My Kids Grow and So Do I


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Constructive Communication With Kids Series, part 3: Love

The Starting Point

In part 2 of this series, Constructive Communication With Kids, we looked at several examples that clearly showed the difference a parent can make when he or she consciously chooses a constructive starting point in their communication with kids. We discovered how important insight in yourself and in your child is, and how that skill helps you to direct your own parenting style. Today we will look at the multiple ways in which you can use aspects of love as the perfect starting point from which to communicate with your kids.


It is remarkable how little love is discussed in parenting literature. Isn’t love at the center of it all? Waiting patiently for nine months and preparing for the arrival of the baby is inspired by love. And isn’t love the primal quality parents feel well up inside when they hold their newborn in their arms? Books and blogs about infant and child care speak about diapers and nap-time and all types of ailments, but they do not discuss love. Volumes have been written about child psychology and ways to rear children, touching on all kinds of practical ways to solve parenting problems – however, they hardly touch on the role love plays in healthy parent-child-relationships.

     It is not as if the authors are loveless or are not aware of love. The reason love is not mentioned commensurate to its importance is because love is hard to put into words. Love is a personal thing. Love touches on something vulnerable. Because of all this, it is hard to make statements about love in general terms. In addition, love, in its expression, is often mixed with personal thoughts and behaviors that may have nothing to do with love. It’s really hard to figure out. And yet, love is the heart of the parent-child relationship and as such forms the perfect source of inspiration for parents in their communication with their children. As long as love remains an abstract, spiritual quality that is praised and held high, it is too remote to help us. Love needs to get arms and legs, it needs to get hands and feet in daily life and communication with kids. Thankfully, love is like a diamond that has multiple facets or aspects that are available for any willing parent to work with, such as understanding, tolerance, receptiveness, acceptance, encouragement, harmony, to name just a few. The following examples show how love, in one of its aspects, can be a source of inspiration for the parent-child communication.

Examples of Love Put to Use

  • Baby Madilyn, 10 months old, and her dad are in the supermarket. She is sitting in the shopping cart while daddy is bent over the shopping list. Madilyn does not look happy and she squirms and snivels in the shopping cart. Dad tries to soothe her to no avail and is getting more and more frustrated. He really needs to get this shopping done and he cannot concentrate with her twisting and whimpering like that. He feels like putting a tomato in her mouth to shut her up. Then he remembers ‘constructive communication’ and takes a step back inwardly. He remembers how filled with love he was when he woke her up this morning. He takes Maddi out of the shopping cart and focuses his attention exclusively on her. He matches this action with an attitude of acceptance and accessibility. Madilyn senses this change and in a few minutes she has calmed down and together they are able to complete their shopping without further interruptions. 

     Dad’s insight in himself enables him to be the director of his own actions: he consciously chooses love (acceptance and accessibility) as the starting point for his communication with his daughter. His newly chosen attitude and action successfully interrupt the cycle of irritation and despair that was set in motion earlier, and both parent and child benefit  as they move into a different place together.

  • When mom kisses her son goodbye and leaves him at grandma who has agreed to babysit,  Danny, 5, wants another kiss, and then another and another. When she’s put on her coat at the front door he again wants a kiss. After a kiss and a warm hug, mom refers him to grandma. That’s when the tears come. He wants to go with her to the car and he doesn’t  listen to grandma who asks him gently to stay inside. Mom is getting desperate. She needs to get to her dental appointment. She starts doubting if leaving him with grandma was such a good idea after all. But immediately she realizes that the dentist’s office is no place for a five-year-old when she herself is undergoing treatment. She would just get very irritated and annoyed with him. Then she remembers the love she feels for Danny. She takes a step back inwardly and focuses her attention entirely on him. She squats down so her eyes are on his level and tells him: “Danny, I think you are a terrific boy. You’re mommy’s special guy. When I get back and grandma tells me you went inside with her quietly after waving goodbye, I’ll have a surprise for you! (She’s thinking of the box full of little gadgets that the dentist always has ready for his little patients.) But now I really have to go. Goodbye, sweetheart, see you in a little while!”

     This examples clearly illustrates how the mother, inspired by the love she feels for her son, is able to stay in charge of the situation and not let herself be torn by doubts. Using a loving but firm tone of voice she clearly draws a line and describes the specific behavior she expects from him.

Love: a Powerful Ally

These examples show the directive influence love plays in these communications when it has been adopted as a starting point and then expressed in a way that fits the situation. Love is a powerful source, a source that any parent can draw from when needed. The more love is used, the more accessible it becomes.

     When love is put to use in daily life with kids, it is no longer just an abstract emotion, a soft fuzzy feeling deep inside. Consciously chosen, love is a wonderful source of inspiration for a new attitude and a new action in your communication with kids. It becomes a parent's powerful ally. Even though you might not feel lovey-dovey all the time, you may be assured that, in times of need, you can draw on the source of love in order to direct your interaction with your kids in a constructive way.

     If you are facing a recurring problem in the relationship with one of your kids, do take some quiet time and think the issue through. Which aspect of love would be most helpful in this situation?  In case you need any help getting a handle of looking at a specific issue this way, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and ask for help.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Constructive Communication With Kids Series, part 2: Choosing a Positive Starting Point

Last week in this space we stressed the importance of constructive communication in the parent-child relationship. Constructive communication was defined as sending a message with the intent of contributing positively to the experience of the one receiving the message. In order to get a better grip on the process of communication we split it up in the following four elements:

     We then looked at a casual, daily exchange (“Please wash up before dinner”; “Yes, mom”) to illustrate the workings of the four elements. But then, what do you do when the recipient (4) all of a sudden does not respond in the way you expected? This week we will look at what options you, as a parent and care-giver, have when you notice that the recipient in the communication chain has changed and your message is no longer calling forth the desired response.

     There is no need to worry. Kids, by nature, do not stand still, they are constantly evolving. Their view of themselves and of the world around them is in continuous flux. A new response to a familiar signal is one of the ways children use to get to know themselves, and therefore it is one of the signs of a well-developing child. As your child grows it will want to assert its independence from you, the parent, and its responses to your messages will reflect that urge. It makes sense to get acquainted with the developmental stages kids go through as they grow, so you will know what to expect. In addition, talking to another parent, a teacher or psychologist might give you a new perspective on the situation. I recommend all parents and care-givers to become specialists in child development.

     This blog, though, has a different focus: you, the parent / care-giver. You are element 1 in the communication chain. You are the one that decides the two other elements: message and channel (2 and 3). The decision as to the form and shape of all three is in your hands.

Communicating is choosing

Each and every time you communicate with your child, you make three choices: the constitution of the starting point (location, mood, etc.), the contents of the message and the preferred channel that brings the message across. These three choices determine to a large extent whether your part in the communication is a constructive influence in your child’s development and in your relationship, or not. When you consciously choose a beneficial starting point, a constructive message and an appropriate way to deliver it, then you contribute to a positive relationship and to the healthy development of your child. Let’s look at an example to illustrate this:

     Your child enters the kitchen with muddy shoes and pants and stomps across the freshly mopped floor. When you are ‘on automatic’ you might react saying “Hey there! What do you think you're doing? How often do I have to tell you? Get those dirty kicks off my floor!” Here, the starting point (1) is irritation, the message (2) is rejection and the chosen means of communication (3) is an irritable tone. The effect on the child of this automatic response can be manifold: regressive behavior (e.g. crying in order to solicit a more caring response), rebellion (shouting: “It’s not my fault I have to wear those stupid boots all the time!”) or obedience (the child suppresses a knee-jerk reaction, sulking silently.) It may be clear that none of these effects contribute positively to a child’s development, let alone to the relationship.

     Quite a different experience results when the parent in the above situation is able to stand back inwardly (see my earlier post in the series Spiritual Tools) for just a bit and consciously commits to constructive communication. The parent assumes a positive attitude (1) as the basis of their response, a constructive message (2), and delivers it in a fitting way (3). The parent might for instance smile and say: “Look who’s come through the door: it’s grubby Brother Bear. What have you been up to?” while bending over to help with the laces. Now the starting point (1) is helpfulness, the message is (2) cooperation or solidarity, and the communication channel (3) a friendly tone. This type of communication allows the child space to share their world with the adult in charge and make an independent choice to show responsibility for the muddy gear. The child will start to talk about what happened while at the same time trying to take off his grimy shoes and pants himself.

     This example may be far removed from daily life with kids, where the constant stream of chores and demands will so often bring about irritability. But don’t be disheartened. Constructive communication is easier to achieve than you think. Let’s first have a look at element 1, the starting point that is you , the parent and care-giver. Later we will look at elements 2 and 3 (the message and the chosen channel).

Consciously choose your starting point   

     You might think: “What do you mean, consciously choose a starting point? My starting point is the fact that I am the parent / care-giver. I rely on my experience and intuition; I love my child and I’m doing the best I can. Isn’t that enough?” Indispensable as these qualities are, they are not sufficient, unfortunately. Parent and care-givers need to do more, and can do more. Compared to former days rearing children in modern times requires more of a person for various reasons. Today we enjoy a higher standard of living which means an increasing number of choices in all areas. Families are smaller than they used to be so there aren’t any elder brothers and sisters around to step in and help. In addition, in smaller families the individual child is more often in the lime light compared to former times. However, the most important reason I think is the growing awareness in our culture of the uniqueness of the individual. With that higher awareness comes a responsibility for the individual’s opportunities to develop and grow.

     Due to all these reasons a modern parent / care-giver is faced with a complex task. Relying solely on experience or intuition is no longer going to cut it; some situations require a more thorough approach. Loving your child is crucial for its development, since love, after all, is the heart of the parent-child relationship. However, that love is not enough when it does not express itself in a specific loving attitude chosen for a specific situation. Trying the best you can is absolutely vital, however if it is an ignorant effort, it will fall short in most instances. Apart from intuition, experience, love and effort, one more thing is needed in order to adequately fulfill your role as a parent and care-giver: insight. 

     Insight in your child and in yourself. Insight in your child mainly rests on your knowledge and understanding of general children’s development. If you are able to put your child’s behavior in the context of a particular stage of development, you are less likely to fall prey to frustration and irritation and you will be better able to respond adequately. I can't stress enough how important insight in your children's development is.

     The other type of insight is: insight in yourself. You, the parent / care-giver are after all the focus of this blog. Insight in yourself means: being able to step back inwardly and analyze your own behavior and your own role as care-giver. In a way you become your own director observing your own direction. That may sound abstract, but most parents already have insight in themselves to some extent. I am sure you will recognize some of three examples:

  •      A five-year-old proudly shows his drawing to mommy. Mother responds: “Beautiful! So many colors!”

  •      The two brothers Joe and Martin are fighting at the dinner table for the umpteenth time. Dad, tired after a tough day at work and still tense, explodes and grounds them for the rest of the day. When he has calmed down a bit, he decides to go upstairs and talk to the boys. “Hey, you guys. I’m sorry I lost it. No matter how bad you behave, I don’t want to treat you like that.”

  •      A mother of two small, zappy kids arranges for a sitter to come in every Wednesday afternoon. She knows that if she relies on just herself the entire day, she’ll get snappy. With the sitter present the pressure on her is less and she is better able to be the patient mom she has pledged to be and not be swept away by negative emotions.

     A mother who does not have insight in herself and who responds to a child by saying: “I could do a much better job” or “I am not in the mood for drawings” when her child shows her his drawing, is on the same developmental level as the child. Having insight in herself not only means that she is able to observe her own behavior and responses, but that in addition she is able to direct her responses at will. She is able to put her own agenda on hold for a bit in order to choose the response that forms a positive contribution to the child’s development as well as to their relationship.

     As for the third example of the mother and her lively offspring, should she not have gained insight in herself, she might easily have gotten a burn-out due to the parenting demands placed on her. Fortunately, she has insight in herself and the situation she is in and is able to take appropriate measures pro-actively.

     We, parents, are lucky in a way. The new and unexpected love we have felt well up inside when our child was born is a storehouse from which we can draw during our parenting years. Our call on love will cut both ways: not only our children benefit when we relate to them from a place of love, but we ourselves do, too. Love as the basis for communication allows the work of our hands to express the love we hold in our hearts. As we adapt to our growing, changing children, and take on the challenge of expressing our love in new ways, our own spirituality deepens and grows.

     In part 3 of this series (Constructive Communication With Kids) we will look at various every-day type child-rearing situations  and we will discuss how aspects of love serve as inspiring starting points in our communication with kids.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Constructive Communication With Kids Series, part 1: In the Beginning

A new baby is born. Snugly cradled in mommy’s arms it is busy adjusting to its new environment. Both mom and dad look deeply into the baby’s eyes, smile, and speak to their newborn in soft, gentle voices as they caress its cheeks and little hands. When the baby suddenly grabs hold of a parent’s finger, mom and dad both gladly welcome the gesture as a symbol of connection.

From day one parents and children exchange messages. When the little one starts crying and mommy lifts him from the crib, communication has started: the baby sends a message (cries) and the mother responds (takes her out of the crib). Should the baby quiet down, the mother then knows her message has arrived and the contents of her message match the baby’s need. With this simple exchange a communication channel has come into being that will connect parent and child through the years that follow.
While spontaneous and knee-jerk reaction just happen, constructive communication doesn’t; it is not a given. Constructive communication is communication with the intent of contributing positively to the experience of the one receiving the message. It is a conscious choice. Often this conscious choice happens quite naturally. Your parental instincts will guide you or you've learned to trust your intuition. However, it is not always easy to consciously choose to send a constructive message when fatigue, irritation or old patterns direct you in the opposite direction. The importance of developing constructive ways to communicate with your kids cannot be overestimated. Why? Because the quality of your communication with your kids to a large extent determines the quality of your relationship with them. Where love is the heart of the parent-child-relationship, constructive communication is the rhythmically beating coronary artery that connects parent and child. Both the loving heart and the life-giving artery are indispensable in good relationships. No matter how much you love your child, if you allow the communication between the two of you to falter, your relationship will stagnate. 
It is the parents’ primary task to guarantee the quality of communication. They are after all the ones who have been able to develop insight and self-control through the years, qualities needed to communicate constructively. Children have only just arrived; they still have to get used to everything: circumstances, relationships, skills, etc.
The family in a way is like a laboratory for children. In its safe setting they are able to express feelings and developmental impulses. The inner world of a growing child is highly active, processing all kinds of stimuli. Consequently, they have to experiment in order to make sense of all the information received. As kids grow older they will bring into this family setting a variety of influences of the outside world in order to test and assess them in this safe circle. With failing communication at home, the door is open for misunderstanding and misinterpretation of behavior. These easily lead to grudges and bitterness. At precisely the moment when children are experimenting independently with new behavior they need their parents’ loving, clear and constructive feedback. They count on it and should they not receive it for whatever reasons, the communication channel  gets clogged. Parents and children start to lose touch with each other and can only guess as to the motive of their actions. Gradually mutual understanding will erode, and with it the willingness to empathize - a vital ingredient in family relationships.
However, it is never too late to adjust and remedy the situation. Blockages in communication can be dissolved applying the principles of sound communication. (Dr. Thomas Gordon has done excellent work in the field of communication.)

To create some clarity into the subject of communication, let's explore it. What happens when people are communicating? In the drawing below the four numbers indicate the elements that determine communication. (1) represents the person initiating contact. The information (2) travels along the chosen channel (3) in order to arrive at the recipient (4).

This picture clearly shows that when one of phones (1, 4) is not functioning properly, the quality of communication is affected. For instance, when a teenager is feeling somewhat blue, a simple request like: “Would you mind helping me for a second,” will be received entirely differently than when she is feeling fine. In addition, communication will falter when the choice of the channel (3) is not fitting the situation: a letter, even when written in the finest handwriting, is not a suitable channel of communication for a baby. In short, an optimal exchange of information relies on two active and receptive parties, as well as a channel that serves both parties adequately. If that is the case, you can count on the message (2) being transferred as intended.
Suppose you are the properly functioning cell phone 1. You choose a channel (for instance: calling over your shoulder) and you send a message to your child: “Please wash your hands before dinner.” Your child receives the message and responds: “All right, mom,” and washes up. This will go right a hundred times, until, one day, your child will ignore your request. Elements 1, 2 and 3 have remained the same: you (1) haven’t changed, nor have the message and the channel (2 and 3). Element 4 is suddenly different. The child (4), for whatever reason, has decided not to respond in the familiar way. Naturally, your attention focuses automatically on the one element in the communication chain that has changed, your child, and you try to bring it back to its old shape: “Hey you, wash up, please”, or “Listen to me!” Even if you’re successful in bringing about the expected response, chances are friction and irritation have been created on both sides as well. Something apparently has gone wrong.

Next week in this space we will have a look at what options you, as a parent and care-giver, have when you notice that the recipient in the communication chain, your child, has changed.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Spiritual Tools Series, part 4: Moving In and Stepping Back

Last week in this space we talked about the benefits of being ‘fully present’ with your children. I explained that being ‘fully present’ means that you are able to focus fully on your children’s world, their circumstances and their well-being; that you let their needs take priority over other needs, and that you are accessible to them no matter what, relating to them in a way they understand. Today I would like to explore this principle of being ‘fully present’ a bit more, for, as you will soon see, it is part of an important spiritual tool called “Moving In and Stepping Back.”
But let me first reassure you. It is not necessary to commit to being ‘fully present’ 100 % of the time. I’m not even sure that that would be desirable. However, the ability to switch to ‘fully present’-mode at will is a great skill that will benefit both yourself and your kids.

The thing I’d like to focus on here is the quality of your attention when you are ‘fully present’. Obviously, being ‘fully present’ requires your full attention. When you’re changing your baby’s diaper, for instance, you can’t be ‘fully present’ when at the same time you’re watching a show or keeping track of messages on your smart phone. In short, ‘fully present’ means focusing 100 % of your attention on the situation you’re in, and on the people and aspects that are part of it. It’s as if you use a camera’s telephoto lens to zoom in, noticing all
the little details and taking them in. In a way, you infuse the here and the now with your presence. You are no longer ‘on automatic’ - you're fully alert in the here and now. That’s what being ‘fully present’ really means.
Now comes the next step. While keeping your attention fully focused on the present moment you mentally step back and observe what’s happening. It’s as if deep inside of you there is a quiet, contemplative aspect that is able to watch the busy-in-the-now-aspect while it’s doing whatever it’s doing. It’s a simultaneous movement in two directions; as you move deeper in, you also move further back. From this new vantage point you observe all the details of the situation, the dynamics of it, and your feelings about it. By stepping back this way you create space around the activity and around the people and things that are part of it.* Stepping back allows you to truly see the needs, the drives and the expectations involved, and to quietly disentangle from them. And it is this space, thus created, that lets in new light which shines on the present moment and on the people and things that share it with you. It is as if the newly created space has opened doors and invited inspiration to lighten up the present moment.
I’ve chosen the words ‘space’, ‘new light’ and ‘inspiration’ to indicate the sense of clarity and authenticity you will experience. When you inwardly make room while fully focused in the present moment, you invite Life into your experience – Life only needs the smallest space to come bounding in. The following example shows you what I mean.

Mary and her friend Cin, each with their toddler child, are at the local park. They’re busy chatting on a bench on the side of the playground while watching the kids running around.
For some reason, Tracey, Mary’s daughter, can’t seem to fully engage in play; she keeps coming back to mommy. First it’s a button on her shirt that’s bothering her, next there is sand in her shoe, and then she throws herself into Mary’s lap, crying because she scraped her knee, etc. Each and every time, Mary, a kind and caring mother, attends lovingly to her daughter, while trying to keep up the conversation with her friend. But after the fifth interruption she starts to get annoyed at Tracey, and so is her friend. How can the spiritual tool of ‘Moving In and Stepping Back’ help Mary in this situation?
Let’s first look at ‘moving in’, or being ‘fully present’. Up till now, during the various interruptions Mary has divided her attention between her daughter and her friend. But now, with the next interruption - Tracey coming to the bench complaining about a boy teasing her – Mary decides to ask Cin for a minute and she focuses entirely on Tracey. She gets down on Tracey’s level and gently and deliberately connects with her. She notices each and every detail of Tracey as if she’s seeing and hearing her for the first time: she notes her eyes, her mouth, her body language, and her words and intonation. Mary may apply some of the techniques of ‘active listening’ by repeating Tracey’s message in new words so Tracey will know her mother has truly heard her. Mary focuses 100 % of her attention on the moment as it presents itself to her: her daughter and the apparent discomfort she is in. Now comes the second step: stepping back. Mary mentally takes a step back and observes herself focused in the present situation. From this new vantage point she notices the dynamics of it, her daughter’s and her own feelings, the drives and expectations that are part of it. As she senses the space around the situation that is thus created, she is able to disentangle from her knee-jerk response as a caring mother, rushing in to soothe her child, as well as her knee-jerk response of annoyance at being disturbed for the umpteenth time. While she hugs Tracey she inwardly embraces the space enveloping them both, knowing that Life will use it to inspire both her and her daughter.
Can you imagine what this suspended moment in time can mean for a mother and child? It allows old hurts to resolve in a new and unexpected way. It allows developmental aspects to be acknowledged and followed up on. It allows mother and daughter to truly connect and be there for each other.
The outcome of a moment in time thus shared is different in each case. Mary may feel moved (inspired!) to join her daughter in play for a while, or she may sense that Tracey’s needs are best met when she allows her to sit in mommy’s lap for a while. Whatever the specific action taken, the key is: Mary is willing to embrace the situation with her whole being (she moves in) and to open up to new and inspired ways to view it (she steps back).
And what about her friend Cin? Well, Cin finds herself in a first row seat from where she witnesses the way the spiritual tool of “Moving In and Stepping Back” enables Mary to love and care for her daughter in a unique and authentic way. After Tracey’s needs have been met and her confidence restored, Cin and Mary will have plenty of time to resume their conversation and catch up without any further interruptions.

Does all this sound a bit theoretical and distant to you? My advice would be to try it and experience it for yourself. If you do, please let me know about it. I would love to hear from you!

* Eckhart Tolle speaks of the space experienced when you are fully in the present moment: "Suddenly there's an inner space around it which frees you from the limitation of the form."

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Best Possible Gift

The other day a colleague at work and I were talking about high school graduation, not a surprising topic for this time of year. We both noticed that some kids seem to be able to navigate well upon leaving school and home, while others don’t fare so well at all. And we wondered about the deeper causes of this. At one point she remarked that someone had once told her that, generally speaking, kids who can hear their parents laughing on the couch in the living room while they themselves are safely tucked in bed, will be okay. That’s quite an intriguing statement.

But is it true? My pediatrician at the time when my kids were toddlers, certainly seemed to think so. He had the following saying on the wall of the waiting room, for all to read:

“The greatest gift a father can give to his kids, is to love their mother.”

Both my colleague and my former pediatrician are pointing to the same thing: when parents truly love each other, care for one another and enjoy each other’s company, so much the better for the kids. Also in situations where parents have split up: if they manage to be considerate and kind to each other, they save their kids the agony of divided loyalties.

And that’s not all. I’d like to take this one step further: the prospects of flourishing under the care of someone who is able to temporarily set their own  issues aside are much higher compared to a situation where the caregiver is absorbed in their own thoughts and problems. 

 I’m not talking about putting the children center stage and spoiling them; I’m talking about being fully present with the children during the time you’re together. ‘Fully present’ means you focus on their world, their circumstances, their well-being; you let their needs take priority over other needs; you are accessible to them no matter what and you relate to them in a way they understand. (Authors Mylan and Jon Kabat-Zinn as well as Scott Rogers speak of mindful parenting, which is exactly the same thing.)

Newly sprouted buds fare best when shielded from harsh influences for a while. Likewise kids fare best when shielded from adult issues and concerns that are beyond their ability to grasp and deal with.

If you and the children’s other parent are able to communicate with each other respectfully you give them a boost in their development. Should you  be in the happy circumstance where the two of you love each other and can share fun moments together, they stand to gain even more. If, on top of that, you are fully present with the children in your care , you are giving your children the best possible gift.  

Monday, June 24, 2013

Confident Kids

What parent doesn’t want their kids to be confident? We all do, there’s no doubt about that. So how come that some kids grow up feeling and being confident while others don’t? Is it all nature, to the exclusion of nurture? I don’t believe it is.

Genetics – nature – undoubtedly plays a major role in a person’s ability to build confidence. Does that mean that parents have to stand by helplessly and just observe? Absolutely not. The environment in which a child grows up – nurture – has a say as well. Since parents are the major force in a developing child’s environment, there is quite a bit they can do to instill confidence in their kids.

Let’s first explore the term confidence. According to The Free Dictionary confidence denotes “a feeling of emotional security resulting from faith in oneself. Confidence is a firm belief in one's powers, abilities, or capacities” It quotes Eleanor Roosevelt as saying: "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face".

In essence then, confidence is a mental strength, that builds through experience. As much as genetics may account for the proclivity towards developing confidence, it is experience that calls it forth and strengthens it. When we meet people for the first time we can often gauge a person’s confidence; we sort of sense it exuding from their personality or become aware of their total lack of it. On the physical level confidence may manifest in a straight back, a bold stance, a controversial statement, etc. These outer appearances show “a firm belief in one’s powers, abilities, or capacities”. 

Taking confidence one step up we come to the spiritual level. There it turns into faith. What exactly is faith? According to The Free Dictionary faith denotes a “strong or unshakable belief in something, esp without proof or evidence”.  How interesting. Whereas confidence in the mental realm builds on experience, in other words on the evidence of past occurrences, faith in the spiritual realm is not dependent on evidence at all. It rests on an inner knowing.

Parents are the primary role models for their kids when it comes to confidence and faith. We’ll talk about faith and parenting in this space at some future time. Let’s focus now on how to foster confidence in your kids.

Kids get confidence from experience. At times they need to be in situations that are a bit scary in order to build inner strength. Parents may be so busy nurturing their children, that they lose sight of this requirement. When a parent senses that their child is scared, the knee-jerk response is to take over and to protect the child from possible harm. As parents we need to think twice in such situations. We need to assess the risk of potential harm involved and then decide: step in and take over in order to neutralize the scary situation, or allow the child to face their fear, while exuding confidence towards the child so they can borrow some of ours. This can play out in any type of daily-life situation, such as climbing a jungle gym, asking a teacher for some extra help, or driving on the freeway for the very first time. (You might enjoy watching this 3 mins. instructional video in which Dr Randall Hyde talks about fostering confidence in kids.)

When, in a given situation, we decide that the child needs to face their fears, it is paramount that we lend them our confidence. Letting them face their fear on their own is cruel and will backfire. They need us to give them confidence in order for them to build it themselves. If we cannot muster enough confidence, even though we know the child is perfectly capable of coping with the situation, it’s better to remove ourselves from their presence than for our anxiety to affect them. They will sense our ambiguity and become insecure.

I remember when our second son Jesse was small he used to love to climb the playground structures to the very top. He clearly needed to explore the climbing frames to the fullest and there was soft bark all around. I rationally knew he was capable of handling the climb, yet I felt very anxious seeing him so high up. It was then that I decided to inwardly say a quick prayer, affirming my faith that he was in God’s hands no matter what, and outwardly turning away from the scene and forcing my attention elsewhere. The only time he ever fell was from the lowest branch of a tree in our back yard, 3’ off the ground, after a climb that had taken him above roof top level. (I didn’t see this, but I know it is true for he later told me what the street looked like from up high …)

In order for a child to develop confidence it is crucial for them to practice facing little fears on the basis of the confidence the parent instills in them. If we are over-protective we may risk creating a need in the child at a later time to seek out exciting confrontations in order to gain confidence on their own, confrontations we might not have chosen for them at all.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The time-out technique for effective discipline

Kids want to behave, they really do. They absolutely want to please their parents and caregivers. So how come they don’t always act nicely? It’s because we, their parents and caregivers, have not done a good job at communicating to them the boundaries of behavior that is acceptable. Once they know those boundaries, they will want to stay within them most of the time. Of course, there will be instances when they will challenge the boundaries for various reasons. They forget, or they might, for instance, want to know if a new type of behavior is within or without the acceptable area. At other times they might want to make sure that they have explored the full range of possible acceptable behaviors; after all, it would be a waste to let some type of behavior go unused when it’s perfectly acceptable. And lastly, they may just want to make sure you’re paying attention. Whatever the reason for challenging the boundaries of behavior, children need their parents and caregivers to be alert and explicit.

The reality TV show Supernanny has done a great job in explaining how effective a time-out on the ‘naughty step’ or ‘naughty chair’ can be when it comes to communicating to your children where the boundaries of behavior lie. Especially for young kids the time-out technique works beautifully; I can heartily recommend it. 

Why is it so effective? The answer is three-fold: the technique is effective because it works on three levels of our being: the physical, the mental and the  spiritual level. On the physical level the time-out on the naughty chair or step literally restricts the out-of-bounds behavior the child was displaying, be it shouting, hitting or bullying. It effectively stops their unacceptable behavior instantly.

          On the mental level the time-out on the naughty chair allows the child time to reflect on what has just occurred. They will think back on what they did and make the connection with the parent’s response. Kids truly want to please us, their parents and caregivers. We shouldn’t hesitate in letting them know how they can please us, and support their exploration of the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Kids need practice in recognizing that area and our firm guidance will help them tremendously by shortening the time needed to adjust, and by limiting unnecessary irritation on both sides. During the time-out the child will make the connection between the unacceptable behavior and the time spent in time-out, just as the Supernanny youtube clip shows.

What happens on the spiritual level when a child is disciplined through the time-out method cannot be overestimated. The key words here are: respect and harmony. The out-of-bounds behavior is deemed unacceptable primarily because it has violated respect one way or the other. A gentle, respectful and immediate interruption by the adult, followed by the child’s self-reflection, paves the way for respectful exchanges among all involved. In the new situation harmony is restored and love between parent and child can again flow freely.

When my children were little the time-out technique was used consistently. Ours was a slightly different take on the trusted principle. In our family room we had a set-up with two easy chairs and a table in-between. On that table I had placed a plastic box full of picture books from the local library. Once a week we would visit the library and the kids were encouraged to choose several books each, to take home. During the week, we’d snuggle up in the chairs and I’d read stories to the kids, and encourage them to read or look at pictures on their own as well. This little corner associated with fun time together was our time-out corner as well. During a time-out my kids were allowed to take out a book and quietly read or look through it. I reckoned they knew instantly why the time-out was appointed and the reading seemed to calm them down. More often than not, they’d forget they were actually doing a time-out and after ten or fifteen minutes they’d ask me if they could get out of the time-out, and of course they could.

Even though this practice doesn’t follow the experts’ advice to the letter, it did meet our needs in a wonderful way. Being put in a time-out instantly made clear that boundaries had been crossed, and so there was no need for either one of us to become emotional about it. The child in question just took the measure as a piece of information to process and incorporate. The fresh supply of library books would often take the edge off the punishment, hastening the restoration of harmony between us.

Taking the time-away-from-things one step further, people in general can benefit tremendously from taking a time-out occasionally, not just kids. Many times in life we may be in situations that we can't fully oversee, where we focus too much on the details or on our own precious little role in it and we can't see the forest for the trees. Being able to step back and observe may prove to be an invaluable help in getting a broader perspective. Letting go of our hold on a specific issue may create space that allows new opportunities to become visible. The time-out technique, originally introduced as a disciplinary tool, may very well prove to be a life-long skill to reflect and gain perspective.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Can you read me a story, please?

Today a fellow blogger sent me the link to an article published on the web regarding the effects of reading to children. Apparently, recent research findings show that parental reading to children increases reading and other cognitive skills at least up to the age of 10-11.

     This news cannot come as a shock to any parent, grandparent, teacher or care-giver who has experienced the intimacy and warmth that accompany a story read together. As a one-time avid reader to children myself, it would not surprise me at all if one day research will show the extent to which reading to children not only benefits the children being read to, but the ones doing the reading as well.

     In order to understand why reading out loud to kids benefits all involved, let’s analyze this experience a bit from the following three perspectives: the physical, the mental and the spiritual perspective.

     The most important aspect of reading to a child from the physical point of view is the sharing of space: the reader and the child, snug and cozy in the corner of the couch, the reader holding the book, the child... its breath! Often the child will be nestled in the crook of the arm of the reader. Even if no word is spoken, the sharing of space in this direct, intimate way is bound to have a positive effect on both.

     On the mental level the main aspect is also sharing: the emotions the author calls forth in the story are experienced by both the reader and the child. Laughter and sadness, wonder and excitement – in their sharing they take on a deeper glow.

     When considering the spiritual aspects of reading a story to a child, the creative and communicative aspects become apparent. For a story to come to life, the reader needs to re-create the plot line and enliven the highlights in their own, authentic way. The child re-creates the story in its own mind, following the cues from the reader. Before long, the reader will adjust and fine-tune their reading style in response to the child’s feed-back, and they will re-create the story together. Due to this two-way, interactive re-building of the story, reading to a child is a highly creative, cooperative and harmonious experience. 

     Last but not least, reading to a child transcends the day-to-day reality of life with kids. It lifts both the reader and the listener to a new level of cooperation, where the small selves are left behind. I know from experience that reading to a child not only benefits the child’s cognitive skills, but due to the higher cooperative level it achieves, it calms and centers the child. Being centered and calm - conditions for the development of a stable personality.

     Telling stories to children and reading to a child are time-proven ways to connect. As is always the case when people truly and authentically join in an experience, when parent and child read together they both stand to benefit. In fact, they might gain more than any scientist will ever be able to measure.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Spiritual Tools Series, part 3: Give me patience and give it to me now!

Last week in this space we talked about the principle of ‘giving out is taking in’. We first looked at the example of baking an apple pie: how the person baking and serving apple pie is the one most immersed in the essence of it. Then we looked at a parent’s presence during a daily routine such as bathing time. We saw how the attitude of allowing and accepting created a wonderful model for their child to emulate when their time comes to be patient with someone else. That example led to my promise to show you the spiritual gift patience has to offer all who dare embrace it.

Haven’t we all, parents and care givers, sighed “Lord, give me patience, and give it to me fast!” at one time or another? We all know intuitively how beneficial patience is and how much we need it; yet, it remains an elusive quality, extremely hard to incorporate and manifest. I have yet to meet a person who could claim patience as entirely their own. In order to get a grip on patience, it may be worth our while to explore it a little more.

In the Merriam-Webster dictionary we find the following as one of the explanations of the word patient’: steadfast despite opposition, difficulty, or adversity.. But there is no mention of any benefit in being patient. Let’s delve a little deeper. You may have heard the statement: “In your patience possess ye your souls,” taken from the New Testament (Luke 21:19). It is attributed to Jesus who is admonishing his friends to be steadfast in times of uncertainty and crisis. What exactly does that mean, ‘to possess your soul in patience’? How are ‘patience’ and ‘knowing one’s soul’ connected? And what is the role of the word ‘possess’ in this context?

Again, the Merriam-Webster dictionary comes in handy. The first line in the Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word possess’ is: to have and hold as property; own. The word ‘own’, as in ‘your own’ is interesting. Together with ‘to have and to hold’ this points in the direction of: getting to know intimately. From this perspective the quoted expression would mean: “In patience you will get to know your soul”. It would be a gift, wouldn’t it, to get to know your soul a little better. But then, how does patience help you to get to know your soul better? What exactly is it that patience does to you that makes you get into touch with your soul more?

Let’s go back to the example of children’s bath time, the daily routine at the end of a busy day, when parents are eager to get on with it in order to have some quiet time alone. Often, being patient in this type of situation means putting your personal agenda on hold for a bit, while you go through the motions the situation demands. You may have sort of zoomed-out a bit and your half absent-mindedness allows you to be with the kids, help and assist them where necessary, and in the pace that is required, while inwardly chewing over far more pressing items on your agenda, such as yesterday’s meeting or tomorrow’s presentation. While your calm assistance is to be preferred over a hurried and irritable attitude, it does not begin to mine the gold the field of patience has to offer.

The art of identifying and receiving the gift true patience holds, requires that you are fully present in the moment – the very moment which a minute before made you decide to half zoom out and go through the motions. You interrupt the stream of consciousness that has taken possession of your mind, and instead you tune in completely on what’s going on now. There is a reason why you are at this place at this moment. And that reason has to do with what you can offer this moment. Look deep inside and identify a spiritual quality that you resonate with, such as hope, peace, harmony, gentleness, joy, beauty, love, etc. Now find a way to manifest this quality in the situation at hand. An example might clarify what I mean.

Suppose you’ve identified ‘beauty’ as a spiritual quality that you resonate with especially. How can you manifest beauty in the ritual of children’s bath time? Focus on the beauty that is a child, and on the beauty of play. Surround yourself with beauty in the bathroom, such as pretty towels, fancy soap. Engage your child and together create a beautiful soap-sud-scape on the bathroom wall. Put on some lovely music. Lots of possibilities.

Another example would be the waiting room at a pediatrician’s office. Instead of  getting annoyed or zooming out, grab this opportunity to turn within and choose a spiritual quality you could focus on. Suppose this time you choose ‘hope’. In what way could you manifest hope in an ordinary doctor’s waiting room? Your child, no doubt, has been looking around the place and has found something that stirred an interest, be it a poster on the wall, or some toys in the corner. To express hope you could find a way to encourage your child to discover the world. Perhaps you could look at the poster together, fantasizing and imagining. Or you could read a book to your child or build a tower together.

In both instances, bath time and beauty – waiting  room and hope,  your attitude and action are connected to your inner spiritual compass that you have deliberately set. Your attitude and action have welled up from the level of the soul and are infusing the three dimensional world with spiritual light. When your hands express the music of your heart, you’ll start to understand what this getting to know your soul-business is all about. You’re no longer just a parent who’s willing to put their own agenda on hold for the sake of their child, you’ve become a truly patient parent, meaning: you’ve become an inspiration, both to yourself and your child, because the intent of your soul is shining through in what you do, for all to see and enjoy. And that is the gift patience holds for all of us, if only we know where to look!

(ps: My book A Parent’sToolbox for Spiritual Growth contains an easy to follow twelve-step system to help you identify the spiritual qualities that particularly appeal to you.)