Thursday, February 2, 2012

opinions don't help our children

It is only with the heart that one can see
rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
- Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Sorry for my absence. 2012 has gotten off to a bit of a rocky start - some juicy challenges and opportunities have arisen, including attempting to purchase our first house, and these things have kept me busy. But the parenting path doesn't pause for obstacles, it just intensifies, doesn't it? There is so much I have been contemplating, so many things to write about. What has been on my mind this week though is opinions. Specifically, the opinions we harbor about our children. And how these get in the way of having a positive relationship with them.

"Is she a good baby?" This is a question we hear often, sometimes from the moment our child is born. The question is asked by strangers, friends, close family, in-laws. I always respond with "every baby is good." People take this response in different ways. Sometimes they laugh. Sometimes they say, hurriedly, "oh, of course!" And other times they explain further: "oh, I just meant does she sleep. I just meant, does he eat well. I just meant, does he do what you say." And so on. People respond to us when we say, no he/she is not sleeping much, not eating solids, not potty learned - "oh, that's bad. What are you doing to change that?" I guess what they really mean to say is, "is she easy? does she conform to your wants and needs, rather than to her own?"

The view we carry is that all beings are primordially, fundamentally good. Goodness is their, and our, essential nature. But even on a relative level, children and babies are good. The behavior we tend to label as "bad" is merely behavior that does not conform to how we think things should be in that moment. Maybe our child (or, ahem, our friend's child, or, even worse, our grandchild) is not sleeping as we think they should, is not eating as we think they should, is not speaking, playing, listening, interacting with others and on and on, as we think they should. On the flip side, when they behave as we think they should, we praise them for being good. "You ate all your dinner - what a good boy." "You didn't come into mommy's bed all night - what a good girl."

This habit of putting our opinions on our children, of labeling their behavior, does them and us no favors. It allows no space for growth and no space for compassion. It closes down connection between us, and creates in its stead disconnection and a feeling of being judged, of not being accepted. It also makes it harder for us to teach and guide our children to behaviors that are helpful for them. It is hard to see what would really help them learn when we are coming from a place of making them wrong or right.

An example of this is how we relate to our children's emotional outbursts. In the vajrayana buddhist tradition, emotions are considered to be energy. Emotions are neither good or bad - although they do have wisdom. Anger for instance - anger has the wisdom of clear seeing. We lose that clear seeing when we constrict the anger into aggression, when we add the story to the anger that we are right about something or someone. When we can open to the energy of anger, to its wisdom of clear seeing, and drop any story line we have attached to it, well then we can act skillfully, responding accurately to what we have seen with clarity and compassion.

Whether or not we are able to work with our emotions so that we can access their enlightened aspects and express their wisdom rather than their neurotic qualities - this all depends on how we relate to them. If we relate to our emotions in unskillful ways, then we behave in neurotic ways that harm ourselves and others. To behave skillfully begins with accepting whatever we are feeling without judgement. In order to teach our children to access the wisdom of their emotions, we also have to accept them (their emotions) without judgement. Then we have to take the additional step of accepting their behavior without judgement as well. Whoa - that sounds like I am giving them an excuse to behave in any way they want and do whatever they want, right? No, not at all. Our job as parents is to help our children relate to their energy in a skillful, compassionate way. In order to do that, we need to drop our opinions about it.

We tend to label behavior as being "good" or "bad". Can you try to see your children's behavior as just behavior? As energy expressing itself? Sometimes the energy is brittle, tight, and unhappy. Sometimes the energy is joyful and free flowing. Sometimes it is loud and overwhelming. Sometimes it is sharp, and wants to jab at us and the world. Sometimes it is quiet and soft, and needs warmth and gentle nurturing. It is all just energy. It isn't personal, though it can feel that way, and we often respond out of that personal sense of hurt or displeasure, embarrassment or resentment. When we can see their behavior as energy expressing itself, then we can respond to it cleanly. We can provide boundaries so the energy does not harm them or others. We can teach them how to self-regulate when they are upset. We can notice when we make a bigger deal over something than is helpful. We can notice when our expectations of what should happen are getting in the way of accepting what is. We can cultivate gentleness. We can stop telling ourselves and them that something is wrong, we can open to what is right. We can accept that whatever is happening is already a passing dream, changing and impermanent. Once we make sure they and others are safe, we can also practice just sitting with their energy.

Sometimes, when our children's energy is very wild and chaotic, like in a tantrum, it can be very hard to just sit with it. It is scary for them and for us. We have a tendency to just want to make it stop - and who can blame us? It isn't pleasant to be around a tantruming toddler. Sometimes both my toddlers tantrum at the same time, and well, part of me just wants to teleport the hell out of there. But when I notice my own discomfort with their emotions, I can relax and just open to them, hold them, just be with the raging until it passes. The calmer and gentler I can be with them, the more quickly they tend to calm down. The more I acknowledge what they are feeling, rather than try to convince them they are feeling something else, or that they shouldn't be feeling that way, the more they are able to just release it and move on.

We have to model this ourselves. When your own energy of anger gets sparked, how to do you relate to it? What do you do? What do your children see? If we have the tendency to yell at our children, we cannot expect them to speak gently to us. If we hold onto our emotions, stuff them down, judge them - our children will eventually do the same.

Notice when you label your children. Notice when you label yourself and your own emotions and behavior. Through cultivating mindful body, speech and mind around and with our children, they will learn to work with their own emotions. They still will not always do what we would like them to, or behave in the way they "ought to", but neither will we. It is part of the joy and pain of being in this human body - we make mistakes. If we can embrace those mistakes with acceptance and love, we will all flourish.

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