Unlearning Busyness – our children are our best teachers…

throwing stonesWalk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”

- Thich Nhat Hanh

Sounds lovely. But what about when we’re on a timetable? We’ve got places to go, things to do. We’ve got to get to the next place before you’re late…

Or do we? … Is there always somewhere we really need to be? Do we really need to get there “on time?” Could that just be a thought? A habit perhaps?

Last Sunday, we took our son to the Humber River for a lovely walk in the woods. Stopping at each place along the river, he had so much fun finding flat stones to throw in the water: his idea of a perfect morning.

“Ok. Let’s keep going. Maybe there’s another beach around the bend,” I say (more than once).

Next stop. After a few minutes. 

“Ok. Let’s go. Let’s keep moving.”

Moving to where exactly? To another spot along the river with more flat stones. He’s happy here. Why do I have this need to go there?

On the way home, he decides to walk instead of nap in the stroller. “Come on sweetheart. We need to get to the subway.”

Wait a second. Do we really? It’s Sunday! Why? Why do we need to keep moving? Why do we need to get there? What’s the rush?

Oh yeah. We don’t. It’s just me. This is an example of my tendency to lean forward… onto the next… into the future. My habit.  Keep moving… at my pace… This is not the same as his.

After a few moments of him spelling every word on the billboard we are passing, I am beaming with pride. 

Then I get it. This is our time together. There is nowhere else we need to be right now. The rest of the week we may need to be getting him to child-care so that we can get to work on time. We are on a schedule. But today is not one of those days. Why not break the habit, step out of auto-rushing mode. Practice being ‘not-busy.’

Sunday was a lovely opportunity and reminder to slow down and linger. Connect. Observe all of the interesting things to see around us, birds, flowers, teeny ants, different, letters on scaffolds… Feel the grass under our feet. Just walk…

I often lament not having enough time to spend with my son and yet, in the moments we have together, I’m often moving through them and onto the next. These arethe moments we have together. Why not slow down and be in them fully? Not only is it a lovely way to connect with my son, but in these moments, he is also my mindfulness teacher.

His example, his way of being invites me to lean back, relax and kiss the earth.

Heart Aches & Angry Bellies

“The best predictor of a child’s well-being is the parent’s self-understanding.” – Dr. Daniel Siegel

Does having the self-understanding that we are totally confused count?

boy covering ears

Photo credit: Mads Madsfoto Johansen / Foter

Then, clarifying the strength of his position,  “Mommy, when you sing, it makes my belly feel angry.”

Eek. I notice my whole body feels like crying.

What do I say to that? After all, I am a musician. A children’s musician.

Deep breath. Observe racing thoughts: How can my son not like music? What about Suzuki training that was supposed to start in 6 months? I can’t stop singing around him! Why do other kids like my music, but not my own son? What about my dreams of him singing backups vocals in the studio on my new kids songs? How is it possible that I, ME of all people, have a sporty son? He’s already close to 3 and a 1/2 and I don’t yet have Vimeo videos showing off his musical abilities – have I failed him already? Isn’t it amazing how many thoughts can zip through our heads in one moment? And aren’t they quite hilarious – when we take a moment to actually observe them flying by? (I have mixed feelings about Vimeo anyways…)

Another deep breath. I notice total confusion arising. How do I navigate this situation without introducing my son to guilt?

Asking ‘Why?’gets me no clarity on his comment… surprise, surprise.

I put down the guitar and join with him in lego. His angry belly now seems to be smiling. Hmm.. maybe it’s a connection thing.

After all this deliberation, I decide to tell him that I love singing and making music and we will have to find a way to make it work because I am not going to stop. That seems to go over well. I also try to put myself in his shoes and wonder if perhaps my inside thoughts are influencing my outside behaviour a bit too much – pushing, rather than inviting him to make music. I used to wish my parents had put me in piano lessons at a very early age. But who knows if I would have ended up hating music had it been thrust upon me. Maybe that’s the self-understanding, amidst the confusion and hurt feelings. Making music is my dream. I need to let him grow into his own.

I’m still not sure why he dislikes my singing so much. My flute playing however, I totally ‘self-understand.’

Brave Parenting: Stories of Intention…

Bravery is the act of wholeheartedly having the courage, relaxation, and insight simply to be.” – Sakyong Mipham (‘simply to be’ meaning ‘refraining from reacting to the present moment)toy-animals-16

“Mama,” my 3-year-old ask, “can I please have this one?”

“Not today, sweetheart.”

“This one?”

“We’re not buying any toys today.”

“This one?”

“We can take a picture if you like and you can take its’ memory home.”

“This one? Oh no. Wait, this one? Why can’t I have this one? I don’t have ANY toy animals at home (my mind is recalling the zoo collection representing every continent on his toy shelf…)

“Can I just open the package and see?” He starts opening the package and I have to intervene and take it out of his hands.

“NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” he cries.

Tears. Sobs. Disappointment. Loud pleas. Argh. Eyes watching. Temperature rising…

What do I do? How do I react? How do I want to respond? With one quick act, I could end it all, his disappointment, his wailing, his anger, the shop-keepers discomfort…. No, think of the big picture. Be brave.

I crouch down beside him and reflect what he is feeling – frustration, anger, disappointment (in my mind it is ‘just another toy,’ but in his 3-year-old mind, the best toy ever!): “Sweetie, you saw the toys and got excited, thinking that I might buy them for you. You look like you are feeling very disappointed that you can’t take them home.”

I bite my tongue and choose not to remind him of the aquatic, dinosaur and jungle collection that never stops growing (thanks to grandpa and gran and museum gift-shops). Instead I scoop him up in my arms and carry him out of the store as he rests his head on my shoulder. We say good-bye to the toys and he gives a wispy wave.

Under my breath I curse the exhibit for having the only exit be right through the gift shop! Even though I told my son before entering that we wouldn’t be buying anything today, how could he resist the captivating toys placed at the perfect eye level for a 3-year old?

Once we have settled and cooled down (literally), I soften my anger towards the gift store (and capitalism for that matter) and actually sense some gratitude rising. Sure, it was not a fun moment, and I wished it didn’t happen. But upon reflection, I came to realize it was an opportunity to practice living one of my parenting values that I hold dear (values that are often easier to hold in theory than in practice) – and even led to a moment of connection. I allowed my son to have and express his feelings. I was able to offer support without giving in. I think it was a wee moment of bravery. Relaxation? I don’t think so. But wholeheartedness? Definitely…

Some other Brave Parenting Moments shared by readers: (A sincere thank you to your heart-felt contributions)

“For me, being a brave parent has meant doing the hard work of emotional healing so I can be the mom my children deserve to have. Being a survivor of childhood abuse I have struggled with the aftermath of it all my life, but with motherhood,  a lot of old wounds have re-surfaced, and that has impacted not only my well -being, but that of my children as well. For the first time in my  life, I understood why abuse gets passed on from generation to generation. And there was nothing I wanted more than to break the cycle of abuse. So I looked for help. I got intensive treatment for trauma survivors, and I continue doing trauma-informed therapy. I have committed myself to a mindfulness practice, with self-compassion at the centre. I have, fundamentally, began doing the tough work of parenting myself, in the way I never was as a child: with love, understanding, respect and awareness. I did, and continue to do all I can to heal my old wounds and be the best mother I can be. Breaking the cycle of abuse: that, to me, is brave parenting.”                    – anonymous

“Choosing one moment is actually a bit tough. I would say I experience a general feeling of being brave when we ‘go against the grain’ so to speak, with our parenting. I often find we are doing things a little differently when we are cautious about the food we eat, the media we see, the items we purchase etc. etc. I have certainly appreciated meeting other like minded families around who I feel I can be completely open about the parenting choices we make.” – anonymous

My Brave Parenting Moment by Lori Dunlap

“I was having one of those out of body experiences – I couldn’t believe what my son’s first-grade teacher had just told me.  She was very matter-of-fact in her tone, not emotionally upset in any way, which made it all the more difficult for me to comprehend her actual words as she relayed the details of an interaction she’d had with my six-year-old son the prior school day.  “I just had to get in his face and tell him to stop crying – he wasn’t listening to me,” she said.  “And then I pulled him out of the room and into the hallway.”  This was clearly much more serious than I’d thought.

My son, Ben, had told me about this interaction the day before when I picked him up from school.  He’d been calm, but obviously distressed, as he described the situation.  He explained that the class had been working on a math worksheet as the teacher walked them through a lesson, and it wasn’t making sense to him. “Mama, I could hear the words she was saying, but they didn’t make any sense to me. I didn’t know what she wanted me to do.”  Apparently, when he wasn’t able to keep up with the lesson as was falling further behind, Ben started crying.  Or, as his teacher was telling me today, “He became a distraction to the other kids.”

This was not the first time Ben had experienced a difficult day in first grade.  In fact, he was regularly showing signs of anxiety and frustration – chewed t-shirt collars, difficulty sleeping, and lots of self-doubt beginning to surface.  Before starting first grade he’d been full of joy, and so full of energy and life that we regularly described him as having “joie de Ben”.  In the three months since starting first-grade, however, the old Ben had almost completely disappeared. This new boy was quiet, fearful, and very clingy.  I had to do something, and quickly.

I talked to my husband that night, and we decided to withdraw Ben from school the very next day and begin homeschooling him.  It was clear that Ben’s teacher did not understand him, and was not equipped to provide him with the patient support he needed. Requesting that he be transferred to another teacher didn’t seem like a good option, either — I didn’t want him to be seen as a “problem”, or to risk having him slip backwards any further.  I had no idea how I was going do this (I’ve never been an elementary school teacher, nor had I had any time to plan for this change), but I knew in my heart that homeschooling was what we needed to do. So, we took the plunge.

Now, three years later, I look back on the decision to home school as one of the best choices I’ve ever made.  That doesn’t mean it’s been easy – I lost lots of sleep those first few weeks, feeling the weight of this responsibility.  However, I believe there’s nothing more important a parent can do than advocate for our kids, even when we have to go against the flow or challenge the “experts”.  There’s no doubt this has been the right path for our family, and Ben is once again thriving.”

Practicing Acceptance: whether I like it or not…

stuffies adn stones-10 small“No feeling is final. Everything passes.” -Rilke

Does that apply to croup-like cough and strep-ish throat? It certainly applies to the frustration, worry and impatience that can accompany them.

My son has been sick all week. Then it was my turn, three days and counting. And so came the struggle… My partner has sick time, so he is able to stay home and care for our son. I do not, so the question arose, ‘Do I stay home and take care of myself?’

Day one – the arguments in my head ensued; “I can’t miss work; I can’t cancel the workshop; what about the money; what about my clients, I can’t let people down, I CAN”T GET SICK… NOT NOW.” And yet, here I was, sick. Unable to stand up for more than 5 minutes due to sheer exhaustion. and getting more stressed. In this case, my body forced the decision (with a little help from my partner). My mind was needing to catch up to reality.

I came across the above Rilke quote, as I was lying in bed, reading and mildly pouting. Acceptance. A wonderful reminder that practicing acceptance in a difficult situation can certainly ease the suffering that arises from battling the situation. Yes I was feeling frustrated, worried, but mostly I was feeling sick and needed to rest. I couldn’t will the illness away, but I could make it a nice cup of lemon-ginger tea.

Day two – the struggle was less as I called in to cancel work. Again. Obviously the right choice.

Day three – the struggle arose again as I was lying in bed, deciding whether to cancel work. The decision became obvious once I stood up. Now the work of acceptance is staying in the present moment, letting the fear of what happens over the next few days arise, be held with kindness, and then allowed to pass.

I am not someone who believes there is always a silver lining to a situation. However, I continue to learn that when I practice acceptance, I become more open to ALL aspects of an experience. In this case, there have been some sparkling moments that I was able to notice, once I stopped pouting.

1. I learned that my son likes bopping to Hannah Georgas http://www.hannahgeorgas.com – electro-acoustic music. Sweet.                                       2. I got to witness again how wonderful of a dad my partner is. Very sweet.                         3. I realized I am modelling to my son that the most important thing we can do is take care of ourselves. Such an important lesson in a culture of ‘sucking it up’ and ‘pushing ahead.’ 4. I experienced relief and gratitude for being able to call on family for support.                   5. I learned once again that when we practice acceptance, panic can dissipate and more options may actually appear.

Lemon-ginger tea anyone?

The Nutcracker Hustle…

What’s the greater risk? Letting go of what people think or letting go of how I feel, what I believe, and who I am?” — Brene Brown

nutcracker altered

Enjoying a Nutcracker ornament

A few days ago, I took my son to a local dance school’s performance of the Nutcracker, our second live theater outing. The last one was a pantomime. He talked a lot. To me. To the performers on stage. Mostly a lot of questions. “Why is the bear tap-dancing? Why is the woman in the purple dress mean? Why are they throwing candy at us?” He was utterly delighted and delightful. And not a problem. I figured it would be the same today…

My son was enthralled for most of the first act. With earnest questions like, “Why are the dancers running away? Where is the rat king? Why won’t the rat king come back?” The dirty looks and irritated glares began… ‘Come on,’ I’m thinking. ‘He’s three. He’s delightful. These are honest, important questions to him. The dancers can’t hear him. And it’s a children’s dance studio performance! You know, if we were in Egypt, it would be offensive to the performers if the audience was quiet. Most, if not all of you, are parents. You’ve been through this before, right?’

These thoughts then turned to, ‘Should I be asking him to be quiet? Should I try to stop the questions? Should we leave?’ Layered with, ‘What do these people think of me?’

Act two, a son with no nap, the talking becomes more regular.  Voices of the young audience members also gaining strength. He hears another likely three-year-old ask quite loudly “When is it over?” My son excitedly calls out – “Hey, over rhymes with red rover!” A few chuckles, a few glares. A dancer brings out a 5-layer cake. During a pause in the music, my son calls out, “Hey! I want a piece from the top of the cake. Lemon cake.” More chuckles. Then a super-duper-stare-me-down-into-a-small-puddle glare. Eek. I thought it was adorable.

Just then, Brene Brown’s discussion of hustling for approval (and worthiness) popped in my head (from her lovely book, ‘The Gifts of Imperfection.‘). When castigated by glaring looks from a few folks, for a brief moment, I felt the pull to quiet my son and appease those in the minority -to gain their approval.  He was not being disruptive or inappropriate (that would be different).  A few people disapproved. Most didn’t even notice. I am happy to say I chose not to react for the approval from a couple of strangers (the dance-for-approval not at all alien to me) – a reaction that would have been at the expense of my son’s experience. Had it been so important to them I figured, they could have approached me and made a respectful request rather than the whiplash inducing stares and harrumphs.

Then, my son says, “It’s a long show.” I ask if he wants to leave, but he says no. His commentary continues, at which point, the man in front of us gets up and moves to an empty seat a few rows forward. No dirty looks, no comments, just a warm and understanding smile at the end of the show.  He took care of his needs, without an ounce of judgment sent my way. I got the sense that he has been in my shoes before.

Bravo.

Being Mindful of the Mind: Your brain (and family) will thank you…

The brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon.Rick Hanson

Mind JarI have recently been reading Hardwirng Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence: by Rick Hanson. It couldn’t have come at a better time. It has been a particularly stressful fall, with many big transitions and decisions to make. In the midst of this turmoil, the joys of everyday life were getting buried under to-do lists, endless discussions about pros and cons, worry about letting people down, anxiety about figuring out the right decision, etc. etc. etc. I was getting bored of hearing myself! I came to realize I was no longer showing up really for anyone… especially my family. My mind was constantly spinning, rehashing the same old questions and worries like the glitter and sand in this ‘mind jar‘ that my son recently made (I’m the one who needed it).

Reading Hanson’s book, I remember to take notice of the positive things happening in my life, so that they can  have a chance of making their way into my brain and memories. Even in the face of all this turmoil and indecision, there are countless lovely moments happening, dare I say every day. But they are fleeting and consequently not sticking, so has seemed like just miserable times all around. And yet, as I began to intentionally pay attention to the wonderful moments with my son, my partner, my friends – the worries seemed to get less busy and start to settle. Instead of trying to figure out the challenges, noticing the lovely moments in my life ironically helped to make the decision over which I was causing myself so much turmoil.

Mind Jar2 The worries, scared thoughts, apprehensions and anxieties are still here, but they are no longer in control. I see more clearly as I become more consciously aware of what I rest my mind upon; the warmth I feel when our son says, “I love you Mommy,” a home-made latte that has the perfect frothed-milk consistency, walking out of the cold into a cozy home, the spark of a new creative idea, sharing a meal with friends, my partner reminding me to linger in a hug, sleeping in on a Sunday morning under the weight of a duvet, the lightness that comes with finally making a hard decision. I could go on & on & on… And as I do, I am more fully experiencing and enjoying the pleasant moments of my day.  And, an added bonus – I am training my brain to experience and remember such pleasant moments more fully in future.

Thanks Rick Hanson, from the whole family.

Halloween: Treats can be tricky!

The saying goes ‘It takes a village to raise a child;’ but can’t there be an opt-out clause?

Halloween: Treats can be tricky!“Mommy, mommy, Tyler’s gonna be Iron Man for Halloween, and Eloise is going to be a peacock. Oh and Mommy, I wanna go to McDonalds,” my almost 3-year old bellows with excitement.

“Noooooooo!” (A blood curdling, horror movie Halloween- scream inside my head) We’ve never been there; we never talk about it; we don’t even have a TV! How on earth does my son know about McDonald’s?

“Why?” I ask, trying to remain calm.

“Tyler goes there. And they have a red slide.”

Ahhh… Relief.  That’s an easy one to handle. We can take him to a red slide – at the raspberry picking farm instead.  But it hits me.  This represents a larger issue – the influence of the world beyond our doors – the golden arches being the ultimate symbol for this inevitability. Of course I knew this would arise, but I always imagined it happening at some time in the future, never actually now! And here it is, right in front of me. Halloween, candy, McDonald’s, fast food chains with ruthless and manipulative marketing to children, and Christmas right around the corner…

I realize I can’t control all aspects of the ‘village’ in which my son is raised. I can, however, choose how to navigate it. We can strive to be intentional with our values and practices, even when we can’t control the outside world; in my son’s case – an early start with childcare.

Our son never grabs for candy bars (strategically placed at young children’s eye and reach level) at the store because he doesn’t yet know what they are.  Last year we handed out candy, but he didn’t ask for a single piece. Alas, I am preparing for that soon to end. Come October 31, his relationship to candy changes… and so I will have to prepare and adapt for our outings to the local grocery store.

But what other option is there? Pretend Halloween doesn’t exist? That’s impossible when it is everywhere around us – and all the kids at childcare are talking about it.

Or don’t allow him to participate? But I have such fond memories of Halloween from my own childhood. The costumes, the candy, the trick-or-treating – I don’t want to deprive him. Couldn’t we hand out safety–proofed apples or healthy snacks that will still excite kids?

Since we can’t escape it, we’ll need to create our own family Halloween tradition and fast. A tradition with balance – more focus on costumes, friends and pumpkins. Less focus on candy.  Last year our son had a blast playing with ‘pumpkin guts.’ This year he is joyfully telling everyone about his costume idea– ‘The Little Engine Who Could.’  We are so proud.  Plus, we are making it together, which is a lovely way to spend weekend afternoons.

As for the candy part, we’ll figure it out… Parents always do, after all.  We often stumble along the way, but we figure it out. And maybe our family traditions can then have some influence on the village…

While I write this post, there is a McDonald’s under construction in our neighbourhood … The real world continues to creep in.

But I’ll leave that for another day.

Happy Halloween…

Would you like to share your family Halloween traditions?  How do you create balance that is a fit for you and for your child/ren? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments section.