Monday, May 24, 2010

Fighting what Is

Acceptance is everything. To be clear, I'm talking about accepting things we cannot change. And yes, some times things we cannot change are the result of previous choices and decisions, but other times there is nothing we could have done or can do about what is.

I tend to argue with reality. Last week our car had to go into the shop because it wasn't starting up easily. This car has over 100,000 miles on it so repairs are to be expected. We've been using the same repair place for years, though they recently closed the shop near us so we have to drive an extra 15 minutes to get there, and they've never been extremely quick on getting repairs done, but they have always treated us well and we trust them. Instead of accepting all of that and getting on with life I fight what is. I spend energy grumbling about how long they are taking, that Jess has to drive the even older van that guzzles gas for work (which involves a lot of driving), that they are so far away, and before you know it I'm completely frustrated with something that just is.

When I don't argue with what is everyone has a much more relaxed and positive experience. When I do argue with the things I can't change it stresses us all out. Now I'm not saying that we can or should go through life without the occasional freak out, but some times we get in a mental rut of freaking out or denial or arguing with things that we cannot change. We have a choice in how we respond. Sometimes we need to practice a better response pattern.

Moving on to parenting...

When we decide to have children, or get pregnant, there is a fantasy created in our minds. We picture life as a parent with a child and we think we know how it will be. We think we know and yet we have no idea who that child will be. We don't even know what kind of parent we will be, even though we may be sure that we really do. We give birth or adopt these wonderful people who are who they are and we need to love and accept them unconditionally. That can be fairly easy if our fantasy child is a close match to our reality child. However, some of us have really great imaginations and we dream up a child who is completely different from the one who comes to live in our home and our hearts.

When our oldest daughter was born the WNBA was just starting up and we talked about how she could grow up to be a basketball player. When Tasha was 6, she had a friend signing up for Pee Wee Basketball and we were happy to sign Tasha up, too. Our daughter did great! She wasn't sure she liked it at first but she kept going. She was positive and participated in all the drills and scrimmages. And she never made a basket. Not one. Now, if you know this particular child you will also know that competitive sports are not her thing. And if you know her father, you know he loves basketball. As parents we could have pushed her and Jess could have gone out and shot baskets with her by the hour until she made one. We could have challenged her to try harder. Fortunately we didn't. She came out of it feeling positive about herself and not liking or hating basketball much more or less than when she started.

Often, what causes the conflict is our expectations. We expect our child to like the pancakes we made for breakfast. When they don't we are frustrated, but our child has done nothing wrong. They have given us information about their preferences, "I don't like these pancakes." That's great because we can learn more about who they are and what they like so that we will be better able to meet their needs and support them as a person. However, we are more likely to take personally. "How can you not like these pancakes?? I made them for you!" And it is personal, because the expectations were ours. How much more informative if we can instead ask,"What is it you don't like about the pancakes?" How much more loving to ask, "What would you like to eat instead?"

Some times it's not as simple as pancakes. Our child doesn't look the way we expected. Our child experiences life from a perspective different from our own. He likes to stay home a lot, you like to go out and do things. She likes to be loud and you like quiet. You like to go to bed early, he likes to stay up late and have a bedtime story right before going to sleep. Some times it's even larger and you find that your child has been born facing challenges you could never have imagined and your world is turned upside down.

Parenting is a journey. There may be people who were born with the perfect combination of temperament and abilities that make the parenting journey a walk in the park on a sunny day. Personally, I think that's a myth. We all have areas where we need to put in the effort and learn and grow and become the better parent that our child needs us to be. For me one of those areas is getting past fighting, and getting to accepting, what is.

When it's 11:00 p.m. spending 15 minutes reading a book to my kid isn't going to make that much difference on my sleep deprivation. On the other hand, it means a whole lot to the girl who wants to reconnect with mom for a few peaceful moments at the end of a busy day. My ability to accept what is determines if we have those peaceful moments or if I'm just going through the motions so I can get to bed. My child can feel the difference.

When we accept our children as they are, instead of fighting what is and clinging to our expectations of who our child should be, they feel loved and accepted and understood. With this love and acceptance our children are free to blossom into the people they are. Without this love and acceptance our children will be trapped into denying who they are to please their parents or into rebelling against those expectations. If we cannot get past fighting what is, and to a place of acceptance, we are creating conflict not only in our lives but also in our relationships with our children.

The acceptance of life, our selves and our children as is, in this moment, will bring us to a place of peace. Some moments I manage to accept everything, some moments I find myself fighting what is, but accepting that is part of the journey.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

What your words say about you...

Words we say or type, things we do, and our body language tell the world what kind of person we are. Character is often defined as who we are when no one is looking. I think perhaps character is who we are when we interact with our kids. And in that case, I think a lot of us are total jerks. I will put on a happy face and chat with the cashier at the grocery store, and then turn around and snap at the child who wants quarters for the gumball machine. What is up with that? I have cashiers who consider me their friend. Deb starts smiling as soon as she sees me. I have seen pictures of her grandbabies and heard all about her various illnesses. Shouldn't I at least be as kind to my kids as I am to the woman who helps when You Scan doesn't like the weight of my perennials?

It's obvious that what we say to our children can be hurtful, but lately I've been focusing on what we say about our children. facebook really brought this to my attention. Parents will say unkind things about their children and not give it a second thought. I'm fortunate that my girls are my fb friends. It causes me to pause and think before I type anything about them or our family. I have less than 100 friends, but some people have 6 times that many (really? Does anyone have that many actual friends? but that's a different blog...) What image of my child do I want to send out to 100 of my closest friends? Do your closest 600 friends need to know that your child is annoying? Think about that for a moment. Is your child annoying? You are the one who finds your child annoying. If your child is annoying you, there is a reason for that. The reason can be complex and deep but it might be that the child is triggering some memory from your past or that the child has unmet needs and is trying to get them met as best they can. Actually, those two cover pretty much any situation I come up with!

Think about the negative or sarcastic or disrespectful thoughts about your child that you might share on fb, or say to a friend in conversation or even think silently in your head. Now go look in a mirror. The negative things you say about your child reflect who you are as a parent and as a person. I'm not saying that you should never have a moment of negative thought or frustration. I am saying that it's not about your child, it's about you. When you are completely at your wits ends and your kids seem to be pushing every button you have, don't spend your energy getting mad at your kids. Don't spend your time venting to friends. Take the time to think about why. Why am I feeling this way, why is my child acting this way (and "just to drive me crazy" is Not the answer!) What needs have not been met? Have you eaten? Has your child eaten? Do you have unrealistic expectations of your child? Have you been spending hours on the computer leaving your children to entertain themselves? Have you been meeting their needs, specially their need to feel loved and listened to, and to feel that they are more important than the computer, your phone call, the bills, your friends or anything else on the planet?

I'm not saying we should never talk about our kids. When you talk about your kids tell the world how amazing and wonderful they are. Tell the world when your kids are feeling a bit down and could use some extra love. Tell the world how much you love spending time with your kids and what fun things you did together today.

And when you are feeling frustrated, annoyed, or completely at a loss about how to be the parent you really want to be go ahead, post it on fb, talk to your friends, ask for help. But make it about you. "I'm feeling really frustrated and I'm wondering how I could have responded better in this situation." "I know my child is behaving this way for a reason and I'm having trouble figuring out what needs they have that aren't getting met, do you have any ideas of needs I'm overlooking?"

When you start to say or post something about your child stop and ask yourself if you'd be comfortable saying the same thing about your best friend, your partner or spouse. Would you post that on fb knowing that the person you were talking about could read what you are saying? Is what you are about to say going to reflect positively on you as a person and as the parent you really want to be?

What we say to our children is important. What we say about our children is, too. What do the things you say about your children tell your friends about you?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Passions

If we all supported those we love in following their passions just imagine how rich the world would be!

Recently I've been reflecting on the people in my life who are following their passions. Here's the bottom line, following your passion doesn't mean you'll live a life of fortune and fame, and following your passion doesn't mean you are destined to a life of poverty. If you're really following your passion the money you make, or don't, is irrelevant. Sir Ken Robinson wrote an excellent book on the subject: "The Element: How finding your passion changes everything." The Element is where what you enjoy and what you are good at come together. The element, your passion, spending your days doing what you were meant to be doing, following your bliss. Does it get any better than that?

As a child, I remember knowing that parents wanted their children to grow up and be successful. At that time successful people were cast as doctors and lawyers. "Mama's don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys...."

As a high school senior I was voted "most likely to succeed." The boy who was awarded the honor was super smart. I was selected because my classmates thought I'd go on to have a career in music. Small school, big voice, twelve years of piano lessons, I suppose that made sense. Off to college where, logically, I should have been a music major. But I wasn't. I knew that if I was a music major I'd spend my life in the music building and my major would define everything about my college experience. Did I want to spend 4 years in a practice room? No. I spent the next 2.5 years as an undeclared major. Maybe psychology, maybe sociology, maybe recreation. By that time being a music major wasn't even an option. In the end I settled on English because I figured out that I could fit all the requirements into the remaining 1.5 years, and I liked to write.

I graduated with a degree but without any passions. A writer with nothing to write about. How could that happen? Well, returning to Sir Ken Robinson, Schools Kill Creativity. http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

But it's not just schools. How many children are encouraged to follow their passions? How many children are given the opportunity to explore and try out all sorts of different experiences so that they may find their passions? And how many parents push their own passions onto their children or determine what their child's passions should be? I took 12 years of piano lessons. I was proficient, but I was no prodigy. In our family we had to take piano lessons so that we would learn to read music. I was a people pleaser and I never considered stopping. In twelve years time, I don't ever remember thinking of myself as a pianist. What other people wanted me to do, what other people expected of me, determined my choices and along the way I totally lost touch with my passions.

As a parent we may have hopes and dreams for our children. That's normal, but it's also a hazard. Our children need to be free to explore their passions and dream their own dreams. Making a child do something they aren't interested in takes away from the time they could be spending on the thing they love to do, or from exploring new interests.

What an amazing world it would be if we supported children, from birth, in exploring and developing their passions. Part of that process is accepting that interests come and go. Children don't have to finish what they start to learn from the experience. If my child tries pee wee basketball and after two weeks decides she hates it, great! She's learned that basketball isn't where her interests lie at the moment. If my child spends five years playing soccer and then never plays again that's fine. She's learned a lot about what she is capable of and how she feels about team sports, and had a lot of fun in the process. And if my child plays the violin so beautifully that it brings people to tears but she decides to take up the drums, more power to her. Being good at something isn't enough. Loving something so much that it keeps you up in the night or gets you out of bed in the morning is what we're talking about here.

Of the people I know today, those that are living authentically, following their passions, exploring their interests, leaving behind other people's expectations and even other people's comfort zones, are the happiest, the most satisfied, the most successful. That is my hope for my children, that they feel free to live authentically, that they not get tangled up in other people's expectations, and that they pursue their passions.

As it turns out, that's my hope for myself as well.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

I don't tattle

Just for the record, I don't tattle. If you have a kid that's part of my life there's a good chance I know something they've done that you don't know. You'll never hear it from me, because I don't tattle. (For the record, if your kid is doing something life threatening or is really being hurt or hurting someone else, I will let you know.)

Perhaps you are thinking, "But the adults need to stick together and be able to trust each other." And that's my point exactly. You'll have to trust my judgment, just like you've trusted that I will meet your kids' needs when they are with my family and as I've trusted you to keep my kids safe when they are with your family. It's all about trust. I want kids to trust me, to feel comfortable coming to me, willing to talk and share, knowing I'll listen, discuss, and comfort. It's important to me that my girls feel comfortable coming to me when their friends are doing something that makes them uncomfortable. If I my child tells me something and I call the other parent and the friend gets in trouble, the relationships break down quickly. The friend doesn't trust my child, my child doesn't trust me, and communication deteriorates.

These amazing kids, yours and mine, are so capable and thoughtful and creative. Their worlds are getting bigger and we aren't always right beside them anymore. We don't always know exactly where they are or what they are doing or with whom. That's exciting and cool and amazing. It's fun to hear about their adventures. It's also really important that they return home knowing they can share the really great experiences and the not so great experiences. I want them to know that no matter where they are, or what has happened, if they need me I'll come pick them up. No lectures, no punishment, no guilt. If you need me, call me, I'll come get you. If there are friends involved I will not call their parents and tattle.

This is when parenting by rewards or punishments or guilt, or control of any kind, breaks down. Parents who have told their children what they can or can't do all their lives will realize that their children are off making decisions on their own, without much practice. Parents who have created obedient children through the withdrawal of love when the child did something wrong will find that their children learned that lesson well and are now equally capable of withdrawing love from their parents. Suddenly the threat of taking away your child's cell phone or Wii or Xbox means that your child is going to be very very careful they don't get caught, not that they will be following your rules. Perhaps the saddest part is that your child will no longer be sharing their life and adventures with you, they will be figuring out how to have those adventures without you ever knowing.

And for anyone who's thinking "Oh right! I'm sure there are things your kids have done that you don't know about!" You're right. My children have the freedom to do things I don't know about: they may need to work through something without me, they may choose to keep parts of their lives private. We all have things we like to keep to ourselves. If you know about something that I don't know about, I don't expect you to tattle. Actually, I don't want you to tattle. Hopefully your relationship with my child is as important to you as my relationship with your child is to me.

Trust

As children reaching their teenage years I notice parents grappling with the question of trust. When do I start trusting my child to.... be alone at the mall with friends, date, drive a car, manage their own money, decide what time to go to bed, be on the internet without me checking up on what they are doing, be responsible for their own homework????

Once again, I have come up with a different question. Why do we stop trusting our children? When our children are born we trust them. If they are screaming we trust that there is something wrong. We work to figure out what is wrong, what they know is wrong and are trying to communicate to get their needs met. We trust a baby to eat when it's hungry and sleep when it's tired.

For some parents the switch to not trusting their child comes very early. They put their trust in the experts or a grandparent or a doctor or a friend instead of their child. These other people who may never have even seen this baby, much less held him and soothed him and looked into his eyes, know more about what this baby needs than the baby could possibly know. They know more than his parents. These very parents who could be learning from their baby, growing in their understandings of his communication and needs and desires, stop trusting him to let them know what he needs. The parents are convinced that the baby needs a feeding schedule and a sleeping schedule and to learn how to sleep alone in his own bed. They ignore their hearts and leave him in a dark room crying. The baby is learning. The baby is learning that he may be hungry but he can't eat until someone else says it's time. That what his body is telling him is not valid. "You can't be hungry already, you just ate 2 hours ago. You need to learn to eat every 4 hours." He is learning that when he is in a dark room scared, or with a gas bubble in his tummy, or just needing the comfort of his parent's heart beat, that using his only form of communication isn't going to work and so he stops trying to get his needs met. He learns that his needs are not as important as other people's in the family. He learns helplessness, not that he can listen to his own body, know what he needs, communicate those needs and someone will pay attention and meet them the best they can right then.

For other parents it happens when their baby starts to explore the world. The baby learns by touching and feeling and putting things in her mouth. The parents start trying to control their child in an effort to make their own life easier or because they think that making a 10 month old behave a certain way will determine his future. "I know you want out of your bouncy seat, but you can wait until I'm done on the computer. Why are you so fussy? " "You dropped your toy and I'm tired of picking it up so you can't have it again until tomorrow." "Eat your food, don't play with it!" The urge to control their child and determine what she needs grows as the child becomes more eager to explore. "You need to eat your peas before you can have any yummy bananas." "It's nap time right now. You have to stay on your bed until I come get you." "We are going to sit in this bathroom until you pee in the potty."

And from there it grows. Parents tell their kids what to eat, when to eat, when to sleep, where to sleep, and often what to wear and what to do as well. Then the parents often step back and trust the school system to take over for a large portion of the day. In school a child is told what to do all day long: when to read, when to talk, when not to talk, when to sit, when to stand, when to eat, when it's possible to go to the bathroom, who they can sit next to, who they will work with, even when to sing and when not to sing. Schools even tell a child when to learn. However, children are learning all the time. At school children are learning to listen to all the outside voices. Their own inner voice that tells them what they need grows so quiet that most of the time they don't even know they have needs anymore. And if they do still listen to their inner voice and try to get their needs met, chances are they will end up in trouble for being disruptive or disrespectful or not following the rules.

What would happen if we never stopped trusting our kids? What would happen if supporting them in getting their needs met was the most important job in our life?

Imagine infants who ate when they were hungry and slept when they were tired and were comforted by the presence of their parents. Toddlers with parents who made their world as safe as possible so that they were free to explore and see just how high they could climb, knowing their parents were right there to catch them. Imagine toddlers who were provided with a wide variety of foods to eat and who were supported in eating what they wanted when they wanted to eat. Children know what they need. It's been proven with studies if you are the kind of person who needs a scientist to tell you something is true. If you don't control a child's food choices, or their eating patterns, they will grow up eating the fuel their bodies need. Did you know that anorexia isn't really about body image? It's about control, and not just control relating to food. What if we never stopped trusting our children?

Imagine children who still recognized their own needs and trusted that those needs could be met. If we trust our children to know what they need, and support them in getting their needs met from birth, the trust grows as the child grows. The child's ability to know what they need grows and their ability to get their needs met grows. When we trust that our child is growing and learning in the way that is best for them the child feels this and doesn't have to feel uncomfortable in their own skin.

Fast forward to the teenage years, w/ lots of years of learning and support and trust preceding them. Teenagers who have a relationship with their parents built on trust, not on control, look different from what you are told to expect a teenager to be. These teenagers know that people's needs are important and support others in getting needs met just as they have been supported. These teenagers don't have to fight for control of their lives. No one else has been controlling them. These teenagers know what is best for them because they've spent the last 13 or more years learning what works for them and what doesn't, figuring out what their needs are and how to get those needs met, learning and growing as they were ready. They haven't been pushed to grow up or held back and told they weren't ready. They have been learning and growing with lots of love and support and trust. Their parents will never have to ask other parents "when should I trust my child to go to the movies alone with a friend?" Actually, their teen probably brought that up first. "Mom, I'd like to go to the movies with my friends. I think I'm ready to do that." Or, as just happened in my house, they may actually enjoy having their dad at the movies along with their friend.

Learning from the questions we ask.

Sometimes the questions people ask give insight into their perspective, priorities, and society's influence. How do I make my child clean up her room? How do I motivate my child to do homework? What's an appropriate reward for good grades?

Those are random questions that came to mind, but they seem like a good starting place. I'll give my answers to these questions, and perhaps my answers will give you insight into my perspective, priorities, and society's influence.

Q. How do I make my child clean up her room?
A. Does your child want a clean room? Why is it important to you that she have a clean room? Are you willing to clean your child's room for her? Would she welcome that? Is your child having a clean room more important to you than having a peaceful home? More important than your child? Than your relationship with your child? What are you afraid will happen if your child doesn't clean up her room? Do you really think that's true? Why? Is your room clean?

Q. How do I motivate my child to do homework?
A. Why is it your job to motivate your child to do work that comes home from school? Is the homework necessary? Why? What will happen if your child doesn't do the homework? Is that so terrible? Is the homework appropriate to your child? Is it too easy and unnecessary or too hard and creating frustration? Is the homework supporting your child's love of learning? Is the homework helping your child feel good about himself? Does motivating your child to do homework help you feel positive about your child? Is homework taking up time that the child would prefer to be using in a different way that better meets her needs? Is taking on the job of homework enforcer creating more joy in your relationship w/ your child? What would happen if you told the teacher that you will no longer be requiring your child to do homework because you feel that time at home is family time? Are you sure?

Q. What's an appropriate reward for good grades?
A. Why do you need to reward good grades? Aren't grades already the reward for completing the required work or passing the test? Do you feel that the grades have greater value than the learning that was supposed to be taking place? Why are good grades important? If a child has no interest in a subject, but memorizes the facts and passes the test is that something to reward? If a child loves a subject, and is eagerly learning about it on their own time, but does poorly on the test of the required information, is that learning not more valuable than a grade? When your child gets good grades does it make you feel good about your child? Does it make you feel good about yourself as a parent? Why? These are your child's grades, how does your child feel about them? How do your child's grades make him feel about himself? Where do those feelings come from? Are they helping him grow up to be a healthy confident person who loves learning?

While answering these questions I've realized just how far I have come in this journey of becoming the parent that I want to be. The truth is that in my life I have a new set of questions that includes: How can I bring more joy and fun into my family's life? How can I support my child as she explores the world? What do we need to do to meet everyone's needs today? Do you want whipped cream and sprinkles on that?

"good kids"

Why is it that adults feel it's o.k. to use words like "good" and "bad" to describe children and their behavior, but not o.k. to use those words to describe parenting? Actually I think we're happy to be told we are a good parent or doing a good job as a parent, but we tend to get mighty sensitive as soon as anyone implies that we are a bad parent.

These thoughts broght me back to Alfie Kohn's writings, "The reason praise can work in the short run is that young children are hungry for our approval. But we have a responsibility not to exploit that dependence for our own convenience. A "Good job!" to reinforce something that makes our lives a little easier can be an example of taking advantage of children’s dependence. Kids may also come to feel manipulated by this, even if they can’t quite explain why."
http://www.alfiekohn.com/articles.htm#null

I think about these things because I was such a "good kid" and I'm not sure the pattern of pleasing other people regardless of how I felt inside served me well as I transitioned into the adult world of work and relationships.

It seems that often a "good child" is one who is not a bother to adults, the one who doesn't cry on the airplane or shares their new toy without fussing. A parent will say they have a "good kid" and mean that their child isn't demanding or too much work. Other people have a "problem child" which is just another way to say "bad kid" or one who causes them extra work and worry. A "good parent" is one who has a "good child."

I am reminded of when my sister-in-law lived in Bolivia and noticed that the native children were always good. It turns out that there would be physical discipline at home if they were not good in public.

It's not that I think children should throw tantrums or not share or talk back. However, I do think that some children who are good are not getting their needs met. They have learned it's in their best interest to shut up and put up. They have learned that trying to get their needs met can have negative consequences or it's useless to even try.

I think a "good parent" is one who is in tune w/ their child's needs, listens to their child, doesn't put them in situations that aren't child friendly or matched to the child's abilities/development, and considers their child's comfort/needs more important than "what others think."

I think all children are good and their behaviors are also always good. A child's behavior is how they go about getting their needs met. The child is doing the best they can in that moment. If an adult doesn't like a behavior then they have the ability to look at the situation, communicate/connect with their child, and figure out how to better meet their child's needs in the future so that the behavior is no longer necessary.

Punishment, physical or emotional, may create a "good child" to the outward observer because it stops a behavior, but the child's need has not been resolved. The child has learned to "be good" by accepting that their needs aren't going to be met, that what others think is more important than they are, that doing what adults want gets you praise but trying to get your needs met gets you punishment. It's troubling to me that some children's parents will never realize that their "good child" is a child who has given up trying to get their needs met, or perhas the child has learned that being "good" is the best way to get loved and affection from the adults in their life.

And in the end I don't want to raise "good girls." I want to know that my children's needs have been met and that they know how to communicate what their needs are, that they will be heard and their needs will be respected. I want to raise authentic people who take responsibilty for their own needs and are sensitive to the needs of others.