as they integrate their experiences. To trust the life energy/soul presence in them that leads them to experiences they need and want. To know that they will make mistakes, but those mistakes may be the very ones they need to make as they learn to be fully alive and awake.
Lately, I've been quieting the part of myself that tries to tell my kids to 'be safe' and 'be careful' each time they go out. Instead, I'm saying 'have fun,' and 'I love you.'
It's so easy to react when kids are rude, unkind, bossy. And not so easy to look past the behavior and wonder what's up with them.
When I take things personally, I make up a story about myself along with the story I make up about my kids.
They shouldn't act that way.'
'I haven't done things right.'
But sometimes, with all people, there's just a problem that I know nothing about. They bombed a test at school today, a friend is having trouble, they don't feel well, they're tired. Something.
It's not about me.
I'm learning, learning to listen when one of my (now teenage) kids is complaining about something I've done, yelling, overreacting. When I stay quiet enough to pay attention, I can see the pain, the worry, the suffering under the difficult behavior. Sometimes I can just listen and love them, recognizing that what's under the unpleasant behavior is their own pain.
Some parents think this makes kids entitled and rude. And the truth is, it doesn't help anyone if we treat them like they're fragile and can't handle life's up's and down's. It's good to stay real with them. AND there are (not so frequent) times to talk about their behavior and other times that modeling behavior is more powerful. When kids feel heard, seen, and loved they develop the ability to hear, see, and love more fully.
If you think you're been taking things personally that might not be about you, join me in getting curious about your children. Ask yourself some questions.
What is s/he feeling right now (watch for body language, expressions, word choices that will clue you in)?
Is this really about me? Or is it them?
Would it be better to jump in and talk about this or wait and see?
For me, the outcomes are almost always better when I respond more slowly.
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.