Today in the shower I was thinking about the words we use to talk about being parents. People ask, “How many children do you have?” Have? I’m not sure have is the right word here. I have a car, I have a sewing machine. These are things that I can claim as my own. I might even say that I have a partner, because, well, we really do belong to each other. But kids? When you are raising fruit you talk about raising or growing. Not that our kids are fruit. Still you wouldn’t say I have strawberries or I have apples when you are really talking about raising crops.
Maybe creating is a better metaphor. Painters don’t have their paintings. They create them. Poets write. They don’t have their poems. Again, the metaphor is weak. I don’t think that I am creating my daughter. But more like a wealthy patron, creating the environment in which she can flourish and grow into herself. (Would a patron have a musician?)
My point is we don’t really have our children. If anything, they have us. Our job isn’t to own, to control, to live our lives through our children. Our job is to create a safe, nurturing environment in which our children can become themselves. Maybe the word I'm looking for is nourish. I nourish my children. My daughter has and nourishes me.
And, since it’s something I struggle with, parenting also means letting your kids experience the feeling of frustration and disappointment. It is all too easy to try to raise children who never have to feel the feelings that we, as adults, don’t want to feel. But just as I am still learning how to lean into the difficult moments in life, I know that this is one of the best gifts that I can offer to my daughter.
So, while I want create a safe place for her to get to know herself and the world. There is also the desire to help her connect with her own resiliency, to point out her own inner resources in the face of difficulty and unpleasantness. She is lucky to have been born into a relatively easy life. My hope for her is that she learns what she needs to in order to navigate both the beauty and the adversity with dignity and grace. And to do that, I will continue to practice with my own feelings of discomfort and the endless letting go – not having – that is my parenting journey.
PS All this reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh's essay on the relationship between the leaf and the tree. We think of the tree as being the mother, when in fact the leaf nourishes the tree and then dies, leaving the tree to live for another season.
Part of being a mindful parent is paying attention to what we say to our children. Often I can hear the words rushing out of my mouth, only to be filled with remorse. This is almost guaranteed to happen when the words sound like, "If you do that one more time, you won't get to go to the park."
To be clear, I'm a huge fan of natural consequences. And so if what I am doing is calmly explaining the order of events, then I usually feel okay about how things are going.
However, there's the other kind of threat. The one that bursts out when I'm frustrated and want to control my kid. And this is where the mindfulness part comes in. Only I really know when I'm simply explaining the consequences, as in, "If you don't want to pick up your toys, I'll put them in the clean up bag and put them in the closet." Or trying to control my daughter, "If you don't take a rest you wont be able to go to the birthday party this afternoon." (I am cringing as I write this. It's all too familiar to me.)
The problem with using threats to control is that it usually backfires. As in: Wait, what did I just say? No birthday party? But I want my kid to go to the party this afternoon. I need the time to work on my presentation
Long ago I learned to not threaten anything I'm not willing to follow through on. Not only does it not work, I'd just end up looking stupid and feeling like a failure.
So, what to do instead? Especially when it's something that just HAS to get done. When my kid was little (and even now on a rare occasion) I would use the Magic 5. I would offer my daughter a choice, "You can put your shoes on yourself, or I can do it for you. I'm going to count to five and then I'm going to help you get your shoes on." And then I would slowly count, making sure to give her plenty of time to weigh her options. I have to confess, I rarely got past 3, but when I did get to 5 I would gently, without much explanation, move to help her get her shoes on.
If this is a new strategy for you, you may find that your kiddo will test you to see if you are really going to follow through or not. It may take a week or so of really following through to help your child understand that things are a little different.
And if you child is a bit older you might decide, in a moment of calm, to have a SHORT conversation about how things have been (empty threats, or not following through) and what you are going to do differently for 10 days. Think of it as a little experiment. See what happens. Let me know.
Check out my artcile on Hunter Yoga, No More Time Outs, on why you should stop using Time Out as a discipline strategy and what to do instead.
We are leaving for family camp in a few days. In the meantime, my sweet, independent 6 year old daughter seems to be going through some sort of regression. Her last three play dates have been fraught with discord. (Or, as her BFF said, "Emily's being bossy.")
She has suddenly stopped eating most of the foods she ate three weeks ago. The list of acceptable foods is getting shorter each day. At the same time she has become a tyrant over the family cat. And on the way to camp this morning she insisted on being a back seat driver telling me when to go and where to park.
As I talk with my husband about what's been going on, it becomes clear that there are several ways to make sense of these recent events.
1. Our daughter is becoming a bossy, controlling, pain in the ass. (I say this with lots of love. And more than a little frustration.)
2. This is a clear message from the universe that it's time to get rid of the cat, her friends and her taste buds. Is it possible to trade in your kid?
3. This is normal. What looks like controlling behavior is a message about her own anxiety and discomfort around change. This summer has been all about her growing autonomy. Now, as summer draws to a close first grade is looming. There's family camp and then I will go away for the longest I've ever been away from her. 10 whole days. She is spending long days at gymnastics camp, a totally new environment for her where she is working hard to figure out the norms.
So instead of worrying that my kid is turning into a brat, we make a plan. I tell her gently that I don't want to fight about food. I ask her what she wants in her lunch box. I explain that she needs to eat a piece of ham for breakfast, before she has fruit or a waffle. I remind her that everything works out. That I'm here to keep her safe. And I let her sit silently on my lap for a few minutes before leaving her at camp for the day. Without judgement. Imagining that she is trying to tell me that she wants to feel more connected to me.
Finally, I set an intention to sit with her and talk about the conveyer belt of worries (from Sitting Still Like a Frog) and to use our mindfulness practice to help her sit with whatever feelings are causing her need to impose her will on everyone around her, knowing that some of this is just developmental. And, most importantly, not letting this become the norm in how I think about her. Not letting this version of her become a role that she gets stuck in, but giving her space to figure out how she wants to respond.
I like the image of the angry frog because it's how I feel right now. I imagine that it's probably how Emily feels too. Please, send us your wishes that we figure out how to break the spell and turn the frogs back into their normal selves.
If you like this post, you can read more at Happy Mindful Families. Or join the conversation on the FB Mindful Parenting Solutions Group.
Last weekend we went camping with friends. Car camping. You know, where you see how much gear you can cram into the car and still have room to sit. Friday morning while I was working, my dear husband and daughter packed up the car and got us ready. When I finally got into the car Friday afternoon it was hot. I was cranky.
In my head I was already dreading the next few days. Sleeping on the ground. Schlepping food and kitchen gear to unpack it at a picnic table. No shower. Port-a-potty. Remind me why I thought this would be fun.
The traffic getting out of town is terrible. On the brighter side, my daughter falls asleep in the back seat for most of the ride. I can feel the tightness in my body. I am too stressed out for this to be fun.
Then we get there. The usual Rocky Mountain Campground. Evergreens and aspen trees. I set up the tent while friends build a fire and cook sausages. By the time the tent is up and gear is stowed, a beautiful salad appears. It is getting dark. We eat dinner holding our plates on our laps, sitting in our camping chairs. Afterwards, we roast marshmallows.
Exhausted, we all mumble good night and fall into our sleeping bags. I spend most of the night tossing and turning, trying to find a comfortable position.
Morning. My kid wakes up and bounds out of the tent to find her friends. They practice being free-range kids. I stumble out of the tent to do my usual morning routine. Yoga, with the early morning sun on my face. Sitting meditation, contemplating the beauty all around me.
And then I remember why I love to go camping. The simplicity. No cell phones or computers. I hear the kids laughing as they run by. Out in nature I can reconnect with who I am. I don't have to listen to the voice in my head that constantly reminds me that I'm not good enough. I can let go of the judgment that keeps me stressed and unhappy.
I'm sorry. I know that you and I are meant to spend more time together. I forget. I lose track of how important you are for my sanity. I'm so glad that we had a chance to reconnect this weekend. Let's make a date to do it again soon.
Today is the last day of kindergarten. I notice that I feel slightly numb. That I have not engaged in my usual habitual anticipatory grief. You know, when you get sad about something that is going to happen a month from now. Except I’m beyond sad. I don’t like how fast time is going. I don’t like the feeling that my little girl is growing up and we are, every day, getting farther and farther away from the first few years when she was just a baby. (I fear that my eyes are tearing up as I write this.)
More than sad, I am distraught. Kindergarten was not easy for me. And to be perfectly honest, part of me is relieved that it’s over. As I look back over the year, what I see are all my own shortcomings and failures. I see my anxiety. How I worried about whether my daughter was getting her needs met or not.
I see my own insecurity about connection. Should I have been more engaged? More engaging? Should I have called more parents for playdates? Is my daughter being left out socially because of my reluctance and our family schedule? These are questions that usually lurk somewhere in the back of my mind. Today, however, they are up front and center.
As I stand in line at the coffeehouse where I am spending my morning, a young mother stands in front of me with her baby. Maybe 6 months old. With the plump arms of babyhood. I want to reach out and hold that baby. I want to reach out and hold my daughter at 6 months. But today is a solid reminder that time moves in one direction and that the little girl that my daughter was is not the calm, confident 6 year old who I dropped off for her last day of kindergarten.
I want to tell myself that her experience was good enough. But what I really want is to tell myself that I was good enough. I want someone to tell me that I wasn’t too overbearing or too passive. That I did the best I could and it was all good enough.
Good enough. What the hell does that even mean? Is it about outcomes? The process? The experience as a whole?
And just to be clear. The outcomes are fine. My daughter did well academically and seems to be okay socially. She likes school. Her first words to me today were bemoaning that today is her last day with this teacher. Quickly followed by telling me that she is not ready for first grade. She is adamant that she is NOT going on any two night camping trips in 2nd grade. I assure her that we don’t need to worry about 2nd grade today. We have a couple of years. And I remind us both that the end of kindergarten is also the beginning of summer.
Speaking of summer, the Happy Mindful Family Book Club starts on Tuesday.
How does she do it? How does my daughter's kindergarten teacher help 27 six year olds stay focued and maintain sanity? (Her own and theirs.) Last week I did field work with my daughter's class (the Expeditionary Learning version of a field trip). We went to a local botanic garden via light rail. I was responsible for 4 kids, including my own. About an hour into the trip I asked the teacher if there was any trick to getting one of the kids to listen to me. I found myself repeating myself over and over. And I noticed that I was getting frustrated and mad. "Just keep telling them what you need them to do." That's it?!?
As a former elementary school teacher, I have years of classroom teaching experience. Years. And NONE of it was helping me.
One of the things I often talk about is the fact that the strategies we have used throughout our lives as smart, capable people (like multi-tasking) just don't serve us in the same way when we become parents. Being able to make quick judgements, to be organized and mostly in control have NOT helped me be a better parent. Not even my formerly enviable ability to analyze and strategize has been useful.
And let me tell you, none of this was helping me on Thursday when I was responsible for 4 kindergarteners as they explored the gardens looking for bugs.
What was helpful? Trust. Lots and lots of trust. (Except of course when they started to wade into the pond.) Trusting that all the adults were looking out for all the kids. Trusting that the kids knew what they needed to do. (For the most part, they did.) And trusting that I didn't need to be the super mom. (Although I'm pretty sure that at the beginning of the day that was some unacknowledged thought that went through my mind.)
So along with trust, I think another thing that I had to relearn was to let be. (This is a variation on let go.) For me this means letting go of my assumptions of how things are going to go. Of how kids are or are not going to relate to me. And sadly, letting go of the fantasy that I've got any magic at all when it comes to kids. I get frustrated. I want things to go differently than how they are going. I want things to be different.
However, I also have a (somewhat) regular sitting practice. This practice helps me notice when I am getting caught in my expectations of how things should be. Because I have learned, over many years, to be mindful of when my reality is not matching up to what I think should be happening ("should" should, imho, be a swear word). Mindfulness helps me notice when I'm paying more attention to the story in my head than to the reality unfolding in front of me. It doesn't mean that I don't have moments of wishing I was better, smarter, more perfect, but it DOES mean that I don't usually get caught up in these thoughts for too long.
I have to say that the field work was a huge success. The kids learned more about bees and got to see Tom the Beekeeper working with his hive. Only one kid (not one of mine) got their feet wet in the pond and everyone seemed to have a good time. I think my daughter's teacher is incredible. And I'm so glad for the reminder to let things be as they are.
For the past few days my daughter has been telling me that she does not want to go on the class overnight planned for this week. Mostly this reluctance is because the spring camping trip has been planned for the same day as my birthday and I suspect she’s afraid of missing out on the celebration, or more accurately, a chance to eat cake with me. Despite conversations about celebrating before she leaves (with cake and presents) and after she returns (with doughnuts) she is uncharacteristically sullen about the overnight.
Finally it’s my birthday. I go in to wake her up. Before she even opens her eyes she is telling me that she doesn’t want to go on the camping trip. I don’t know what to say to her. All sorts of responses run through my head: “Don’t be silly.” “But we celebrated together last night.” “Why not?” I want to ask. But I don’t. I don’t say anything.
She is sad and mopey. I open my arms to give her a hug. I hold her as she repeats herself, “I don’t want to go camping.” Followed by “I don’t want to go to school.” There are a million responses swirling in my head. All of them logical, rational. None of them helpful. I realize that my daughter is not sharing a logical or rational problem with me. This is all about an emotional response. I don’t say anything for a few more moments. I am silent as I hold her.
Then, quietly, I ask her a question. “Is your heart sad about leaving?” She looks up at me with big eyes, “YES!”
“Let me hold your heart for you.” I put one hand on her back and the other over her heart. “I understand.” I mean, I think I do. And really, there’s nothing I can say that will make her feel better. It’s not a pleasant realization for me. Sometimes we have to do things that we don’t want to. It doesn’t make it better when someone tries to reason with us. It does help when someone is willing to keep us company. “If you get sad while you’re away, you can hold your own heart.” I remind her.
By not trying to fix the situation, I don’t give her the opportunity switch from sad to angry. I don’t give her a reason to yell at me for trying to be rational and logical. There is nothing for her to push against, other than her own thoughts.
I avoid trying to help her. Instead, I am quiet as I hold her. We connect in the silence. I give her space to feel an emotion that is unpleasant, without rushing to change it for her.
She is still sad and mopey when I suggest getting dressed. She is still sad and mopey later in the morning when it’s time to say goodbye at school. My heart does it’s own breaking as I leave and walk back to my car. It’s not easy, this parenting thing.
A few hours later one of the chaperones texts me a photo of my daughter, smiling, eating lunch and having a great time. I find myself breathing out the tension I have been holding all morning. I am reminded that my daughter is strong and resilient. That she can (and will) feel sad and recover. I am reminded why I trust myself to be silent when she is sad.
Yesterday we took our beloved kitty, White Kitty aka Shnoodles, to the vet to be put to sleep. We are all still mourning. It's been a very sad couple of days around here.
White Kitty, or Shnoods as he was more often called, was with us for only a few years. When he first came to the back door and adopted us we were told that he had FLPV, a feline virus that will eventually cause cancer. From the very beginning we knew our time with him was limited. He was a constant reminder of impermanence in our lives.
Yesterday, we took our 6 year old with us and all held hands as the vet administered the two shots. One to gently put him to sleep and the other to stop his heart. We talked about how there's the physical part of the cat, his body and all his bones and such. And the energy part of the cat, the part that makes him special and alive that we can't see or touch. That giving him the shots would allow the energy part to leave the physical body. That we would have the body cremated and the ashes sent back to us in a box.
Ashes? Like the sand around the campfire?
Yes. Like that.
On the way over my daughter asked if Shnoods was going to get angel wings like Phoebe's uncle.
Um, I don't know. We don't believe that people get angel wings.
Why not? What do we believe?
We believe that a person's or cat's energy leaves there body and then finds a new body to come back in.
But who is right?
I don't know. I think they are both right. It just depends what you believe.
I am feeling a bit sad for my daughter. I would like to be able to give her the definitive answer, but I don't have it. She is doomed to be indoctrinated into a mythology of confusion.
The vet said something about the cat going to heaven. I know she was just trying to be kind.
But what if you don't believe in a heaven? It seems just as reasonable to think that our souls, energy, being leave our body and then find a new body to be reborn into as it does that there is a place where every soul of every person who ever lived is floating around together eating bonbons and playing bocce. Or that our kitty is playing with all the other kitties that have ever died. Are there really enough mice for all of them?
And then there is my dad. We die. That's the end. Less romantic to be sure, and yet still somewhat comforting to me.
After we came home from the vet daughter and husband went to the store. They came back with a Monopoly Game. The rest of the evening was spent oscillating between learning how to play Monopoly and being very, very sad.
When I tucked my daughter into bed at the end of the day she asked if I felt big happiness and then big sadness, followed by smaller happiness and smaller sadness. She said that her heart was black and grey. She said that her heart wasn't broken this time. It was just gone.
Yes. Sadness. We feel grief in waves. Sometimes it's overpowering. Sometimes it goes away for a while, only to storm back in demanding our attention. I tell my daughter that she can cry as much as she needs to. To let the sadness out. That it's okay to go to school and do your regular things. The sadness will be waiting for you when you're ready. I tell her it's okay to not feel sad. I want her to learn to be able to hold all the emotions, happy and sad, mad and afraid.
Dear WK, Thank you for bringing so much love and magic to our lives. And for the amazing lesson in love and grief that we have been able to share this week. We are on the lookout for a cat that loves sliced turkey as much as you did and hope to run into you soon.
Dr. Andra Brill is an innovator in the growing field
of mindful parenting. She is the Founder and Senior Consultant
at www.HappyMindfulFamilies.com, offering simple strategies for raising
happy, well-balanced children. Using her unique blend of mindfulness
practices, psychology and neuroscience, Andra improves the well-being of modern families.