We can relax, nothing is under control…

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied… (see full Zen Story below)

A lot of people take comfort in the idea that events, especially ‘bad’ ones, happen for a reason. For better or worse, that has never been the case for me. Rather, in my experience, great things can turn out to be great – or not – and crappy things can be plain ol’ crappy – or have a silver lining. We can never be sure of how we will actually experience the outcome of an event – i.e. things we are convinced will be good, may not necessarily be so (like an exciting new job), while things that appear unfortunate (not getting that exciting new job) can bring about a new, perhaps unforeseen opportunity. The only certainty is that we can’t know beforehand how things will turn out. And the only control we have is over how we respond to whatever comes.

For example, recently my partner and I did sooooo much juggling to increase the chances of our son getting into a particular school for French Immersion – one that is much closer to us than his “home” school – (the ‘home’ school which would necessitate a school bus, rather than walking).  As the time drew near for children to be placed in French for September, I was becoming increasingly stressed about the entire process. I was fixating on him “having to get in” to a particular school. I was certain it would be the BEST thing for him and us. But yet, after doing all that we could to increase his chances of getting in, the outcome was beyond my control. All I could do was wait, and stress, and wait. (Well, I did have some control over the stressing part).

The short little Zen story (below) helped to ease the burden of that waiting and bring me to to a place of acceptance.  After all, we can’t be certain that one outcome will be better than the other. Even if we could, there was nothing more we could have done to influence the outcome anyway. Once I learned to be open to all possible outcomes, I felt a great sense of relief. Will the outcome be good, bad, both? … Maybe.


Maybe (Zen Story)

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

Try a Little Tenderness… the alternative certainly isn’t helping.

self love

Photo credit: Loving Earth

Parenting is a mirror in which we get to see the best of ourselves, and the worst…” Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn

I think that a few weeks ago, I actually cracked the mirror! I saw the worst of myself as a parent and I crossed a line that I had thought would not be crossed.* Not hitting, not name-calling, but nonetheless, parenting I was not proud of. I lost my temper and I lost control.  My emotions got the better of me. I totally overreacted –  In the words of Dan Siegel, I “flipped my lid.”  And this was on the heels of a time when I was feeling so pleased with how I handled a challenging moment (see previous blog post about taking the ‘Dis’ out of Discipline’).  This time, I was not pleased. I felt awful. My son felt awful. It was just plain awful all round.

Remembering how parental perfection is not possible and the importance of repair, I immediately apologized to my son. No excuses, no reasons; just a heart-felt apology. However, I still felt bad. Really bad…

I noticed throughout the day, at work, on the subway, picking him up from school, making dinner, putting him to bed, that I still felt bad. “How could I have acted that way?” Over and over this question played in my mind, leading me to feel worse and be quite distracted – no longer present in the pleasant moments that followed with my son.  My mind was still back at the incident that morning.

Fortunately, I was facilitating a mindfulness group the following day, with the theme of self-kindness and compassion – a lovingkindess practice was led by the co-facilitator.  What a perfect opportunity to practice kindness, and when I needed it most – during this very challenging time.  I imagined myself back in that moment and offered myself words of kindness. Reminding myself that I was experiencing a very difficult time; consequently more vulnerable to get swept up in a tsunami of intense emotions.

May I be happy and live with joy, May I be healthy and strong, May I be safe and protected, May I be at peace.

As I repeated these phrases over and over, with an intention of kindness and compassion towards myself, I felt the shame start to lift. I was able to remind myself of what I so often reminds others – I  am human and I made a mistake. I will do better next time.

When I went home that day, I had lots of fun playing with my son. Beating myself up led to disconnection. Tenderness towards myself brought us closer… and felt a lot better too!

* I have decided not to share the details of the experience as people have different ideas of what they would or wouldn’t do and want to focus on responding to my experience of what happened, rather than entering a debate of whether or not it was “really that bad.”

Photo credit: Loving Earth

Taking the ‘Dis’ out of Discipline: makes us all feel good…

Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse?”Jane Nelson, Author of “Positive Discipline”

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at freedigitalphotos.net

When we react to our child’s ‘misbehavior,’ we may respond in ways that can make our children feel much worse about the situation, and even themselves – and we then often feel worse about ourselves as parents. (And yes, I am speaking from personal experience.)

I recently experienced how ‘discipline’ can actually lead to deep connection with our children. When we can approach discipline as a way of ‘teaching’ rather than ‘punishing,’ we can keep all of our dignity in tact – and actually open our hearts…

The other morning (luckily a weekend, so we were not rushing), my son was greeted with a “No” to a request that he made. Well, not just a “no”, but a “No!” with an explanation. He was not happy and pushed his chair. He asked again, same answer. This time, he kicked his chair and over it fell with a loud crash. He looked at me and I at him… both frozen for a moment. I remember feeling shocked and angry, my face was hot and I imagine a little red.

“Let’s go,” I called out – to be honest, not completely sure what I was doing. “To the living room. Now.” I had a chance to collect myself as we walked down the hall. We got to the living room – I still wasn’t sure what I would do.  Instead of lecturing, finger-wagging, or any of those other things we promise we won’t do as parents, I scooped him up and held him on my lap in a huge hug. I noticed how, at first, he wouldn’t look at me; he was likely feeling both surprise and shame about what had happened.

We must have sat there for 10 minutes, just hugging and rocking, both of us calming down all the while. I didn’t mention a thing about what happened during that time. We both felt good.

I imagine that recently reading Dan Siegel’s new book, No Drama Discipline had helped – in particular his notion of “connect before redirect.”  Once my son and I had connected, our bodies and brains had settled, we were able to talk about what had happened, and possibilities for alternatives in future, when strong, mad feelings come around.

No one got ‘dissed’ and instead we connected. I feel (and hope) this gives him the message that I love and accept him, no matter what strong feelings he shows and no matter what he does.

Good practice for the much bigger challenges that will inevitably come …

Slowing Down the ‘Don’ts’

The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”  – Peggy O’Mara

Photo credit: TRF_Mr_Hyde / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The other day my son asked, “Why do adults get to do whatever they want, and kids don’t?”

He is now 3 3/4 and takes so much pride in doing things for himself. It is almost an affront when we say ‘don’t.’ Yet at times, we need to – playing with flying LEGO around the stove when water is boiling, climbing the railings over our concrete staircase, trying to walk up the stairs 3 at a time; things that don’t really lend themselves to ‘natural consequences.’

Then there are societal things that are beyond our control. We are surrounded by temptations deliberately marketed to children: candy bars at eye level at the check out of every kind of store, candy bins at the front door of stores beckoning children to come in, toys with guns, toys with gender stereotypes, movies with fighting… Things that I want in moderation for my son (in an ideal world, I don’t want at all) and yet, he wants them. He sees his friends have them. I don’t want to be the parent who always says no.  Saying ‘no’ and ‘don’t’ can be easier in the moment, but not in the long run…

His question was a reminder that we need to be more creative.  We’re pretty good at the explanations-and-reasoning (some may say lecturing) part – but they just don’t seem to catch his attention.  And they certainly won’t when he’s a teen; if this continues, we’re headed for teen rebellion!

So, here is some alternatives to ‘don’t’ that may shift a child’s experience of not getting to ‘do anything’ (which is totally not true – but not getting reactive to such statements is for another post). This list isn’t exhaustive, but a few ways to do the don’ts differently.

1) Give an alternative: Instead of “Don’t climb on the gas pipe.” (deep breath), we said “We can help you climb on the bike post over there.” Crisis averted.

2) Give choices: Instead of “Don’t play with your LEGO by the stove,” we can say “You can play with it at the table or the living room.”

3) Take a breath before answering: When he asks to buy something that is a treat (but tolerable) but that I wasn’t intending to buy, instead of an immediate “No,” pause and consider. Sometimes it might fit to say yes. Sometimes it may not. But at least it is conscious.

4) Let them know that you have heard their request: Instead of “No, we are not buying this toy,” we might say “I hear that you would like that toy. We can keep that in mind when we decide it is time to get a new toy.” (You may then get 50 reminders a day, but they know you are listening).

5) Be playful – allow them to express their wishes even if you don’t act on them: This is one of my personal favourites courtesy of Faber & Mazlish. Instead of lecturing on the evils of refined sugar we can say, “Yes. It sure would be fun to eat chocolate cake every day.” (I try to hold back on the “but” statement as that can get into a lecture.) I know we are not having chocolate cake every day -or week for that matter – but it’s not a problem for him to want it. I find by letting him have his feelings about it, it actually gets dropped fairly quickly. I then talk about healthy eating and treats vs. snacks, etc. at a time when I haven’t just turned down a request. Then he is more receptive.

6) Make a big deal out of things that you do do. Things like getting a favourite book from the library, setting up a play date with a school friend, making home-made ice cream (my personal fave).

By using these and other alternatives, and not sounding like a “don’t” broken record, when I do have to say a firm or quick “Don’t,” the hope is he takes it more seriously.

Any ideas to share?

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.”