All posts in Empathic Civilization

When kids speak up: bravery and fallout

I posted a few months ago on the topic of truth-telling. (Encouraging bravery in telling the truth)  This topic has been on my mind again, due to an incident with our 4 year old. She recently told me that a neighbor girl, who is a few years older, had played with her in a way that bothered her. I could tell she was hesitant to bring it up. What I did not want to do was make it into a huge issue, or impose ideas on her; I wanted to validate her feelings, talk about personal boundaries, and look for a path forward. She insisted she still wanted to play with her, she just didn’t want her friend to behave in that way anymore. I told her that given what she had told me, maybe it’s best if we only have this girl over here where I can directly supervise, or when we are all outside together, to which she agreed. I also told her that we would be calling her friend’s mom, to make her aware of the situation. (Which we did.)

Fast-forward a week post-discussion. Our daughter knocked on her door to invite her outside with us. She came back slumped and sad, and said that she isn’t allowed to play with her anymore. “But why, mom?” I tried to run through a list of reasons her mom might have for not allowing her daughter to play. I was hopeful that it was just a one-time thing. As it turned out, she was no longer allowed to play, period. Later on, my daughter came to me and said, “Mom, I lied. I was just telling a Lie.  She didn’t do that stuff.” I was patient. I wanted to see where she was going with this. Not getting any reaction from me, she pushed on earnestly, “Go call her mom again and tell her she can play now because I was just lying!”

She had seen how telling me what happened had prevented her friend from playing with her any longer. She hoped by taking it all back that she could also have her friend back. I could see a Life Lesson at work, and not an easy one. There are few things in life as painful as when our decision to speak up appears to punish us. (Though the pain of not speaking up is one of them.) Sadly, from a young age, well-intentioned parents subtly punish children for speaking up, who consequently learn that sometimes not saying anything means fewer people get hurt. What do I think about that? Absolute bullshit, of course. The trust and honesty from our children is more valuable than your fear/anger/embarrassment as a parent, which is more than heavy enough to destroy both with a glance.

I have tried to explain to my daughter that she is not being punished. Speaking up honestly about things that bother us is worthwhile in and of itself; the truth strengthens us, makes us brave, and sets us free. We can’t control how others will react, and rightly so; telling the truth isn’t to control, it is to release. She felt right about telling me what had bothered her, just as I had to tell her friend’s mom. I told her I wished that I could make it as simple as sparing her friend, but the implications of concealing reality in order to protect someone can sometimes be worse. There is always a bigger picture.

Lessons for when kids speak up:

  1.  Don’t react. It’s not our job to impose shame, guilt, or regret.
  2.  Listen, encourage, and explore the outcomes.
  3. It takes bravery to speak up, so we must nourish that bravery.
  4. The power of truth is release, not control. It won’t shield us from consequence.

Making Threats

Lately, I’ve been noticing my four year old has been threatening me. Not with violence, but with arbitrary consequence. In the car today I heard, “Mom, if you don’t give me the iPad right now, I’m going to rip my dress.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself at the absurdity of tearing her dress so I would hand over the iPad. Indeed, I could see the logical gears turning in her head. She wanted to play with it, and I had refused (were my reasons for refusing justified and articulated properly, or just a knee-jerk imposition?), so she was employing a bargaining tactic she thought might motivate me to change my behaviour.

It’s not bargaining or negotiation that there is problem with; after all, it is valuable for us to learn how to productively further our cause or advocate for something. However, threatening to destroy or withhold something if someone doesn’t comply with your demand is coercive, and neither productive nor rational.

Yes, I have to take full responsibility for this behavior.

“If you don’t brush your teeth, we can’t read a bed time story.”

“If you don’t come with me right away, you will have a time-out.”

Really, it’s painful to think of myself saying these kinds of things on the regular.

Threats are fear-based, they don’t allude to (especially not to a young child), a raison d’être, nor do they teach self-motivation. Employing fear as a regulating tactic is a profound act of desperation on the part of parents whom are themselves lacking in the ability to self-regulate.

“Do you feel like that’s just the way it is? If your kids don’t do what you say and you’ve asked nicely more than once and they continue to “push your buttons” and “test your patience”, do you feel justified in your yelling? Or threatening? Your counting down? Your infliction of pain on their bodies (aka “spanking”)?  Or do you sense there’s another way? ”
 
-Jennifer Lehr of Good Job and Other Things You Shouldn’t Say or Do

The first step in teaching kids to be effective, rational communicators involves first allowing them the opportunity by being rational and open ourselves. My reasons for withholding the iPad in the earlier situation had something to do with my thinking that she spends a lot of time on it and should find something more creative to do. Yet, I enjoy spending time on MY devices when and how I please, and if my partner were to nonchalantly decide I couldn’t have them, and that was that, I would probably feel quite outraged. Even if he had a valid concern, would suddenly withholding them or criticizing me be positively motivating, or the best way to approach the situation? Surely, if I could not convince him to give back my phone, I might try threatening to take something of his away to see how it feels. Aha!

So really, she was employing the only effective tactic she saw available for her in order to advocate for what she wants. And, if I continued to resist her protests in the same manner, she likely would have become emotional, which could have triggered further breakdown in our communication, all over my own discomfort, lack of patience and desire to control:

“In a culture that normalizes power-over and control of others, especially children, how a child communicates and expresses herself can become a battleground… Even when we accept the need for the expression of emotions, we may want to limit its length. At some point we think the child should feel better or that the expression is no longer authentic. I have often heard adults tell a child who has cried for a period of time, “Okay, you’ve cried enough; it’s time to stop.” This is another form of trivialization. The root of trivialization is anger: we are angry that the child is burdening us with her emotional expression “for no reason at all.” Notice that all of these reactions are based on the feelings that are triggered in the adult by the child’s emotional expression. We feel sad, uncomfortable, or angry, and our response to those feelings is a desire to control the emotions of the child so that we ourselves can be more comfortable. In fact, we make the child responsible for our own emotions.”
 
-Teresa Brett, author of Parenting For Social Change

As parents, we are often so focused on the behavior that results from these power struggles that we neglect to first reconsider our initial request and approach. Rarely is behaviour rooted in a desire to “defy”, but rather a result of un-met needs.

Next time you are challenged, ask yourself:

  • Is my request reasonable?
  • Do I model the behavior myself?
  • Is (s)he tired? Hungry?
  • Am I pre-occupied or distracted?
  • Am I providing stimulating ways to engage in the behavior I am requesting?
  • How can I augment my approach without resorting to threats?

What are some ways you have been challenged in self-regulating for your kids?  Feel free to share your experience!

Instinctual doesn’t mean easy

photo by Raeleigh Good

The word ‘instinctual’ is often heard within the context of attachment parenting. Instinct is not meant to imply reacting without thinking; but that one should forgo arbitrary parenting methods like sleep training and punishment in favor of an introspective, fluid approach to raising new people. This kind of interaction communicates integrity, and respects the emerging sense of self within each child.

Instinct may connect with our own innermost longings for an optimal experience, but that doesn’t mean the implementation will be easy. Doing what we know is right is the most challenging path to take. Families are distant, beds are cramped, there is not enough time, and not enough help. The deep desire to be with our tiny, warm, bundle of life, 24/7, to be connected to them, won’t always be convenient. This doesn’t make the desire wrong, nor does it make the relationship not worth cultivating to the fullest potential. When the vision is there, our mandate is to create a structure to support those values.

Many of us who strive to realize a more empathic civilization may not have experienced all of the prerequisites ourselves. Most of us slept away from our parents, in cribs. Only some of us were breastfed for more than a few months. Some endure physical punishment and alienation from a young age; experiences that form a foundational part of existence and self-doubt. And yet, many of our parents did so much more for us than theirs could for them. “Wait son, you think you have it bad? My parents used to…”

The lack of accessible example for what we want to create is both heart-wrenchingly devastating and profoundly invigorating. Cultivating something we may have lacked ourselves is therepeutic. What I have realized through the process of pro-creation is that our beds, cribs, and baby “essentials” like pacifiers, food, diapers, and expectations need to be rethought. For many traditions there seem to be better ways to meet the biological expectations and needs of babies without deviation from principles of connectedness and integrity in our relationships. Maybe we want to sleep together as a family. Maybe a lot of traditional home and furniture designs are actually ridiculously impractical. Maybe kids can handle the truth. Exactly why am I supposed force them to sleep alone? Why wean them so young? And why do so many parents continue to rationalize their violence (verbal or physical,) towards children? After all, war narratives won’t end until we no longer model aggression and isolation as a default coping mechanism ourselves.

We have been born into an era of rapid industrial growth and scientific experimentation that has us removed from our evolutionary experience. Our instincts are often at odds with our ideals, and the systems in place around us, if they are distinguishable at all.  The norms constructed around us are entirely arbitrary, and every single one should be checked and re-checked both from an evolutionary perspective and philosophically to ensure they fit with the kind of world we want to create. I want all kids to have this culture-hacking skill as a second-nature. Do adults want you to call them Sir or Ma’am because you are a child? I will tell you the truth. It’s self-important behaviour on their part, but you can decide for yourself if what will happen if you refuse to call them by a title is worth your rebellion. Neither good nor bad, norms form the foundation of what we call culture; which, at best, is a romantic flourish on our lives. At worst, culture stagnates and becomes a totalitarian fist on our expression and exploration. That which stands blatantly in the way of us achieving our highest values doesn’t need adherence.

The best part of human progress is that we are learning more about our experience on this planet, who we are, where we came from, and where we might be headed. We are growing into the universe, and may just have some say in our destiny. Where we fall short is our sense of intimacy and trust with other living beings, starting with our earliest relationships with those closest to us. Our families.  Practicing attachment parenting, and positive parenting, can help ensure our children have the emotional security to cope, trust, and develop healthy, empathic minds that can engage in a full and interconnected world.

Using a Real Voice

I have noticed that the voices grown-ups use when talking to kids are often raised and annunciated; spoken to emphasize the stature of the person they are directing.

These aren’t the voices we use when conversing with peers.

As a kid, I hated being spoken to in a sugary, over-emphasized voice that was reserved for children. It was alienating. And I certainly couldn’t comprehend speaking in such a foreign, silly voice myself.

Recently, I started paying attention to myself when talking to my four year-old. With a thud my chest only makes when being hit with reality, I conceded that the voice I kept putting on was not the one I use when speaking intimately with my partner or close friends. While it was indeed much sweeter, displaying the special sort of fondness I have for my daughter, (also called Motherese, which can be effective with babies,) but it was also mildly contrite, and patronizing. It may have even been loud. Most shockingly, I would sometimes even talk too close to her face to try and keep her attention. Not exactly behavior I want her mimic.

Why is it so hard to wear our real voices with kids? One reason is that we are conscious of the fact that we are teaching them. Yet, for me, the most effective teachers I’ve encountered are the ones able to connect their ideas with me intimately in a way that leaves me feeling inspired. They are usually ones that talk in voices that draw us in, not push us away.

So, how can we get better at talking intimately to our kids, (in real voices)?

Some ideas:

    • Use more challenging words.
      Saving a complex word for some later date has no benefit. We can teach complicated words fluidly by including already known synonyms with them.

 

    • Take a genuine interest.
      Kids might not understand every component of what is going on around them, but neither do we. Immerse yourself in the marvel of their interest, an aim to give more compelling narratives each time.

 

    • Engage in the moment.
      This is what kids are naturally good at; they immerse themselves seamlessly in inner worlds though make-believe and narratives. Most of us grow out of our action-figures, and into jobs, hobbies, and events, but there is still that same joy in surrendering to an experience and feeling the thrill and sublimity of simple games.

 

  • Imagine how you want him/her to interact with you.
    Most of us hope our kids will learn to articulate themselves to us calmly, honestly, and respectfully. Yet it’s unrealistic that they will learn to do this if we don’t start with them.

Have you found it difficult to talk in a real voice sometimes? I will be practicing mine more.

Simple Habits of Good Infant Sleep

In the theme of my last post, Becoming a Co-sleeper, another benefit of sleeping with our babies, (and attachment-parenting in general), occurred to me the other night:

Photo courtesy of Neil J. Pelman Photography

We were spending a week at our brother and sister-in-law’s place in Vancouver while they were out of town, and by the last few days of our stay I realized that our 5-month-old seemed a lot fussier than usual during the day, and generally ‘out of sorts.’ I suggested to my partner that it could be because, after all, he had been in the same environment and general routine since birth, (except for the odd weekend spent away), so suddenly spending 7 days in a completely different visual/spacial configuration could no-doubt throw off his sense of continuity. My partner replied along the lines of, “Well, he still in your arms all the time. That hasn’t changed. He’s fine.”

I think it is indisputably beneficial to expose children to a variety of experiences; but, at the same time, much evidence points to the importance of young children having a sense of stability and consistency in their environment. For some parents, this means schedules. Ever heard someone say that babies “thrive on routine?” Some use a special blanket/toy or pacifier as a comforting placeholder. I’ve even read some books that suggest an elaborate routine consisting of special “wake times” that require feeding, then playing, then shushing, and leaving the baby in a dim room to sleep and repeat.  I think that’s bogus.  For us, this has meant quite simply that I myself am ‘The Constant’. Baby is in my arms (or the sling/ergo/other-arms), all day, free to sleep when he wants, and I bring him to bed with me at night. I don’t feel the need for a set schedule or routine for my babies because my nearly constant attachment to them fulfills that purpose, no matter where in the house  (on the continent), we happen to be.

Indeed, it did seem that so long as he was in my arms he would sleep as soundly and comfortably as ever, wherever sleep overtook him. The location or mattress may have been a little different, but my breathing, scent, and movements all went unchanged. The in-arms phase is so fleeting; it is a pleasure to embrace while it lasts.

More Scientific Benefits to Co-Sleeping: http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/sleep-problems/scientific-benefits-co-sleeping 

Becoming a Co-sleeper

More and more research is emerging to confirm what most mammals already know; that sleeping together with our young offspring is a beneficial practice. The latest headline that caught my eye:

Sleeping With Parents May Help Sleep Quality Which Reduces Obesity Risk

“Dr Nanna Olsen from the Research Unit for Dietary Studies at the Institute of Preventive Medicine at Copenhagen University Hospitals in Denmark presented new research at the 19th European Congress on Obesity in Lyon, France, which reveals that children who come into their parent’s bed during the night are less likely to be overweight than children who do not. “

I have always shared a bed with my babies, though I had not always planned to. I had never given it any thought until becoming pregnant and going over a list of “necessary” baby items like cribs and baby-monitors. Suddenly, the prospect of having to physically get out of bed in the night to nurse an infant fussing on the other side of the room (or worse, in ANOTHER room,) felt profoundly unnatural and inconvenient. I thought, “Can’t I just sleep beside my baby with my shirt off and not get up at all? Why does everyone seem to need a crib?” This question spurred me to do some research into sleeping arrangements while I was pregnant with my first child. After months of reading literature and countless anecdotes, co-sleeping (and bed-sharing) had the most compelling arguments and logic behind it; and, to my parenting “instinct,” it felt right. After all, my baby had just spent the last 9 months incubating inside me, feeling my heartbeat, my movements, and my voice. Why should the post-birth experience mean immediate isolation and sleep training? I could not find a persuasive argument to answer that.

We bought a big bed, and I became a happy co-sleeper.

Foundations of narcissism in infancy

Stress-reactive people are often what outsiders perceive as egocentric, paranoid, volatile, and often become violent in response to perceived threats. Being stress-reactive means you have a low tolerance for threat; and perceived threats will trigger irrational actions and can even destroy health and accelerate aging. (Robert Sapolsky summarizes this research in his bestseller, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.) In the face of a perceived threat, a stress-reactive individual’s compassion and empathy fly out the window, and self-preservation mode takes over. We often refer to those who default to this mode as being narcissists.

A fantastic article on Psychology Today talks about how stress-reactivity in adults can tear apart society, and it’s foundations form in infancy. One popular method that undermines healthy reactions to stress are methods that encourage parents to not respond to a child’s distress:

[When babies are left to cry, with no parental attempt at timely comforting,] epigenetic effects occur (genes are turned on or off and become part of subsequent cell generation). As a result, brain stress response systems can be wired permanently for oversensitivity and overreactivity (Anisman, Zaharia, Meaney, & Merali., 1998), leading to predispositions for clinical depression and anxiety (Barbas et al., 2003; de Kloet, Sibug, Helmerhorst, & Schmidt, 2005; see Watt & Panksepp, 2009, for a review), poor mental and physical health outcomes, and accelerated aging and mortality (for a review, Preston & de Waal, 2002)

Unrelieved distress in early life reduces the expression of GABA genes, leading to anxiety and depression disorders as well as increased use of alcohol for stress relief (Caldji, Francis, Sharma, Plotsky, & Meaney, 2000; Hsu et al., 2003). When emotional dysregulation becomes chronic, it forms the foundation for further psychopathologies (Cole, Michel & Teti, 1994), especially depression.

Infant emotional dysregulation is related to subsequent mental illness, including a propensity for violence (Davidson, Putnam & Larson, 2000). Stress that leads to “insecure attachment” disrupts emotional functioning, compromises social abilities and can promote a permanent bias towards self-preservation (Henry & Wang, 1998; also see Schore, in press, for a review). Children who are not nurtured well in early life tend to be more stress reactive, aggressive and troublesome.

Bottom line: Parents shape self-control in babyhood with nurturing care. Making sure babies’ needs are met promptly builds calm systems. Parents who don’t respond to baby’s needs lead to systems that are poorly shaped and easily stressed. What the baby’s body “practices” (calmness or distress) becomes habitual.

(source: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moral-landscapes/201203/adults-out-control-the-spread-stress-reactivity)

 Babies cannot sooth their own distress, and require a caregiver to calm them down when crying or alarmed. How we respond to their cues lays a foundation for future stress responses; cries that are not responded to flood the brain with stress-hormone cortisol, which can prevent the formation of critical neuron synapses in critical areas of the brain responsible for forming attachments and emotional wellbeing.
The message is clear: old advice to leave babies alone to “self-sooth” is erroneous and damaging; not responding to cries in a timely manner lays a poor foundation for mental health.
Anticipating stressful situations and reactions before they escalate is easier than trying to relax a hysterical baby. Practicing empathic attachment-parenting ensures that care-givers and babies are in sync.

Supportive parenting builds better brains

Love is all you need? Maybe not quite, but a recent study published by The National Academy of Sciences shows in new terms the impact that positive parental care has on a child’s brain:

Maternal support observed in early childhood was strongly predictive of hippocampal volume measured at school age. The positive effect of maternal support on hippocampal volumes was greater in nondepressed children. These findings provide prospective evidence in humans of the positive effect of early supportive parenting on healthy hippocampal development, a brain region key to memory and stress modulation.

Positive parenting enhances neurogenesis, and it isn’t limited to mothers:

The experience of a nurturing caregiver early in life has proven to be one of the most essential prerequisites for healthy development and adaptive functioning in mammals (37). The current data provide evidence that the well-established significant impact of positive parenting on enhancing and maintaining hippocampal neuroplasticity, likely through epigenetic mechanisms enhancing neurogenesis, as suggested by the work of Naumova et al. (17), may also to be operative in humans. Further, it was notable that this effect remained robust even after controlling for other factors known to impact hippocampal volume, such as stressful life events and maternal history of depression. Importantly, although 96.7% of caregivers in this study sample were mothers, we expect that this effect pertains to the primary caregiver (the provider of nurturance) whether it be mother, father, grandparent, or other.

 

Also covered by CNN: Love key to brain development in children

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Enabling empathic minds: a snapshot of cortisol and neurons

empathicminds

It’s a noble pursuit, for a parent, to want to foster in our children as many neuron connections as we can, and a staggering number of these are formed in infancy and early childhood. According to Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience and physics at MIT and author of the new book, Connectome, the essence of our personalities and behaviour originate in the billions of these neuron connections in our brains. Time  has an interview with Seung on the amazing implications of being able to map these connections, including the scientific possibility of ‘mind-reading,’ and understanding various neurological conditions.)

While genetics determine our basic blue-print, (we already have nearly all our neurons at birth,) early childhood is a key time for forming connections between them:

“In the brain, the neurons are there at birth, as well as some synapses. As the neurons mature, more and more synapses are made. At birth, the number of synapses per neuron is 2,500, but by age two or three, it’s about 15,000 per neuron. The brain eliminates connections that are seldom or never used, which is a normal part of brain development.

“Windows of opportunity” are sensitive periods in children’s lives when specific types of learning take place. For instance, scientists have determined that the neurons for vision begin sending messages back and forth rapidly at 2 to 4 months of age, peaking in intensity at 8 months. It is no coincidence that babies begin to take notice of the world during this period.”

Parents help lay the groundwork for these connections daily, consciously or not, through environmental and sensory stimulation. But how about being mindful of factors which can contribute to what has been termed “neuron death?”
Cortisol, the stress hormone, plays an important role in many of our bodily systems, such as blood pressure, immune response, and glucose metabolism.  Cortisol is part of our proper response to stress, pain, and maintains homeostasis in the body. However, prolonged and/or consistently elevated cortisol levels in the bloodstream, secreted by the adrenal gland in the absence of activation of the body’s essential relaxation response, is a neuron killer (Panksepp, 1998), and children who are spanked frequently (see also: Early Spanking Increases Toddler Aggression, Lowers IQ,), experience the effects maternal emotional withdrawal, as well as babies left to ‘cry it out’, demonstrate higher levels of cortisol. Without the chance for the cortisol spikes to return to normal, a state of chronic stress can result. Responding instantly to a baby’s cues are one way of inducing this essential relaxation response. Thanks to neuroscience,  we now know that routinely letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term.

If you want to help make a planet full of super-empathic mind readers, one small step is refusing the practices which create a toxic environment for optimal neuron synapse development.