We need more references and contexts to help our children understand who they are, why they feel and think the ways they do, why there’s no need to pidgeon-hole others who are different, and how we all fit into the grand design of life. But first, we need to remember and get back into these contexts of living ourselves.
We need to more deeply understand, practice and teach the Continuum of Being – of being in the world and of the world in a just way.
Traditionally, we know that the wise goal of “being in the world but not of it” means that while we live in our bodies on this planet we refrain from over-identifying with material things, often displayed outwardly by attachment to appearances, to things, to over-consumption, to the monopolization of goods and services, etc. This material identification takes us away from our real selves – our true essence, and therefore away from a broad holistic context of how we can relate to the whole of the world. The absolute magic of amending this is the parallel process of connecting more deeply to ourselves as we act on the recognized interconnectedness that life is.
I think we can change the context of being both in the world and of it by acting on the growing remembering that everything and everyone is connected and interdependent for our survival and thriving. In other words, the less we identify with the more material, finite things of life and instead focus on what is truly meaningful and globally sustainable, the more we can be both in the world and “of it”.
The mistake many of us have made in perceiving ourselves as a person in the world is one of language and its meaning: If we see ourselves living on Earth, on a continuum, the word “on” may suggest even unconsciously that skipping along through life taking from Nature is the way it’s supposed to be. Yet when we perceive ourselves living within the continuum of being, it feels different, doesn’t it? It smacks of belonging and of personal responsibility.
Of course you don’t live on a family, you live within a family to whom you have a responsibility as a member.
We are related to Nature and responsible for Her.
We don’t survive because of Nature, we survive because we give back to Her what she needs to sustain us.
One of the best foundational ways we can help our children is to remember that we live within a continuum of being, and in two major contexts: the first is as individuals interacting with and responding to the local relational and environmental subsets of life that are our day-to-day experiences, and the second is as the human race perceiving, responding to, and interacting with the larger forces of Nature, making up our collective whole here, in anticipated harmony.
Our relationships inform our future. How we think about our relationships is the Key to whether our future holds gloom or magic.
As a teacher in a room full of teachers, I have a choice of how I think about me. About them. About us. If I am coming from a place of fear about my ability to support myself amidst all of these teachers teaching essentially similar content to essentially the same group, I may likely think and act competitively. Similarly, if I am coming from a place of insecurity for not knowing what I believe to be “enough” as I compare myself to others, I get defensive and see others as a threat. My ego becomes inflated. This only leads to competitive thoughts and feelings, and even anger.
If I instead choose to think about and appreciate the diversity of teachers and how they relay their helpful messages, I’m feeling more certainty and gladness that the mass variety of listeners/students/readers – with their different learning and communication styles – will be reached, receiving the best messages for them at a given time from the teacher with whom they most resonate. This produces the greater good overall, for all listeners/students/readers and for all teachers. Here there is no need for competition.
There’s another important point about the relationship of teacher and student: When are we ever one and not the other? When am I not learning as I assist a client or family in my practice? When I teach? When am I not a student of any person or circumstance or day?
Also, when I feel overwhelmed as I learn hard lessons and feel ashamed about the “wrong” things I have done, or because I know so little compared to others from whom I am learning, I realize that for all the lessons and healings I receive, I am simultaneously teaching the teacher, and healing the healer. This happens to everyone. This is Life. This realization of our shared human condition can normalize these feelings and ameliorate the embarrassment and shame that is rearing its head in order to be acknowledged, rationally addressed, and freed.
We inform each other. Life is this. Progress is this. Can we embrace this and lessen competition as we celebrate each other, celebrate the magic of open, shared learning for the highest good, and collaborate more willingly? We can find great meaning in this realization of our unified service to each other in and for the world, and know we are individually and collectively of the greatest service as we engage in these acts of conscious growth.
I am so very grateful for the many teachers and teachings of Life itself.
Maria had wanted a freer teenage life than her parents had, and had allowed her to have. When Maria rebelled and hung out with other rebellious kids her age, her parents used harsh threatening and punative measures to scare her into following their rules. This deeply scarred Maria, who never forgot how it felt to be fourteen.
Her underdeveloped social-emotional and critical thinking experiences by this age caused Maria to experience an arrested development: she continued to see the world through the eyes of her fourteen year old self – a world that was unfair and withholding, even until and throughout the time she raised her own children. As they grew up, she could not see past this lens of parenting from a position of remembering her own desire to be friends with her parents, and of not getting what she felt she deserved. So, Maria parented as a friend who felt guilty when her children begged her to go here and there, to have this gadget and that outfit, and stay out until this time, and go clubbing at this age, etc. Maria parented from a place of her own fourteen year old needs not being met and not being understood by her adult self, and therefore, out of a place of the wrong kind of guilt.
Maria felt guilty that the kids didn’t have every thing they asked for. Maria felt guilty that she and their father divorced. Maria felt guilty that her children witnessed their mom being treated poorly by a man in a subsequent relationship. Maria felt guilty that she was, in her eyes, such a bad parent. So she made up for this guilt by letting her children walk all over her. Maria set limits all the time, but never followed through on them by making sure the consequences she issued were really made to happen. Maria let her frustrations build up without addressing them for fear her children would hate her. This frustration would build up until she screamed at them, sometimes cursing and calling them names. Later, she bought them things and let them do whatever they wanted to make up for the guilt she felt for what she had done. And not done. Still wishing she could give them everything they wanted, and that they could all be friends.
And her children resented her for all of this, for they wanted the structure that made them feel cared for by a stable parent with consistent limit setting and follow through. Whose parenting stance and rules made them feel emotionally safe. They wanted to have limits set for them by emotionally stable parents, and wanted them to follow through with consequences when they crossed the line. Despite what their behavior sometimes suggested, they wanted to feel the emotional safety of being cared about and loved enough by parents who risked being unlikeable and unfriendable, and even temporarily hateable.
Setting limits and walking the talk means that Maria risks not getting her own teenage needs met vicariously through her children. It means that she must get past her own guilty self-recrimination and seek understanding as an informed, mature adult. To do this it means Maria must seek support to learn to lovingly “visit, see, and hold” her fourteen year old self with compassion as this mature woman with objective, sensitive thinking skills. It means she must learn and develop healthy relationship skills so she can be the balance and structure her children need most from her. For the safety and security of her children, and that of their children whom they may likely parent as she does.
The right kind of guilt is the kind that gnaws at our self interests and actions when they seem to over ride the greater needs of our children’s development, their chances for capacity building, and their experiences of stability, health, balance, and safety.
Actions taken from the right kind of guilt demonstrate recognition of responsibility rather than an entitled victim mentality. If we’re lucky, the support we receive to get there can include achieving a wisened humility and gratitude for what blessings we already have.
I want to live in warmth and
without corners or sharp edges
with the freedom of Safety
to surrender myself
to the world.
no unseen attempts
at connectedness to Love,
I want to live in the soft, seen
in the light
of Presence and comfort
of understanding and compassion
Personal competence and self-efficacy are the result of feeling safe, and the reverse is true as well. How can we expect children to tap into their sense of personal competence and feel like they are effective at “doing life” if they do not feel safe being themselves in their families? In their schools and communities?
Emotional safety is the overarching developmental goal of childhood. Period. Here are six ways we foster it in children.
1. We are infinitely patient and kind. We are firm when needed as children grow, but never not these two things. Patience and kindness show respect. When children feel respected by us, they will respect themselves and know their lovableness. This is emotional safety.
2. We carefully choose our words so they (our words) do not equate children’s behaviors to their identity – to the goodness they feel about themselves that defines them as a person in the world. We refrain from saying things like, “Be good.” “If you’re good/bad today, you’ll get/you won’t get to have or do ____.” because even though you may referring to his behavior, when a child hears this he is actually internalizing a negative message about who he is.
The message a child internalizes when he hears statements like this, and/or experiences negative attitudes from us because we believe this too, is that his value and essential acceptance as good enough, lovable enough, acceptable enough – depend on his behavior. So he thinks that when he has a meltdown, hits another child, withdraws, refuses to share, (fill in the behavior here) – that he himself “is not good”. This is not a message we want him to internalize about himself because it relays conditional acceptance by us based on his “not good enough-ness”, and this does not feel safe.
By relating with him with total acceptance of who he is and explaining to a child that no matter what they do, feel or express, they are always “good”, we teach them that good is who they are; it is their essence, and thus their core identity. See this article for more info on the psychological dynamics of identity development as it relates to self-regulation abilities.
3. We have reasonable expectations for children, and for our plans of the day/week. We explain them as best we can, and keep it flexible. Our flexible attitude and manner allow children to see that life is not a straight line, mistakes are made and forgiven, and the built-in bumps in life can be managed gracefully and in good humor. They learn we are not perfect, and that it is okay that they aren’t either. They know their true worth and feel safe.
4. We feed them real food. Feed a child simple sugars like bread, pasta, pretzels, fish crackers, pancakes, cereals, muffins, etc., and little to no green veggies, protein or good fats for a week. His behavior will likely be the outward sign of a lack of internal balance that is affecting how safe he feels in his body. Feed him nutrient dense foods like unprocessed oatmeal, fruit, veggies, fish, nuts, seeds, meats, etc., instead and watch his behavior. His body will begin to rebalance and his mood and behaviors will show improvement (sans sugar withdrawal symptoms), suggesting that he is feeling safe in his body. I recommend Dr. Bill Sears’ book to read the science behind this as well as for good meal and snack recipe ideas. Vegetarians and vegans can easily accommodate many recipes.
5. We show children that they can Trust us. We are right there when infants and young children cry; we do not let them “cry it out.” We say goodbye to them when the sitter arrives and we have to leave; we do not sneak out on them. If we say we’ll attend an event, we do that. When we are trust worthy, children feel safe.
6. We actively support our children to be entirely who they are, to express the entirety of what they feel and think without our shaming them or attempting to stifle or otherwise change their expression. We don’t tell boys it’s not okay to cry. We don’t push “pink trends” onto girls. We see children through the many lenses of holism, ensuring we are meeting all of their needs as the unique beings they are and we teach them to see themselves through these same lenses of wholeness. There are nine such lenses as I see it. They are Attachment/Relationships; Creative Self-Expression; Cognition/Intellectual Stimulation; Biology/Physical Expression; Sensory; Nature; Nutrition; Environment; and Spirituality/Consciousness(c). These lenses are research tools for how to accurately perceive and approach our children to best help them feel safe. They make up a Venn diagram called The Wheel of Holistic Perception (c) which is one of three components comprising The Holistic Child’s Self-Regulation Program about which I provide trainings and write.
The happiness and security children feel with us in our perceiving and relating to all aspects of their beingness – allowing and supporting them to be fully who they are – helps establish what I consider to be the overarching developmental goal of childhood – emotional safety.
Life is a loop in which everything impacts everything else. Let’s be so in love with our children that we see them first and consistently as their unique expression, and let’s meet them where they are in this loop of life.
Please Note: This post first appeared as a recent article of the same name for the magazine, The Attached Family, a publication of API, Attachment Parenting International.
The link to the magazine is here. (Click on the word “here” – the link is embedded in that word.)