Go on, ask me ‘why’ one more time, kid – make my day!

Why? Why? Why? Why? My kid can string these together with persistence and aplomb.

I said a while back that if I were in a strange land and had only one word I might chose the word ‘no’ – that word has power in it. You can say ‘yes’ with a smile, with your actions, and take time over it… but ‘NO!’ is sometimes a useful word to be able to shout out, if something is happening that you don’t like. I said that when my kid was 18 months old and ‘no’ was her new, favourite word – and I could see why. I supported her fledgling right to set her own boundaries and to affirm her self-determination (even as I am clear about who is the parent and guide, here – I believe in ‘gentle discipline’ not ‘no discipline’).

Now she is 27months old (two and a quarter for those who stopped counting in months) and her favourite word is WHY? It has been since she was two. It goes a little something like this:

– It is raining.

– Why?

– Because the clouds got heavy with water and the temperature changed and it all came falling out of the sky.

– Why?

– Because the Earth needs to be watered, so the plants can grow.

– Why?

You get the picture (maybe you have lived a variation on this scenario many times, yourself).

I try and keep it simple, to appeal to her imagination (rather than feed her intellect – not that you can tell from the above example). She is a child, after all. I want her to enjoy the simplicity of an innocent, magical view of the Universe as long as possible. Sometimes I turn it back on her and ask her ‘why do you think?’ as so many people suggest… but that doesn’t really work on her, just makes her own ‘whys’ louder. I also try the ‘I wonder’ thing, which I LOVE the idea of but actually also rarely works for me (at this age, at least)… although that might be partly lost in translation, as I can’t quite find as rich words for it in Portuguese.

Anyway, the point is this: I have always heard about this phase kids go through. I had been warned about it. And yet, now that I am here I find I don’t hate it… I actually quite enjoy it. I love feeding her the information she is SOOOOOO hungry for.

In fact, I was contemplating the Toddler situation of being dropped on this Planet with the challenge of learning the language, the culture, the family ways, the customs, EVERYTHING from scratch; to understand so much but to be able to control so little. And again it set me to wondering what words I would make most use of in this kind of scenario. If I was dropped on a new continent or a new Planet and I had limited vocab, a burgeoning understanding of what is going on and a driving NEED to figure it all out, find out how things fit together, how things work, what does what, what is dangerous, what is interesting, what is useful?… Everything is so new, so interesting and I am finding out quickly that everything is connected and that there is causality everything that is happening. Yep, once I had gotten over the ‘name this, name that’ stage of learning the language and culture, I’d definitely be on to ‘WHY?’ What other word could help me learn all the things I want to learn faster?!

Truly, I do not feel they do it to bug us (even if invariably it will, sometimes, right? when you are tired and overwrought… but that is your problem not theirs). And yes, sometimes she doesn’t seem to really pay attention to the answers but even then she is, I believe, gathering information, understanding that there is a ‘why’ behind almost everything that happens in this world. 99% of the time, though, I swear, she is using this word as a flashlight, focussing in on interesting events and gaining as much insight as she can in as little a time as possible.

So, along with ‘no’ I am surprised to find I actually welcome and enjoy many if not most of her whys. Bless you my child for your endless, avid curiosity. Long may it continue!

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Emotional release feels good – to kids, too.

The other day I was driving and the memory of a dear friend of ours who passed away some years ago, just before our wedding in fact, popped into my head. Perhaps I never grieved his passing properly as I had so much going on at the time. I really wanted to cry, to get the emotion all out and ‘get over it’ once and for all, but I could not because I was driving.

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Once, when I was a waitress at a casino (long story), I dropped a tray full of glasses and they broke. This was before the casino was open and my colleagues rushed around me to help tidy up. I burst into tears. My friend said ‘but they are only glasses’. The tears gushed forward. It was NOT about the glasses. That was just the last straw. All that stress and pent-up emotion I had been carrying around the last few days, was finally bursting out. I picked up the glasses but let the crying flow on. It seemed to be what I needed at the time.

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Very often I have had the experience that I feel so much better after sharing. Having someone you can just let it all out with and really vent about what is going on in your life, knowing they create a safe listening space, don’t judge and don’t take things personally (or try and make it about them or whatever). Sometimes you just need to tell someone how you feel for it to shift. 

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Crying childToday, I listened to my child cry for over twenty minutes. I was there, right up close to her, holding her at times, touching her at other times, engaging in eye contact whenever that felt right to her. She cried until she cried herself to sleep in my arms.

I would not have done this some time ago. I would have done what most parents do and tried hard to distract her (“look at the doggy”; “do you want a cookie?”) or tried to fix it (“is it because you are scared of the noise?”) or plain placate her (“there, there, you can have that toy and that one, too, if you want” – okay that is too far, but you get the picture). This time, I just stayed firm and weathered the storm with her, peacefully, lovingly.

This is NOT an easy option. It is hard emotional work for her and for me, as her ‘listening partner’. I am doing it because I have come to a place of understanding that for children (as well as for adults) the road to emotional health and wellbeing comes through full expression of our feelings. Whenever we do not allow ourselves to fully accept, express and release whatever emotions come up for us, they stay within us, lingering, festering, clogging us up.

Sometimes the difficulty lies in admitting we could have these feelings in the first place. ‘I shouldn’t be upset about something so little’ or ‘only a petty person would still be angry about that!’  – we judge ourselves and think we should be above these base feelings. But we are human. Feelings come whether we want them or not. Then our only choice is how to deal with them. Many of us (consciously or more often unconsciously) distract ourselves with other thoughts or by staying busy and/or we stuff the emotions down with food, alcohol or narcotics. Anything to stop us from admitting we feel things we ‘shouldn’t’ or don’t want to feel.

These emotions, packed down like this, continue to affect us and come out in strange ways, everything from passive-aggressive comments, defensiveness, a chip on our shoulder and the like to actual physical ailments said to be caused by ‘stress’; not to mention a difficulty in attracting and maintaining happy, stable, mutually supportive relationships, on all levels. Whenever we move to honestly look at and ex-press (literally: ‘push out’) our feelings we feel lighter, happier within ourselves, stronger and more capable of moving forward.

I have known this for myself for years. It is only slowly dawning on me that this could be the case for the little ones in our lives, too.

We are often so afraid of children’s emotions that we move Heaven and Earth to stop them coming up, but who is this helping? And are we doing this because it serves them or because these strong, passionate, free-flowing shows of emotion make us feel uncomfortable? Or even because they make us feel inadequate as parents – ‘if they are crying it must be because I did or failed to do something’, ‘there is an un-met need I did not attend to… what is it?!’, ‘I am just not good enough’…? Or perhaps we just fear judgement and what others will think of us if they see our child crying or raging in a public place. And these are all understandable fears but should we let them guide our behaviour toward these innocent beings we love so much?

I am lucky. As a mama-blogger and living among this powerful community of natural mammas in Northern California I have learned so much. Through many different channels, I keep coming across this idea that there is another way to approach and support a crying, distressed child. Time outs are not for me. I have read too much Alfie Kohn (or should I say ‘enough’) to  know that if I respond to my heart’s desire of hugging my child at her hour of need (rather than outcasting her) this is actually the best and most effective thing I could do, as shown by research. [I don’t mean being soft or permissive. I am actually quite assertive on many levels with her. My ‘no’ means ‘no’ but when she is sad or mad about it, I don’t punish her for it. That is a whole other huge topic though and much has been blogged about it, so let me stay on track here.]

Anyway, one of the main ‘authorities’ I kept being pointed to in this field is called Patty Wipfler and she is the leading light at an organisation called Hand in Hand Parenting, here in Palo Alto, CA. Here is the thing though. I kept hearing about her. Lawrence Cohen who wrote Playful Parenting (a book I LOVE) recommends this organisation. This is an internationally famous book, what are the odds that he would recommend a center just down the road from me?! And that is not all, my online blogger-friend and inspiration Genevieve  co-founder of the Peaceful Parent Institute also talked of the amazing teaching from this school called Hand in Hand Parenting. She is based in New Zealand. That was that, I thought: ‘I have to go check these people out’. So I signed up for one of their courses.

Given the international exposure this place has obviously got, I expected the workshop to be in a shining, modern room filled with eager parents. Nope. There were three of us on this course, in a dingy room in a local church. Hey, I am not complaining, it was very cosy and family-like, rather than big and corporate (which is what I expected). It was run by Todd Erickson who has trained with Patty.

crying

Image by World of Oddy via Flickr

The mini-course was called ‘Tantrum Training’ and though I joked a lot about the fact that they were going to teach me how to shout ‘noooo!’ at the top of my lungs and stamp my feet with aplomb, it was actually freakin’ fabulous!

Their work is all about what I was talking about, above. It is about meeting and honouring the child’s emotions, rather than trying to repress, suppress or otherwise distract from what is going on, inside them. As one participant said, allowing her kid to work on and release his emotions, now, was helping him not accumulate baggage to carry around with him, later – hahaha. Loved that one.

Hand in Hand’s approach, in a way, brings together many practices I have been gathering from many sources over the years (some way before being a parent). NinjaDad said theirs was like the SmartPhone of parenting philosophies. Old phones just made calls. New phones unite phone, camera, games console, video recorder, computer, etc… lots of things you love all in one place. Hand in Hand Parenting did that for me: it brought together lots of disparate ideas and practices and organised them neatly into one system AND added in some new components that made the whole run better. Perhaps it is apt that they are just down the road from Apple :)

A quick summary of their teaching (as I understand it) goes like this: set aside some ‘Special Time’ to connect through play with your child each day and build a strong bond with them – that is the ‘prevention side’ (and they have specific advice, tips and guidelines for doing that); if/when a strong emotion arises for your kid, don’t move to distract or otherwise suppress the emotion coming up. Let the feeling come and be expressed fully. Know that the tears, the raging, the trembling are just the way to ex-press (push out) the feeling that is trapped and welling inside them. The crying, the tantrum is not the ‘problem’ but your child’s way of solving the problem and letting the hurt and frustration out!

This is genius stuff and so different from what we are taught and see modelled in the world most of the time. And the most important thing is: it works!

Yes, it is hard to see your child cry and ‘do’ nothing but actually you are doing a lot. The advice we are given by Hand in Hand, when the child starts to tantrum, cry or rage, is to move in closer, touch them in some way that feels natural and comfortable to you both (i.e. don’t force it) and engage in eye contact (or at least provide opportunity for them to see the love you have for them pouring from your eyes, when/if they are ready to look at you) and stay with them as they feel it all out. You can literally say to them ‘I am staying with you, I am not going anywhere’ along with other short (non-intrusive) support statements like ‘I know you are feeling sad’ or ‘you are very mad that you can’t play with your trucks anymore because it is raining’ (or whatever). But mostly you just stay with them, holding the space for them to express anything that they feel.

If you go back to my initial examples from my life, you’ll know there are times I wish I could have done that for myself and times I am grateful others were there holding a non-judgemental space for me when I cried or just talked about how big my feelings were getting about whatever little thing sparked it that day.

And here is the thing, with this new approach to my child’s upsets came huge relief for me. You might think this is ‘harder’ than distracting and in a way, it is (as I said). It is deeper work. It involves pure, unconditional listening, empathy, caring and emotional availability. But in other ways, once I got past some of the objections in my mind (like: ‘isn’t this just like ‘cry it out re-packaged for more sensitive hippies?’ or ‘will all this crying damage my child?’ or even ‘will letting her tantrum openly this much make her spoilt and soft?’), once I got past those though, this felt lighter to me. This act of stepping toward rather than away from my child’s pain felt empowering to me, too, as a mother. Before, each time she cried I felt a stab of helplessness followed by a flurry of activity to try and stop that noise. Now, the invitation is to stay calm and centered as I invite her into my certainty that all is well, even as the tears, the feelings are flowing. And with this she can follow her own instinctive pull to express her feelings in the most natural ways that come to her, until all of them are spent.

And, as I said, the beautiful gift is that it works. Anya woke up from the nap she fell into, between tears, and despite my fear that she might be withdrawn, brooding or angry at me, her mood was happy, trusting, playful. And in general, since starting this work on a more systematic basis, she has been calmer, more at ease and more confident. Even her dad commented on it. I am new at this, but she really seems MUCH less anxious about separating from me, too, which is huge and I am (despite continuing to find my own individual path through this teaching) seeing more and more ways this is bringing us closer together and helping her release a back-log of fears, anxieties and upsets. Bless this system and others like it, for helping us parents find new ways to dance to rhythm of our own hearts.

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Sources of further information:

  1. The Right Use of Will – this is an… uh… unusual book I read a while back. But I have got to tell you it changed me and it introduced me to what I still think is the best method for identifying and releasing pent up feelings. If you can embrace the hippy in you, suspend your disbelief and read this with an open mind, it might really speak to you. It did to me.
  2. Hand in Hand Parenting – online courses (for those of you not based in the Bay Area)
  3. Hand in Hand Parenting Blog – full of fabulous real life stories of how connecting through ‘Special Time’ and deep listening (what Patty Wipfler calls ‘StayListening’) are benefitting the families using these powerful tools for whole-family-emotional-intelligence
  4. Aletha Solter and the Aware Parenting Institute – Aletha Solter is a world-renowned author and teacher in the area of effective, gentle parenting. Her website (linked her) has a wealth of articles and resources to help us learning parents
  5. Playful Parenting– information on Lawrence Cohen, PhD’s brilliant books and lecture series
  6. BabyCalmer – a facebook community of like-minded parents
  7. The Way of the Peaceful Parent – the facebook page of an inspiring gentle parenting instructor, full of wisdom and practical advice

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Do you do this for your child – practice what Patty Wipfler calls ‘StayListening’ or what, Aletha Solter calls ‘crying in arms’? How does it work for your family? Are you seeing the ‘results’ – a happier, more connected child that expresses their feelings easily, often, fully?

How we (playfully) put an end to nipple biting

Ouch! My daughter recently started biting me at the end of a feed. It wasn’t very aggressive, as such, it was more one of those ‘I am bored and there is no more milk and I want to get a reaction out of you’ kind of bites. She would come off the breast, bite me and then when I said ‘ow’ she would smile like it was the cutest, cleverest thing she ever did – which as you may imagine didn’t endear me to her, in that moment. I am usually very patient (it is one of my rare virtues) but this was pushing my commitment to gentle parenting.

I didn’t want to fight her on this – I knew that. I mean, sometime back, when she went through a little biting phase (which retrospectively I realised was actually due to a funky latch caused by teething) I tried a more conventional ‘no biting – we treat mama’s breasts with love, respect and gratitude’ along with taking her off the breast. She did stop, but the feeling was always more adversarial than co-operative. Surely all my new-found knowledge about parenting through connection could help me find a better, more resonant way.

So, I got to thinking about her needs. What she clearly wanted here was to engage me and get a reaction out of me. So, I started wondering how we could both get what we needed. I remembered this game from Lawrence Cohen’s Playful Parenting

The original game is about dealing with ‘naughty’ words. It is very simple. If a kid says a potty word, for example, trying to get a reaction out of you, you simply respond by saying, in a clearly lighthearted way: “you can say ‘sh*t’ as much as you like as long as you don’t say…” and insert a funny-sounding, long word like ‘schmoopotilupo’. Invariably what happens is that they will immediately say this new, forbidden word. Then you give them a huge reaction. “Oh, no, now you are going to get it” and run after them and tickle them, for example, or maybe pile onto them in a mock wrestling move or whatever works for you. Everybody wins. They get to play with being wayward and they get the reaction, connection and attention they clearly needed at that moment. You get to have fun AND ensure your kid is keeping their language clean. It really works. Try it!

Well, I thought, since the scenario was kind of similar (the need was to get a rise out of me) I could try something similar to help with the biting. If she bit me and looked up at me with mischievous eyes, I said: “you can bite there as much as you like as long as you don’t touch my belly button”. Like clockwork she puts her finger right in my bellybutton and I give her the biggest, loudest, silliest reaction ever. I yelp and giggle, tickle her and pat her bum, all while being really noisy and over the top.

Now it is effortless, if Nica wants to engage me and get a big energetic burst of a reaction out of me, she just pushes my belly button. I call it the ‘Push Here for a Reaction’ game. And it is great, we transformed what was an angsty situation into a playful game. She still gets a rise out of me but now it is a wholly fun and positive reaction whereas before it was anger-fuelled. Plus she has a new and very easy way of signalling when she is feeling disconnected from me without having to act-up. She gets to be the initiator and can choose a positive interaction over a… less positive one. And the biting has stopped.

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Have you tried similar playful ways to tackle situations you were previously being reactive to? I’d love to hear some of the playful parenting successes from your life? Or if you go away and try a version of these two games the ‘forbidden words’ or ‘push here for a reaction’, do come back and let us know how they work for you. Cheers,

Gauri

What I honour in my child, I honour in myself

The more I honour, respect and celebrate my child’s ‘no’s the more I find space and confidence to honour my own ‘no’s.

Each time my daughter says ‘no’, I feel really happy. I am proud of her for knowing what she wants and expressing it so clearly and assertively. Of course that doesn’t mean she always gets what she wants (or doesn’t get what she doesn’t want). Very often I ‘honour’ her ‘no’ by listening to it, validating it (telling her I hear her and understand she doesn’t want what I am proposing, say a diaper change) and then go on to say that this is one of those times when mommy has to go ahead and do it anyway. It happens. But it is rare.

Tantrums

Most of the time, say if I ask for a hug and she says ‘no’ I look closely and find that she was already engaged in something and chances are I was ‘rude’ for interrupting with my sudden (selfish) need to express my bubble of love for her – with no respect or sensitivity to what she was doing. Afterall, my love will still be here in 10 minutes. Or if I say ‘do you want to go to the park?’ and she says ‘noooooo’, I wait. I know that in most cases (especially with something as tantalising as going to the playground) she doesn’t mean ‘no’, she means ‘not now… just let me finish what I am doing here, please, mom’ (but she doesn’t yet have the vocab, let alone the inter-personal awareness to express it this way). In a couple of minutes when she has finished the important business of putting all her toys in the laundry basket, I know she’ll tootle over to me and say ‘PAAAK’. She just needed a minute. I would extend the same courtesy (of listening and letting somebody finish what they were invested in) were it, say, my partner, so why not to my toddler just because she can’t say full sentences, yet. She can express herself very well, already.

As it is, I meet most of my daughters ‘no’s with a ‘yes’ (‘okay, we don’t need to do that, right now’). That seems to really help her trust that I am listening, that I care about what is important to her, that I will respect her wishes whenever possible. I also reckon the fact that 80 or 90% of the times Anya says ‘no’ our response is to smile (because it is so darn cute, apart from anything else), helps her feel empowered.

After all, imagine if every time you said you didn’t want something (sauce on your steak, to watch a re-run of ‘gone in 60 seconds’ with your husband…) not only were you forced to do it, but you were actually frowned upon if not outright punished for daring not to want something. What effect would that have? Would it not make you feel even more angry, hostile and disconnect from the one not listening to your wants?? It would me.

So, I respect my daughter’s fledgling right to self-determination, whenever I can… and as I help her uphold her own boundaries, I slowly but deeply register the importance of these, of ‘outer limits’, in our lives. I am doing all this, at least in part, because I want her to grow up strong in her own self-knowledge, in her ability to tune into herself and know what feels right and what doesn’t – in the moment (not 10 minutes from now) and to express it in a positive way. Somewhere in this process of supporting my daughter’s own, natural connection to her true feelings I find my own atunment growing stronger, too. And, in our relationship, at least, I find that because I have made so many deposits in the bank of ‘it is okay to say no’ I can make withdrawls from it, with confidence, too. I can say ‘no, sorry, you can’t have another go. It is time to go home now’ or whatever, confidently, too. I trust that she will hear me. I trust that she will know I am not just doing this to yank her chain or to exercise power over her. In fact, me being me, (in this example) I will already have told her that was the last go on the slide and we were going home soon, framed it positively and with regards to what is interesting and exciting to her (rather than saying ‘we are going home’, saying ‘do you want to open the gate’ – a big draw at this age)… I don’t just drop a ‘no’ on her, from out of nowhere. It is padded, usually. Padded with love, empathy and sensitivity for her needs, as well as a growing awareness of my own.

The interesting thing, then, is that as I help my daughter value her natural assertiveness, I notice my own finding more appreciation in me, too. All this gentle parenting stuff that I feared would make me weaker, a walk-over (as so many detractors warn us) instead is making me stronger, more in touch with my own feelings and able to express them. What I honour in my daughter I honour in me.