Sunday, March 10, 2013

Seeing Through the Spit in My Eyes

In this series of posts, I explore my personal challenges with each of the principles of unconditional parenting. These personal accounts run in parallel with a series of information-based posts where I explain each of the 13 basic principles of unconditional parenting as described in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting. Want to start from the beginning? Click here for the Introduction to Unconditional Parenting with links to all posts in the series.

This post is related to Principle #5: Change How You See, Not Just How You Act
Photo credit chevalgal of stock.xchng

I had a parenting breakthrough. One of those moments when apparent disaster turns into gold, right before your eyes. When you see yourself go from wits end to rejoicing, when you see your child go from deranged fellow to gentle sweetness held in your arms. 

It happened when Munchkin started spitting at me. On me. In my face. And laughing about it. Then, when I got upset about it, he'd say "I won't spit anymore" then turn around and do it again, giggling hysterically. Not seeing clearly, I initially succumbed to the very visceral reaction this stirred in me. Degradation. Deceit. Humiliation. I yelled. I even had the urge to punish him. That intense urge was so eye-opening that I knew I had to dig deeper. What was I missing? What did I not see?

I knew that he was imitating an aggressive child he'd had recent contact with. I knew that he had a stockpile of emotions to unleash. I knew this isn't how my son normally behaves, even when he's acting out. Still, in those trying moments I failed to see anything but a mean little boy who was treating me hurtfully. I failed to see the son I know. That blindness was more painful than any emotion I experienced from being spit on.

Then I rediscovered Playlistening. I opened my eyes and took a new look at this little spitter flailing in bed next to me. Instead of a little sh*t, I saw a little boy who wanted to connect with me, but who didn't feel quite comfortable enough to do so. I saw a little boy who needed my help, who wanted to be close. The next time he splattered me, I turned on my game face.

"Is there a sprinkler in here? Hey, it got me in the eye!" I let the game continue for a few minutes before I set the limit. It was bedtime so I had an easy out.

"OK, it's time to stop that game and settle down," I told him gently but seriously. He stood up, giggling. I brought him down with a firm embrace, saying I gotcha, I gotcha. His resistance subsided and we fell into bed together. He let out a few wimpers and whines, then rolled over into my arms and fell asleep within five minutes.

As I lay there smelling his hair, my eyes were open. 
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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Change How You See, Not Just How You Act (Unconditional Parenting Principle #5)

Child 1
Child 1 (Photo credit: Tony Trần)

One of the great challenges of parenting unconditionally is that it usually requires a fundamental shift in thinking. In addition to the difficulty of finding parenting tactics outside of rewards and punishment, we are faced with the reality that we must change how we see, not just how we act. This, the fifth Principle ofUnconditional Parenting, may be pivotal in a parent’s ability to successfully use this gentle parenting style.

The decision to give up using rewards and punishment may actually be quite easy, especially after considering all the evidence put forth by Kohn.  However, the practice of unconditional parenting isn’t simply the omission of the carrot and the stick. We must also let go of the idea that children’s inappropriate behaviors are violations that deserve retribution. We have to let go of many expectations and learn to resolve dissatisfaction. It does little good to refrain from assigning a formal punishment but still exhibit contempt or disappointment towards the child, either through overt verbal proclamations ("you messed up") or non-verbal body language (a disapproving grimace). Instead, we are asked to respond with a problem-solving attitude. We are asked to interpret a child’s behavior with empathy and openness. Rather than looking for ways to bend and mold a child’s behavior, we look for “teachable moments” through which we can work together. This interaction is guided by compassion and respect rather than personal will.

As with any other aspect of parenting, changing our viewpoint is much easier said than done.  Cultural messages, comments from well-meaning friends and family, and our own history all play a role in how easily we take on an enlightened view of our child’s actions. Moreover, most of us have automated responses that we are unaware of or find difficult to stop. We may be triggered into undesirable responses to our children – responses that we witnessed ourselves as children, even if consciously we abhor those behaviors. During stressful moments, it can be exceedingly difficult to experience anything other than our own hurt, anger, or fear. It can be hard to see our children differently if we are stuck in our own unresolved feelings. The ability to confront one’s own emotional state, to learn to regulate it, and to separate it from our child’s behavior is an essential component to integrating that compassionate view of children into our being. That, of course, is what makes learning to see our children differently so challenging: we must first come to see ourselves more clearly.
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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Relationship Repair Through Physical and Emotional Injury

A toddler girl crying
A toddler girl crying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this series of posts, I explore my personal challenges with each of the principles of unconditional parenting. These personal accounts run in parallel with a series of information-based posts where I explain each of the 13 basic principles of unconditional parenting as described in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting. Want to start from the beginning? Click here for the Introduction to Unconditional Parenting with links to all posts in the series.

I saw the bike’s front tires turn sharply to the left, but Munchkin’s body wasn’t quite ready for it. He went face first onto the concrete. I calmly secured the dog’s leash under my foot and picked up my crying Munchkin boy. My calm evaporated into worry as I saw the blood pouring from his mouth. I grit my teeth as he bled all over the shoulder of my crème-colored hoodie.  For a brief moment I was genuinely more concerned about ruining my favorite Patagonia outerwear than I was for this wailing kid. I indulged my resentment for an instant and found my way out with the thought of Oxy-Clean. That’s motherhood for you. No room for selfish acts of materialism. Given, Munchkin has been excessively histrionic about his bumps and scrapes ever since I had surgery on my arm almost a year ago. But this time his crying was even more hysterical than usual. Let it go, I told myself, grimacing at the burgundy smears appearing on my shoulder.

“I need to get you inside right now,” I told him. I held the thirty-plus pounds of Munchkin in one arm and with the other arm I carried his balance bike and wrestled with the dog leash. Oh, that damn dog! She tugged in the exact opposite direction of where I was headed. By the time we got back to our gate, I was also fighting my own anger at this bump in the morning schedule. When the dog pulled away from the gate, I pulled on her leash a bit too hard and screamed at her to get inside. I know my tone upset Munchkin.  I know my frustration made it worse. Stay calm. I reined myself in and brought the focus to Munchkin. I still had no idea where he was hurt or to what degree.

I held him while he cried for a few moments then set him down on the couch. Everything in my being screamed Emergency! Emergency!  I haven’t always handled his injuries  – or my own – with grace. I was fighting so many internal demons, so many past bad habits, so many bad memories.  I silenced the wily chatter and considered the most sensible action to treat Munchkin.

I rushed to get a wet cloth for Munchkin’s mouth. Against his very vocal complaints, I convinced him to put the cloth to his mouth. The blood cleared enough for me to verify that he’d cut his lip, but I still couldn’t tell about the teeth. The scrape on his knee oozed blood, but seemed minor in comparison. I held him while he sucked on the wet cloth for a bit longer and the bleeding finally stopped.  Then came the eruption.

Munchkin cried. And wailed. And screamed and heaved huge sobs of old.  About five minutes into the crying session I realized there was a good chance we might not make it to the drop-off playdate. I wouldn’t get my morning to myself. I wouldn’t get to apply for that job, work on my new business, or tend to my other obligations. I wouldn’t get to care for myself. That’s motherhood for you.

Quite often my mind jumps to a final, harsh conclusion. How will we ever afford to move out of this tiny apartment?! But something clicked. I remembered the words of Patty Wiplef of Hand In Hand Parenting: crying is emotional cleansing. I was keenly aware that Munchkin had an enormous bag full of painful emotions to unload…a premature birth to parents struggling to fight their own demons without much in the way of social or financial resources. This pain is more than anyone his age should ever have to bear.

I wish I could have listened to my own inner child crying with him, but it took all my strength just to sit and listen. I simply held him close while he howled. I could even hear the difference between the moans of agony and the shrieks of fury. He had it all. I listened to all of it.

Never mind that job. Never mind my plans for the morning. I need to be there for my kid when he most needs me. No one was ever there for me through my childhood anguish and that was perhaps as damaging as the original trauma. So no. This relationship with my son matters more than any golden opportunity that comes up. This is the golden opportunity. The opportunity to stop the cycle, the opportunity to heal and do better by both of us.  I’ve battled the odds and moved mountains before. I’ll find a job and get us out of here. I know I will. But not today. Today, I sit and listen.

After about twenty minutes, the crying suddenly stopped. I hadn’t spoken a word through all of it so I waited for his cue. He asked me about the accident, but when I replied he cried again. After a few minutes sucking on a frozen teething ring (so glad I kept those around!), he asked for the boob. Yes! My most powerful band-aid! His fat lip didn’t seem to bother him enough to deter him so I nursed him for a good half hour. He nearly dozed off, but I know it was just the exhaustion of catharsis.

By the time he finished nursing, it was too late to make the playdate so we went out to buy watercolors. At the store we found Noise Putty, which made us laugh so hysterically that we bought some and brought it home. Even with my well-developed sense of potty humor, I’ve never laughed quite so hard over fart noises before. I don’t think Munchkin had either.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Putting the Parent-Child Relationship First (Unconditional Parenting Principle #4)

In this series of posts, I summarize the 13 basic principles of unconditional parenting as described in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting. I include insights and interpretations gleaned from other resources. The information-based posts run in parallel with a series of personal accounts of how I attempt to apply these principles in my own mothering. Want to start from the beginning? Click here for the Introduction to Unconditional Parenting and for links to all posts in the series.

Kohn's Unconditional Parenting Principle #4: Put the relationship First

As we saw with the third principle of Unconditional Parenting, it's essential to have a vision of where we are going in our parenting journey. One vital aspect to this long view of parenting is to put the relationship with our child first. Placing a premium on the relationship itself provides the structure and freedom to parent with unconditional love. Our role as parent and offspring is not just as leader and follower, dominant and submissive, or authority figure and citizen. Instead, it is a partnership in which the parent is the primary guide and teacher, and often the willing student and listener.

Putting the relationship with our children first means taking the time to consider their viewpoint. It means taking pause when we become upset with them. The challenge is to return our focus to the relationship, rather than just the 'acting out' or irritating behaviors of our children. When making decisions about discipline, we have to consider whether our actions will negatively affect the relationship. This doesn't mean that a child must be happy with every parental decision. It does mean that we should consider whether our choices might damage the relationship. Not getting one's way all the time is one thing and kids can learn to cope with that. Feeling rejected, misunderstood, or unheard, however, could very well create rifts in the parent-child relationship.

In many ways, it helps to think about our role as parents in the same we do our other long-term roles, such as in marriage and friendship. If we genuinely care about the lasting relationship, we spend a lot of time and effort on communication, trust, showing respect and gratitude, and working through disagreements. We screw up. We get angry and hurt. We fight. We make amends. We change. We accept. We also love each other, find meaning and connection, laugh and have a jolly good time.

It's not so different with kids. This is not to say that having a partnership with children means letting them do whatever they want. In equitable, adult relationships, we aren't allowed to do whatever we want, either. Don't mistake partnership for permissiveness.

Having a sound relationship with our children also makes the job of parenting that much easier. When a child has trust, respect, and deep love for a parent -- based on experience, not the biological imperative of being a dependent child -- he becomes easier to guide. Cooperation, communication, and problem-solving are all facilitated by a willingness and sincere desire to interact with the parent. It's no big surprise because adults are the same way. Would you prefer a boss who orders you around or one who treats you with decency?

When the parent-child relationship is strained or broken, however, kids are more likely to "misbehave." Ever notice that when you're stressed, distant, or otherwise not well connected to your child that he becomes harder to deal with? It's not just because your mind and heart are elsewhere or your threshold is low. It's because children can sense a strain on the relationship. Acting out may be the way they ask for help or express their own concerns about the situation. We just have to be willing to listen and pay attention. We have to work a little harder to get what it is they're saying - or screaming, whining, singing, crying, or shouting hysterically with laughter.

The good news is that if we make the relationship with our kids a top priority, then the relationship can recover from the many mistakes we are likely to make as parents (and yes, we all make mistakes). Smaller problems often magically resolve themselves after we take the time to connect. Larger issues may take more time and effort, but even those can be repaired if we genuinely care about our relationship.

If we want the loving parent-child relationship to last beyond eighteen years, beyond independence, distance, and differences in adult lifestyles, it's worth making it a priority. Of course, there’s also the intrinsic value of the relationship. Who can deny the transcendent power of holding your little one close in your arms? On many days, that’s enough to fuel the tiring work of parenting. On other days, it’s nice to know that having that core foundation will make parenting just a bit easier.

Do you have the kind of relationship with your child that you’d like to have?

For Further Reading
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