All posts tagged empathic

Extended Breastfeeding

By most standards, I am an extended breastfeeder.

My eldest still nursed sometimes at 5 years old, (by then it was not often,) and my nearly 2 year old is still going strong.

Perhaps because of this, I often get asked for my views on when a child should wean.
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Teaching Kids About Death

I find it frustrating to see people sugar-coat the concept of death for children.

Death is painful concept, and it might be comforting to tell ourselves stories about seeing our loved ones again in an after-life, to romanticize the losses we’ve endured and the one that others will face on our behalf, but ultimately they are better served by knowing that after our youth we begin to physically and mentally degenerate and ultimately cease to be.

If children can be taught the reality as we witness it, instead of tales of heaven and angels we have been told ourselves, then we have a fair shot of understanding our physical interplay with the environment; learning how to save lives, extend or regain physical health, and ultimately have a greater positive effect with the wisdom and knowledge that we accumulate over what is currently a short and tumultuous lifetime, before we disappear from society and influence and degenerate into a romantic memories.

When my children ask about dying I want them to know that they can learn how to help themselves and others extend or regain their health if they are willing to devote serious time to pursuing science and understanding how things work. As for the process of deterioration that we have been taught to think of as natural and part of the ‘circle of life?’ That too can be re-defined if we are willing to devote ourselves to learning. There are many life forms that live longer than we do, including some that are functionally immortal. There is much to learn here.

I find the urgent reality to be more hopeful than any wishful-thinking tales of an afterlife. Let’s learn to save more people in THIS life. I reject the mythology that has us perpetually looking for comfort in the next.

The Importance of Touch

New Research Focuses on the Power of Physical Contact, via NY Times: “In recent years some researchers have begun to focus on a different, often more subtle kind of wordless communication: physical contact. Momentary touches, they say — whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm — can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words.

The evidence that such messages can lead to clear, almost immediate changes in how people think and behave is accumulating fast. Students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not, studies have found. A sympathetic touch from a doctor leaves people with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched. Research by Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute in Miami has found that a massage from a loved one can not only ease pain but also soothe depression and strengthen a relationship.”

 

A common parenting tendency to attempt to modify children’s behavior primarily with our voices, followed up by physical intervention when this fails. Touch is rarely proactive, and is often negative.
Earlier today, my 14 month-old Cezar had climbed onto the table and was putting my necklace into a cup of cold tea. Preoccupied myself, I called out to him to please stop, worried he would spill on the plethora of electronics in the vicinity. He paused and looked at me, undoubtedly made curious by my stern and animated reaction. I called out to him again. Not breaking eye contact, he slowly lowered the necklace back into the tea.  Sheepish about my own lazy and incredibly futile method, I went and retrieved the cup. He of course protested and became even more upset when I took him off the table.

I know I am not alone in practicing this sort of ineffective pattern of communication; in fact, I received a question last week from a woman who was at her wits end with her toddler, whom she said “doesn’t listen to anything I say! In fact, she seems to deliberately do the opposite just to get a reaction!”

I find it interesting that we treat verbal cues as though they are imbued with magical properties that should change the behavior of children as though the utterances were literally spells or incantations. Why do we assume that spoken language is or should be the most effective way of prompting kids?  One thing I’ve noticed is that many of us seem wary of using physical guidance or instruction until all attempts at verbal persuasion have been exhausted and frustration has set in. This sets up the subsequent physical interaction to be negative since it comes in the form of intervention, rather than proactivity.

Back to my Cezar. In that typical situation, it would have been more effective for me to have gone over to him the instant I took notice, and provided assistance on what he was trying to do. If he was curious about the liquid in the cup,  I might have brough over a spoon and guiding his hand with it to show him how to stir slowly without spilling. If it was too hot, I could have showed him how to put his hand near the surface to test for heat. I could have also done a separate demonstration on how to put the necklace on himself carefully, and away from the tea. The rule of thumb here is that they are curious, and there is almost always a way to address that curiosity safely; it just requires some hands-on assistance, rather than shouting crude commands.  Physical interaction should be supportive and proactive, and the verbal cues should be supplementary and explanatory. This method is also most likely to be safe long-term since the lessons learned from exploration are more effective than ones learned from directives or intimidation.

Here are some tips I’m using to help me become better at non-verbal communication:

  • Move closer. Don’t let your voice be the first thing on the scene.
  • Instead of “shhh-ing” a crying child or asking “are you okay?” Simply use touch and your physical presence to send a message of security and comfort. Often there is no need to say anything anyways.
  • In any situation where you might say “Stop that!” or “Put that down!” consider how you can use a positive non-verbal approach to solve the problem. It might be initiating an activity together, or giving a hand with something, or simply exploring the breakable object with them until their curiosity is satisfied.

Language is wonderful, and I strive to provide full commentary and explanations along side hands-on learning. However, the need for touch and positive physical interaction is primary to human wellbeing, and is an oft-neglected component of childhood socialization. Rather than outsource comfort and stimulation to external objects, we need to rediscover the real source of those physical needs.

Do you have any tips on how to use more non-verbal communication? Share them in a comment!

Thankful

Now that it’s late November, and we are in the thick of our fall routines, I find myself looking to make room for slower living and gratitude amidst our obligations. With my partner often away internationally on business, my 4 year old shuffling back and forth with a full load of Montessori and extra-curriculars, (of which her father and step-mother share the load,) my own commitments as a board member of a community school, participation in events, breastfeeding an 11 month old and sort-of maintaining a household, it’s easy to fall into perpetual pack-and-prepare mode and miss out on the zen and beauty to be uncovered within each passing moment.

This evening, I experienced one such moment. While on the couch with the kids, my 11 month old started cruising in the direction of a bowl of partially-eaten food left on the end table. I reflexively moved to get up and take it to the kitchen before he could grab it, squish it between his fingers, onto the carpet, and inevitably my hair. But, I paused, and decided to put concerns aside for a moment and just see what he wanted to do. Sure enough, his fingers dipped straight into the stuffed potato, which he smeared slowly across the end table. He then reached for the spoon, which he carefully dipped into the potato’s flesh, and proceeded to cruise over to the (white fabric) couch where my daughter was sitting; the spoonful of potato gripped precariously like a loaded trebuchet in his fist. I was living dangerously tonight I decided, really wild, and didn’t move to redirect him. Standing directly beside his sister’s face, my baby slowly and deliberately moved the spoon into her mouth. She giggled in surprise. Pleased, he went back to the table to reload his spoon. He continued feeding her tenderly for a couple of minutes, carefully reloading and then back over to her mouth. By the last load they are both laughing together, that sweet, resonating, heart-warming laughter of sibling camaraderie.

After cleaning up the remnants, tucking them into bed with me and nursing the baby to sleep, I reflect on how blessed I am to share my life with these people. I love them so dearly, and hope that they get to share the same warmth and kindness with the world that I get to see in them every day. In the meantime, I am thankful for the opportunity to slow down our time a little bit by opening up more moments for connection and joy with each other.

Stop telling kids what to do

I have been preoccupied with the same profound realization that someone else voiced to me today in this private message: “After reading the ‘Making Threats‘ article, my mind can not stop illuminating the parallels between the parent to child relationship and all of society/politics etc. Wow. Wow. Wow. If I had to pick a way to ‘save the world’, I think your ideas are the place to start.”

Indeed, we are all children first. Our initial interactions with this world, those that shaped us and molded us most profoundly, were with our caretakers, most likely our parents. The relationship dynamic we experienced with them becomes a metaphor for our relationship with the world, for better or for worse, often both.

So many of our problems as society of clashing groups and individuals can be expressed as a function of the systemic struggle to control, with alienation as a corollary. When we punish our children, when we reward, when we threaten with time-out, when we shame them for unappealing behavior, we aim to control, and succeed to alienate. What is done to children is played out in society.

Consider a benign example of a stressed parent, rushing to get out the door on time. He yells to his son, “go put your shoes on. Now!” This is a challenge, not a strategy.  One could make excuses for him, but the situation will play out predictably:

  1.  Boy takes order, Hastily puts his shoes on without question. Ability to follow orders is established with inferiority to the father.
  2.  Boy refuses. A simple “No,” is to be interpreted as a counter challenge to his father. How will he take this blatant defiance of his issue of authority? Roll over, or Bark louder? He will likely follow up with some sort of bribe, threat, or imposition of consequence to establish his might.

In either scenario, there is a clear hierarchy underlying the communication, which will be established either through the boy’s final concession to his father’s might, (curiously, this is often confused for ‘respect,’) or his father to his, if he backs off, afraid of his son’s emotions or too lazy to attempt to redirect the communication.

Old-fashioned schools of thought take this hierarchy of dominance for granted, and focus on ways in which the parent can establish it over the child most effectively.  It isn’t, however, the only way.

Consider our most intimate, functional relationships, as they are usually ones in which ‘Truce’ is protected. There is mutual respect, and a firm Line between persuasion and coercion. When we love someone, we want to protect him or her. This is especially true of children, of whom we have assumed role of caretaker. While there are emergent times when we might have to take liberties over their bodies or possessions in order to keep them, or others, safe from harm; On a daily basis, there are few that require more then gentle coaching or direct assistance. In order to protect and nourish a lifelong connection to our child, we must guard the Truce in our communications, and introduce them to the Line with others by respecting it ourselves with them.

How can the father in the example avoid issuing challenges as though he is a military leader, training recruits?

  1.  Set the agenda, and invite collaboration. The start time of the appointment isn’t negotiable, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to engage their minds. “We are going to the doctor’s in an hour. We need our shoes on before we go outside. Is it raining out? Maybe we should wear our boots instead.” Opening the dialog up, in an interesting way, invites problem solving and collaboration, and appeals to curiosity and logic instead of relying on coercion and authoritarianism. (See: How to develop reasoning skills)
  2.  It’s okay to multitask. “Let’s get our shoes on AND bring a few of these toys in the car with us so you can finish playing on the way there.”

Refusing to engage in controlling children through authoritarian coercion not only eliminates anxiety from the relationship, but also is essential to raising compassionate and freethinking beings who are able to collaborate productively in a society of peers.

Or, as my daughter succinctly puts it, “I just don’t want you to tell me what to do.”

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.

Raising a Go-Getter

Raising our children to be creative go-getters can be challenging, particularly if we do not feel we always embody those traits ourselves.

Last year, Lady Gaga revealed her own brilliant thought experiment she uses to empower herself to write music:

“I wanted to thank Whitney because when I wrote ‘Born this Way,’ I imagined she was singing it — because I wasn’t secure enough in myself to imagine I was a superstar,” Gaga told the crowd at the Staples Center. “So, Whitney, I imagined you were singing ‘Born This Way’ when I wrote it.”

Narratives are powerful, and we have creative control over how we cast ourselves in our lives. If we –or our children- don’t feel bold enough to conquer new territory, that aversion alone imposes limits on our achievement. To break the cycle, try to envision the strongest, bravest, and most ambitious person you know, and imagine they fell into your shoes. What steps would they take to get back into a position of privilege?

Tips for creating empowering narratives:

    • The next time you are tempted to say “I can’t do that…” think of someone who could. How would they go about accomplishing the task? What kind of wisdom or advice might they impart? We must let our kids see us be inspired by the strengths of others, and open to channeling them.
    • Show them how. When a child is too nervous to participate in something new, but wants to, set an example by doing it yourself, with enjoyment. Having them just watch is rarely enough; we we have to also create the narrative in which they can identify and feel secure. “I’m going to go down the waterslide first.” And then, “Wow, that was fun! This time, want to do it together?” When we have a strong mentor (real or imagined) we can capitalize on their momentum and before we know it, we’re doing it ourselves.
    • Take some pressure off. If your child is getting frustrated trying to draw something, take a break to look up paintings other artists have done and take note of all the different styles in which something can be drawn. Let them know it takes many hours, days, even years of practice before we are able to achieve proficiency at a new skill, but there are endless ways of doing something well.

 

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.