Accepting children as they are doesn't mean that we don't help! Children often need our support learning things that are hard for them.
Seeing and embracing them exactly as they are (Even the Hard Parts, as I wrote about yesterday) is an important foundation for whatever we may teach them. When we are present with them in a real and conscious way, they feel grounded and safe, which is vital. Being seen realistically also helps them to know themselves in an honest way.
If your child struggles to make friends, put away toys, do homework, or go to sleep, it can be important to offer direct and skillful help. When we are present with children and observant, we can see what is not going well and pinpoint the moment when things go wrong.
For example, many years ago I knew a child who was new to a preschool and was having trouble with transitions. I watched carefully and noticed that he burst into tears just as the kids went in to the bathroom to wash hands and get ready for snack. Until then, everything was fine. I could see that he seemed confused just before he was upset, and realized that he may not know the routines that the others had learned. I taught him the routines--lining up, singing a hand-washing song, getting out the snack supplies--and all went more smoothly.
Sometimes children who are overwhelmed by cleaning up their toys need a simple task, "Let's start with putting all of the Lego's in this basket," or even baskets with labels or a photo of how the areas looks when everything is put away. A child who doesn't make social connections easily may need the support of a script. "Hi, can I join in?" is a classic way to do it, or "Want to play trains with me?" A child who has a hard time falling asleep may need support that starts with recognizing the sleepy feeling in himself.
So try being curious about the challenging moments, looking for things your child needs help with. Offer warm, friendly, non-judging, and specific support. Remember, you are really on the same side. By helping rather than trying to control, you will both enjoy a better outcome.
“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.
To aspire to be in true service to our children, to all children, and to humanity, is a wonderful thing. We are, of course, in constant service to our kids. It is important to know, to recognize, and to remember the difference between serving their wants and comforts and serving their wholeness and their purpose. It is all too easy to get caught up in the busyness and immediate needs of our days and serve the easy and the urgent rather than the essential.
As we consider how to serve our children, we can ask:
Will this action help my child to grow whole and strong?
With young children, we may be too quick to push them toward independence, thinking, and responsibility. The greatest service is to love them, to help them have time and space to play, and to preserve their experience of the magical, free, playful world. It is also vitally important to serve them by having clear, calm, and loving limits around behaviors that can hurt them and others. With older children, it's easy to bypass their true developmental work, the work of handling emotions, because it's uncomfortable and messy. Rather than avoiding the emotional drama of middle childhood, we can help them to be present with feelings and learn how to respond to them. With teens, we may be quick to override responsibilities that really should be theirs, pushing them to achieve in ways that we value rather than letting them find their own way. We may want to 'solve' their problems and help them be comfortable rather than supporting them in discovering their own paths through the challenging experiences. In each case, when we support a child to engage with his or her own developmental work, they grow stronger.
Will this help my child know his or her place in the world?
At all ages, children need to feel rooted in community, through family, friends, and broader groups they find that sense of community. Much can be learned through the messy and complicated experience of spending regular, open-ended time in a self-directed way with a group of people. Learning about society, parts of the world, and social issues is important, but it needs to build on the direct experience of navigating our own human relationships rather than replace this step!
Will this help my child to be happy?
People who can not tolerate and experience fear, sadness, pain, and uncertainty are not very happy. Life is full of a whole range of emotions, and happiness is only one part of this. If you want your children to be happy, allow them and support them to fully experience each emotion that arises. Don't avoid your own challenging feelings, don't avoid your child's feelings, and slow down enough to be present with them in their feelings.
I came to parenting with a strong belief in the innate goodness and wisdom of children and with a sense that a parent's role is a collaborative and supportive rather than controlling one. Once I had kids, though, authoritarian beliefs and conditioning started to come up that I hadn't even suspected. Life, including growing up with an authoritarian dad and going to Catholic school, had instilled deep conditioning around compliance, authority, and obedience.
For all of my years as a parent, I've worked with the conflict between my core beliefs and my actual behavior. It hasn't always been pretty, especially in the years before I had a mindfulness practice. When my kids were little and loved to drop food over the side of the high chair, the part of me that knew they were exploring and discovering was at odds with the part that wanted them to stop making a mess and 'do the right thing.' When they were a little older and resisted going to bed, a small part of me understood their resistance while a large part felt frustrated and angry that they weren't listening. Now as they are older, new power struggles come up.
I don't like this authoritarian, controlling aspect of myself! I know it was in me before I was a parent, but I know that my experiences as a mom bring it out in the open where I can (and have to) see it. The truth is that my beliefs and ideas about children are not fully integrated with my conditioning. Bit by bit, I am recognizing the physical, emotional, and mental habits that play a strong role in my parenting. Each time I run into a conflict between how I act and how I want to act--and those conflicts are ever-changing through my kids' developmental stages--I get to see more conditioning.
I have learned that fighting it does not help. What does help is awareness and curiosity. Bit by bit, time by time, as I see old habits of control, authority, and suppression arise, I am becoming able to recognize them without acting on them. As I sit in the discomfort of this internal conflict, something loosens or shifts, leaving me more able to be present with my kids as they are.
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.