We naturally all look at how our children are being for signs of how we’re doing as parents. We measure our methods by our successes in parenting just as much as we do in any other vital endeavor — as we’ve been taught in every institution known to humanity (except maybe government…). We monitor and gauge regularly to attempt to ascertain — as if by séance — whether or not they are “going to turn out ok”…
Well, maybe we don’t all get into it as much or as consciously as that. 😉 The fact is, most of the time, most of us wind up going about our parenting lives pretty much on autopilot. And even those of us who are trying to really consider what we’re doing, and do it mindfully, must muddle through with whatever parenting programing we inherited constantly and often mysteriously pulling our emotional levers from behind the proverbial curtain. Our conscious minds have so little power over our subconscious and unconscious minds that if our parenting ideals are extremely different from our programming, we can really struggle to make change, or even stay focused on the endeavor — so powerful are the underlying consciousnesses of the human mind, that they can cause all manner of distraction and misperception in order to keep us on the pre-programmed path.
So we tend not to measure our results very often, right?
The main time we do measure them is when things aren’t going as well as we’d like. We think — “Yikes! We’d really better do something! And fast! ‘Cause this — ain’t working…”. And we flail around a bit, maybe get a book or two, ask around, get a tarot reading. Maybe we decide on a change and go for it. Maybe we decide to be more vehement with the thing(s) to which we’ve already committed — “really stick to it this time”. Either way, within a short period, we’re either no further along toward that new way of doing, or worse about it than ever. It can be tremendously challenging to affect change in our approach(es) to parenting.
Another way we sometimes measure the effect of a new method, or the tried and true ones to which we’ve (re)dedicated ourselves, is that we attribute the higher grades, or better behavior in class, or the more responsible attitude toward cleaning up, to the methodology. We point at any correlating successes to shore up our beliefs about what we’re doing.
But still not that often, right? We’re just not taught to think about it very much…
The prevailing parenting mythos asks for a blind faith in what the “experts” tell us, regardless of our experiences, our intuitions, or our own eyes. When, for example, praise and punishment fail to secure cooperation, let alone compliance, let alone conformity, or “good behavior” — we’re not taught to question the methods. No! We’re told to turn up the volume! Don’t ask if there’s something lacking in the approach, just do it more!
Well, after over 14 years of working diligently — really, every day — to reform my knee-jerk tendencies, and to calm and regulate and reprogram my sensitive limbic system, and to habitualize the practice of reaching for empathy instead of logic when things go awry for my children — I’ve come to be a little hyper-attentive to how what we do works. My partner, Natalie, and I study the effects of our chosen approach(es) to parenting our girls quite regularly. Obviously, a lot of it comes just from wanting to feel more sure that we’re safe out here in the dangerous (and reportedly “evil”) terra incognita of parenting with connection and leadership instead of with the carrot and stick. We’re reassuring ourselves that we aren’t totally f#¢≤ing our kids up with all this radical hippy voodoo touchy-feely stuff! 😉
Well, typically, we’ve been (self)trained to keep our eyes peeled for how well it’s working. Naturally… Just the other day, however, something amazing unfolded in our living room. And it wasn’t proof of how well we’ve taught our girls to “do it right” — to “get long” or to “play nicely”. It was proof of what we’ve taught them about how to handle it when things go wrong.
Here’s how Natalie put it:
This rug is the place to be these days. Kids, cats, and Littlest Pet Shop figurines convene here for hours. Yesterday the girls were hunkered down, speaking sister language about the characters in their games – what their names are, where they live, how many babies they have. In general I tune this stuff out, it comes into my ears as “kids are content” and thus I do what all parents around the world do when their kids are happily busy, my own thing.
Parents aren’t fools. We let sleeping dogs lie, er, I mean, playing kids play.
Eventually their play changed tune and began to reach me. Their voices grew louder, higher pitched and anxious. In turn I felt my blood pressure rise. I am triggered by my children fighting. Even now, years and years down this path of parenting with empathy I still have to process my own feelings of nervousness, anxiety, and anger – called forth from sibling fighting, in order to be of any use to them as a parent.
Then I got distracted and turned away for a moment and when my attention returned I eavesdropped a little. To my utter delight they were explaining their perspectives on the situation. Each girl detailed how they came to the game with certain expectations and that now that those expectations weren’t being met things were unravelling. They took turns. They empathized, nodding heads in understanding. Basically neither was happy with the direction of the game. They didn’t reach a solution. Neither changed her mind.
They just listened.
Big sister Xi asked little sister Echo if she needed a hug. They held each other and rocked and patted backs. Giggles emerged. Then, just like that, they launched back into the game completely unattached to previous expectations, giddy and eager and open to the game going in an entirely different direction.
I didn’t even leave my chair. They didn’t even notice me snapping the photo (above).
These girls. These sisters that have fought their entire lives with tears and blood and week-long grudges, well, these sisters still fight. They are never going to agree all day, every day, and that’s fine, especially as it seems they have learned how to fight well.
Air your feelings.
I am so happy. I am happy for me and what this means for our daily life. I am happy to have invested years’ worth of time helping them process feelings. I am happy for the girls and what it means for them and their daily lives. And I am over-the-moon happy for the future selves of these girls – how easy they will sit in the face of emotional discomfort, how steady they will stand for the emotional discomfort of others.
May you always fight well girls.
Personally, I’m still scratching my head over it. I find their emotional intelligence, and their ability to regulate their own emotions enough to tap into such deep wells of empathy for each other at such an emotionally challenging moment nothing short of staggering. I mean, how many of us adults still struggle, or fail utterly, at this kind of delicate, often tense negotiation?! I come away from something like this thinking how absurdly fast the tables can turn — our students have suddenly transformed into the teachers, and we teachers have become the students! If only I could handle myself so well when my “expectations [aren’t] being met”!
Even now, I find myself wondering, if we’ve succeeded in helping our children develop such prowess, as imperfect as we are in our roles as guides here — what more lies in wait for us as we continue along this path of reprogramming ourselves, of enriching our own emotional intelligence, and growing our own emotional capacity?…! What more have we to gain from our commitment to parenting with connection and leadership, and with faith in the things we’ve seen, and felt, and intuited in our heart of hearts? What other magic does our deepening empathy have in store for us?
I simply can’t wait to find out!
Be well. And be brave on this path, my fellow pioneers! We’re getting there!
P.S. Part of my mission in life is empowering parents like you (and me!) in doing the demanding work of turning your parenting around, teaching yourself to reach for connection instead of coercion, and learning how to lead instead of trying to control. No one should have do this work alone, and there’s no better way to ensure your success than to get support. Please don’t hesitate to reach out! I’m here to help.