On Parenting, Social and Emotional Learning

You’re Not Alone

As children, we learned to deal with our big emotions by seeing how our parents handled theirs.  My mom chose the “nothing’s wrong so put on a happy face” route, while my dad preferred the “slam a door and punch a hole in the wall” approach.

After trying out both strategies, I gravitated towards my dad’s method.  Not surprisingly, I married a lovely man who followed the approach my mom had modeled.

During the first years of both my children’s lives, I fought a long and lonely battle with postpartum depression.  When life as a new parent became scary or imperfect (which was often), I protected myself by getting angry.

From infancy, my son saw me slam doors and throw things as I tried in vain to discharge the pain, confusion and loneliness I felt inside.  By the time he was 18 months old, he was throwing toys when he got angry.  Door-slamming soon followed.

For the first five years of my son’s life I refused to accept that I – with all my knowledge of child development – was responsible for how my child was reacting to his own pain.  Then one day it finally dawned on me that avoiding responsibility was making both of us slaves to the behavior.

I knew I had to start with my own life, so I took on the challenge of forgiving my parents and myself for my lack of effective emotional coping skills.  Then, I began to study the sources of perfectionism and shame that were causing my pain and driving my reactions.  I started meditating when I could, quit spending time on social media, learned how to set effective boundaries, read all I could about self-regulation and vulnerability, and began taking better care of myself.

As my toolkit grew, I knew I was now ready to help my son.  I didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity.  One night, my six-year-old boy got angry with his dad because it was bedtime and he wouldn’t read him another chapter of “James and the Giant Peach”.  I was downstairs cleaning the kitchen when I heard the bedroom door slam shut.

In the past, my son’s outbursts had angered me because they highlighted my imperfect parenting skills.  I had convinced myself that every thrown toy or slammed door was an indication of just how miserably I was failing as a parent.  However, armed with my new skills and perspective, I knew things could end differently.

I still felt triggered as I walked up the stairs, but I breathed out the anxiety and a question emerged in my mind: “How would I want someone to act towards me if I were feeling rejected and guilty?”  As Brené Brown says, “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice.  In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” 

I found my son sulking on the floor outside his bedroom.  I sat down and gently said, “I heard a door slam.  What’s going on?”

He looked at me with the eyes of a wounded animal.  “Daddy won’t read me another chapter,” he moaned.

I took a breath, then gently recapped: “It’s time for bed and daddy stopped reading, so you got angry and slammed the door.”  He nodded and looked at the floor in shame, bracing for my lecture.  But instead I said, “You know, I’ve done that too.”

He looked up, wide-eyed.  I continued, “I’ve gotten angry, really REALLY angry.  I’ve slammed a lot of doors hoping it would help me feel better.  But then… I still feel angry.”  He nodded and I went on, “And on top of that I feel guilty for slamming the door.”

He didn’t move, but as I put my hand on his back and gently stroked him, I felt the anger leaving his body.  We sat together for a minute, and then I asked, “How do you think you might make things better?”  He shrugged, so I said, “Can I suggest something?”  He nodded.  “Well, maybe you can go back inside, apologize to daddy for slamming the door, and ask him to wake you up extra-early.  That way you have time to read another chapter together before school.  Do you think that can work?”

He thought about it for a bit, nodded and got up.  I hugged him and he bravely walked back into the room.  I heard him apologize and offer the early wake-up suggestion.  I prayed my husband wouldn’t go into lecture mode, and he thankfully responded by agreeing with my son’s idea.

I’ve since had several more opportunities with my son to witness the power of saying “Me too.”  Every time I use the phrase, I see connection overcoming shame. It reminds both of us that we’re all imperfect and it lets him know that he’s never, ever alone.

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On Parenting

Full Bloom

When you’re pregnant, it’s as if you’re handed a seed of unknown origin. You put it in the soil, water it, and give it light. The first seed leaves emerge, and you feel so proud! As the first set of true leaves unfurl, you begin to imagine the possibilities. You’re sure your plant will be a hydrangea, because those are your favorite plants and surely nobody would give you a seed of a plant you don’t like!

But then, much to your surprise, your hydrangea begins to look more and more like a tomato plant. Oh no, tomatoes were never part of your plan! You can choose to be frustrated by your tomato plant; move it into one pot and then another and another, feed it chemical fertilizers, stake it, place it among other hydrangeas in a partly shady area, and pinch off its flowers, all in hopes that it will somehow turn into a hydrangea.

Or, you can observe it. You can notice its delicate yellow flowers, the tiny hairs on its stems, its jagged leaves. You can marvel at the first tiny green tomatoes, and leave it undisturbed where it gets the best sunlight. You can feed it the best organic soil, learn what time of day it likes to be watered, and surround it with other companion plants that attract helpful insects. And you can rejoice when your little tomato plant puts forth luscious, juicy, red fruit. Just as it was meant to do all along.

We don’t get to choose the seed, but we do get to choose how we tend it. What does your seed need in order to blossom? Observe it. It knows.

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My Work

As the daughter of a Buddhist and a healer, I grew up surrounded by messages of “being in the Now”.  But then, somehow, I became entangled in the slimy tentacles of modern life, which seemed determined to drag me away from the present moment.

There was always something I should be doing but wasn’t, because I was busy doing something else that was just as “important”.  If I was loading the dishwasher I was fretting about the next day’s lunches.  If I was working with my students I was thinking about who would take care of Zachary during staff meeting.  If I was grocery shopping I was stressing about the mess I had to deal with at home, the husband who didn’t help enough, or the time I couldn’t take for myself.

This treadmill was so much a part of my life that I didn’t even notice I was on it, running at full speed.  I spent 27 months of my life – and my son and husband’s lives – this way, growing more tired and irritated each day.  Spring Break came, and while I was grateful to spend more time with my son, it was hard to step off the hamster wheel.

Four days into our break, I took Zachary to a children’s store to get some summer clothes.  While I shopped, he settled himself at a low table and quietly played with the wooden toys the store provided.  After I paid, I walked over to where he was sitting and did my best imitation of a peaceful Montessori mom observing her focused toddler.

This charade lasted about a minute, because the reality was that my brain was on hamster-wheel mode, already thinking about getting back home.  To do what, you ask?  NOTHING.  I had nothing planned except putting my son down to nap.  But the tentacles were pulling, and I could feel the treadmill speeding up – time to go, go, GO!

I tried to distract Zach away from his toy, but he declared: “My work.”

“Yes, I see you are playing with that toy, and it’s time to go home,” I said, in my best “I acknowledge your desire, but my needs (obviously neurotic) trump yours (clearly developmental)” tone.

“My work,” he protested again.

“Do you want to walk or would you like me to carry you?” I challenged, consumed with my goal of staying on the treadmill.

“My work!” he cried.  So I picked him up and left the store, oblivious to his protests.

I got him into his carseat, telling myself that his whining and grumbling were due to his need for a nap.  I closed his car door, opened mine, and sat down.  Then, I heard a tiny, defeated voice from the back seat.

“My work…”

With those two words, he hit the emergency stop button on my treadmill and I flew off, slamming into a wall of consciousness.  This child, this tiny person who had only been walking the Earth for two years, was fighting for his right to live in the Now and was teaching me a PROFOUND lesson.  Was I humble enough to accept it?

My throat tightened and I fought back tears, but they came.  Two little words released me from two years of anxiety and self-loathing – of feeling like I wasn’t a good enough mother, wife, teacher, daughter and friend.

I looked back at him and said my own two words: “I’m sorry.”

Then I looked in the mirror and apologized to myself.  And that night I apologized to my husband.

The Buddha said: “Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.”

I used to think my work was being the most capable mom, the most supportive wife, and the most dedicated Montessorian.

Now I understand that my work is to live in the present moment.  Because what else is there but Now?