First Steps

First Steps on the Journey to Conscious Parenting

What I haven’t yet related in this blog is that, initially, I didn’t set out on a journey to change my parenting, rather I set out on the pre-requisite journey – that of healing and learning to love myself…

Five years ago, I was a person crippled by anxiety and fear, by self-doubt, self-loathing and despair.  My relationship with my children was poor, guilt-ridden, exhausting – I yelled at my kids a lot.  I remember my eldest daughter telling me she wished her best friend’s Mom was her Mom because there was never any screaming at her house.  Over the course of a couple of years, as I healed and learned to forgive and to love myself, I was growing in myself a state of inner resourcefulness.  And, it was from this place of inner resourcefulness (self-compassion, self-love), that I was able to take a good, honest look at my parenting behaviours and my relationship with my children.

I mention this, not only to demonstrate the distance it’s possible to travel in a few years, but mainly because if we don’t address our own pain, our own woundedness, we will be sure to unintentionally inflict those same wounds on our children – despite our best intentions to the contrary.  I also mention this because the human spirit is extremely resilient and I’m amazed, humbled and grateful for the manner in which, as I’ve healed, I have been able to create the loving space within myself and within our home for my children’s healing to occur as well.

I think the deepest, most basic wound from which most of us suffer is that of never having been truly ‘seen’ [psychologists call this ‘proximal’ abandonment] and so, having been rejected on the most basic of soul levels, we repress and even attempt to outright murder our own true and authentic self.  This is the disease of disconnect of which I’ve been speaking.  We have lost or murdered our true self because it was never welcomed, it was never honoured, it was never seen [on the contrary, it was overtly suppressed] – by our parents, by our teachers, by our community and THIS is the wound that we inflict again upon our children.  And we do it in so many ways:

  • by cribbing children instead of carrying them or sleeping with them, ignoring their deep need for psycho-emotional bonding and attachment [a need that actually takes precedence over and above the satiation of basic physical needs like the need for food or sleep]
  • by letting our children ‘cry it out’ when studies are now showing children, even up to the ages of four and five, are unable to regulate their own psycho-emotional state and require soothing from a calm adult in order to learn how to properly self-soothe
  • by shaming them for exhibiting the same violent behaviour we unconsciously perpetrate on them on a daily basis
  • by being so busy doing that there is no space for simply being present with oneself, let alone with our children
  • by keeping our children so busy doing there is no space for them to simply be present with themselves
  • by violating our children’s inherent rights to self-ownership and self-expression, leaving no space for the unfolding of their own uniqueness
  • by attempting to control and mold them according to our own idea of what a ‘good’ child is
  • and so, consequently, by continuously violating them physically, emotionally and psychologically.

And we do it because we are so shell-shocked ourselves, because we are so disconnected from the vulnerable inner self that was so violated and shamed when we were children that it went into the deepest of hiding places.  The disconnection is so extreme and it is so ‘normalized’, most of us don’t even realize there is even a healing journey to begin.

And so, of course, I encourage you to begin the journey ‘home’.  It takes immense courage, immense resolve and immense humility.   Give yourself the necessary permission to hold yourself, to dare to be seen, to slow down, breathe out, and take those necessary first steps towards healing…

This is how a better world is birthed.

Resources:

Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype – Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D

Warming the Stone Child: Myths and Stories about Abandonment and the Unmothered Child – Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D {Audio Work}

Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love – Dr. Sue Johnson

http://www.kindredcommunity.com

Wheels of Life: The Classic Guide to the Chakra System – Anodea Judith, Ph.D

EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) Tapping Manual Download (acupressure/tapping to aid in the freeing-up and release of repressed emotions and trauma)

Peter Levine’s Work and Healing Methodologies: http://www.somaticexperiencing.com  and http://www.traumahealing.com/somatic-experiencing/peter-levine.html

Survivors and Partners: healing the relationships of sexual abuse survivors – Paul A. Hansen

Belleruth Nazpartek’s guided imagery for healing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

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Heartening Moments and Painful Realizations on the Path of Conscious Parenting

I mentioned, in one of my past posts, the double standard that permeates our interactions with children, and my new understanding that my children’s ‘poor’ behaviour was simply a reflection of my own.  Here are a couple of heartening moments and painful realizations from my path of conscious parenting.

I started modifying my behaviour in December, 2011.  I expected there to be a time lag between changes in my behaviour and subsequent changes in my children’s behaviour and knew that a great deal of faith in the process would be required.  One of the first bright moments came a couple of months ago, February I think, when Samara, for the first time, said, “Excuse me, I would like to interrupt” instead of barging in on a conversation.  We tend to interrupt our children’s activities often and rudely but then are horrified, angry and embarrassed when they interrupt us rudely in return (that nasty double-standard!)  Three months of quietly and politely asking my children if I could “interrupt them for a moment” is finally ‘paying off’ as they begin to treat me respectfully in return.

Typically, when our children speak to us angrily or rudely or hurtfully we volley the anger, dismissal or hurtfulness right back at them.  How dare they be angry?!  How dare they question us?   How dare they not want to please us?!  However, this anger is typically a very understandable defence against the violation of their basic rights and now gives me pause to stop and consider my own actions.

As I refrain from imposing my will on my children, I’ve also been forced to acknowledge that the ‘normalization’ I witnessed after I first began to ‘allow’ Jasmine to make her own decisions was only her mistrust of the situation. I think that, on a very fundamental level, she didn’t trust I would continue to love her if she were truly herself, if she stopped ‘trying to please’.   Adults like it when children ‘try to please’.  We confuse a child who ‘tries to please’ with a ‘good’ child because a child who ‘tries to please’ validates us.   I think it is very harmful to children in the long run; they risk losing themselves in the pleasing of others.

And so it has been with the passing of time, as Jasmine tests to see if there are boundaries to my love and as she experiments with learning to be herself, that I have begun to witness some of the damage of my past parenting.  It has been especially painful to observe Jasmine ‘transform’ from a child whom I thought was empathetic and thoughtful to a child who appears to demonstrate little to no empathy.   Lately, Jasmine has been tormenting and teasing her sister viciously and incessantly; she has also been hitting her violently and treating her friends callously.  This behaviour reminded me acutely of the violent nature of Jasmine’s jealousy towards Samara during her little sister’s first year of life and it forced me to acknowledge that Jasmine had only suppressed this violent jealousy as she desperately tried to retain my love and approval after Samara’s birth.

Horrified and worried, I turned to the web 🙂  for help with this new development and found two incredible articles which helped me to understand my child’s apparent lack of empathy.  The author of the articles discusses the damage we do when we shame children for their behaviour rather than communicating to them (without judgement) the consequences of their behaviour.  To sum them up (but I highly recommend reading the articles :)), when we shame a child for what we perceive to be unacceptable behaviour, instead of them understanding the harm they have done (and thus developing empathy), they instead focus only on themselves with feelings of shame and self-hatred.  They don’t ‘hear’ and can’t ‘see’ anything beyond, “I am bad”.  It’s a double whammy: children learn to hate themselves, plus they learn nothing of the impact of their actions on others.  I had been aware for quite some time of Jasmine’s self-hatred but, until reading these articles, had been unaware of its cause.

It has been very difficult to acknowledge that my child has little to no self-worth and painful to recognize that she is not the empathetic child I thought she was.  I had no idea that journeying down the path of conscious parenting would land me in this place.  I’m hoping, as I love Jasmine through this darkness and gently help her to understand how her actions affect those around her, that she will again feel worthy of self-love and the love of those around her.

So How did I Get Here?

A friend asked me – after reading my post about a child’s inherent right to self-determination – how on earth I had arrived at this way of thinking.   The simple answer: long periods of navel gazing punctuated by several illuminating “ah-ha!” moments.  I share a few key milestones from my journey below:

Like most parents in my immediate social circle, I never subscribed to the idea of ‘hitting’ children as a means of discipline.  I was acutely aware of the double standard it represented: hitting my children but admonishing them when they hit others?  I’m not saying the desire to hit my children was never present but I recognized that hitting a child would be my own loss of control rather than something my children ‘deserved’ or ‘needed’.

My next step was to recognize the violence inherent in anger in general.  Even though I never physically struck my children, I began to see the emotional and spiritual injury of my anger, how it hurt and diminished my children.  As a family we now label shouting or yelling, ‘hitting with words’.

Another key milestone? Realizing my children’s poor behaviour was simply a reflection of my own.  Despite admonishments and disapproval, my children continued to speak disrespectfully to their friends, to each other, to me.  They rudely interrupted conversations and, oh, the horror, they delighted in ordering other children around!  I can remember saying to Jasmine – on more than one occasion, “How dare you speak to me that way!”  A wry moment of awakening came when, one day, Jasmine threw those words right back at me!  I was far enough along my new path to have a little chuckle at myself over this.  Generally, however, we don’t see our own behaviour as unacceptable because our society entitles parents to behave disrespectfully towards children; this blinds us to what should be another, obvious double-standard.  Thank you, Jasmine, for enlightening me!  I have, since, dramatically changed my behaviour.  One tool I use to ensure my interactions with children are respectful is to picture how I would work through an issue or problem with a good friend or colleague.  How would I approach them? What tone of voice would I use?  Would I expect them to do something simply because I asked?  Would I ‘force’ them (overtly or covertly) to comply with my demands if they chose not to heed my words?

This fall, I made a brief foray into the Occupy movement; though somewhat disappointed (a story for another time), I did admire the Wall Street organizers’ vision to embody a model of inclusive, non-hierarchical decision-making.   It got me thinking about how hierarchies permeate the fabric of western society, from private to public institutions, from profit to non-profit.  As someone interested in social change, I was uncomfortable with the idea that I was perpetuating this same hierarchy in my own family.  How could I possibly nurture in my children the wisdom necessary to enact social change if I continued to raise them within a paradigm of hierarchical power and control?

Around the same time, I began reading an illuminating book about Australian aboriginal society, “Treading Lightly: The Hidden Wisdom of the World’s Oldest People”.  Several aspects of this estimated 40-60,000 year-old society resonated deeply with me.   One was the non-hierarchical nature of aboriginal society, but also was their notion of what it means to “respect” another.  ‘Respect’, in the Australian aboriginal sense, means to allow people to see “what you mean; who you really are”.  Integral to this concept of respect was the requirement to lead or guide without imposing one’s will on another person; in imposing one’s will on another, one failed to truly ‘see’ (respect) the other.  Children were accorded respect in the same manner as the adults.  As I reflected on this new perspective, I began to understand our society’s hierarchical system as the imposition of a person’s will on others, from top manager down to ‘lowliest’ worker –  a deeply abusive, disrespectful and dehumanizing system.  I also reflected on the myriad ways I imposed my will on my children; how it dehumanized all of us, and how it prohibited me from truly ‘seeing’ them.

So, here I am.  To not impose my will on my children is to see them, love them and accept them for who they truly are, not what I desire them to ‘be’ or ‘become’.  I accept, as a fundamental truth, my children’s inherent right to autonomy and self-determination.

The Dynamics of Power and Children’s Right to Self-Determination

This has been a very challenging week for our family. It began when I finally admitted to myself  that, despite our best intentions, despite using consensus for big decisions, ours was still not an equal family in terms of  power and control:  we, the adults, had all the power and the children had none.  I explained to my husband that the children were very aware of this power imbalance (as all oppressed people are) and that this explained their continued resistance to certain things (namely, said oppression!)  I explained that we needed to honour our children and return to them their right to self-determination, their right to make their own decisions, good or bad.  No more rules.  No more imposing our will overtly or subtly.

I started the ball rolling with a simple question for Jasmine. I asked her if she knew the meaning of the word “power”.  Sure enough, she had a very clear understanding of its meaning: “You mean like when you tell me it’s bedtime and I have to go to bed?  And like when you expect me to do chores and I can’t say ‘no’ even if I don’t feel like doing them?”  We discussed things a little further, then I asked Jasmine how she would feel if we were to ‘level’ the balance of power.  To clarify, Jasmine asked me, “So I get to decide what I want to do about everything?”  I tried then to get in a few words about the responsibility that goes along with autonomy, and the need to think about the impact of one’s decisions on other people. This, of course, fell on deaf ears. I had already lost her to ecstatic contemplation of a delightful future of saying “NO” to her evil oppressors, Mom & Dad.

Needless to say, the week was an interesting one.  Jasmine stayed up to 10:00 p.m. reading in bed the first three nights and absolutely NO chores were done as she enjoyed exercising her right to self-determination.  We rarely went outside and when we did, Jasmine went out in summer dresses underneath her snowsuit.  Jasmine also reprimanded me a couple of times when I fell back into old habits and tried to offer her ‘limited choice’. In her words: “Mom, you just offered me choices!” (She knew there hadn’t been an option to ‘opt out’).

Don’t think this was an easy time for the adults; it wasn’t. Even though Jasmine reacted as I had expected, I still found her behaviour very difficult to handle graciously.  I had to be careful not to use my anger at her self-absorption to manipulate her into doing things she didn’t want to do.  I tried to carefully and neutrally let her know the impact of her decisions on the people around her and the importance of balancing her needs and desires with the needs and desires of the people in her life.  Some days I was more successful than others.

But we made it through the week and things are beginning to normalize.  Jasmine certainly knows she can say “no” to anything but she is also discovering the joy of saying “yes”.  Prior to thinking about power dynamics, I didn’t realize that, in unbendingly expecting things of my children, I was also robbing them of the joy that comes with making a “good” decision on their own, and the self-worth that goes hand-in-hand with this.  I know we have rough days ahead as I stumble and struggle through learning how to parent in a manner that is counter to both how I was raised and to parenting norms in our society.  In my gut, however, I know that I am on the right path, that our societal norms are skewed, and that we must honour our children’s right to self-determination.  It is the pathway to wisdom, at least for myself and my partner, and hopefully also for my children.

On Competition

I started home-learning with my oldest daughter, Jasmine, this January and it’s difficult to express in words the sheer joy, delight and wonder, the growth and the revelations that take place every day in my home.  I can’t imagine things any other way.  It feels good; it feels natural; it feels right.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve come to realize that homeschooling or, rather, ‘facilitating my children’s learning’, is a lot like dog training:  it’s not the dog that needs to be trained but the handler that needs to be retrained!  Today I learned exactly where I stand on the subject of competitive events and competition in society in general.

Personally, I have always been uncomfortable with competition and certainly I never enjoyed participating in any kind of competitive endeavour when I was child but, before today, I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought.   On some level, my parents may have recognized the ugliness of competition.  Our house was the only one I knew possessed of a copy of the board game  “Community” wherein all players work together and share in the triumph of winning and wherein no one person alone suffers the humiliation of defeat.  (NB: this was small solace to me given the remainder of our games had clear winners and losers and I cannot, to this day, recall ever winning any game played against my brilliant {you’re welcome, David} but completely infuriating older brother.  Seriously, he always won and he still does.) But I digress…

Allow me to return to this morning and Jasmine and I playing “Crazy Eights” together:  Jasmine loses two hands in a row and thus commences a 45 minute session of tearful accusations and recriminations, including the not unfamiliar, “It’s not fair, Mommy, you ALWAYS win!”, followed by fresh tears, stomping of feet and slamming of doors.  Now please don’t think me callous in my recounting of this morning’s events, believe me, I understood how she felt (see note above about infuriating older brother).  It did, however, give me ample time to ponder the negativity of competition, how competition ensures there is always someone at the top and someone on the bottom.  I thought about how competitition is woven throughout the very fabric of our society, how it informs our world view and our everyday decisions and interactions.  I could not think of one game (aside from “Community”) that was not about ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  I could think of few events structured around something other than competition.  I thought about how our society offers so much towards the development of strategic thinking for the conquest and defeat of others but very little in the way of strategic thinking towards the raising up of everyone together.  I thought about how we educate and challenge our children to give them a ‘competitive edge’, how we work hard to ensure they will be the ‘winners’ of  the oh-so-grand competition to ‘make it to the top’ of our society.

Is it absence of imagination that we cannot see the absolute necessity to move beyond the harmful, competitive paradigm by which we live?  A hierarchical society based on competition will, by definition, promote the most ruthless and unempathetic among us to the top.  And here we stand.

So what did today’s ‘homeschooling’ teach me?  That I need to create a home free from competition, a home where cooperation and collaboration are valued, a home where individuality is balanced by a desire for mutuality and mutually satisfying outcomes. This is a grand experiment for us and one we’re stumbling through, learning as we go.  By living a different paradigm, perhaps my children will develop the intellectual skills, the humanity and the emotional capacity necessary for them to envision and grow a better, kinder and more equitable society.  I hope so and I’m growing along with them.