My Kids Grow and So Do I


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.