Here’s a typical day in my family. E is my seven year old daughter. This day, three of my kids were scheduled to attend swimming lessons. The oldest was staying home to experience solitude, something of a rare occurence in our busy homeschooling family of six. This day, I witnessed my mental gymnastics as I grappled with all my beliefs about what my daughter should be doing, what might be appropriate for her age, and thoughts about what I would have liked to be doing at the time. I mostly reminded myself to focus on loving kindness, curiosity, and being willing to change without losing myself in the process. My conscious and unconscious body sensations, thoughts and observations informed what I said and did. I had no idea how our conversations would unfold.
In the morning after breakfast, E says with her arms crossed: “I don’t want to go to swimming!”
I ask: “You’d rather stay home with your sister?”
E says: “Yeah.”
I ask: “You feeling tired today and want to rest?”
E says with a cough: “Yeah.”
Trying to connect to my curiosity so that it’s reflected in my tone of voice because I am indeed wondering and worried about the impact this will have, I share: “OK.”
I add: “I don’t know what will happen if you don’t go. When we signed up for the swimming program, we agreed that I would take you there and you would follow the instructor. As far as I know, at the end, if you do all the things the instructor asks, you will move onto the next level. Missing a class when there are four more left might change that.”
E says: “OK. I want to go swimming.”
E adds: “I don’t want to walk.”
I say: “We’re taking our bikes today.”
E says: “OK.”
Later in the day E shares more before we leave for swimming while we have enough time to talk. In other words, this was before we were getting our coats on and walking out the door.
E says with her arms crossed: “I don’t want to ride my bike!”
I stay silent while my two older kids offer some reasons why riding bikes is a good idea like saving gas money, not polluting the planet, fresh air and exercise.
I say: “What changed from this morning?”
E repeats louder than last time: “I don’t want to ride my bike!”
I ask E: “I’d really like to understand what you’re saying. I heard you agree to riding your bike this morning. Now I hear you don’t want to. What changed?”
E looks around.
I ask: “Are you feeling tired and want to take it easy?”
E says: “Yes”
I say: “OK. And I want to get as much sun and fresh air as possible.”
I add: “Do you need to trust that we’ll stop and rest if you need to?”
E says: “Yes”
I say: “OK. We’ll do that.”
E says: “OK. I want to ride our bikes.”
Later in the day, while we were riding our bikes home from swimming, E cries out and collapses on the ground, sobbing: “I can’t do those hills!”
I say: “Let’s stop and rest.”
I’m thinking, “Luckily, my 9 year old son is willing to wait and his 5 year old brother plays on his own in the bike trailer”.
I wait for E to feel more rested. My oldest son offers to walk E’s bike if she’s willing to walk. E doesn’t take him up on his offer. She continues to sob.
E cries: “I want to be home! But, I don’t want to walk or bike!”
I say: “Wow. That sounds really hard for you…wanting two things and having two feelings at the same time?”
E says with a deep sigh: “Yes!”
I offer a story about when E’s older brother had trouble with this when he was her age. With encouragement, he focused on the next stop sign . We would rest at each stop if he felt like it. The journey felt shorter as we focused on just a little bit at a time. Big brother chimes in with reassurance and says that really worked for him when he felt exhausted.
E collapses further onto the ground. Silently noticing this, I feel worried and wonder how all of us are going to get home. E seems to be at her end and I doubt I can carry her and our bikes home. I’m exhausted and feeling tense. I imagine how wonderful it will feel to make it home. I find my daughter’s pace challenging because it brings more attention to how tired I feel. However, I want to honour the life in both of us. E’s doing the best she can.
She IS moving forward, I remind myself. Focusing on what IS happening is helping me take my mind off my own exhaustion and mental gymnastics. I muster up the energy to say with curiosity and tiredness in my voice: “Hm mm? How the heck are you going to rest here AND get home at the same time?”
E reaches up with her hand, straining, asking to be helped up. I help her to stand and walk her bike across the road. E follows close by. I carry her a little to urge her to speed up so we don’t have to navigate passing cars.
Once we make it to the other side of the road, E loudly cries out: “That was a hill too! Even crossing the road was a hill! I hate hills!”
I figure the only way forward at this point is to slowly walk ahead, leading my daughter, while keeping pace with her.
E says wearily: “I can only take little steps unless there’s a car.”
I give my older son the keys to the house once we are safely close enough so that he can ride up ahead on his own. I wait for my daughter to cross a quiet road. All the while, E continues to sob and drag her body along. We slowly make our way up the next road and the next in the same way.
On our home street, E collapses on the side of the road. A neighbour, seeing E’s tears, offers her reassurance and a hand. The neighbour reaches out her hand and offers to pick E up. She says: “Let me help. Your mama can’t do everything.”
The neighbour looks at me with concerned eyes. With silent gratitude, I accept her validation.
E cries out: “NO! I want my mama!”
My youngest son speaks up and gets out of the bike trailer which makes room for me to carry E’s bike home. E agrees to walk along holding hands with me. I balance her bike over the trailer. When we make it to our house, I take off my daughter’s shoes. After more tears, E collapses onto the living room couch. Her tears turn to calm. I park the bikes, unload the swimming bags, and take 20 minutes to close my eyes and rest before I begin to plan for dinner. That was a hard ride home.
As I write this, I remember when other parents observing me over the last twelve years have shared: “How do you have so much patience?” “I can’t do that. I’d lose my cool.” “Don’t you worry your daughter will learn that she can get away with that behaviour?” “You really should teach her to walk home!” “She’s got you wrapped around her finger! She’s controlling you!” This last comment was shared by a pediatrician once who clearly didn’t have a clue about human development and maturation.
After parenting for over twelve years, which I admit is such a short time, I often receive different feedback now that my children have matured. The early years have not been easy. Heck, most days aren’t easy but I don’t have to struggle about that. Who said parenthood was easy?! If you’re a conscious parent who’s parenting from your heart and fielding comments like this while you’re forging new paths, I applaud you. This is not an easy road. But it is a rewarding one. I can attest to that now.
Although each of us is developing into independent adults at our own pace, some general practices seem to be common in mature families.
1. Provide safe conditions and a soft heart to experience vulnerability and respect for yourself and your children.
2. Don’t urge separation. We naturally mature away from parents when we’re ready. This is contrary to our contemporary parenting practice of moving away, getting angry at our kids, and trying to train our kids to behave differently when they seek attachment and connection.
3. Do what we can, whenever we can to strengthen a child’s attachment to his/her parents and prioritize connection so that the acceptance and love we provide outweighs our child’s pursuit of it.
4. We’re not broken. There’s nothing to fix. Assume the best intent. Listen to the life and meaning in all that we do and say.
5. Keep asking: What does our family look like where everyone’s needs matter?
6. Take time to integrate our care for our children with our impulses and what we value.
7. Bring ourselves back to the practice of loving kindness, curiosity and being willing to change. What opens our heart (a little more)?
8. When we are immature, we need lots of guidance by scripting, choreographing, and modelling, especially, for the youngest who follow us closely when we’re in novel situations, so they will “look” mature and experience the “success” of that while they’re learning the ropes. This is how we learn what our parents have learned growing up in this world.
9. Listen for and distinguish between thoughts, observations, feelings, needs, and wants in our receptive and expressive communications. Did the message that was sent get through?
10. Reconsider our perspective and intentions. Don’t just change how we act.
“The bottom line is that raising kids is not for wimps…it’s a test of your capacity to deal with disorder and unpredictability-a test you can’t study for, and one whose results aren’t always reassuring.” Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting
“It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning.” Claude Bernard
Now, it’s your turn. I’d love to hear your thoughts and engage you in further discussion. Care to share? Care to share with your friends and family?