Family Routines: Gardening!
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?
It's Actually Okay
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.
Holding Our Children
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."
There's No 'Right Way' to be a Kid
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 own childhood memories come back strongly when I'm on the parenting side of a similar situation. When my kids are sick I remember so vividly how my mom took care of me when I was sick.
I remember how my mom would tuck a blanket around me while I rested. I remember her bringing a tray with flat 'pop' and crackers or soft boiled eggs. Most of all, I remember cool washcloths. Whenever I was throwing up or feverish, my mom would run a washcloth under cool water, wring it out, fold it, and drape it over my forehead. That felt so good! It wasn't just the cool washcloth, although that was great, it was also the presence and quiet nurturing that felt so good.
When I was sick, my mom and I both changed. In normal life she was busy. A single mom with three kids, she worked hard and came home tired. But when I was sick, she had plenty of time and energy and tenderness to care for me. On my end, being sick was like being a littler child again. I needed her so much more than usual.
When our children are sick, exhausted, or injured, it's like we go through a trap door to an earlier developmental time. When they're babies, sickness intensifies their neediness and can open our hearts to them even more fully.. It's exhausting! As children get older, sickness gives us the chance to revisit the relationship we had when they were small. We can reconnect deeply with a sick child, rebuilding a sense of loving attachment that may be faltering as they grow older and more distracted or independent. We can feel our own hearts open, letting go of frustrations or grievances that may have been interfering with the relationship. We can nurture the baby self that lives inside of our ordinarily capable kids.
Do you have special rituals or routines that come up when your children are sick? Can you feel a stronger connection develop? Or the chance to heal more than their bodies?
Start Close In by David Whyte
START CLOSE IN
by David Whyte
Start close in,
don't take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don't want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way of starting
Start with your own
give up on other
don't let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
for your own.
Start close in,
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don't want to take.
What's the first step for you as a parent? The one you don't want to take? The humble, non-heroic one? The conversation that it's time to start?
Take that step today.
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, and it is all too easy to get caught up in the busyness and immediate needs of our days and serve the urgent rather than the essential. We need to know, to recognize, and to remember the difference between serving a child’s wants and comforts versus their wholeness and purpose.
As we consider how to serve our children, we can ask:
Will this action help my child to grow whole and strong?
Sometimes our children need gentle presence, a sense of being rooted in our love. Sometimes they need a clear limit, the simple ‘It’s time for bed,’ or ‘No, I can’t let you push your brother.’ Sometimes they need to feel angry, helpless, sad, or uncomfortable. Sometimes they need to rise to a challenge without our help. This question will not magically tell us what to do, but it can point us toward remembering our child’s developmental purpose and work.
Will this help my child know his or her place in the world?
At all ages, people need to feel rooted in community, and we find that through family, friends, and broader groups. 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, and it begins with the direct experience of navigating human relationships. Give your child space to be bored, discover things to do, work things out, experience conflict, and learn through relationship.
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 offers 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. Allow your own challenging feelings, your child's feelings, and the time it takes to be present with complicated emotions. This will support real happiness!
Try Doing Nothing
When something difficult happens, it is so easy to feel pressured to act. We think it's important to know the right thing to say and do. Sometimes it's best to do nothing. Instead, try being.
When your child is upset with a friend, be with it. Yes, you have good ideas about how they could fix the problem, of course you do! But they don't probably don't need your ideas, they have their own ideas. They may only need your presence.
When a friend is upset, it's hard. But don't interrupt, explain how it's going to get better, ask them what they've tried. Just listen. That is a rare and beautiful gift!
When your child has a big project due and doesn't start until the last minute, don't worry, intervene, explain, or lecture. Don't focus on what you should have done to prevent this, what they should have done, how the teacher could have handled it better. Stay nearby, stay calm, and let them be in charge. Help if they ask, but don't take over.
When you feel crappy and angry, don't do anything. Don't write that email, post that complaint, or yell at that innocent bystander.
When one of your kids does something really stupid (and they will), don't lecture about why it was a bad idea. Allow them to discover that if possible. At the same time, don't rescue them from the fallout. Allow them to experience it and learn from it. Stay nearby and love them quietly and calmly.
Hard things can be our greatest teachers. But for that to happen, we have to be receptive to them. We can't run away into action.
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.
Be a Light in the Darkness
When things are not going well, when everything around us feels like it's falling apart, it is a good time to be strong and clear and loving. Don't fall into the darkness, be the light.
When my kids are sick, part of me starts to fall into it, beginning to feel sick, too. I need to remind myself that although I love them, I am a separate person. Their sickness is theirs, not mine. I return to my own body and am better able to care for them.
When my kids are angry, sad, or upset, I can feel pulled into that, too. Without noticing it, I can adopt their mood, or an opposite mood. I have to catch myself and return to my own center. I have to remind myself that it's okay for them to feel what they feel AND that I don't have to feel it with them.
Sometimes things just feel bad in my house, like everyone is off center. Or I'm with someone really sad. Or I'm in a group of people who are arguing or complaining. In each situation, I know how easy it is for me to collapse in to the emotional state around me, and how important it is to to stay clear. When I am grounded in my own self, I am available to be loving, supportive, and present with my children and other people.
Do you ever fall into your child's (or someone else's) experience? If so, try this:
Eating together matters! The ritual of sharing food is a powerful, especially when there's a 'breaking bread' component, sharing something communal like a bowl of popcorn, veggies and dip, or a plate of cookies.
But dinner can become a battlefield. We struggle over controlling our children's eating habits or manners, and can sometimes forget to enjoy the food and each other. As parents, it's up to us to set the tone for dinner as a connecting experience by getting into the habit of being with our kids in pleasant, non-critical, accepting ways at the dinner table
If meals haven't been so fun in your family, here are a few to consider:
Assemble-your-own meals like tacos, 'roll your own' sushi, baked potato or salad bar, or rice bowls offer a chance for each person to create their own customized food while sharing a table and ingredients. These are often kind of labor-intensive to set up and clean up, but they are worth it. They take longer to eat than simpler meals, bringing us together to share and talk. Everyone can find something they like, and people may get excited about sharing their innovations and trying new things. Don't worry about how they combine the foods, just put some good wholesome stuff on the table and let them do their thing. If you can, get curious about their ideas and let them inspire you to try something new!
Pizza is a staple of family life. Rather than ordering pizza, try an occasional tradition of making it yourself. It can be ridiculously simple with Mark Bittman's crust recipe or you can buy dough or even pre-made crusts, homemade or store-bough sauce, and a spread of possible toppings. Don't be surprised if your kids raid the pantry for things you would never have considered topping a pizza with! One of my sons experimented with salsas and cilantro (which wasn't bad) and walnuts (which turned out to be amazing). You can set up a space in the kitchen where everyone makes their own. Rather than make individual pizzas, I like to make each crust big enough to share so that everyone gets a chance to taste each person's creation. Even if the kids only eat their own, you get the chance to try and appreciate their creations. Find something positive to say about everything they make, and you'll find them looking forward to new ideas for the next family pizza night.
Hors d'oeuvres night can be another fun one! Forget a sit-down dinner and eat 'cocktail party style.' We did this when I just couldn't face the restlessness my guys had a the dinner table when they were little. I would soemtimes make plates of finger foods--something like hummus and tapenade and a spinach/yogurt dip with cut up veggies and pita. We would put away toys and other things, turn on music, and have a dinner party together. It can be fun to really play, walking around and making 'small talk' together. Just like at a real cocktail party, the conversation may sparkle and it may not, no pressure. The important thing is to bring some fun into the process.
Food can draw us together, creating space for connection. If you try these ideas, bring a sense of lightness and play. We don't need to control what our children eat, we need to offer healthy, nutritious, and pleasant eating experiences and trust them to find their way.
Making Peace with Ourselves
Peace is This Moment Without Judgment
by Dorothy Hunt
Do you think peace requires an end to war?
Or tigers eating only vegetables?
Does peace require an absence from
your boss, your spouse, yourself? …
Do you think peace will come some other place than here?
Some other time than Now?
In some other heart than yours?
Peace is this moment without judgment.
That is all. This moment in the Heart-space
where everything that is is welcome.
Peace is this moment without thinking
that it should be some other way,
that you should feel some other thing,
that your life should unfold according to your plans.
Peace is this moment without judgment,
this moment in the heart-space where
everything that is is welcome.
Today I enjoyed a day-long retreat, 'Making Friends with Yourself' with some beautiful people. Deep mindfulness practices help us to do that, make friends with ourselves. We remember that calm, clear place where our true self lives. We make peace with our whole selves, including the harder parts.
Some Days Are Just Hard
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.
Loving the Kid You've Got
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?
Reading Kids' Emotions
As parents, we tend to focus on what to do about our children's emotions, but it's wise to start by simply noticing them. Sometimes we assume that we understand what our child is feeling without really paying attention. Sometimes we even to forget the importance of understanding in our rush to help them or set limits or get something done.
Considering some basic emotions (fear, anger, sadness, joy, surprise, and disgust/contempt are considered by basics by some researchers), do you know how your child expresses each? Every emotion has a physical component, and it can really help to get to know how each is expressed physically.
When your child is scared (anxious, worried, nervous, feeling excluded), how does it show up in his body? Are there characteristic physical gestures, body movements, facial expressions? How do his eyes look? What does he talk about?
When your child is angry (aggressive, jealous, indignant), how can you tell? What do you notice about her physical expressions including gesture, expressions, tone of voice? Where does she go? What does she talk about? What do her eyes look like? Does she get restless or still, hot or cold, loud or quiet?
Consider the same type of questions for each emotion, noticing how your child looks, moves, and expresses sadness, joy, surprise, and disgust. When you are curious about your child's emotions, it helps you to shift from reactivity to curiosity. This creates space, allowing you to respond more slowly, more thoughtfully, more spaciously. What a wonderful gift for a child! This week, see if you can cultivate more awareness of your child's feelings and less action.
Teens and Interdependence
Adolescents need both a solid connection with us (attachment) and space to separate from us and discover who they are. Although these appear to be contradictory needs they’re really connected. One of our cultural myths insists that we’re meant to be independent, but human development culminates with interdependence, not independence. We need healthy, safe, close relationships with people at every age.
During adolescence kids have a developmental need to shift from more dependence to a growing interdependence with us. Each adolescent moves through this in their own timing, and often with a ‘two steps forward and one step back’ kind of process rather than a simple linear one. What they really need from parents is a steady, accepting and loving presence that they can trust enough to push away from.
Kids become more peer focused sometime during adolescence. This does not mean that they don’t need us, but it may mean that they reject or criticize a lot about us--how we look/act/drive/talk/etc. They model on their peers more and more. These peer relationships are pretty conditional and kids have to adapt themselves to fit in. It’s only with securely attached relationships that they truly feel safe and free to be themselves. Teens bring the most difficult, dark aspects of themselves home to us because these parts can’t be expressed in the conditionally accepting world of peers or school. If we can send them the message during this time that they are absolutely accepted, even though they’re acting like brats some of the time, it goes a long way to helping them accept themselves.
Our parenting task at this stage is to see and affirm their true nature. When the things they do are not acceptable (which is bound to happen), we can differentiate between who they are and what they have done. We don't need to let their mistakes threaten our love or acceptance (even though they may trigger our old stuff and bring up a desire to send them away, walk away, tell them they better shape up, etc.).
Just as they become more impulsive and less cautious or eager to please, teens need to experience the right to make choices, make mistakes and be responsible for their mistakes. Our parenting is tricky, like threading a needle through our newly middle-aged eyes! Ideally we talk with them about the 'why' behind choices rather than emphasizing the 'should.' When they mess up, we trust that they are strong enough to experience the results of their mess up and fix it when possible (with support and guidance rather than a rescue). Sometimes we need to sit on our hands rather than fixing things that they can handle, sometimes we need to keep our mouths shut instead of lecturing.
We can remember this passage from Kahlil Gibran’s poem On Children:
"Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you."
The first parenting book that I read, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Maslish, is one that I discovered in a used book store when I was just beginning to work with children (long before I became a parent). It caught my eye, I bought it, and it has had a deep impact on me ever since.
This little book is accessible, interesting, practical and full of simple truths. If you haven't already discovered this book, do yourself a favor and get it right away! It's an easy-to-read mixture of stories, cartoons, and teachings.
Here's a useful nugget from the book:
“Some children can tell you why they’re frightened, angry, or unhappy. For many, however, the question “Why?” only adds to their problem. In addition to their original distress, they must now analyze the cause and come up with a reasonable explanation. Very often children don’t know why they feel as they do. At other times they’re reluctant to tell because they fear that in the adult’s eyes their reason won’t seem good enough. (“For that you’re crying?”) It’s much more helpful for an unhappy youngster to hear, “I see something is making you sad,” rather than to be interrogated with “What happened?” or “Why do you feel that way?” It’s easier to talk to a grown-up who accepts what you’re feeling rather than one who presses you for explanations.”
And another wonderful passage:
“To Engage a Child’s Cooperation 1. DESCRIBE WHAT YOU SEE, OR DESCRIBE THE PROBLEM. “There’s a wet towel on the bed.” 2. GIVE INFORMATION. “The towel is getting my blanket wet.” 3. SAY IT WITH A WORD. “The towel!” 4. DESCRIBE WHAT YOU FEEL. “I don’t like sleeping in a wet bed!” 5. WRITE A NOTE. (above towel rack) Please put me back so I can dry. Thanks! Your Towel”
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish also have several other wonderful parenting books--Siblings Without Rivalry, and How to Talk So Your Teen Will Listen are two of my favorites. Follow this link to see more.
Our world can be a heartbreaking place. Even within our own families there are deep challenges, let alone things we hear about in the news, the refugee crisis, injustice, climate change, war, and so much more. I often want to turn away from difficult news to protect myself from feeling it all. I feel angry, maybe because it’s somehow safer than feeling the pain. I want to cut myself off from 'those people' who are doing bad things, demonizing them rather than feeling my heart connect with their hearts.
I’m not saying that we need to be okay with everything people do, we don't. But we can be present with each person as a human being, recognizing the imperfect expression of their divinity just as we recognize that within ourselves.
When we pull into the rational mind and bypass the vulnerable and sensitive response to tragic things happening around us, we grow numb. And when we are numb to one part of our experience, we are numb to it all, there's no way to stay selectively open. So the only thing to do is to practice getting close and listening to the sad, irrational, needy, angry parts of ourselves. Of the world. Of our kids. We just need to slow down, listen, and feel.
To build your ability to open your heart, consider trying loving kindness practice.
Sit and breathe, following the breath and resting a hand on your belly or heart. Notice where you are and simply be present with yourself without judging, rushing, or bypassing. Remember some wonderful things about yourself, some of your most loving and kind moments, and watch the memories like movies in your mind to remember your best nature.
And then say these words to yourself, slowly and imagining each one as you say it:
May I be filled with loving kindness (picture what you look like, what you are doing),
May I be healthy and strong (imagine how you look, where you are, who you are with),
May I be calm and peaceful (again, picture it),
May I be happy (smile).
Repeat this a few times. And then consider a person you love, picture them, and send these words to them a few times. Notice how you feel.
When you're ready, consider a person you're having a hard time with and send these words to them several times. Again, notice how you feel.
Learning Again and Again
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 read a book once that mentioned a sign posted in a kindergarten classroom, "Start out slow and taper off." It's good advice.
There's a natural sense of timing in the world that is slower than my habits. When one of my boys was in middle school, I was rushing him one day, and he looked at me and said, 'You know Mom, I hurry all day." He explained the rush to get off the bus, to get from one class to another in 3 minutes in crowded halls, to get to practice, to run faster, to get home and do homework. That was a deep teaching for me.
The world, whether it's school or activities, teams, social media, won't help our kids to operate at their natural speed. But we can. Even when there are time constraints, we can our cultivate an unhurried, spacious inward approach. This minimizes the drama of parent-child interactions and things usually actually get done more efficiently. For me, as the intent to be present in each moment gets stronger, my ability to be spacious with kid timing has naturally developed.
This starts with inner awareness, getting very clear about time constraints and how to handle them. Simple information and agreements can support the practical part of timing. "Guys, we need to leave by 9. Do you need help being ready?" Things won't always go as planned, but a simple plan helps.
Ive needed to work with the hurrying, anxious, pushing energy inside of myself rather than let it control the morning. I feel the energy in my body and consciously choose how to respond to it. Sometimes it needs an outlet so I do something that will use it up ( by by taking the compost out to the back yard, getting laundry organized which takes me up and down the stairs a few times, or walking around dusting). Sometimes I just need to notice how it feels and breathe into it for a bit. Other times I acknowledge the feeling and remind myself that it's okay, that I feel like this nearly every day and somehow it works out. Often I need to offer a quiet and calm reminder to my kids.
No matter how young or old a child is, rushing is not a great practice. As parents, when we create a slower flow, things still get done. And our children learn, without emotional drama, how to work with time limitations.
Guided By 'love' or 'Love'?
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.
I'm a person on a messy journey--healing, learning, discovering and rediscovering. Sharing, writing, talking, and teaching help me to understand myself and the world more clearly. I hope it can help make your journey a easier, too.