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The Messages We Send

The Messages We Send

This week, I gave a talk on the Child Project phone bridge entitled, “The Messages We Send.” The talk challenged us as parents to be mindful beyond the unexamined assumptions and preconceptions we bring to our transactions with our children. This is no small thing, since these assumptions and preconceptions form a living context in which we’re immersed, as a rule—a paradigm or framework hidden by its very conspicuousness. Deepening mindfulness calls us beyond where we’ve been; it stretches us, and in the case of parents who are committed to being conscious and empathetic, asks us to consider that the problems we see in our children, especially those to which we find ourselves reacting, are all too often a projection of self-work that we haven’t done. Long before we pass from this world, leaving behind a material bequest for our children, we’ve bestowed upon them, for good or ill, the legacy of self.

Parenting, then, mirrors the self-relation, as all our worldly relationships must. The work we do on ourselves to clear contradictions, resolve unfinished business, and set aside unfriendly stories and conclusions about self, others, and the world influences our children deeply and in far-reaching ways, benefitting them as it benefits us, just as the self-work we leave undone is inherited by them and becomes their self-work.

As a philosophical counselor, I’ve often listened to parents recounting stories of actions they had taken in the name of teaching their child this or that lesson with no awareness of what it was like for the child, and so, no awareness of the message they had passed along. They meant well, but ignored the obvious fact that that from the child’s point of view, the message was frightening or blaming or coercive—and now they want to know why their child is acting out in school, or seems sullen and withdrawn. They don’t see the connection that seems glaring to me, because they’re immersed in a paradigm in which the friendliness or unfriendliness of their response simply isn’t taken into account. They may tell themselves that they acted as they did for the child’s own good, but if pressed to look at this outside the immersion, it turns out they knew that something was off, because they knew they were reacting, and then justifying the reaction, and that even if there was some standard or principle or rule they were considering in the moment, they were not considering the child—the actual, living, feeling, tenderhearted being at the receiving end of the unchecked reaction. They didn’t consider their tone of voice, not what they said but how they said it, or the emotional charge conveyed by their facial expression and body language, or what it feels like to have displeased someone twice your size—and not just any someone, but the most important person in your life. They did the right thing, but not the wise thing, not the empathetic or understanding thing, not the skillful thing. Their immersion blinded them, the unfriendly message led to unwanted and often unrecognized consequences, and now they have no idea of where the problem lies or how to solve it.

Parental messages can be passed along with awareness, consciously, even when the engagement in the moment is demanding or challenging. To be sure, it is especially in such moments that so much depends on our staying conscious and empathetic. It is imperative that we, as parents, are clear about what we’re imparting—not only in what we say, but also in how we say it. And here we may want to remember that the framework of a child’s life script is passed along before the child acquires language. What is the tone, the subtext, the assumption underlying a particular interaction with the child? Are we responding or reacting? Has something in our child triggered some unfinished business in us? Does the message we’re sending imply that the world is a dangerous place? Does our instruction have in it an element of criticism or worse, sarcasm? Does it encourage the child’s developing self-confidence or attack it? Are we resorting to the use of force, however subtle—and if so, what message does that send? How is the message being received?

At the end of the day, and this is true every day, the loving, friendly, generous, empathetic response is the only one we won’t regret. Angry, punishing, or mean-spirited reactions are always inappropriate, and always damaging. Boundaries must be enforced, certainly, if a child is to develop a healthy will, which includes a realistic sense of the limits of the will—but a great deal depends on how such boundaries are enforced. What we say matters, but may matter less than how we say it.

The great benefits of this sort of conscious communicating hold no matter what the age of the child, though with adult children, the equation is somewhat more complex. Adult children are supposed to be adults, not children, and it is not out of line to expect them to act as adults. This means that they, too—and not just the parent—have a responsibility to give all that they would want to receive in transactions with their parents: truthfulness, empathy, consideration, and respect. If an adult child consistently refuses to meet his or her parent halfway, acting unilaterally or selfishly or worse, abusively, passive-aggressively, and so on, then there comes a time for even the most empathetic parent to draw a line of self-respect and assert healthy requirements. Adult children suffering from arrested development may be unlikely to step up to those requirements for a long time; that is one of the tragic results of the failure to develop a healthy will—but this can only be the parent’s concern to a certain point. Past that point, empathy becomes enabling and giving oneself in understanding becomes giving oneself away, which is good for neither parent nor adult child.

We can see from all this that the matter is far from simple, but that in all cases, and certainly in parenting young children, empathy and understanding are paramount—even when, perhaps especially when children are intractable, upset, and crossing healthy boundaries. In such moments, a firm and loving message avoids wounding the young and vulnerable psyche, which is no small thing, since early wounds can take a long, long time to heal if they can be healed at all. In dealing with adult children, the same rule applies, with the provision that while caring for his or her child, the conscious parent, as a conscious person, will not abandon self-care. Setting healthy boundaries may be necessary long after a child has grown to adulthood, but there is no reason that this can’t be done lovingly and with the skill of a creative response rather than a charged reaction. In the end, the destiny of our relationship with our children may not be in our hands. As Dr. Joshua Coleman points out, one may do everything right, and things still can turn out wrong. It is, then, not a matter of controlling outcomes, but of doing the best we can as fallible human beings, perhaps in the hope that, when our children grow up and have children of their own, they will realize what it means to do one’s best to navigate those sometimes turbulent waters. They are in any case far more likely to discover in their own parenting, a newfound appreciation for their parents if the messages they received were informed by kindness.

28 November, 2015

Life Scripts

Reprinted with permission of PhilosophyCenter

The seeds of contradiction are sown early, in “contracts” entered into by parents and their children. Generally, these contracts are written and enforced outside awareness and passed along from one generation to the next through “scripts” internalized and read unconsciously. This idea of scripts comes from a psychological model called “transactional analysis” (often referred to simply as “TA”), a neo-Freudian methodology developed into a therapeutic method by Eric Berne in the 1960s, and presented in his bestseller, Games People Play. TA focuses on social transactions, as these provide a good way to asses the contracts that shape a person’s development. According to TA, the rules for living (permissions and injunctions) are passed along early and will largely determine a person’s life path for good or ill. Among the more maladaptive roles are three identified by Stephen Karpman in something called the “Karpman Drama Triangle,” viz., the Persecutor, the Victim, and the Rescuer. Each represents a scripted identity that leads to suffering and self-defeating behavior as the person “reading” the script moves around the triangle, initiating and responding in a set of interactions driven by an ulterior motive (“games”) to a predictable outcome, and switching from one role to the next as the game requires.

Philosophically, we can understand “games” or stances as ways of being rooted in deep and largely unexamined assumptions about the world and our place in it—in other words, reality and identity. During the early years especially, even before they have acquired language, children are keen observers of what appears to work and what doesn’t. Inwardly, they are “taking notes,” learning, and drawing conclusions. As our very survival depends on our being loved and accepted, parental censure or rejection can be devastating, inflicting deep wounds, and undermining the child’s confidence, which can set the stage for lifelong consequences that undermine emotional, psychological, and spiritual health and well-being. Perhaps caught in their own unresolved life scripts, driven by guilt, blame, or shame, many parents may not realize that what they say to their children, especially repeatedly, has the power to bless or curse them, and to impose upon them self-definitions that are hurtful and destructive. Empathetic, encouraging, nonreactive parents who are mindful and respectful of boundaries and give their child room to grow into selfhood and autonomy bless their children with messages of love, acceptance, and support. Parents who are rigid, on the other hand, who impose their will on their children, do too much for them, withdraw love conditionally, or are abusive in any form may unwittingly curse their children with the messages they send verbally, nonverbally, through modeling, or through the assumptions they harbor about the child. Statements such as, “You’ll never amount to anything,” or “You’re always getting into trouble,” and the like become parental imperatives in a child’s logic. These parents may believe they’re lamenting shortcomings in their child’s character, that they’re trying to correct or even protect their child from whatever dire consequences they fear may come to pass, but in fact, in the depths of the young, receptive psyche, such statements become predictions that the child will work unwittingly but relentlessly to fulfill throughout his or her life, even when the consistent results are suffering and defeat. It’s important to add here that TA goes beyond Freudian “life-predictive” theory in pointing out that the script is based on decisions that the child makes in the attempt to deal with the world. The parent has an enormous, irresistible influence, but the scripts are fundamentally decisional. The reason this is important is that it conserves our ability to rewrite these scripts (or discard them) as adults. We aren’t condemned to live out the childhood script once those formative years are behind us, though sadly, many will.

According to TA, each of us embodies the three ego-states of Parent, Child, and Adult. When adults respond as children in their interactions, they’re reading from a script. Upon being offered a suggestion for improvement from an employer, for example, they may feel blamed. Those who act parentally toward other adults, such as rescuers and enablers, are also displaying “scripty” behavior. The aim of self-work in TA is to strengthen the client’s Adult so the client can be present, making it possible to receive and work with information in a sane and grounded way—and to resolve any “games” that show up when the Adult is “contaminated” by either the Parent or the Child.

At the end of the day, our full individuation as adults can depend on our tearing up the old life contract that we “signed” in childhood. Getting clear enough to recognize, challenge, and ultimately declare the old contract null and void takes some doing. This psychic coming of age is the business of self-work in many models, not just TA, and it isn’t easy. For one thing, the early agreements may be so deeply rooted in our sense of who we are that they can be tough to identify and call out. Once they have been identified, there’s the further matter of the courage to stand up to them, and to begin to replace them with something more in keeping with self-care. Challenging the old ways of being may uncover deep fears and prohibitions designed to protect the payoffs that led us to agree to the contract in the first place. The feeling is not unlike that of standing up to a bully. The soul that has undertaken its liberation from an old script may have to endure a few dark nights—but if we persevere on the path of self-work, calling forth the needed courage and making good use of whatever support is available to us, the rewards are inestimable. Limitations that seemed to dog us through decades finally can fall away, so that we are no longer tyrannized by old agreements that in serving us, also took us hostage.

Philosophical counseling is not TA. Its methods are not Freudian, for one thing. Yet the work is remarkably similar to this down-to-earth approach to resolving long held contradictions, examining root assumptions about identity and reality, reevaluating choices—even those that we’ve been making unwittingly—and discovering the inner resources for clarity, resolution, and healing that reside within each of us. One of the features of TA that made it so popular among eclectic therapists was its friendly, accessible language. It spoke to people where they live, working within the premise that mental health problems are readily observable in social transactions, and that any disorder in consciousness can be treated and remedied through methods that resolve Parent/Child contaminations of the Adult and help the individual to come out of scripts and into the living present. Philosophical counseling, in a similar way, works with the client’s current reality and identify commitments to determine whether they are supporting or hindering his or her ability to be present-in-the-world, which means to live a sane, grounded life free of contradictions, self-combat, ancient overlays, and unfinished emotional business. Where these commitments come from is far less important in philosophical counseling than it is in psychoanalytic sessions. Through philosophical self-work, we can gain self-knowledge and become aware of what’s driving us, what’s bothering us, what’s holding us back, what we’ve been believing, what we’ve been allowing to define us, and this self-knowledge can illuminate whatever next step we need to take to begin living a life without childish scripts and old, obsolete contracts.

Viewed in this light, every problem, no matter how oppressive or intractable it may seem, is an opportunity, a direction waiting to be recognized and taken, a call to self-awareness, and a gift of freedom from old constrictions and compromises that gave us life by taking life from us. TA tells us that the more time we spend “out of script,” the more we loosen the hold of the old contract. Philosophical counseling adds that there is a dialectical element in this sort of self-work, an idea that we may find just as heartening, since it implies that any life-negating script tends to negate itself. This isn’t just theory. I’ve never seen a problem that didn’t contain its own solution. If we will hang in there, reach out for help when we need it, and see the thing through—we can tear up the old contracts, come home to a less sullied self, and at any age, begin again—knowing, perhaps for the first time, how wonderful it can be to be young.

28 October, 2015

Present Time

One of the great joys of being a parent is found in spending time with our children without distractions, agendas, or preconceived notions. The Child Project’s eight-week curriculum, The Conscious Parent, introduces this concept in the first week and spends much of week two developing it—the idea that “being-with” in present time is the foundation of empathy and empathetic parenting. From The Conscious Parent Study Guide:

Presence is more than a temporal focus. It is far-reaching. To be present is to be in one’s heart, for we are at any moment either in our mind or our heart, and the mind is ever racing off into the future or digging in the soil of the past, running after or running from, lost in the forest of endless speculations and imaginings. When we stop all this racing about on the timeline and come home to the moment at hand, the center of our identity drops from the head to the heart, and we find a clarity and openness that are foreign to mental activity, and native to the magical world inhabited by children.

Even so, modern life with its demanding and stressful schedules, ubiquitous digital diversions, and host of worries, concerns, and anxieties can give rise to households in which family members feel too rushed or pressured to stop and come back to the living present, surface from the depths of preoccupation, and simply see what’s before them, right now—including their kids.

Many kids are starving for this kind of attention, this being-with that opens a space for parent and child to meet, explore things that the child has discovered or finds interesting, and experience the joy and rightness of sharing who they are in the moment at hand. It may be hard to believe, but there are many children who almost never get to have this kind of parental presence, which is essential to their sense of well being and their development. Whatever our situation or predicament, the only time we ever really have is right now, and the only place, right here. It should be obvious to us that here and now creates the only opportunity we will ever have to be anything—a good parent, friend, son or daughter, neighbor, colleague. In other words, the quality of the moment depends upon our willingness to be present in it, to be open to what it has to say, what it has to show us, what it has to teach us. It is an opportunity that takes on a profound importance as we are called upon by our children to meet them in the here and now of our being-here, in the world, in the family, face to face.

If you’ve been “missing the moment,” the remedy is simple and always available. It involves slowing down, taking a breath, and noticing—just that, observing, listening, paying attention. Being-with in the living present is rooted in curiosity and wonder. The moment a parent becomes curious about his or her child, the moment the parent wonders how things are from inside the child’s world, what the child thinks about this or that, how the child feels, in that moment the parent returns to the present and becomes available in a way that every child needs and deserves. In truth, children not only should be seen and heard, but must be if they are to develop into secure, self-honoring, emotionally and psychologically healthy adults. After taking a breath and noticing, ask questions. Express the curiosity. “How was school today?” or, for preschoolers, “What’s that you’re doing?” are great openings if asked with genuine interest and attention fully present. If you stay with this process of asking with curiosity and interest, noticing, and listening, a conversation unique to the moment will take form between you and your child. You won’t have to force it or make it up. It doesn’t come out of what you think you should talk about; it comes out of the present moment of being-with. Through this process, through spending more time in present-time, you will come to engage and experience your child in a new way—as a wonderful and delightful and mysterious being in his or her own right. Being-with in this way creates indelible moments of love and closeness that are deeply nurturing. Looking back, your child likely will remember the present-time you spent together when memories of this or that family vacation or outing have been long forgotten.

30 September, 2015

Bonsai

Listen to the tree.
It will tell you where it wants to go.
– John Naka

Bonsai

The last week of The Conscious Parent curriculum is entitled, Boundaries & Bonsai. If one wanted to sum up the essence of growing bonsai in two words, those words most likely would be mindfulness and collaboration. Brought to bear in the right measure, these two produce inspired and beautiful results. Cultivating these fascinating and demanding works of living art is, in many ways, not unlike the sort of cultivating that conscious parents provide their children—and not only during the tender years, but also through teenage development and into adulthood. Let’s look at these two essential practices:

Mindfulness
When we’re mindful, we’re present, still, attentive, observing and listening, and more interested in being open and receptive than in “transmitting.” It is the natural stance of the student, including the student of life and experience, at any age and in or out of any formal school. Where a concerned parent might lecture his or her child in order to mold the child’s psyche, the conscious parent will look for and notice details that provide a clear understanding of the child’s psyche. Too often, parents rush into transactions with their kids based on preconceived notions and well-meaning agendas that take many things into account while overlooking the child’s reality—then they wonder why their words have no impact. Until we’re willing to set aside even our preconceptions, agendas, and timetables in favor of meeting our child in the mysterious moment at hand in order to see and hear and empathize with his or her predicament and needs, collaboration is not possible.

Collaboration
When we collaborate, we work with rather than against. In matters of parenting, this means that, having been mindful in our engagements with our child, having been willing to be a student and learn how things stand, here and now, in our child’s experience, we can meet our child in a place of encouragement and respectful guidance. A child’s character is shaped not by force but by example, not through coercion but through inspiration, and most of all though the parent learning to speak the child’s language, even as this language evolves through the various stages of development.

One of the most important messages in The Conscious Parent is the idea that we can excel as parents only by practicing those principles and skills that allow us to excel as people. We meet our children, in a profound, microcosmic staging of how we meet life in general. Heavyhanded parents are heavyhanded people. Parents who take the time to be mindful and to collaborate with their child’s nature, temperament, and timing, are people who tend to be mindful and to collaborate with others in all their relationships. The great depth of love we have for our children amplifies and brings into relief those aspects of our character that have evolved and matured into something beautiful, we might even say artistic, as well as those aspects where we still have work to do on ourselves. It is hard to imagine any human involvement that does a better job than parenting of holding up the mirror.

We may have strong feelings that will prompt us to use force, to exert our will, to dictate to our children what they must do or not do. It should be a sobering thought that, when we do this, even in those cases where we are “right,” the method is wrong. When someone is shouting, the natural response is to cover our ears. When someone pushes us, the natural response is to withdraw or push back. There is no situation, no problem, no parent-child impasse that cannot be dissolved and resolved through diligently, steadily, lovingly applying the practices of mindfulness and collaboration. The tree knows innately how it wants and needs to grow. This innate knowledge is “caught” and honored by the bonsai artist. It is the same with our children. They have their own, inner directions. They are ours to influence but not to control. So it is with trees and children and all living things in this world.

26 August, 2015

On Worrying

On Worrying

Elizabeth Stone writes, “Making the decision to have a child—it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” When another human being matters to us this much, it seems inevitable that we will worry about his or her welfare, at least sometimes. Especially when our children are in their tender years, so vulnerable, so innocent and inexperienced and thus particularly susceptible to harm, parents may spend a good part of the day anticipating calamities in order to avoid or prevent them. After a while, a certain kind of worry-thinking can set in, and while this is understandable, it also can take a toll on sleep, mood, and overall emotional and even physical health. When a link is made between love and worry, parenting becomes much harder than it has to be.

The assumption that love entails worry is open to question in a way that we may miss by failing to discern the subtle but crucial difference between worry and concern, a difference similar to the difference between, say, fear and a respectful caution in the face of potentially harmful conditions. If you’re walking down a street and a strange dog comes out of nowhere and starts growling at you, you likely will experience a momentary fear reaction, because the dog represents a sudden and potential danger. You’re startled, you have the typical adrenaline response signaling fight-or-flight, and you give the animal a wide berth, perhaps even backing off to the other side of the street, whereupon both you and the dog can go your separate ways. Within a few minutes, your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal, and perhaps the same is true for the dog. If, however, based on the experience or even several like it, you assume that your safety when walking down streets depends on this fear-response, you would be taking the initial fear-response too far, and your belief would predispose you to suffer an intense physiological reaction when in truth prudent awareness and caution are all that are needed.

One can observe this kind of “level 10” reaction in overprotective parents. Sadly, they do not realize the profound truth of the Native American saying, “What you protect, you make weak.” Providing healthy safeguards to ensure a child’s well-being is one thing; overprotection is something else. We do not need to fear what we are wise enough to respect. Because we recognize the potential hazards of fire, electricity, gravity, sharp knives, driving cars, and a thousand other things, we need not fear them. Following this logic of appropriate responses, we may come to the liberating understanding that loving our children requires us to exercise certain cautions in their behalf based on their development and the conditions that are at hand or likely to be, but also that caution is not worry. Where we recognize potential danger and respect it, we do not need fear or worry. And we must never forget that we are always role-modeling for our children, that our responses are messages that we send them without words. If we fear the world, we are sure to teach them to fear it, as well.

There will, of course, be times when worry gets the best of us, or rare occasions when we’re facing an extreme and worrisome situation. That said, a little honest refection makes it plain that most of the things we worry about never come to pass. Life seldom follows our imaginings for good or ill, but seems to unfold along an unpredictable course with its own priorities and timing. Overreactions are not the best we can offer our children or ourselves. Less is more, as the saying reminds us. And respect for the world is a far better legacy than fear and worry to pass on to our heirs.

29 July, 2015

The Adult Child

The Adult Child

The Child Project’s eight-week curriculum, The Conscious Parent, tracks the changing requirements of empathetic parenting from a child’s birth through the teenage years and into adulthood. Those sections of the study that deal with parenting children who have become adults use the established term, “adult children”—a term that works well enough, given that one of the accepted definitions of child is “a son or daughter of any age.” The term also may strike the ear as something of an oxymoron, however, in that the word child also means “a youngster.” Both definitions are valid, but the sense of “youngster” seems to move against the other sense, so that, strictly speaking, it seems more thorough to refer to an adult son or adult daughter as just that, rather than as an “adult child.”

Such exactness isn’t necessary as a rule, or even in something as considered as a curriculum study guide—but the phrase in the oxymoronic sense points to a troubling development along the parenting arc, viz., that state of affairs in which the child reached adulthood without having matured emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually. In such cases, the adult, his or her inner development having been arrested, is still a child. This may present as an aversion to responsibility or authority, a stance of perpetual protest or blame-shifting, various degrees of self-absorption, magical thinking, and so on. Carl Jung termed this condition of protracted adolescence the puer aeternus, “the eternal boy”—an archetype depicted in the personae of Peter Pan, the Little Prince, and other fairy tale characters and examined in detail by Marie Louise Von Franz, the famed student of Jung, in her acclaimed lecture (available now in book form), The Problem of the Puer Aeternus. Of course, arrested development is by no means limited to boys, and Jung recognized the condition in female subjects, as well (where it is termed puella aeterna) but if one sets aside the gender issue and delves into the phenomenon, it becomes obvious that the problem is purely developmental, and so one from which neither gender is exempt. Overbearing or overprotective parents, even those who mean well, may unwittingly arrest a young son’s or daughter’s natural emotional and psychological maturation, preempting the establishing of a healthy will constrained by healthy limits and short-circuiting the child’s ability to relate in fair, constructive, and empathetic ways socially. In place of these healthy structures, all manner of idealized, romanticized, or otherwise fantasized constructs may take hold and overgrow the psyche like vines proliferating out of control.

The puer personality is mercurial, tends toward flights of fancy and unrealistic involvements and projects, recoils from making commitments or binding choices of any sort, always believes that greater fulfillments lie off in some indeterminate future. It can achieve irresistibly charming, even charismatic expressions of a free-flowing creativity and childlike vitality, but in the end, it is destructive of self and others. Its development arrested, the psyche may succumb to various personality disorders, such as narcissism or sociopathic behavior. Various assessments of Adolf Hitler’s personality, for example, have pegged him as a puer. On this point, Aldous Huxley, in his novel Island, writes:

A Peter Pan if ever there was one. Hopeless at school. Incapable either of competing or co- operating. Envying all the normally successful boys—and, because he envied, hating them and, to make himself feel better, despising them as inferior beings. Then came the time for puberty. But Adolf was sexually backward. Other boys made advances to girls, and the girls responded. Adolf was too shy, too uncertain of his manhood. And all the time incapable of steady work, at home only in the compensatory Other World of his fancy. There, at the very least, he was Michelangelo. Here, unfortunately, he couldn’t draw. His only gifts were hatred, low cunning, a set of indefatigable vocal cords and a talent for nonstop talking at the top of his voice from the depths of his Peter-Panic paranoia. Thirty or forty million deaths and heaven knows how many billions of dollars—that was the price the world had to pay for little Adolf’s retarded maturation.

We may find this all more than a little interesting, perhaps even fascinating—but the work of the Child Project is ever practical, and so we are called to ask practical questions here: What can a parent do if his or her “adult child” has not grown up? How might we advise an adult child who has become involved with a puer or puella? Not surprisingly, there are no quick solutions. Little can be done to help men and women whose development was arrested until they realize that they need help—usually this takes a personal crisis of some sort, one that shakes loose the imprisoning constructs long enough for them to be willing to stop blaming everything and everyone else—their parents, their partner, the economy, the world—and accept responsibility for their history and their current predicament, whatever it may be. Such a shift is a watershed in the life of the puer. Unless and until that happens, the parent of a puer, of an “adult child” in this unfortunate sense, can do little more than what he or she failed to do during the years of early development, which is step away and leave the puer to learn his lessons, again and again if necessary, remaining constant in the message of love, but not “helping” to the point of enabling malformed beliefs and further irresponsibility. The child who never developed a healthy will, and so never grew up, still may do so, but only if he or she is allowed to experience the consequences of destructive choices and connect the dots. It is a matter of learning, at whatever age, and learning is ultimately a private matter for each of us. The conscious parent, knowing this, will remain close enough to provide reassurances of love and encouragement, but far enough away to keep from interfering. Where one is willing to do nothing, even when doing nothing breaks one’s heart, great things can happen.

21 June, 2015

Unconscious Parenting

Unconscious Parenting

The Child Project’s mission of providing education, support, and encouragement to mothers and fathers who recognize the importance of conscious parenting did not take shape by accident. It was established because there was an awareness that unconscious parenting is a widespread if not epidemic problem, that it results in various forms and degrees of child abuse, and that every boy and girl in the world, from birth on, deserves the best we can offer.

If you’re reading this, no doubt you agree with this philosophy of parenting. You recognize the importance of empathy and would never dream of abusing your child in any form. This is why, when Child Project director Cathey Polly asked me to write a piece on the topic, I wondered if in saying what I had to say about this, I might not end up preaching to the choir, and felt fairly certain that those who most need to get this message would be the least likely to read it. Cathey sent me a link for example, to a video on Facebook that shows young children being accidentally knocked over by their parents, being spun around until they’re dizzy to the point of falling, taking serious spills that appear to involve the risk of head or neck injury, or otherwise being banged around while cameraman-Dad or cameraman-Mom can be heard laughing in the background. It is the same disconnected mentality that finds similar clips humorous on such shows as “America’s Funniest Videos,” where the addition of a laugh track by the production people at the mixing board nicely neutralizes the moral question implicit in entertainment at someone else’s expense. Some of the Facebook footage is truly appalling, amounting to video documentation of a parent allowing his or her child to suffer physical abuse so that a good laugh can be had by all. The problem is that this footage is not funny. And one has to wonder about the psyche of a parent who enjoys exploiting a child’s developmental weaknesses, subjecting the child to forces that he or she has no way of absorbing or managing—or even capturing on video accidental moments in which a child’s developmental limitations led to a painful or frightening or humiliating consequence. Children in tears, clearly dazed, shaken, running in fear, and so on could only be considered funny by a psyche that is deeply disconnected. Unfortunately, there are no consciousness qualifications for parenthood, which is why children are the most oppressed and abused minority in the world. This widespread condition of parental unconsciousness through which children are routinely abused and exploited, is precisely what the Child Project came into existence to remedy.

We may shake our heads at such an egregious example of adult ignorance and insensitivity. Yet the lesson extends beyond Facebook videos shot by unfeeling fathers and mothers. Good parents, and especially the good parents of school-aged children, find the thought of bullying abhorrent—but bullying can take subtle forms. A parent who tells a child to “shut up” has for that moment become a bully. Yelling at a crying infant is bullying. Forcing a child to “eat his vegetables,” which imposes the parent’s will at the expense of the child’s in a way that the child may find humiliating and suffer in silence, is abusive. Put simply, anything that flouts, ignores, marginalizes, or strong-arms a child’s humanity and right to be treated with respect and consideration contains within itself something of the misguided spirit that we see in those awful Facebook videos.

Holding firmly to the high standard of conscious parenting is not easy. You will find nothing on the Child Project site or in its methods or materials that suggests otherwise. It is far easier to give a child a “time out” after repeated warnings and physically remove him to his room than to close ranks and mine the moment for an opportunity to instill closeness and help the child practice self-control and creative problem-solving than to resort to the use of force. Punishment is easier than collaboration. Empathy and unconditional respect require far more of the parent, certainly, but there is no payoff without an investment. Parents need look no further than the Golden Rule to set the bar for conscious parenting in their household. Humor at anyone’s expense is ill-gotten and destructive and dangerous, because it sets a precedent that dehumanizes. Children who are exploited, who are made the butt of slapstick home videos by parents without empathy, are more likely to grow up exploiting and abusing others. It is a cycle that no conscious person, let alone parent, would want to see repeated.

The conscious parent is an empathetic parent, one who laughs with, not at. We are always teaching by example. When we use force, when we laugh at someone else’s misfortune, when we fail to hear what our child is telling us because we’re too distracted or too busy or too tired, we are teaching nonetheless.

31 May, 2015

Self-Care and Parenting

Self-Care and Parenting

Many parents believe that dedication to their children requires self-denial or sacrifice. They place their children’s needs above their own, and this is often regarded as the hallmark of the truly devoted mother or father. And yet, when we stop to consider that we are always role-modeling for our kids, it becomes obvious that the quality of care we extend to them depends on the quality of self-care that we practice. The role of parent is a demanding one, and as with any role, we perform better when we’re in good shape—rested, on good terms with ourselves and our life, “well in our skin,” as the saying goes. If we allow ourselves to become overextended, then this deficit becomes operative in the time and attention we have available to give to others, including our children. We are, then, only as good for others as we are good for ourselves, and in this sense, there is nothing “selfish” about making sure that we’re at the top of our own list. On the contrary, good self-care is the precondition of caring well for anyone else.

Conscious parenting is served, therefore, by keeping in mind the acronym H.A.L.T., which reminds us never to let ourselves get too hungry, too anxious, too lonely, or too tired. At the earliest sign of the encroachment of any of these conditions, we should take corrective steps—make sure we’re getting the nutrition we need to stay healthy and energized, talk to a trusted friend, seek out companionship or loving attention from a partner or other ally, or simply make time to catch up on much needed rest. Just following this simple formula will go a long way toward ensuring that we have the resources to handle the many demands of parenting, and also will be role-modeling self-care for our little ones—without question one of the most important lessons we can learn.

Self-care also is furthered by our learning to distinguish between what we want and what we may “feel like” at a given time. Typically, in a culture that perpetuates a sense of entitlement to instant gratification, these two get confused, yet in truth, they are not the same thing, and may even be at odds with each other. A person who wants to get in shape, and so makes a commitment to eat well and to get up early to walk or jog, recognizes that healthful nutrition and regular exercise are means to the desired end. When the alarm goes off at 6:00 AM, he may not feel like getting up, but in the larger context of his desire, he still wants to—that is, he wants to stay true to the program that will bring him desired results. If he gives in to what he feels like, to that extent he undermines what he wants. In the same way, he may go to a gathering of friends where he’s offered a piece of chocolate cake. While he may feel like having the cake, he wants to get in shape, and to the extent that he acts in solidarity with what he wants, he will pass on the cake even though he feels like having it. Momentary urges are not the same as desires in the truest sense, which means those promptings that reflect our values and commitments and support our best self-definition. Sometimes honoring what we want means standing up to what we feel like, noticing it, but not letting it make the call.

This is true many times a day for parents. Children, certainly through the teen years, have needs and desires of their own that may call us to set aside what we feel like in order to honor our desire to be empathetic, available, loving, and skillful parents. Even so, the conscious parent knows that there is no self-denial in this, and really not even sacrifice, except in the sense that the lesser is sacrificed for the sake of the greater—a theme that runs through every spiritual tradition in the world. Parenthood is a curriculum that calls us to overcome ourselves for the sake of those we love most.

It helps a great deal for parents to remember that self-care is essential, both in terms of maintaining the reserves, open heart, and clear head required to be a conscious parent, and also in terms of role-modeling for our children. Following the suggestions above can go a long way in ensuring that we get what we need, so that we can fulfill our deep desire to see to it that they do the same.

30 April, 2015

Legacies

Legacies

One of the great observations of life is what has been called the “law of the reverse,” according to which things grow and mature, reach their prime, and then undergo an inevitable decline. From the earth all living things come forth, and to the earth all return. A rose, an animal, a human being, or a nation—each has its day, and this world is no permanent home.

We see this in a particularly poignant form in the cycle of the human family, where children grow up and become parents, who then in turn become as children again. The elderly man, doddering and eventually needing to be supported, fed, and so on, is a reprise of childhood. Dependently we arrive in this world; dependently we take our leave of it, and while a good case can be made that we are indeed dependent all our lives on forces beyond our control, the beginning and end of life seem to make the point dramatically. In cultures that tend to be informed by a valuing of ancestors, the elderly are accorded great respect, so that the care they gave their little ones is extended to them in their old age, and the cycle of care turns from generation to generation. Sadly, aging parents are not universally valued. In fact, in the West, the modern phenomenon of adult children disowning their parents has reached epidemic numbers—and this is happening not only in cases where parental abuses might explain and even justify the estrangement, but in families where loving parents, mothers and fathers who did the best they knew how, made the inevitable mistakes, but for the most part provided nurturing, loving homes for their sons and daughters during their growing up years, have been summarily rejected, denied access to grandchildren, and subjected to unexplained intensities of resentment and recriminations.

There is a parable from the East that tells of a middle-aged man whose elderly father has become something of a burden. The son comes to feel that the old man has lived long enough, and decides to seal him in a wooden box, wheel the box up a nearby mountain, and tip the box over the edge of a cliff. He carries out this heartless plan and gets the box up the mountain to the place where he means to end his father’s life, when just then he hears a gentle tapping coming from inside the crate. “Yes, father,” he says, “what is it?” The father replies, “I was just thinking, you may want to throw me from this mountain but save the box. You’re going to need it when it’s your turn.

We take the point of the parable, that we receive as we give, but beyond this, it implies a more specific invitation, an opportunity, to examine and revise the conclusions we have reached about our parents. Perhaps we have been too harsh, too dismissive, reducing them to our reactions to them, missing much or even most of their humanness, holding them to some standard of perfection that we may never have outgrown. It is a matter of focus—and this remains true whether or not our parents are alive, for long after they have gone, we still may be unresolved and contradicted in the assumptions and stories we harbor about them. We can see what was wrong or what was right, the wounds they gave us or the gifts—and in making the better choice, we free both them and ourselves. In the end, when we look back, our most important legacy may be the one that we offer our parents.

24 March, 2015

Time Out

Time Out

Many parents of young children regard “time outs” as an enlightened way to enforce good rules: The child who flouts clearly stated requirements for behavior, ignoring repeated warnings, is sent to his room for a few minutes or longer. At its best, this is done in an emotionally neutral way rather than in a wash of parental anger and reaction, and is intended to preempt persistent misconduct and give the errant child time to think things over and reassess the wisdom of the choice to refuse to cooperate, ignore established boundaries, and so on.

And yet, time outs have not been shown to be an effective way to encourage desired behaviors, such as cooperation, creative problem-solving, and respect for others. This makes sense when we consider that time outs disrupt the child’s natural immersion in the present. The effect is sudden, a kind of yanking away of the child’s reality. One moment, the boy is fighting with his sister over a toy; the next, he is in his room, alone, removed not only from the problem but from the opportunity to work out a solution with skillful parental guidance, empathy, and support. No matter what the parent’s intention may be in imposing a time out, the sudden isolation will be experienced by the child as punishment and worse, rejection—and these at a time when the child is most in need of closeness, understanding, and instruction. Young children who are acting out by being uncooperative or antisocial are caught up in a moment that their development has not equipped them to regulate. Their behavior is rightly viewed as a cry for help and support—perhaps in calming down, or in expressing what they’re feeling, or in discovering new ways to solve problems, and it is these things that are denied them in the isolation of a time out.

Time out at its best is enforced impersonally, without parental drama that will leave the child feeling guilty and rejected. But good parenting is never impersonal. We owe it to our young children to remember that time out is inherently counterproductive, and to stand ready to give them the best we have to give them at those times when they need our love and support the most. There is nothing indulgent or “liberal” in this. We are not talking about compromising on good rules and boundaries; we are simply saying that the most skillful enforcement of these rules and boundaries is done in a way that demonstrates closeness, connection, and guidance rather than isolation, rejection, and punishment. Tina Payne Bryson and Daniel J. Siegel, authors of the best-selling book The Whole Brain Child, have this to say on the subject:

On top of everything, time-outs are usually ineffective in accomplishing the goals of discipline: to change behavior and build skills. Parents may think that time-outs cause children to calm down and reflect on their behavior. But instead, time-outs frequently make children angrier and more dysregulated, leaving them even less able to control themselves or think about what they’ve done, and more focused on how mean their parents are to have punished them. When children concentrate on their horrible luck to have such a mean, unfair mom or dad, they miss out on an opportunity to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving skills. Putting them in time-out deprives them of an opportunity to build skills that other types of discipline could focus on. Setting clear limits while emphasizing collaboration, conversation, and respect gives kids a chance to practice being active, empathic decision makers who are empowered to figure things out on their own.

On the path of socialization, our children must leave the magical world of immeciacy and learn that there is cause and there is effect, that certain kinds of behavior will lead to painful consequences. But they cannot learn this in an emotional climate of isolation and relational pain. Good parenting requires that we socialize our children without giving them the sense that they have failed in some way by not already knowing what it is our job to teach them. In this sense, a “time in,” as Bryson and Siegel suggest, will be infinitely more effective and positive than even the most skillfully imposed time out.

17 January, 2015