The Power of Empathy in Parenting — A Video Interview

Greetings fam-friends! The link below is to a video interview that Wendy McDonell of Compassionate Solutions did with me last week on the subject of using empathy in parenting. I hope you like it!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_1cRqQCzE4

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Be well.

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The Myth of the Self-Soothing Infant

crying-baby-001I can sum up today’s post in one sentence. That wasn’t it though… ;) It’s simply this (and it may sound familiar if you’ve read many of my posts at all): The human brain is born without the ability to manage emotional content without support; if we get help early on, then we can develop that ability, but only if (and only as much as) we are assisted in developing it. Period. That’s just all there is to it. No infant anywhere ever was born with the ability to soothe himself, calm himself down when he is upset, or cry freely and safely to completion in a healthy manner without caregiver support. And if you don’t want to read the rest of my pontification about it, that’s enough for you to know at present. If you’re like me, though, and you always want to know a little more, then by all means read on!

I’ve done a little looking around, and it was apparently around 100 years ago in his book,  The Care and Feeding of Infants, that Dr. Luther Emmet Holt publicized the notion that we should allow our infants the opportunity to practice self-soothing, say when they are upset, or when they’ve been left to fall asleep alone. “Ferberization”, “respecting babies’ right to cry”, “controlled crying”, or the less friendly Holtian terminology, “cry it out”, are all ways that parenting “experts” have referred to the practice of leaving children to manage their own emotions. We’re coached by such pundits to ignore the crying, and/or to sit nearby and not help or make eye-contact, and/or to only intervene if the child is making himself sick with the emotion or is in danger. We’re told that “giving in” to the crying, giving them attention for tears, or not allowing them the opportunity to practice self-soothing trains them to be too dependent on us and teaches them how to manipulate us with their emotional displays.

And I can’t mince words here, I have to say, that’s all a bunch of utter and complete nonsense.

I don’t mean to be rude about it. I know that how we treat our kids is so close to our own hearts, and so subconsciously tangled with our own upbringings, self-identities, and triggers. I know that many of us are so full of disinformation about parenting, and children, and the process of maturation, that it’s tremendously difficult to weed out the good- and right-feeling options from the piles and piles of bullsh!t. I know, firsthand, what it’s like to struggle with ineptitude and inexperience when there is a living breathing tiny human depending on you to keep her alive, and well-cared-for, and healthy, let alone happy. I know the kind of reassurance it carries when someone tells you, “babies are resilient, he’ll be fine…”, “sometimes they cry like that no matter what, just let her get it all out…”,  or “eventually, they just stop on their own, if you don’t mess with them…”. And I have actually witnessed an unassisted baby cry until giving up, until stopping. I now feel certain that a baby left to cry without help, doesn’t (eventually) quit because she is “self-soothing”, but rather because her brain has shut itself down from overwhelming panic and stress. Her system is riddled with Cortisol and Adrenaline and everything but minimal homeostasis and the primitive survival mechanism of quiet “fright” is totally. switched. off. This catatonic baby isn’t soothed, it’s instinctually playing dead.

2c3495cb65031ed7615d89e62a13d908To be fair, there are kernels of truth in the myth of the self-soothing infant. Babies do sometimes cry and cry and cry, even after we’ve addressed every potential need we can think of — fed them, changed them, burped them, napped them, checked them for something causing pain or illness, etc.. Sometimes they have pressing emotional hurts that we can’t see; or need to heal lingering, even old, dormant hurts; and crying is the only way they can deal with it. Crying can be healing to be sure — but it absolutely has to be supported, “in arms” crying, in order to work in that respect.

Another kernel of truth is that infants do have some reflexive mechanisms for soothing. One is of course, suckling, which I think more than anything else refers to and/or drives the infant toward the comfort that comes from nursing, which is another major reflexive soothing mechanism. Suckling, however, and the infant’s ability to eventually get her own fist to her mouth in order to use it for that purpose is not, as the “experts” tell us, evidence of the baby willfully self-soothing. Again, suckling is an instinctual reflex — and primarily a reflex built for breastfeeding — not a conscious, “Oh, I’m feeling upset, let me calm myself down” response to upsetting stimuli. And while offering a baby a pacifier to suck on in times of duress can help calm the baby’s brain in a “bottom-up”, primitive manner by attempting to induce positive feelings instead of the painful ones, it does not help wire the brain to manage future duress in the way(s) that assisting baby with our touch, rocking, soothing words, safe arms, and empathy do (which is all called “top-down” emotional soothing).

Leaving a baby to try and “suckle it out” on her own, is akin to only letting her ever ride bikes with training wheels. She won’t be able to balance herself nearly as well if she isn’t given the opportunity to feel what that’s like (first through experiential training, then through instruction, guidance, and support from us, and then through her own practice). The same analogy can be used in the opposite way, as well, in that if we just throw her on a bike all by herself and say, “You got this, I’m going to respect your right to bike!”, and shove her off down the road, she’s going to crash just as surely as you’re reading these words. And by the way, riding a bike is comparative child’s play to mitigating our own upsetting emotions. We all know plenty of adults, or are ones ourselves, who struggle or still can’t get the hang of self-soothing…

So while the brain does come with a rudimentary reflexive positive-feeling-generating mechanism to balance out mild unrest, it is still wholly incapable of successfully employing such a mechanism when the emotional state has reached overwhelm. For one thing, the stress hormone, Cortisol, blocks the release of Oxytocin, which otherwise calms the baby and helps him feel good. An infant’s suckling is not powerful enough to manage a Cortisol cascade like that which being left to cry without support will induce. For serious upset, especially as the infant ages into toddlerhood and the reasons for upset become more complex and personal, every child needs caregiver assistance both to calm down in the moment, and to wire the synapses for being able to consciously calm down in the future.

If, for whatever reason, we don’t provide emotional support for our upset babies and children, then we set in motion a different version of development for them, a thwarted version. This version is more hyper-reactive to stress, is more likely to respond reflexively to upset (read: more like a primitive animal than a thinking human…); and is less likely to be able to mitigate difficult emotions, maintain impulse control, manage creative problem-solving, or consciously calm down when experiencing duress. That’s not how the brain is supposed to be wired, but it’s what has happened to whole generations of humans, and we have all suffered for it. Our prisons, hospitals, mental health centers, shelters, and “safe-places” are brimming with people who cannot manage their emotions. Current research is linking the onset of major neuro-psychological conditions like Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder with epigenetic factors including the stress-levels and access to emotional processing support one has in early childhood.

Mom-holding-her-baby-to-help-it-stop-cryingThe bottom line is that true self-soothing is a complex and learned habit of emotional processing guided by specific neural wiring achieved through the experience of being soothed. One of the many reasons for humans’ long childhood is to give us lots of opportunities to experience being supported while we cry and then being assisted in calming down. If we don’t get help in infancy and early childhood, then we never have a chance of developing that neural real estate as fully. If we have to do it on our own, as adults, it can take years and years of arduous therapy and/or conscientious self-work to reprogram our synapses for better emotional processing. And the current thinking is that (as with, for example, foreign languages) if we miss out in early development, it’s not only harder to learn later in life, we also never get the chance to master those skills as well as we would have if given proper exposure in early development (the optimal neural window for developing the proclivity for those faculties…).

Intentional, conscious self-soothing is not childs’ play. If we want our kids to develop healthy habits, and strong synapses, for it in the eventual, then we have to be serious about assisting them. It’s our job to teach them how to self-soothe: to make room for their emotional processing, to allow them to cry safely in our arms, and then (through our continued empathy and touch) to trigger their return to calm, and higher brain functioning. Only by doing so — over and over again, time after time, throughout early childhood — can we train their brains to do it, and do it well, for themselves. And only after years of this process, can we expect them to truly self-soothe. Anyone who tells you differently, is trying to sell you something.

So, I mentioned most of them above, but here’s the quick list of ways to teach self-soothing:

In infancy
• Warmth: it can be as simple as helping him 63981_823189107704356_1005985079256205307_ncozy up, and often the best spot is under a blanket, naked on your bare chest; it might seem perfunctory, but try it, and you’ll see magic (especially if you also use chest-to-chest time in between upsets…).
• Rocking/Movement: you know what this looks like; and if you’re like me, then you spontaneously start doing it even just looking at babies…
Suckling: when the level of upset is minimal, see if you can help baby find her fist to chew on; if the emotion is more intense, and you are ok with them, try a binky (I only encourage binky use for upsetting moments, not a general chew-toy); or offer to breast- or bottle-feed (and yes, I am suggesting nursing for comfort — from an infant’s perspective, that’s all it ever is…).

And continuing throughout development
• Touch: gentle caresses, hugs, even just a finger on his toe helps make way for him to release the painful feelings and begin to change his brain chemistry, releasing Oxytocin and breaking the Cortisol grip; and remember chest-to-chest time just for fun, since it helps wire his brain for better Oxytocin release and reception.
 Taking Time: slow way down when upsetting emotion overwhelms her, make room for her feelings; and when you know she’s having a day when she needs to release, provide time for it instead of trying to coax (or threaten…) her out of it; allow for emotional processing because once it’s out and the brain chemistry shifts, then everything is easier — the birds come tweeting out, the sun warms the shimmering hills over which the rainbow arches, and all is gloriously well in the world after every major storm…
• Talking it Out: another thing that helps, especially as children age, is “using our words” — I usually hate when I hear parents robotically whine that at their kids, but — there’s good brain science that says talking about our feelings helps us process them in that “top-down” manner that once wired-in makes it easier for the brain to have tough feelings and still not lose control and go “all ape-sh!t” as they say, so let your kids talk about the feelings involved; and you, too, can use words to help you process your own feelings more easily when you’re triggered — just try naming the feelings (without blaming them on anyone…).
Empathy: the number one way to help, especially but not only verbal kids, is to actively empathize, and here I don’t just mean try on the perspective (although that is a necessary first step), but to (also) actually express your genuine understanding of your kid’s predicament; get down on his level and look him in the eye and let him know that you get it — when you really successfully communicate that to him, he’ll transform in front of you (he may crumble into you and weep, and then/or his pain may melt away, and then/or he will bounce out of the upset emotion into a happier state than was previously available to him).

And for you visual types who maybe haven’t see it before, here’s a lovely graphic that Natalie and I created (and which you can get here) to help illustrate all of the above:brain-small

 So now you know, if you didn’t or only suspected before, and you can tell those “experts” when they encourage you to let your infant self-soothe herself to sleep, or try to get you to stop reacting to his emotions so that he’ll learn to self-soothe — “Well, actually ‘self-soothing’ is a very complex neural process that takes years of support and guidance to properly develop. And that’s exactly what I’m doing by responding quickly and calmly to my child’s cries, and helping with my child’s emotional processing, and physically triggering the neural processes my child’s brain has to learn to do so that it can begin to do it on it’s own. Thanks though!” Feel free to print that out to have on hand and read aloud if need be. ;)

Here’s more supporting links for you:
• A parent’s video guide to skin-to-skin contact with their infants
• Great article on recent research into effects of mother’s touch on infants
• Another great article (with scientific notation!) on various aspects of emotion regulation
• One of my favorite blogger’s posts called, “What you Need to Know about Crying-it-Out”
• A great basic description of brain areas involved in emotion.
• A scholarly chapter from Stanford on conceptual foundations in emotion regulation (nice overview of some contemporary science in this arena).
• Another, even better scholarly article from Emotion and Motivation Vol. 27, No. 2 on emotion regulation (with loads of citations as well)
• An article from Genevieve Simperingham on some beneficial effects of stress-release crying as well as a little of her own experience with Aware Parenting, made popular by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.
• An article from Solter herself on “assisted crying”; also my historical source on Dr. Holt… (also with citations)

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Be well.

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Happy Gratitude, Y’all!

Wow what a week!! It feels like so much happened that we had two weeks in one! In no particular order — here’s the view from here:

1. As I mentioned last week, Autumn is going out with a flurry, transforming our local landscape into the seasonally appropriate “Winter Wonderland”. The river that runs through town, our daily retreat from the heat of Summer, all but stopped one day, frozen in its tracks. Of course, it really just appeared that way from the mounding sheets of snowy icebergs that collected, and like tectonic plates made a vast, rough continent of solid ice crusted over the river mantle. By Thanksgiving, the temperature had climbed enough to burn holes in the frozen surface, and the river reclaimed the rest. It was even green and sunny on Thanksgiving Day, now it’s white from ground to sky again…11.30.14d 2. Which is to say that it’s still freezing out there. And that is why these two, virtual strangers throughout the Summer, have been parked here for the last couple weeks, and are still in roughly the same spots now… Nimbus is more diplomatic about it than Frau.11.30.14c 3. Echo’s been working on some portraits.11.30.14a Here’s Mom up close.11.30.14l 4. Speaking of “up close”, here’s Natalie’s finger up close, with some little teeny Fairy Food donuts on it.11.30.14e She’s been in hyperdrive production mode for the last month. And this week has only been more of the same…11.30.14m She’s adding meals this year (below) on gorgeous fae-sized china like the one featured above.11.30.14g Mmmm Fettuccine Alfredo with garlic crostino…11.30.14v The meal menu is diverse to say the least… Though it reads a little like a Monty Python routine: “Chicken, peas, and cornbread”, “Chicken, peas, and egg”, “Chicken, egg, and bacon”, “Chicken and salad”… “Spam, spam, spam, spam…”11.30.14i Here’s the sweatshop, where Natalie’s tiny-handed minions make Fairy Food earrings… Not really! ;) This is actually the result of Xi and Echo’s begging Natalie to let them help her. Echo is assembling the best pairs, and Xi is turning them into ear-worthy accoutrements.11.30.14f And here’s Natalie laboring away at another new Fairy Food incarnation — 11.30.14b Fairy Food Paintings!11.30.14r One of the current favorite Üuuuuuu’s11.30.14s And one of the current favorite Aaaaaaaah’s.11.30.14t 5. Echo and Xi with Lily and Hannah. The ladies were all out for a stroll together on this day — hot cocoas at the ready.11.30.14hLater, the foursome worked together on a fashion photo spread featuring some of Lily and Hannah’s favorite outfits.
11.30.14j 6. Thanksgiving this year was a decidedly “scaled-down” affair, but lovely nevertheless. Echo, Natalie, and I hid out at home most of the day and only made a handful of our favorite dishes. 11.30.14o We went for a stroll in the early afternoon — Echo was already in her fancy attire for dinner, I was in my Montana Mountain Man best. We got home and were feasting by 4:30.11.30.14n 7. After the Thanking, it snowed again, and Echo took the initiative to build her very first solo snow person, George. We all agreed that George had a winning smile.11.30.14k 8. Echo styled Mom’s hair and then wanted to take some photos — featuring only the hair.11.30.14p9. She then turned the camera on the current lego scene, below, which covers a significant portion of the living room floor. This castle wreckage was raised and razed innumerable times over the last couple weeks. Echo built a room for Nim the cat, a full-on defensive fortress, a family of robots, and a faery spa, among other things.11.30.14q 10. Here are some of Bella’s current art projects. On herself…11.30.14wincluding stripes, geometry, organic shapes, and (below) the names of some of her most profound influences.
11.30.14x And on the computer… (I can’t get over how much I love the Llamacorn, and “You can do the thing” — so good on so many levels!)11.30.14y11. We got out the Yule tree yesterday: cut from the basement forest, unfolded and set-up on the traditional spool table, and adorned with lights and just a smattering of ornaments (we saved more than half of the ornaments to do after Xi gets back this week). So our seasonal celebrations are officially kicked-off and well under way!11.30.14u

12. Last but by no means least — Natalie’s first Annapurna article is now (like our Yule tree) up and ready! So head on over and enjoy that at your earliest opportunity!
http://www.annapurnaliving.com/blog/biography-in-a-bowl-by-natalie-christensen

I hope you all had wonderful Thanksgivings, and that you’re enjoying all your own seasonal delights, too!

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Be well!

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Growing Self-Fulfilling Humans

Bats2014zzkI won’t lie to you, friends — sometimes, and really just sometimes, I still question what we’re doing here. I sometimes still wonder — if we stay off the well-beaten paths of modern parenting, if we tenderly nurture our kids, without punishing them every time we turn around, and without praising every move that they make, and without focusing on making them tow the party line or thoughtlessly follow the other followers bleating at their sides — will they grow up knowing how to navigate in a world where so much of the experience is concerned with negotiating other people’s expectations of them? In my various social media exchanges, I regularly reshare the lovely quote from L.R. Knost: “As parents it’s not our job to toughen up our children to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” But sometimes I still wonder — is that what we’re doing?!

Then, of course, and always, one of my girls does something like start her own anti-bullying group on Facebook, or bust out the empathy and start emotional processing with fellow kids on the playground, or sneak out and walk herself home from a sleep-over at 11:30pm through the snow on a subfreezing November night. Whenever I get close to doubting what we’re doing, I just have to look at the product. I just have to pay attention to the amazing humans growing up under our roof. I’ve got the most delicious pudding right here in front of me, and it is chock-full of proof.

It’s easy to see when they’re being kind and gentle to each other, and being understanding and empathetic to strangers they see, and being thoughtful and discerning in measuring the effect of their choices on themselves and others. It’s easy to see when they’re being nice, and cooperative, and pleasant. It takes a little more, and maybe you picked up on it already above, when their doing what’s best for them (and everyone else for that matter) punches the traditional view of what’s appropriate right in the face.

Echo7Last weekend, Echo was around the corner having a sleep-over with her bosom-buddy Salome. This was the third time that Echo has begun the evening going to bed at her friend’s house and then come home sometime in the night. The first two times, it was by design that she try out the sleep-over thing, see how it went, and then get picked up and brought home for the remainder. One of those first two times, she even went back over to Salome’s in the morning for pancakes. This time, however, she was determined to see the whole thing through. She brought her sleeping bag, her eye mask, her water bottle, a snuggly friend, a shirt of Mom’s, and a backpack of other essentials. She was staying.

Natalie and I were at home, enjoying our sudden alone time by doing pretty much exactly what we do every night — snuggling up, working on projects, and watching something online together. There’d been no family dinner, no bedtime routine, no stories read, no snuggling kids to sleep. We checked in by text a couple of times and everything was going perfectly for Echo. We were soft-eyed, relaxed, and planning to cozy up a couple more hours together before bed. The last update from Salome’s mom, Romy, was that Echo was lying still and quiet, and was so cute in her Hello Kitty eye mask.

Then at about 11:30, our back door parted slightly and Echo slipped in — and in my mind, I could see adult hands gently leaving her shoulders as they delivered her inside. She was clad in snow boots and a nightshirt, with the coat she uses hung from her head by the hood and held down with the backpack she had on as well. I was at her side and peering out of the window in the door within a single second. I looked to wave at what I assumed would be Salome’s dad, Suresh, in pajamas and down jacket exiting through the fence gate. But there was just snow and streetlight and stars out there. And Echo, warm and wide-eyed in here.

The questions flew like arrows from a castle besieged. What the hell was she doing here? How did she get home?! Where were the adults?! And even though she was in our arms, and had clearly made it — was she really safe?! I wanted to be mad. I wanted to tell her that it was wholly and totally inappropriate for her to clandestinely gather up her things, pack out, and sneak off into the frigid Montana night in a death-defying bid to get back home without adult assistance. I actually fleetingly imagined myself grabbing her shoulders and shaking her in clichéd parental desperation before grounding her for the rest of her life!

Then, I saw her. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know by what grace I was delivered from my frightened, narrow parenting mind. But suddenly and without any skill or effort on my part, I was gifted a broader perspective just long enough to keep me from freaking out. This was not the defiant act of a witless waif with no boundaries or foresight. This wasn’t even the absurd acting out of a young mind tortured by overwhelming emotion. This was the measured and expertly executed choice of a human who knows what feels best to her and values herself enough to go and get it. This was the crowning achievement of a 7-year-old who knows that she matters.

I mean, the girl was determined to stick out the whole night at the sleep-over. She had a great time the entire evening, and then brushed teeth and went to bed with Salome and her sister Olive. She laid perfectly quiet in the still, warm room for two long hours trying to fall asleep. She recognized, after that interval, that she wasn’t going to be able to sleep because she was so emotionally uncomfortable. She thought about going to Romy and Suresh but didn’t want to wake them (and we hadn’t told her that she could…). She made a final decision, and then got up out of the bed. She gathered up all of her belongings from various corners of the room (forgetting only the water bottle) and packed them back into the pack she’d brought from home. She crept out of the bedroom, paused by the parents’ room and saw that they were, in fact asleep, and went downstairs. She tripped over the dog, but went on undaunted to the nearest exit, where she donned boots, coat, and the backpack she’d been carrying thus far. She tried the door, and it was locked, so she worked at twisting the deadbolt open, and then slid out into the night, silently closing the door on her way out. She strode out of the gate, along the snowy walk to the corner where she looked several times before crossing the street. She crossed again immediately to the opposite corner and broke into a run up the boulevard out of excitement to see us again. She paused at the alley, and then raced to our gate, fought momentarily with the latch on the inside of it and burst into the yard. Only when she got to the back steps did she slow down long enough to consider the possibility that we might be mad at her for all of this, but she pushed right through it, into our toasty, buttery home.

I had whole schools of feelings continue to swim through me in the aftermath. I mean, what if she had gotten frostbite, or had gotten lost, or (because I don’t even want to say it now…) “something” worse!? What if Romy and Suresh woke up in the night and (didn’t see our phone messages before they) went to check on the kids and ours was just gone? What if basically anything else would have happened?! Was she being reckless? Was she being callus? Was she too attached to us? Was she too sheltered? Was she too ignorant of the dangers?

We put her to bed that night and stayed up just a little longer discussing it. Then after we helped her get back over to Salome’s for cartoons and waffles the next morning, Echo came home again and we talked with her some more. Natalie chatted briefly with Romy about it. And we each continued to mull it over, both privately and between the two of us. Now, finally, most of the misgivings have subsided. It scared the hell out of me because so much could have gone so terribly wrong. But nothing did. In fact, everything went just right.

Natalie and I have even found ourselves quietly applauding Echo’s audaciously brave self-love. We were both in similar discomfort at sleep-overs when we were kids. We both longed for it to be over, even during the fun parts. We both had times when we would certainly have preferred to run home. But we didn’t. We were never that brave. We were never that much in charge of ourselves. We were never so empowered or dedicated to taking good care of ourselves. We didn’t even know that we mattered enough to think we could choose to do anything even remotely similar. We just ducked under the covers, secretly wept ourselves to sleep, or didn’t sleep at all, mired as we were in our lonely incapacity.

Echo said that one of the things that allowed her to make her choice to come home that night was that she trusted us not to get mad at her. (!) She knew that we’d support her doing what was right for her, even though it wasn’t perhaps the most socially-supported choice. She knows that she matters enough that doing what is right for herself is going to be best for everyone. She is becoming a self-fulfilling human. She says she’s able to lean into that because she trusts us, but I think it’s more likely because we trust her.

It takes a lot to resist totally freaking out when your 7-year-old comes stumbling in from the cold, dark night alone at 11:30pm. At the very least, it makes you question what you’re doing as a parent. It makes you wonder if you’ve gone too far toward trusting, toward empowering, toward communicating significance and belonging; too far toward teaching them that their needs matter; too far toward understanding that their feelings are real and palpable and worthy of attention; too far toward teaching self-love; too far toward hope. And at the same time, in exactly the same moment, it reminds you that everything matters; that everything is working out perfectly; that everything we’re doing to validate and nurture our children and their sense of self is adding up in all of our favors.

I know there’s probably a few more questions here than answers. I know this may not be the tidy explanation of human development, or the tender musing on living with littles that you’ve become used to from me. I’m not pretending that I’m 100% sure what all of this means. I can’t even say that I’m 100% in support of Echo’s choice. And in truth, we did absolutely direct her to some other options short of wandering off alone into the wild Montana November midnight; though, we also didn’t punish her, we didn’t second guess her, and we didn’t tell her she was wrong to do what she had. Because, although I hope she never has to do that again, I’m glad that she’s powerful and self-loving enough to if it comes to it. And although I can’t be sure if everything we’re doing in raising them is absolutely best, I do know that (whether it’s because they can trust us, or because we trust them, or more likely, both) seeing that we can rely on these girls to trust themselves is the surest sign that we’re on the right track.Bats2014zm

Keep watching and considering and learning and loving, my dears. Keep trusting, being trustworthy, and having faith. The path is long, the way is dark, but we’re getting there

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Be well.

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Family Friday Updates even though it’s Saturday!

It’s been a fun and busy week around here. It seems like there’s a heckuva lot going on!

For starters, after an extremely mild early Autumn — I mean, we didn’t even get pounded by a blizzard on Halloween(!) — and extra boons from the garden all the way through October, Winter finally came to Missoula. Actually, Winter stole into town in the dead of night and gave us all a serious seasonal smackdown. We had cold driving rain, which turned slowly into chunky blobs of slush, then as the temperature continued to plummet tiny white crystal flakes were laid over the top in thick stacks. By the next day, the high was as low as the previous nights bottom temps, and the lows sunk into single digits. The so-called polar vortex hasn’t passed yet, and has kept temperatures in Montana and nearby states colder than Alaska — srsly brrrrrrrrr…

Not for the purpose of keeping warm, but alongside those efforts, Natalie has been up to her armpits in Fairy Food creation. Here’s some baguettes getting a nice toasty chalk-brushing on their way to the oven… Croissant and Campagne thrown in for free.
11.15.14hThe next several shots are from the process of making a head of Romaine. Each of the colored shapes below is separately cut and laid and molded into the conglomerate lettuce leaf…
11.15.14c Then that thick leaf is mooshed and rolled into a tube…11.15.14d And when the ends are lopped off, the tube is a row of lettuce leaves waiting to be sliced…11.15.14e Thin lettuce leaves cut from the tube…11.15.14f And wrapped around the Romaine heart… Viola!11.15.14gAnd don’t forget the tiny cupcakes — glazed with sprinkles on top!11.15.14b

Natalie has also been writing and illustrating for a new website-journal-community created by Carrie-Anne Moss called Annapurna Living:AnnapurnaImage

She’s one of only a dozen contributors, and though none of her pieces has been released as of this post, she’s been getting rave reviews from the editor and Carrie-Anne on everything she’s sent. The link below is to her profile on the site. Be on the look-out for her articles and images! http://www.annapurnaliving.com/natalie-christensen/

I’ve been doing some fun collaboration(s) as well. Ariadne Brill (you may remember her from the Community! page above) leading a bushel of other Positive Discipline coaches, mentors, and parent educators from around the world — including yours truly — has created a new PD-aligned quarterly parenting e-journal called COMPASS. Our inaugural issue has just come out and it looks beautiful (thanks Ariadne!!), and it’s stuffed with great ideas, advice, and information for gentle parents of all walks. Click on the image below to be taken to my sign-up page to receive your ¡free! copy. It’s a real gem and I’m proud to be a part of it!
C O M P A S S (6)

And continuing with the theme of stellar collaborations…

Bella sent us these updated images — from some Summer photo-shoots the girls all did together — that she’s been playing with using various filters and effects. I love them completely.
11.15.14i 11.15.14j

In other news — Xi has been trying out a new online curriculum this week and is totally loving it and finding new heights of interesting things to explore. It covers all the subjects, and she says the tutorials are better than other ones she’s tried. The other thing is that it’s designed to carry her through the entire 6th grade, including all the various disciplines and requirements for the year. Plus, she’s so jazzed about it that she completed most of two weeks’ worth or work in just four days!

And the littlest one, that lightning bolt we call Echo…? Well, she is off to her first ever all-night sleep-over at her dear friend Salome’s house (she’s done two half-night sleep-overs there previously). Salome and her family are some of the ones who came and stayed with us in Santa Cruz last Winter; they’re the ones whose cute one-bedroom studio our whole family stuffed happily into while Gus was being remodeled; and we’ve been friends with them since Echo and Salome were 6-months old. Bonuses for Echo tonight include the younger sisters Olive (4) and Selah (1) who both think Echo is the cat’s meow, and a wholly different crowd for picking out a movie night selection.

So it turns out, Natalie and I are kidless for the whole evening. So… I’m already drunk! Just kidding!! :D We hardly know what to do with such a thing as a kidless evening! And we take such good care of ourselves so regularly that we probably aren’t even going to do anything different. Like Natalie says, “We like our nighttime routine so much it’ll be so nice to just get to do more of that…”. So I’m going to sign-off now and go be with her!

Hope you’re all healthy, busy as you want to be, and having just as much fun.

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Be well.

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Friday Family Updates: Flyin’ Solo

This week’s been kind of an odd one for us because I’m the only one home! We’re used to the coming and going of our older two girls as they flow back and forth between their two homes, but it’s fairly unusual for our micro-unit family to be split up for more than a few hours on any given day, and certainly strange to spend a whole week apart. But it does happen every now and again, and it’s always sort of weird.

For one thing, I feel as though a portion of body is turned off, or missing, or so numb to the touch that it may as well be gone. I don’t have my normal outlets (or inlets) for loving, so I feel like there’s a big part of the normally used part of me that is dormant, or distant, or (not to put too fine a point on it) utterly unsatisfied. Nevertheless, I’m making due, and have a few fun adventures of my own in the process.

Natalie and Echo are in Boulder, Colorado visiting some long-time friends. Echo is particularly happy to have some time with the little guy in the background below. That’s Noah and his mom Shanti. 11.7.14a Me, although I’ve felt like a sail with no ship for the last several days, I’m making good use of the time doing things that I probably would have stayed home instead of, had the family been here. So, I got to go to a drum and journey gathering, I stayed out super late a couple of nights, went to karaoke, did the entire First Friday Art Walk, hung out with a number of my “we should really get together soon” friends, shook my booty to a popular local bar band, and went for a couple “before it’s frozen out” hikes, in addition to my more mundane daily tasks.

Below is a shot I took from a place I found and named “The Laughing Ravine” that carries the sounds of laughs and screams and shouts of joy from a playground (or two) down below all the way up the 1,000 foot hill and over. The ravine which is also a watershed for spring run-off, acted like a tributary, feeding the “Mirth Woods”, the mountain top, and the sky, above. I marveled at the power of such energy gliding up the side of the hill at least once or twice each day, 5 days a week, most weeks of the year…11.7.14bThis view is from the top of Mount Sentinel over-looking the heart of the Five Valleys where Missoula nestles, getting ready for a long Winter’s nap. If you look closely, you can see a sliver of each of the two rivers at opposite ends of town.11.7.14cXi is due back tonight, Natalie and Echo the day after. And while I wait for the “pins and needles! pins and needles!” to subside, and the feeling to come back into the sleeping parts of me, I’ll be cleaning, and wrapping up some last minute garden tasks before the snow and serious cold hit, possibly Monday. Please send Natalie and Echo safe driving mojo as they wend their way back, 13 hours, from Colorado!

And that’s the haps in our world at present. Hope you’re all enjoying your current opportunities, too!

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Be well.

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Digging a Little Deeper than “Misbehavior”

emotionalstructurepostersmallSo — there’s this dirty little parenting myth that started decades ago and that lingers still in the rarely mentioned corners of the current social parenting contract corrupting the ears of those who listen, and driving opposition into the hearts of families everywhere. I make it sound sinister, because — well, it is. No one set out to make it so. No one started the parenting shift toward managing positive and negative behaviors as a strategy for instilling character and making our children become good people in order to hurt anyone. No one made Behaviorism the predominant psychological model underpinning all of Western Society’s parenting in order to be mean. We’ve just wound up justifying being mean in order to make our kids good people.

Over time, and according to the predominant mythos, we’ve adopted the habit — the behavioral trait, if you will — of dealing with our kids on the level of behaviors almost exclusively. We’re constantly mowing down behaviors we don’t like (only to have others crop up in their stead), and desperately watering and nurturing and pruning to cultivate the behaviors we do like. Culturally, especially in America, we’re obsessed with “halting misbehavior in it’s tracks!” and just as vehemently if not more so with “catching them being good”, in order of course to make them do whatever that good behavior was more. We’ve been coaxed into believing that if we do these things — if we make them do more good actions and not do as many bad actions — that our children will then in due course (and with due diligence on our parts) become good people. They’ll choose to do the good things we’ve made or bribed them into doing because we’ve made it habitual for them to do so (especially if there’s a reward or punishment around to be the parent in our stead…). They may hate us for it, but they’ll be good people with a strong sense of discipline the myth assures us.

Now, honestly, it would be one thing if this were a viable method. If it worked (particularly, if it was, as the myth portends, the only thing that worked), then it’d be worth considering as an approach to at least ponder from time to time, to pepper in, if you will. But it doesn’t even do what it set out to do. The scientifically proven method that works so well on so many other species, that even works quite well with adult humans, when applied to human children over time fails utterly at both instilling the behaviors it sets out to instill and inhibiting those behaviors it sets out to inhibit. It furthermore creates resistance to, both, the preferred behaviors and to the system by which the behaviors are manipulated; it also creates a preference for the prohibited behaviors or others of their kind. If you need convincing go to the man who burned down the Behaviorism tower, himself, Alfie Kohn. His quintessential books, Punished by Rewards, and Unconditional Parenting, collect and elucidate the reams of psychological research uncovering the inability of the Behavioristic approach to control our children’s actions — especially in the long run, and especially if there isn’t a reward-and-punisher standing over them.

You know why it doesn’t work? Because we humans are funny. We’re simpler and more complex than Behaviorism pretends. As it turns out, there’s a whole lot that goes into why we choose, or subconsciously move toward, certain actions and not others. Whether we are going to be rewarded or punished (if we’re caught) doesn’t always enter into the equation when humans are embroiled in their amazing interactions with each other. Most of the time we’re acting because of something we think or feel that motivates us — often in spite of almost all the consequences, as we tend to pay way more attention to the outcomes that agree with what we’re motivated toward. Good feelings — which biochemically tend to also invoke good thoughts, resulting in more good feelings, and so on, — inspire actions that most of us like. Less comfortable feelings, especially those ones we’d pretty much all call “bad”, make us biochemically uncomfortable in our minds and bodies; and one of the most common ways of discharging this discomfort is in destructive, disharmonious, uncooperative, even violent action. And if strong emotion is involved, particularly with kids, then there is a loss of higher brain function, and a diminished ability to make “good choices”, to feel empathy, to act compassionately, to even be self-aware, or able to control impulses, or calm down.

This is one reason it’s unfair to expect a child who is feeling awful to do anything other than “misbehave”. They are almost incapable of choosing another course because their feelings are interrupting their brain’s ability to control itself. They are out of their minds. They plead temporary insanity! Give ‘em a break judge! ;)

If we really want to effect how our children are behaving, we have to get down underneath the actions themselves, and take a good look at the feelings involved. If it helps, think of their actions as physical code for their feelings. Usually if the feelings are uncomfortable, if the kid is acting out because she feels so rotten, it’s because she has a need that is going unmet. It’s a further “complexity” in human psychology, but a simple truth, that those “uncomfortable feelings” I describe above, that lead to what we might generally call “disagreeable actions”, most commonly spring from needs that are lingering, causing unsafe, disconnective, unworthy, untrusting feelings or the like which then spring into other feelings of anger and rage and antagonism in order to protect the brain from fear.

It goes like this: unmet needs lead to uncomfortable feelings and out of those come disagreeable actions. And the opposite is how we respond: if we don’t like the actions, then we attempt to assist with the feelings informing the actions, and afterward (because co-processing feelings should always come first) if necessary, address any underlying unmet needs involved with the uncomfortable feelings (recognizing that sometimes just letting out some uncomfortable feelings and/or getting the connection that comes from doing the process together is enough and no other needs have to be addressed right then). In my opinion, all of parenting is distilled into managing the two directions of this flow.

As Jane Nelsen of the Positive Discipline movement boils it down, “When children feel better, they do better.” I’d go further to say, when children feel better, they think better, they function better, and they’re more capable. At the level of neurochemistry, we empower our children to be “on their best behavior”, simply by being connected to them and helping them get their needs met.

As it turns outs, when we shrug off the Behavioristic shroud obscuring everything our children do, when we take a look underneath their actions, connect with them through empathizing with their feelings, and help them meet their underlying needs, then we get a chance to know what’s below all that, we get to know the truth — namely, that our children always already are good people. They’re like all of us — when our needs are met, and we feel good, we shine. If we give our kids the chance to act from a place of feeling good and connected and supported and with their needs met, then they will surprise us with the kind, compassionate, empathetic choices they will naturally make.

We don’t have to wonder how to make them be good, we just have to give them the chance to be the good people they already are. Yes, we’ll have to show them the ropes — teach them action codes that display feeling good in a socially conducive manner, as well as, how to get their needs met without destroying anything — and it takes time for them to develop their behavioral-linguitic abilities, and the synaptic integrity to manage their emotions and still make good choices under duress. But the goodness (and by that we all really just mean the capacity for human tenderness, social concourse, and cooperation), no matter what it takes to develop it, is always there. If we help them get their needs met, and process their emotions in healthy ways, then their goodness will blossom. And when they’re doing things that we don’t like, it’s just a sign that they need our help to keep the garden healthy.

We don’t have to be stuck spinning our wheels in the behavior-mowing game. We can get passed all that kind of maintenance. And when we do, when we nurture the soil, when we meet the garden’s needs, then the goodness comes flowering out; and we can sit back and enjoy the roses!

HS3

Now, maybe you’ve never gardened this way and you think I’m making it up… Maybe like an industrial farmer, you’re skeptical of this kind of “permaculture”, or you’re not sure how to get started. Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss it more, or if you want help converting your garden. I can show you the best tools and how to dig under those weedy actions, as well as how to build up the soil so it produces the good flora that you’d rather see. Don’t hesitate to get in touch — I’m here to help! <3

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Be well.

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