One of our jobs as parents is to set parameters and requests that we expect our children to follow. If our kids do as they are asked, all is well. If they do not, we react. How we react can be critical. Sometimes a dynamic plays out....we make a request, our child doesn’t immediately comply, we become more insistent and perhaps even agitated or impatient. When we enter the insistence phase, we can wind up with unintended consequences. Research shows the most effective predictor of whether our children comply is if our child feels valued, understood and in alignment with the person in charge. Children do well when adults convey a sincere belief in the child’s potential to do the right thing. Children who are compliant by nature tend to garner belief and praise by adults, since adults come to expect that they will make good decisions. Children prosper in the belief that they are capable. The opposite can be true of children who do not automatically comply. Fear enters the equation... our own fear that our child is not making good decisions, our own fear that our child is steering off track, our own fear that he/she is not succeeding as expected. We intervene in an authoritative manner that suggests we don’t really believe that our child is capable of making the right choice if left to his/her own devices, therefore it is our job to “right the ship” and set clear expectations with minimal tolerance for off-track behavior. Once we enter the dynamic of setting all the expectations, some children simply give up or shut down, relationships become strained, and self-esteem diminishes.
The danger in this situation is that shame can seep in - for both kids and parents. If our child is told often, for example, that he is “disorganized” or “impulsive” or “overly emotional,” adult strategies for creating lists or thinking proactively or bravely when confronting a difficult scenario are not well received. The requests by parents may be heard by our kids as a put-down or a belief that “you don’t matter unless you do as I say” rather than an opportunity for partnership and belief that our kids will, in the end, behave or respond appropriately.
A helpful approach may be to view “noncompliance” as an opportunity to figure out, “Why not?” and “How can I help you?” and “What will it take for a favorable response?” Ross Greene, Psychologist and originator of the Collaborative Problem Solving approach -- now called Collaborative & Proactive Solutions - reminds us that kids will do well if they can, not if they want to. If we believe that message in our hearts, we welcome the imperative to partner rather than impose our expectations - so that our re-directions are delivered in a way that our children can gracefully receive.
The most significant predictor of emotional health for children - and therefore the most important goal that we must set for ourselves as parents - is the message that our children are worthy of love and belonging, at all times and in all places. More than compliance, if children value themselves from the inside, they tend to be more accepting of our encouragement and redirection. Relationships first. We are an end-product society. We spend a lot of time focused on grades, goals scored, ribbons awarded, trophies earned, batting averages calculated, etc. The downside of an end-result culture is that our children are at-risk for believing that they are only as worthy as their report card grade or soccer team performance suggests. When they do well, they are praised. When they make a mistake, they feel ashamed. As responsible parents, we must be aware of the culture we are in and the pressure it puts on our children (and ourselves) to perform well, no excuses - and to minimize the processing of not making the mark or figuring out what is going on from the inside. Our children desperately need us to enter their worlds to process how it feels to lose a game or miss out on a goal - without judgment, critique or blame. These spaces between parents and children must be kept sacred, respectful, and safe. These types of conversations must happen.
Thus, it is easy for our interactions with our kids to seem dominated by outcome measures... (Did you do your homework? Did you do your chores? Did you practice your piano? Did you pack your bags? Did you clean your room?) More important - and ironically more predictive of these things being done - is our ability to impart our genuine belief that our children will do what is right, they will make good decisions, they will initiate independently...as long as we BELIEVE that they will, and we impart a message of “You can do this, I’m here to support you, You are worthy and capable in your own right, and It’s okay to make mistakes because they help you learn and grow.” By releasing ourselves from the pressure of entering the “end game” rapport with our kids, we build trust with our children and gain a place with them “in the game.” When we emphasize such qualities as persistence, hard work, bravery, and relationships, we remove pressure on our kids to feel they must be perfect, and we help them foster a strong partnership with us and a strong work ethic that they will need as they grow. We must guard against stressing them out by prodding them to do or act or be something that they feel we don’t believe they can do. When our interactions are framed by themes such as...“I can’t wait to join you on your path” and “We will have fun together,” we set the tone for allowing our children to be themselves, to accept themselves, and to take risks in the world without dashing their true spirits. In the end, it is their self-compassion, their work ethic, and their strong values that will save them despite a prevailing culture of end product expectations. As parents, we must deliver this simple yet powerful message: “You are always and unconditionally worthy of love and belonging.” This message becomes our gift, freeing and empowering our children to be fully accountable to their actions and decisions.
Many definitions of mindfulness are linked to meditation or yoga-type practices, By contrast, Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard, describes mindfulness as “the simple act of actively noticing things,” with a result of increased health, competence and happiness. She writes that our experience of everything is formed by the words and ideas we attach to them. When we actively notice new things about another person, the person comes alive for us and the relationship is strengthened. This applies to our interactions with children. Her research points out that we can re-imagine our children’s actions and characteristics in much healthier ways. For example, if someone is labeled “gullible,” what happens when we come to see that person as “trusting?” If we are concerned that our child is overly rigid, might we begin to view his or her stability as an attribute? If our child is perceived as disorganized...what happens to our relationship with this child when we begin to view his actions as “refreshingly spontaneous?” With the flip of a perspective (mindfulness), we can discard all sorts of interpersonal conflict and resistance.
If our children experience our compassion as authentic, we are more likely to be accepted by them to be their partner, to connect well - to accept our feedback as a trusted ally rather than as a commandeering parent. Can we model a “love of learning” related to school by finding joy in what was previously experienced as drudgery... by re-naming it as play? (i.e. new perspective on homework?) Dr. Langor writes that when we can come to a place where “now I see that the things that happen to me (or defined by me) are a function of my view of them, I needn’t be so afraid.”
Benefits of practicing this type of mindfulness:
1. Relationship building/trust - our child feels embraced by the positive tenor of the interaction.
2. When fear is removed from the equation, we are more authentic and compassionate in our interactions and responses - and more effective in connecting well with our children.
I have been wanting to initiate a blog about parenting for the Bow community, to begin a conversation about the work that we do as parents that we sometimes feel unprepared for - about the fact that parenting can bring us to our knees. Plain and simple. The journey with our kids can elevate us to new heights and joys where we never believed we could reach while simultaneously leading us to our own depths of fears, misgivings, and self-consciousness. Parenting catapults us to appreciate that raising a child is a process, a work in progress, an unknown. Parenting reflects a great source of vulnerability beyond anything that any of us has ever bargained for in our lives (confusing, joyous, maddening, enriching, contentious, anxiety-provoking, loving until we ache...)
My hesitation in beginning this blog involves many layers...being afraid to be honest, feeling afraid of not knowing, being afraid to be an expert - or speak as an expert - feeling as though what might
be said or spoken would be embarrassing or not good enough, sounding preachy or judgmental, worrying that by writing something down it might come back to haunt me or I wouldn’t have permission to change my views.
In fact, it is for all these reasons that I have decided to begin this journey with all of you, in a public forum. Perhaps through a blog format it will be possible to reach a broader spectrum of parents and begin to have conversations about some of the issues that we all face as we interact with the children that we love so much and want to launch into this world...which leads to the first question...how can we honor ourselves, our children, and our mission of wanting to be great parents even though we haven’t been given (or can’t have) a recipe for the specific path or a window for how it all turns out? As I begin this blog, I’m thick in the trenches with all of you. My own kids are 12, 15, and 17. The time has come to begin a conversation.
Fostering the message: We all make mistakes
Last week, our new principal, Mr. Gergler, introduced himself to teachers as someone who works for all of us - and not the other way around - as someone who appreciates feedback. He asked our faculty to point out to him when he makes a mistake - since we all make mistakes. He asked us to come to him with feedback and to make suggestions or to clarify our thoughts and ideas - minimizing judgment and blame in favor of personal growth, development, and trust that will be established over time. I wondered, can that same mindset be extended to our children? Although we often think we must control our classroom environments, and by extension our home environments, I wonder if in fact children respond best when they feel included as part of their own learning process, with voices listened to, perspectives valued, interests understood. We are here for them. They are experts of themselves, and our job is to nurture and build trust with their personalities, their intellects, their curiosities and wonders. Perhaps if we can show them they they are respected and valued, they will respond to our teaching with open hearts and the exhilaration of self discovery and risk-taking necessary for effective learning. Mr. Gergler models for teachers, teachers model for students, students model for each other. Can we follow this motto as parents?
Brene Brown - Daring Way
Over the summer I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend a week-long training in San Antonio, TX with Brene Brown (researcher, author) entitled “Daring Way.” Brene is an expert in the topics of shame and vulnerability and the roles that these issues play in our lives. She is a “grounded theory” researcher, which means that rather than creating her own theories of human experience and trying to prove or disprove those theories, she initiates conversations with thousands of research participants first, and from the data, creates theories based on documented human feelings, beliefs, and behaviors. Her research themes include wholehearted living, wholehearted parenting, and preparing ourselves and our children for a world in which we need to be courageous, value-driven, and authentic. She explains that we must become comfortable in places of discomfort, and in so modeling for our children, we are preparing them to show up to their lives without the undue burden of anxiety, fear, or pretending. She teaches the daily practice of self-compassion, giving ourselves permission to say that “I am enough” even if I am not perfect, or perhaps because of not being perfect. When we are kind to ourselves, we are better prepared to be kind and authentic to others.
One potential pitfall is the idea that our kids need to be happy all the time. In fact, they do not. If we have a large family, and plans are made, we do not need to fear if someone in the family is not thrilled with the plan. They will get over it! Hemming and hawing over making everyone happy will result in no one being happy and the adults feeling exhausted and disappointed that everyone is not chipper in the moment. Moments with our families fluctuate in terms of who feels happy when, who gets along with who when, who is acting “proactively” when...and that is okay. Being a partner with kids sometimes means just allowing them to work through things, helping re-frame their feelings, and giving them space to learn how to maneuver an unpleasant moment without the adult swooping in to save the day. The trust that we impart to kids that they are “enough” and they have what it takes to solve problems is a much greater predictor of their future success than doing the work for them or making them feel afraid to fail or to feel upset. Feeling upset happens in life, for all of us sometimes. The earlier we can acknowledge and allow for a variety of emotions from our children, the more adept they become at trusting themselves to move through various emotions to a place of thoughtfulness and reflection.
The other day, I put this practice to use when my youngest daughter asked me to pack her water shoes for the end portion of a family hike in the White Mountains. I thought I’d packed the shoes. As we reached the base of the mountain, she asked for her water shoes and we quickly discovered I’d left them in the truck. The old me would have felt terrible, tried to hike back to the car and back up to the spot so she could have the shoes. The new me took responsibility for the mistake and apologized for not putting them in as I said I would. However, I also allowed her feel disappointed while reminding myself that “I am enough” (I had, after all, packed lunches, waters, hats, sunscreen, and many other things for the hike). The old me would have wanted her to quickly return to a happy place. I might have done what I could to get her there quickly. The new me understood her feelings, gave her space to process the new set of circumstances and to create her own ending. Eventually, she skipped rocks barefoot down the meandering river, without my need to “fix” her by over-apologizing or over-discussing or even over-worrying about it. Had I hiked down and back, it would have been 45 minutes of missing out on family time due to guilt for not packing the shoes, impatience with allowing a portion of the day to be uncomfortable, and unwillingness to trust my daughter to adapt to an unexpected circumstance that actually provided a great learning opportunity for all of us.
Brene Brown also talks about the human need to make up stories based on feedback we get from others, and how quickly we turn to our own stories about what just happened even if those stories may not be true. For example, we might interpret a facial expression by our boss, our spouse or our child that we think means one thing, when in fact it may not have been intended in that way. The courageous path for teachers and parents is to teach children to circle back to interpretations and feelings. In other words, from an early age, it is so important to check in with each other and say, “I noticed that you looked … when …. happened. Were you upset because …? Or did I misinterpret that cue?” Regardless of the response, daring to be present and authentic with other people leads to wholehearted living. It takes courage and hard work to constantly work on culture in relationships in the context of learning and growth. We must teach our kids (by modeling with each other) that there are no shortcuts and that the path can be uncomfortable. But we cannot live wholehearted, meaningful lives unless we are brave enough to circle back with the people in our lives that we care about the most, accepting feedback and even criticism in the spirit of increased compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and connection.
Brene Brown's research illustrates that striving to be perfect can be our downfall. The idea that we must strive to be the perfect parent and have the perfect children results in failure, shame, guilt, regret, and sadness. If on the other hand we acknowledge our mistakes, own up to them honestly, and try not to fix our children, we give our kids the opportunity to move from disappointment to baseline and permission for them to feel worthy even as we work with them to do/act/behave differently the next time. Her research results distinguish between guilt and shame - the former being associated with positive traits in kids and the latter being associated with negative. If we feel guilty, we tend to be motivated to change. When we feel shame, we freeze and put up "shame shields" that foster unhealthy habits, beliefs, and response patterns. The same is true for our kids.
Teaching Character Skills - Embracing Vulnerability
Raising children is not a simple task, and implementing the “just right curriculum” for social-emotional development is not a straight and narrow path. Doug Bonnema and I will share some of our favorite books on the website as recommended "reads" for parents. We encourage your feedback and stories. All the books we suggest point to various truths, including the reminder that relationships are the foundation to all learning and that mistakes will be made along the way and that we cannot experience joy without struggle or hope without disappointment. The more that we can partner with our children as they sample the wide variety of emotions in their lives, and allow them to be uncomfortable for periods of time as they navigate, wade and struggle through challenging circumstances, the better we prepare them for inevitable “knock downs” in life. If we try to fix, blame ourselves, divert, protect, shield, guard against or lose our temper with respect to discomfort in our children or about our children, we do them a disservice and feel miserable in the process.
I’m hoping that by sharing stories and perspectives about parenting, we can re-examine the manner by which we define success, we can nurture our kids as wholehearted human beings, and we can encourage courage - the ability to show up, to be seen, to be authentic and value driven, and to reach for dreams and goals even as we experience failures along the way. When we model these concepts for our children, in our own lives, they follow our lead. We all share a seat at the table, doing our best in our own situations with the tools that we have, expanding our own repertoires to display compassion and empathy. Perhaps this blog can become a launching pad for all of you to find your voice, to start conversations with each other, and to let me know if you disagree or if something written does or doesn’t resonate in your own lives. Please feel free to ask questions and join me on this path to creating safe spaces and conversations about raising our kids. (firstname.lastname@example.org)