My Kids Grow and So Do I


Monday, June 9, 2014

The Gift of Nothing

What to do when your child is facing a challenge that is clearly theirs to tackle? There you are - literally there with them and for them - and there's nothing you can offer, because rationally you know the battle is theirs to fight. It's hard to resist the temptation to pre-digest the issue for them, bolster their confidence with what can only come across as commonplaces, or smother them in accounts of your own experiences that can never be similar enough to make any sense.

     When you're faced with nothing tangible to offer your child, you may feel quite powerless. Yet, this seeming void carries within it the seed of something extremely powerful: the light of your presence. It takes courage to plunge into that unknown space and retrieve that seed of light. But when you do, the light thus accessed may turn out to be of far greater value than any specific support you might have settled for otherwise. Both of you will benefit from the greatest gift you can offer the other person: the light of your loving presence.

     Beth Raps, today's guest writer, explores her role as a mother as her 15-year-old daughter is taking her final exams. Beth is a blogger, coach, consultant and founder of  RAISING CLARITY, a consultancy dedicated to cultivating abundance in noble causes, people and organizations.

The Gift of Nothing - Mom the Coach Learns How to Help Her Daughter Study for Finals
by Beth Raps

              What a landmark: my daughter's first final exam week! She is 15. This is our first year of public school, and I am still enough of a homeschooling mom to make helping her study for finals a learning experience in itself. This post unwraps the layers of learning for me in what I tried to teach my daughter those few days of preparing for finals.

              At first I congratulated myself she had asked for my help, and felt sure I had a lot to offer as a professional coach. After all, "I teach this stuff." I saw her request as an invitation to model self­organization, self­motivation, self­initiation. I am strong in those areas; they are some of what I teach in my coaching and consulting practice.

              The ensuing days however taught me I had a lot to learn about giving myself while giving up control, and continuing to give when I thought I had nothing left­­, so that what I gave was the "gift of nothing."* More about that at the end of this post.

              I guessed our working together might also be a chance for me to learn flexibility, patience, and humility, as my daughter and I are each strong characters. I anticipated needing those qualities to go the distance with her so I did not just give up in frustration when she rejected my ideas, or projected stress onto me through angry words and insinuations that (when she's calm) she completely avoids.

              But I didn't realize how far out on a limb personally I would have to go with her to get her to maximize her immense potential as a student. I didn't realize how this would stretch the creativity I thought was already amply stretched by my clients. I didn't anticipate how vulnerable that would leave me.

              I had to get unusually creative with my daughter as she and I played out our dance of power, because usually, we are collaborative. And we are lucky: school is easy for her and she already works hard.

              But the overlay of her stress and extremely high standards (internalized from me but now solidly a part of her self­expectations) began to work against her ability and my smugness. I had to learn all over again about timing, ­­what of my tools to use, when ­­to try to come back to her with new ideas for how to stay mentally fresh while packing her mind full.

              Yet because of self­reproach, often she rejected tools I thought were "perfect."  Fortunately, love carried me through the exploration even more than humility, patience, and flexibility did. Love took me beyond my edge of creativity with other clients. And yes, it was to my advantage that that was also how I saw my daughter: as a client I was serving. This means I gave her the respect I give the adults I work with. It helped me cultivate some detachment about her process being her process. It put me in a supporting rather than a leading role as I had had during our homeschooling years. It re­sourced me in how much I respect her intelligence, her self­awareness, and her organic impetus to excel.

              At many points, as we designed her study plan, implemented it, and then had to re­evaluate and redesign it, I felt I had nothing to offer her. And this was yet another deeper layer of learning for me. Having nothing to offer her felt terrible.

              I began to see that not having all the answers didn't mean I was failing my child. It  put me in the same boat as my child: she doesn't have all the answers either for the material she is studying or for how to study it.

              In a way, that was the first "gift of nothing." We are in this together, in more ways than I realized. And yet there is a limit to how far we can go in the same boat: I can't take her finals! At a certain point, I can only make sure she has both oars in the water, and say, "Good luck!"

              Allowing myself to be vulnerable made me much more creative, although at first it just felt weak! (I have those high expectations of myself too!) I became more willing to get in the boat with her­­, making even more space than usual for her to freak out, to cry, and realizing not only she but I needed to take breaks (timed when she did, just like they say about timing your naps for when your newborn naps). Toward the end of our time, I could sort of smell when things were going awry, and ask her to stop and take a break rather than take one later at its scheduled time. When she balked, I told her I needed one, and got up from the table. I wasn't proud of my limitations but I noticed I could maintain my inner peace if I observed them.

              I sense that somewhere in the future, this ability to "smell" when things are going awry will be useful to her and help her, as it did me,  override the schedule to respect the inner self. We ask so much of this inner self! It is not its limitations I mean to emphasize, but its rhythm, its own dance that we can follow if we truly want it to lead us.

              It feels like "the gift of nothing" was my greatest gift to both my daughter and me, ­­allowing me to not­know, not­do, not­act when it was needed.

*Inspired by the beautiful Patrick McDonnell picturebook, The Gift of Nothing.


  1. Johanna, it is so exciting to see my words here. I have respected--ok, I admit it: revered--you and your writing for so long! This post is one side of a two-sided experience. The other side was also published today--on my blog, "Clarity Tool: Chunking Up a Big Project." It's here:
    When my daughter and I began working together on this most recent project, I thought the hard part was showing another person how I think about chunking up a big project like studying for many finals over the course of a week. (For a 15-year-old, I think, a week is a long time!)
    Not so! The hardest part was what I described in this post I wrote for you. Thank you, Johanna!!!!!

  2. You're welcome, Raising Clarity. It's an honor having you on board. And I'm sure you'd do the same for someone else :-)

  3. Beth and Johanna, thank you for sharing these words about the magic of doing nothing...:)... "the light of my presence shines on this situation" : I am gonna try it ! Wonderful!

  4. Congratulations to our NEW Blog of the Week!