Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
— TENZIN GYATSO, THE FOURTEENTH DALAI LAMA
When I ask parents what trait they most want to cultivate in their children, one of the responses I hear most frequently is respect. We know that treating others respectfully is essential to getting along in life. But we sometimes forget that to truly respect another person, we must first respect ourselves. It may sound obvious and perhaps even a little clichéd, but I believe that genuine self-respect (as opposed to ego-driven, foot-stomping, “I demand to be listened to!” behavior) is not easy to develop. It starts by enjoying our own company and includes caring for ourselves with kindness, trusting our instincts, and pursuing the things that give our life meaning. Only then are we able to authentically respect others in how we communicate, empathize, handle disagreements, and honor our agreements.
Living in the 3-D World
In a series of experiments conducted in 2014 by Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia, college students were invited to sit in a room alone with their thoughts and without distractions. They were simply being asked to sit for between six and fifteen minutes without falling asleep. In one of these experiments, participants were given a mild shock — a light, static electricity jolt — before they entered the room where they would be doing their quiet sitting. After they received the shock, nearly every subject reported that it was so unpleasant they would agree to pay five dollars to avoid receiving it again.
However, in one of these studies, after having once endured the shock and subsequent six to fifteen minutes of time sitting alone in the room, 67 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women actually requested a second shock if it would excuse them from having to complete the full “thinking period.” They preferred being zapped to the prospect of sitting for six to fifteen minutes alone with themselves. My goodness!
A few years ago I was driving a friend’s three-year-old home in their family’s SUV. When the car started, the video she had been watching resumed playing. I was surprised but said nothing. In my day (which makes me sound much older than I am), the idea that my son would watch a screen while we drove would have been absurd. Why would you want to look at a screen when there is so much to see out the window? But when this little girl’s show ended, she immediately started crying. “Put on another one! I want to see another one!” I suggested that she might have fun looking out the window at the cars or the people going by. She was having none of it. Poor thing — at three, she had already been conditioned to need some kind of electronic stimulation to tolerate car rides.
Most parents confess that if they left it up to them, their kids would never turn their devices off. The advent of smartphones, computers, tablets, and “phablets” has left parents swimming in uncertainty over how much time their kids should spend with these devices in order to stay current with the modern world, without crossing the line into oversaturation. (Frankly, it has left parents reeling over how much they should be on their devices as well!)
Children need to play. They need the tactile touch of gooey finger paint rather than the sanitary experience of brushing their fingers across a touch pad to make color magically appear on a screen. They need to dig in the dirt, and get dirty. They need to splash in water and get wet. They need to make music and climb trees. They need to wander aimlessly from room to room without an organized activity to occupy them.
Children need to play. They need the tactile touch of gooey finger paint rather than the sanitary experience of brushing their fingers across a touch pad to make color magically appear on a screen. They need to dig in the dirt, and get dirty. They need to splash in water and get wet.
The Forest schools in Scandinavia were built on the premise that children learn best by doing and by being outdoors. Kindergarteners spend their entire two and a half hours outside. Unless temperatures drop below 20 degrees, I’m told that even children attending the Forest school in the Arctic Circle are outside playing and learning — with miner’s lamps on their heads!
A child who is plugged into an electronic babysitter whenever he complains that “there’s nothing to do” becomes an adult who is incapable of being alone with his thoughts for more than fifteen minutes. In The Mindful Brain, Dr. Daniel Siegel says,
The busy lives people lead in the technologically driven culture that consumes our attention often produce a multitasking frenzy of activity that leaves people constantly doing, with no space to breathe and just be. The adaptations to such a way of life often leave youth accustomed to high levels of stimulus-bound attention, flitting from one activity to another, with little time for self-reflection or interpersonal connection of the direct, face-to-face sort that the brain needs for proper development. Little today in our hectic lives provides for opportunities to attune with one another.
This doesn’t mean that kids should be prevented from watching TV or using computers. I am not advocating that we raise a generation of Luddites. The digital era has brought countless benefits into our lives. But given the limitless stimulation offered by electronic devices and the potential exposure to things that are entirely inappropriate, it is crucial that we engage our children early in conversations about using these gadgets so that as they move into the independence of adolescence and are less under our influence, they will be able to make intelligent choices. Like us, they will have to figure out how to balance their plugged-in life with their unplugged one. I will be sharing more suggestions for how to manage that challenging balancing act as we proceed.
Hitting the Off Switch
One day a mother and her twelve-year-old son were having a heated argument in my office about time spent on his devices. Elena complained that her son refused to get off the iPad unless she forced him to by threatening to take it away altogether. “He ignores his chores, procrastinates on homework, and wouldn’t dream of going outside to play.” She said the hardest time was when she was making dinner; Christopher typically got on one device or another while she was occupied in the kitchen and therefore less able to follow through with limits. Chris maintained that his mom was far too strict. “She’s so much meaner than my friends’ parents. They get to be on the iPad for hours!” I let him air his complaints so that he would be receptive to my input. “There’s nothing to do that’s fun at my house! And I get my homework done. I don’t see why she can’t let me play my games. I’m not bothering anybody!”
Instead of trying to force Chris to embrace the merits of old-fashioned play or convince him that until recently kids managed to enjoy their childhoods quite nicely without the existence of iPads or computers, I invited the two of them to do a visualization with me. “Close your eyes, and imagine that the three of us are in the exact same spot we’re sitting in now, but it’s ten thousand years ago. There are no buildings or furniture, no cars or electricity. Chris, imagine your mom working around the fire with the other women of the tribe, preparing dinner — maybe grinding seeds or dropping in some of the herbs that you gathered earlier with her. Now, Christopher, I want you to picture yourself in that setting, a young man of the tribe. What are you doing? See yourself there and picture what you’re doing while you wait for the meal.” I let him have some quiet time and then invited them both to open their eyes.
“So, Chris, what were you up to, back when there weren’t any devices?” He said he had pictured himself running around with the other boys, building things, and climbing trees. Elena chimed in, offering that she had imagined him helping the men — who were not that much older than he was — preparing weapons for their next hunt or building a hut.
He smiled as we talked about life back then. “I wish I could live like that now! It was cool!” I was reminded of how challenging it actually is for kids these days, now that opportunities to explore the great outdoors or spend time out in the wild are so rare.
I said as much to Elena, inviting her to see her son’s situation from his vantage point. “Life is different now. It’s hard to resist the temptation to switch on a device when you can’t roam the great outdoors.” His mom nodded, acknowledging the many restrictions of their daily life — including living on a busy city street where it was unsafe to wander too far. “Chris, would you be willing to make a list of at least ten fun things you could do that didn’t require electricity?” He was surprised by how quickly he was able to come up with ideas, with his mom enthusiastically tossing in possibilities. Elena agreed to help him implement some of the activities on his list, such as getting materials for soap carving or building a small fort in their backyard. The session ended with Chris and his mom feeling more like allies than adversaries. This exercise didn’t eradicate Christopher’s love affair with his iPad and video games, but it did help him find something else to do when his mother asked him to turn things off. This issue will probably continue to be a challenge, because, as he said, most of Christopher’s friends have fewer restrictions, and he wants to be part of their online culture. But once Elena was clear, and invested a little time into providing some interesting alternatives, the negotiations tapered off.
Steve Jobs’s Kids and the iPad
Many parents justify giving their kids carte blanche when it comes to digital devices because they believe that not doing so will cause their children to fall behind in a competitive world where the tech savvy prevail. In his article “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent,” Nick Bilton began with a question he posed to Mr. Jobs as the first tablets were being marketed. “So, your kids must love the iPad?” Jobs’s response? “They haven’t used it….We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” Bilton spoke with Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs, who spent a lot of time at their home and said, “Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of things. No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer.”
Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired and chief executive of 3D Robotics, puts time limits as well as parental controls on all the devices in his family’s home. “My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules,” he said of his five children, ages six to seventeen. “That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself. I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.” Rule number one? “There are no screens in the bedroom. Period. Ever.”
When our guidelines are clear, children adapt. They may push and prod to have more of what they want, but once the power is switched off, they will find something fun to do, just as children have done since time immemorial.
When I was in West Africa several years ago, I was curious about how people there were using social media. I asked a number of sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds if they would ever consider being on their computers, perhaps on Facebook, at the same time that their friend was in the room, visiting with them. They always laughed at this idea. “That’s very funny! Why would I want to be on my computer talking to my friend if she is here with me?” But in many homes, that is exactly how kids hang out with one another — texting, chatting, taking selfies, or showing one another posts and videos on the screens in front of them instead of just enjoying each other’s company.
Comedian Louis C. K. did a hilarious piece on our growing obsession with our devices, joking about how parents no longer actually watch their children at their musical recital but instead solemnly hold their cell phones out in front of their faces to video the performance so they can post the footage on Facebook or YouTube where, truth be told, no one else cares to watch it.
When we fail to set limits because we’re afraid of our children’s meltdowns or we’re feeling guilty about how preoccupied we’ve been with our obligations, we effectively toss our kids into the black hole of the digital world. Children need to live in the 3-D world; it is our responsibility to ensure that they do.
There are no hard-and-fast guidelines for digital use. There may be days when you’re under the weather and your kids watch back-to-back episodes of SpongeBob. You may let them play “educational games” on your iPad while you indulge in a long bath. The problems begin when we abandon our instincts and parent out of fear or guilt.
Leading by Example
There is, of course, another piece we must discuss when talking about raising children who are comfortable being with themselves. We have to show them what that looks like. Most of us move at a frenetic pace throughout our day, hardly stopping to sit for a meal, let alone to gaze out the window or daydream. The beeps, the tweets, the pings, the rings — we have developed Pavlovian responses to the alerts our devices deliver, often dropping whatever we were doing (including, perhaps, giving our child a few minutes of undivided attention) as soon as one of those bells goes off.
How can we ask our children to be more engaged with the 3-D world or to watch the clouds go by if we aren’t?
In The Joy Diet, Martha Beck talks about stopping our outward momentum for at least fifteen minutes a day. “[The problem is that] perpetually doing, without ever tuning in to the center of our being, is the equivalent of fueling a mighty ship by tossing all its navigational equipment into the furnace.” She goes on to say, “The voice of your true self is so small and still that virtually any distraction can drown it out, especially if you’re just beginning to hear it. You simply cannot develop the skill of listening without carving out and vigorously defending chunks of time during which to do nothing.” (For an exercise on Doing Nothing, please see chapter 11.)
Enjoying our own company, disengaged from external stimuli, is essential to our happiness. If we fail to help our children learn how to be alone, they will always be lonely. It is only when we are truly comfortable in our own skin that we can attract and sustain healthy relationships.
If we fail to help our children learn how to be alone, they will always be lonely.
Many people pair up with a romantic partner who they know in their heart of hearts isn’t a good fit, simply because they are so uncomfortable being with themselves. But just having another person around doesn’t quell loneliness; many of my married clients often express great despair over their sense of isolation, even when they have a wife or husband next to them in bed each night. Chasing after someone to fill the empty places in our hearts only creates different problems; it does not solve them.
If you want your children to be happy without needing something or someone to drown out the noise of their discontent, unplug the electronics at your house and do nothing now and again. See what happens as you become reacquainted with yourselves, each other, and the simple, satisfying ways that human beings enjoyed life long before landing in the digital world.
Appreciating Our Body, Imperfections and All
I talk to my body a lot. Sometimes out loud.
I don’t usually share this fact with people (which makes it kind of interesting that I’m putting it into a book that I hope will be widely read). But the fact is, I place a lot of stock in having loving conversations with my body and its many miraculous parts and have decided that it is an idea worth sharing.
“Thank you stomach, for digesting that meal so nicely.” “Thanks, eyes — what a great job you did in letting me see the colors of those flowers today!” “Thank you, heart, for beating so reliably and keeping my circulation going. You’re amazing!” “Thank you, legs, for ferrying me around so nicely… thank you, ears, thank you, liver…bones…knees… teeth …” This love fest with my body can go on for quite a while. I nearly always find that my heart is soft and melty by the end.
Almost all of us take our body for granted until it breaks down, and then we can be quite mean to it, complaining about its failure to do what we want. And then there are the features we loathe; lips we wish were fuller, the nose we wish were daintier. If you consider how relentlessly critical we are of our human container and how it still plods on thanklessly, it really is a wonder that our physical systems work at all. If we treated employees with the sort of disdain we so frequently show our body, they would walk off the job. And yet our bodies carry on doing their duties as best they can.
Years ago I took a workshop during which we were given a paper bag with two holes cut out for the eyes. We were instructed to take it up to our hotel room, remove all our clothes, and stand in front of a mirror with the bag over our head. The assignment was to look through the holes at every inch of our bodies, noting the commentary in our head as we viewed ourselves. It sounded very weird.
But it was a life-changing experience. I began by focusing on all the things I didn’t like — the parts that were too big or too small, too soft or too wrinkled. As I eased into the exercise, however, I fell into a place that was almost holy. I moved from noticing how harshly I judged each part of my body to realizing what a gift it had been to receive it and how perfect it was, exactly as it was.
I saw the pooch in my belly as evidence of the blessing of motherhood. I recalled how my slightly wobbly knees had rallied through achiness to get me to the tops of mountains. I reflected on how my arms had cradled my loved ones. By the time I got to my feet I was overcome with thankfulness…and remorse. Those feet! They had tirelessly ferried me through life for decades, almost never receiving a word of thanks. I felt waves of appreciation for the vessel I had been given, a gift extraordinaire — and one I had endlessly criticized for not being somehow different, or better.
We reassembled after the exercise to write letters to our bodies, then listened as people shared expressions of contrition, gratitude, and shame toward the miraculous heart-and-soul containers each of us had been allowed to inhabit. The room was pin-drop silent. Between racking sobs, a man in a wheelchair described the horrible things he had said to his body for years, angry at all the ways he had believed it had failed him. An overweight woman spoke of the unhealthy habits she had inflicted on her body to keep love and lovers at bay. The room filled with a quiet hum of gratitude. It was just a weekend workshop exercise, but it awakened something in me that thankfully remained.
When your children see you acknowledging the wonderfulness of your body instead of complaining about what you don’t like about it, they will be far more likely to regard their own bodies — warts and all — with respect, care, and appreciation.
Thank your parts for serving you and allowing you to dance and sing and eat and see and smell and touch and climb. When your children see you acknowledging the wonderfulness of your body instead of complaining about what you don’t like about it, they will be far more likely to regard their own bodies — warts and all — with respect, care, and appreciation.
Enlisting Your Tribe
From time to time a weary mother plops down on the couch in my office looking like something the cat dragged in. I soon discover that she has been running on fumes. She sleeps five hours a night if she’s lucky, and her slumber is usually interrupted by a child visitor climbing into her bed and thrashing about, making peaceful sleep something she can only dream about. For sustenance, she nibbles the remains of her children’s unfinished meals as she hustles around the kitchen, never sitting down for a proper meal. She laughs when I ask about the last time she read a book and can’t remember what it feels like to engage in a meaningful adult conversation with anyone other than her partner, with whom she discusses… the kids.
I have been known to send this type of client away after a few minutes in my office, asking her to follow some instructions for at least one week, after which she is free to come back for a session. “I would like you to drink water the minute you notice you feel thirsty, eat something nutritious within a few minutes of realizing you are hungry (while sitting down), pee as soon as you feel the urge (many have gotten used to holding it until it’s unbearable), and rest with your feet up and your eyes closed — even for three minutes — when you feel tired.”
My client usually thinks I’m joking and laughs a little nervously. She quickly finds out that I’m serious. I tell her, “Until you begin taking care of yourself, whatever work we do together with regard to your children or family is irrelevant.”
Now, mind you, I don’t do this very often; while most of the parents I work with fall short in some way when it comes to self-care, what I have described is extreme. But when I have parents — yes, they are usually women — who have thoroughly abandoned any sense of loving care toward their body and spirit, I send them home. (In fact, at times I tell them to just go and have a rest in their car since someone is looking after their kids for at least as long as they were meant to be in session with me!) I want them to understand that unless they shift their attitude and behavior toward meeting their own most basic needs, they will not be up to the task of being the Captain of the ship with their children.
It is simply impossible to parent in ones or twos and not feel frayed at the edges, if not outright exhausted. We are not supposed to raise kids on our own; we are meant to do it as part of a tribe. In her beautiful essay “I Miss the Village,” Bunmi Laditan writes,
When one of us was feeling sick or needed extra rest from a long night up with a child, we’d swoop in and tend to your children as we would our own for as long as necessary — no need to even ask. You would drift off to a healing sleep with full confidence. We’d want you to be well because we’d know that we’re only as strong as our weakest member — and not only that, we’d love you, not with the sappy love of greeting cards, but with an appreciative love that has full knowledge of how your colors add to our patchwork…. I miss that village of mothers that I’ve never had. The one we traded for homes that, despite being a stone’s throw, feel miles apart from each other. The one we traded for locked front doors, blinking devices and afternoons alone on the floor playing one-on-one with our little ones.
Parents — build yourselves a tribe. Not only is it essential to your sanity and health, but it is an essential ingredient for raising a confident, conscious, caring adult. It is virtually impossible for one or two parents to raise a child alone. We require propping up, and time to ourselves. And when we have challenging children, it is vital that we receive extra guidance, support, and simply — a break. A woman I know who has cancer said, “If you’re there for my kids, you’re there for me.” Please, expand your network.
It is virtually impossible for one or two parents to raise a child alone. We require propping up, and time to ourselves.
In addition to the support and camaraderie that our tribe can provide us as parents, it is also important that our children develop healthy attachments with other trustworthy adults. In one of the tribes we visited in Tanzania, little ones wanting comfort or a cuddle simply grabbed onto the leg of the nearest mother. The laughter among the women was easy and relaxed. Kids wandered, big and small mixing together. In New Zealand I spent time at a tiny country school, where the children played barefooted soccer — five-year-olds and thirteen-year-olds happily tumbling around together. “They have to get along,” the headmaster told me. “They’re all they’ve each got.”
Children who feel they are part of a community grow up feeling anchored. I urge you to look around for a group of like-minded, like-hearted parents with kids reasonably close in age to your own. Plan ways to spend more time together, as friends and partners in raising children, offering one another support, respite, and time to recharge.
We cannot talk about self-care without looking at the ways we talk to ourselves in the privacy of our own thoughts. As a therapist, I am privy to an unfiltered glimpse at people’s self-talk, and let me tell you, it isn’t pretty. “You can’t do anything right!” “You’re so fat!” “Why would anyone love you?” I often ask my clients how they would react if a friend spoke to them the way they sometimes speak to themselves. “How long would you let that person remain in your life if they said things to you like you say to yourself?” Usually, the answer is instantaneous. “If another person spoke to me like that, I’d want nothing to do with them!” And yet we are ruthlessly unkind to ourselves.
I frequently do online classes, and in the first session I often set the stage for the work we’re going to be doing together, reminding parents on the call that as they learn new approaches, they may be tempted to be self-critical if they fail to implement a new idea, or resort to yelling or threatening. I tell my students, “There’s nothing wrong with feeling uncomfortable when we say or do things that don’t reflect the parent we aspire to be. If you put your hand on a hot stove, you want it to hurt. So there’s value in a momentary, ‘Oof! I didn’t like doing that.’ Where we get into trouble is when we then beat ourselves up, perhaps replicating the shaming voice of a parent or a teacher in our head. That is in fact quite harmful because when we feel shame, we become defensive and often lash out even more at our kids, repeating a vicious cycle.”
I received this email in the midst of a three-part online class I taught for Glennon Melton’s Momastery tribe.
The day after watching part two of the webinar, my husband and I received a letter in the mail from the city saying the weeds in our front yard were too tall and we needed to cut them. We bought the house in this shape a few years back with the hopes of fixing the front yard, but I was seven months pregnant and we had a two-year-old when we moved in. However, it has always bothered me. We live in a neighborhood of perfect front yards and throughout my life my dad has always emphasized appearances, especially in homes. I have always had his voice in my head telling me how horrible my yard looked, and sometimes I even had his real voice telling me how horrible my yard looked.
Well, after opening the letter I went into full panic mode. I ended up on the floor in my kitchen with my head between my knees because I was on the verge of tears and a total panic attack. And then I took everything we have been learning through this webinar and I applied it to myself.
I started saying out loud the stories I was saying in my head: “My neighbors must hate me,” “I knew they were shunning us — they must have complained,” “They must think I’m so lazy…. Well, I am so lazy — just look at my front yard” “If my dad found out he would say, ‘I told you so.’ ”
After hearing the stories I was telling myself, I decided to tell the truth out loud, “I’m a really busy mom of two young kids.” “My husband and I both work fulltime.” “My kids are a higher priority right now, and I don’t have enough time for them as it is.” And then I gave myself a pat on the back and burst into tears.
All this is to say thank you! I truly don’t believe I understood the power of those voices in my head. I was destroying myself as a person and as a mother. For as long as I can remember, I have lacked self-love and self-confidence because the voice in my head was so clear and so negative. And now that I have the tools to change that, I am so excited!
As I lay in my four-year-old daughter’s bed last night, she showered me with kisses as I told her all the reasons I loved her (not accomplishment based). I realized how much her bedtime has changed. Thank you both for teaching me to embrace my “messy, beautiful life.”
I read this woman’s email and sat quietly for a long time, touched and inspired. Her story was my story, and your story, and the story of everyone who is walking a path of healing. I am simply awed by the beauty of the human spirit.
Not long ago I interviewed Thupten Jinpa, the primary translator for the Dalai Lama. I asked Jinpa if His Holiness ever spoke about parenting. His reply astonished me. “His Holiness, he’s one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. He said, ‘When I look at the parenting experience I sometimes wonder — if I were a parent, would I have that kind of patience?’ ”
My! If the Dalai Lama isn’t sure he would have enough patience to parent, surely we can all relax a little bit about our shortcomings! It is only when we accept ourselves with compassion, warts and all, that we can further our growth through the stumbles and tumbles of raising children.
If the Dalai Lama isn’t sure he would have enough patience to parent, surely we can all relax a little bit about our shortcomings!
I think one of the greatest shifts I have made, both as a mother and as someone doing her best to keep growing, was to make peace with my imperfections. Until we accept, appreciate, and love all of ourselves, as is — body, mind, and spirit — we simply cannot ask others to treat us well. If we want our children to move into adulthood with confidence and a sense of self-love, we must show them what that looks like.
I’ve discussed some of the ways we can help our children know themselves to be worthy of love and respect. The final piece is to encourage them to choose their friends wisely, pruning out those who treat them disrespectfully or unkindly.
Maintaining Healthy Boundaries in Relationships
This morning I turned on the tap to run some hot water into the bathroom sink. After what I thought was plenty of time for it to get nice and hot, I felt the temperature. Lukewarm. I let it run a little longer and checked again. Still not hot. Ran it even longer. What was the problem? I finally figured out that I had unintentionally turned on both faucets — the cold along with the hot. As long as there was cold in the mix, that water was never going to get hot.
It made me think of my relationships and how difficult it has been to accept the what is about people in my life so that I could adjust my expectations accordingly. Just as that water was never going to get hot because there was cold in the mix, some people are never going to be able to show up in the ways we wish, for reasons we may never understand. Something else is in the mix; the cold is on.
When we love someone who is not good for us, it can be difficult to accept that we may not be able to continue the relationship. Perhaps she is dishonest. Or he may be abusive. In some cases, we can feel tremendous love for someone who is quite toxic for us, either intentionally or because of his own woundedness.
Many times I have watched children chase after friends who throw them a crumb now and then but who generally treat them terribly. In her book Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons talks about the lifelong impact of girlhood cruelty on women in their forties and beyond. In my own life, I have anguished over people I have loved who I finally had to accept could not remain in my life.
But if we are to help our children sustain loving and nurturing relationships in their adult years, it is vital that we teach them that loving someone should not hurt and that they can survive letting go of a person who is harmful to their spirits.
We also need to help our children understand that they cannot save anyone. While I believe we have a responsibility to try to alleviate the suffering of those who are in pain when we can, children who try to rescue troubled friends usually meet with disastrous results. Our kids are not meant to be saviors and should not be expected to take care of their friends, parents, or siblings, even though rescuing someone can feel oh so rewarding. If we instill in them the belief that it is their job to heal the people around them — whatever the personal cost — we send them down the painful road of people-pleasing from which it can take years to recover. There is a quote that eloquently captures this idea: If you see a drowning man, reach out and try to pull him from the water. If he grabs your arm and tries to pull you in, push him as hard as you can.
Help your children develop healthy boundaries — ones that reflect their self-respect and worth. If they have friends who are hurtful, explore with them whether the overall benefit of that relationship outweighs the costs. If they come to see that they deserve better, help them grieve the loss of that friendship — for it is a great loss to end a relationship that has had some value to us — so that they can effectively move on.
Listening to Intuition
In his book Protecting the Gift, security specialist Gavin de Becker shares numerous examples of crime victims ignoring their intuition despite sensing that they were in danger. De Becker believes it is essential that we listen to the intuitive messages that come in the form of hesitation, doubt, persistent thoughts, and nagging feelings. He explains that intuition’s ultimate message is the one most difficult to ignore: fear. “But people try to silence even that one: Calm down, calm down, it’s probably nothing, some tell themselves, rather than giving a fair hearing to nature’s lifesaving signal.” He goes on to say that “In fact, the root of the word intuition, tueri, means to guard and to protect.”
If we are to raise confident children, we need to encourage them to listen to their inner wisdom and to trust their intuitive hunches. Our bodies are finely tuned instruments that can help us unravel the source of an upset, warn us when something isn’t quite right, or alert us to potential danger. Sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, tension in the back of our neck, or a rapid heartbeat can all be indications that something is amiss. We may feel uncomfortable with someone’s energy or sense that despite outward appearances, something isn’t safe, even if everything looks “right.” And of course the opposite is true: someone may appear disheveled or a situation may be different from what we expected but be perfectly fine. Intuition helps us discern whether all is well or whether we are at risk.
Share with your children the fact that our subconscious minds gather and sift through tremendous amounts of information to help us make decisions and that while we shouldn’t ignore facts and figures, there is much to be gained from learning how to read intuitive signals and trusting our instincts.
If your daughter is upset about something going on with a friend, you might suggest, “Get quiet for a minute, honey, and see if you can tune in to your intuition. What do you feel is the best way to handle that problem with Elizabeth and Toni? Does it feel like a healthy relationship? Do you leave your time with them feeling good?” You can help this process along by offering a few of your thoughts, while inviting her to get still and tune in to how her body responds as you present each idea.
Our bodies tell us when we should be trusting, open, or guarded. Kids whose boundaries are respected have a much easier time setting them appropriately with their peers. Teach them that no is a complete sentence. Role-play scenarios in which they practice honoring their gut feeling when they are in an iffy situation, such as someone suggesting they try a beer when they don’t feel ready or asking them to get sexually involved when they don’t want to.
Kids whose boundaries are respected have a much easier time setting them appropriately with their peers. Teach them that no is a complete sentence.
Impact Training is a fantastic program for teenage girls and women that helps them step out from the restraints of their socialization to be nice and helpful, encouraging them to declare their no in powerful ways. They also have programs for schoolchildren of both genders. I highly recommend it.
One of the ways I teach children to tune in to the subtler messages of their emotions is by asking them to describe their feelings in terms of colors. “If red is angry, black is sad, orange is happy, and so on, What color are you feeling?” In her book Sitting Still Like a Frog, Eline Snel asks children to tune in to their emotional state by inviting them to share their Personal Weather Report. “What is the weather like right now in your body? Is it sunny or stormy?” (For more on this technique, see chapter 11.)
Children should understand that it is normal to experience many different feelings, including anger. Keep a light plastic bat or punching bag on hand so your kids know that when they feel anger in their bodies, they can express it in safe and acceptable ways. It’s good for our kids to stay present to the emotions in their bodies rather than shutting down, as so many of us did because our own parents told us not to be scared or hurt or mad.
We are each born with an inner toolbox of resources that we can draw on throughout our lives. Helping children learn to trust the internal compass of their intuition will help them steer away from trouble and toward beneficial opportunities.
Living with Passion
When I was sixteen, I worked after school at a day-care center. One day, four-year-old Ruby arrived. Her family had recently moved to Kansas City from India, and she knew not a word of English.
I thought it might be helpful if I learned a few Hindi words from her parents so I could ask little Ruby if she was hungry or needed to use the bathroom. From the moment my Hindi lesson began, something inside me started jumping up and down with joy. I loved this language. I practically inhaled our lessons, not wanting our time together to stop. As a sixteen-year-old living in Kansas in the 1970s, I didn’t have a lot of options for learning this “exotic” language beyond imposing on the generosity of Ruby’s parents who tutored me when they could find the time. I was so keen to learn that I began calling around the country, discovering that the University of Pennsylvania had a Hindi department. I ordered their textbook and waited eagerly until it arrived.
As soon as I received the book, I became a devoted student of Hindi. In the absence of having an actual teacher, I assigned myself exercises as homework, checking my answers at the back of the book. I devoured the material, and when I moved to New York at seventeen, I searched used bookstores for dictionaries and writing primers. When I ran out of those I could practice my Hindi with, I started calling people out of the phone book whose last name was Singh, asking them — in Hindi — if they would chat with me!
The best way I can describe this near obsession with learning Hindi was that I loved the way the words tasted in my mouth. An enormous happiness filled me whenever I studied, making it impossible to subdue the urge to learn.
This makes no sense — a teenage girl from Kansas passionately wanting to learn the language of people on the other side of the world. Yet learning Hindi opened doors for me that to this day continue to add something very special to my life. And of course when I have traveled in India, the experiences I’ve had because I speak the language (albeit imperfectly) have been extraordinary.
Consider how your children watch you using your time. If you carve out space for pursuing your passions — reading, painting, watching the stars, gardening — your children will see learning as an important part of life. And if you aren’t sure what brings you joy, pursue the little things that catch your eye: a link on a Twitter feed, an interview on the radio, a headline on a magazine cover. Follow the bread crumbs, and they will carry you to where your heart wants you to go.
Each child comes with his or her unique built-in, preloaded passions. Some kids are consumed by a desire to dance their hearts out. Others want nothing more than to concoct culinary delights. Some want to tell stories, spend time with animals, or sketch inventions. If we want our children to discover their passion and purpose, we must stay open to what they drift toward rather than pushing them in directions we prefer they follow but that do not call to them.
If we want our children to discover their passion and purpose, we must stay open to what they drift toward rather than pushing them in directions we prefer they follow but that do not call to them.
Doing this requires plenty of unstructured time and exposure to a variety of people and experiences. The endless organized activities we impose on our kids, coupled with pounds of nightly homework and the constant pull of their digital lives, often leaves no time for the quiet in which they might hear the voice leading them to their path of exploration. Had I not had free time in high school, I might never have pursued my desire to learn Hindi. Packing a child’s day from morning to night — and nowadays, weekends and summers — leaves them no time to wander, daydream, or explore the things that bring them alive.
Raising a child to be who he is meant to be also requires a commitment to fostering his fascination with life. I love the line from the contract that Janell Burley Hofmann wrote when she gave her thirteen-year-old son an iPhone: “Wonder without googling.” In today’s world, children rarely puzzle over things; the answer to any question is just seconds away, via whatever device is handy. But one of the greatest skills we can help our children develop is the capacity to solve problems. This requires settling into the not-knowing space generated between curiosity and answers.
Give your kids the opportunity to step outside traditional classroom walls and sniff out the things that interest them. These pursuits may not make sense at the time or even be long-lasting, but what a joy it is to follow the yearnings of the heart, as mysterious as they may be. When we do, all kinds of magic can happen.
By infusing your life with meaning and a passion for learning, and by providing your children with real-life opportunities to do the same, you will help inoculate them against ennui, apathy, and malaise, infusing their spirits with the joy that comes from pursuing the things that stir their souls.
By infusing your life with meaning and a passion for learning, and by providing your children with real-life opportunities to do the same, you will help inoculate them against ennui, apathy, and malaise, infusing their spirits with the joy that comes from pursuing the things that stir their souls.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
Sit quietly and reflect on the following questions, recording your thoughts in your journal.
1. When you were a child what did you love to do? Did you enjoy playing outdoors? Painting? Making music? Writing poetry? Building things? Spending time with friends? Solving puzzles? Reading?
2. What do you love to do now? Or what would you do — simply for pleasure — if you had the time and freedom to pursue your passions?
3. In the past three months, how often have you engaged in an activity related to one of your passions? If your answer is “not at all,” how long has it been since you spent time on something for pure pleasure?
4. What gets in the way of pursuing your hobbies, interests, or passions? We can all say, “No time,” but go deeper with this question. Is that entirely true, or are there pockets of time when you could brush up on your piano or pick up a novel instead of flipping open your computer or watching TV?
5. How might your children benefit if you were to pursue one of your passions or interests?
6. Write down the amount of time you would like to dedicate to pursuing one of your passions and nourishing your spirit. Indicate which days might work best for adding this activity to your week, who might watch your kids, and any other details that might help ensure that this dream becomes a reality.
Parenting with Presence in Real Life
I have to be plugged in for work, so how do I model unplugging?
QUESTION: I understand the importance of limiting screen time, but I have a demanding boss who emails me at all hours of the day — and evening! He expects me to respond right away. I am very lucky that I get to work from home, and I don’t want to lose my job. But my kids often see me turning on my computer or answering a text message when they thought we were having family time. How can I convince them that it’s important to unplug when they see me switching on my device so often?
SUGGESTION: Technological advancements have made it possible for many parents to work from home, allowing them to be there for their kids in day-to-day ways that were once impossible. But it also means that while it looks to your children as if all of you is present while you serve up breakfast or snuggle for a story, you may at any moment be interrupted by your employer, potentially leaving them feeling less important than whoever is behind those beeps. And as you mention, it may also seem hypocritical if you’re encouraging your kids to unplug while you walk around with your smartphone glued to your ear.
Your situation is as much about giving your children the chance to vent about having to share you with your boss as it is about your use of technology. In my online courses and my previous book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, I teach something called Act I Parenting, a way of ensuring that our children feel heard before we come at them with explanations or advice.
I would say something like: “I wonder what it’s like for you guys when you see Mommy answering her phone at dinner. Do you ever feel kinda mad about that?” Simply open up the conversation, making it clear that your kids get to have feelings about having to share you. Once they have gotten to vent, you may then say, “I get it. It doesn’t seem fair when I answer the phone at dinner, especially when I’m so strict with you guys about shutting everything off so we can be together as a family. I can see where it wouldn’t seem right.” They will probably expect you to follow up with an explanation about your need for employment, but it may not be necessary if you’ve already given them the facts about your job and its requirements. What’s most important is that they know it’s safe to tell you their truth.
Your situation doesn’t have a simple fix, short of finding a new job. In the meantime, if you acknowledge the frustrations your job sometimes creates rather than making a guilt-inducing remark if they complain — “You don’t want Mommy to lose her job, do you?” — you will lessen the impact of being tied to your devices. Just be sure that when you are off work, you enjoy downtime with your kids in ways that don’t involve a plug!
What if I have no time to create a supportive tribe?
QUESTION: I am a single mother of three children under the age of eight. My parents live on the other side of the country, and I have a full-time job. Since my divorce and our move to a new neighborhood, I haven’t had time to meet the people next door, let alone form a supportive tribe of parents. I am very isolated.
SUGGESTION: Many parents are so busy that they hardly get to take a shower, let alone devote time to scouting out new friends. Still, I would encourage you to look for even the smallest opportunities to meet new people. You don’t have to step too far outside the routines of daily life to bump up against others, but you may have to step outside your comfort zone to initiate conversation. Chat with another parent at morning drop-off, or establish a weekend ritual of taking your kids to a park where you’ll have the chance to meet other parents in your neighborhood. Some find it helpful to ask their children’s teachers to introduce them to the parents of classmates their child seems to like. Others take part in school happenings or attend local library events for kids.
Forging a tribe takes some effort, but the payoff is enormous, both for you and your children. We are not meant to go it alone or to parent in isolation. Take it slowly, perhaps setting an intention of meeting one new person a month. Over time, one person will introduce you to another, and before long you will have created your own network of support.
Can I prune out my ex-husband?
QUESTION: I agree that it is important to weed out the people in our lives who are hurtful to us, but what about my ex-husband? He is rude, unpredictable, and inconsiderate. I wish I could prune him from my life, but because of our custody arrangement, I have no choice but to deal with him almost every day.
SUGGESTION: As I’ve mentioned, we sometimes find ourselves with children whose behavior pushes our buttons, prompting us either to react out of old patterns or to rise to the challenge of working through unfinished business that ultimately helps us grow into a better version of ourselves. Certain adults also seem to have been custom designed to trigger us, often in circumstances like yours in which we cannot simply write them off.
Co-parenting after divorce is one of the hardest things a parent will ever have to do. On the one hand, you have parted ways with someone you once loved who has hurt or disappointed you so deeply that you can no longer tolerate living with them. You may feel rage, resentment, confusion, and profound sorrow. Naturally it would be less painful to wipe this person from your daily life. But this is where we get to practice all those declarations such as, “I’d take a bullet for my son” or “I’d move heaven and earth to keep my little girls safe.”
You have a choice, every time you interact with your former husband. Will you focus on his unpleasant qualities, causing your stomach to tighten as you hiss out essential updates about your children? Or will you take out the magnifying glass to notice the good? I understand that focusing on his negative attributes may make it easier to come to terms with your divorce. But your children have endured a major loss, even if it was for the best. They need to be spared as much tension and strife between their mommy and daddy as possible.
Limit your contact as needed, but take the higher road. Don’t take his behavior personally. Reach for compassion if you can, recognizing that on a deeper level — underneath his personality flaws or the hurts of your shared past — he is simply a fellow journeyer stumbling along on the path of life. By grieving for what you hoped you might have together or for the man you wish he was, you will be better able to accept your former husband as is, annoying faults and all. My friend and colleague Katherine Woodward Thomas, creator of Conscious Uncoupling, reminds us that “we may be able to undo a marriage, but we can never undo a family without leaving the people in that family emotionally homeless.” She admonishes us to put the needs of our child first by honoring how deeply he needs our permission and support to love and believe in his other parent, no matter how flawed that person might be. Learning to hold the complexity of your child’s vulnerability with your own disappointment, and choosing to protect the emotional home your child has with your former spouse (in spite of your hurt), is the very essence of what it is to be a compassionate parent.