The dark side of favorites

img_4552Like many conversations with children, it’s almost innate: “What book is your favorite?” “Which ice cream flavor is your favorite?” “You like Sesame Street? Which character is your favorite?”

Harmless, right?

It seemed so. But as I watched my daughter integrate the implications of this question, it created a shift in perception that was dark and disappointing.

It happened around age 3. At first, it was a total anomaly to her. What is this “favorite” they’re asking about? Initially she didn’t respond to the question. But it kept on coming.

As understanding dawned, she took some time to process this new idea. It was as if I could see the wheels turning in her head. “You want me to rank these things, to put something above something else.”

Toddlers are full of joy, wonder and amazement. They love everything — well, most things — and they shower those they trust with unconditional love.

So this shift from unconditional to conditional was difficult for me to anticipate — I’d never read or heard another parent’s account of the conceptual shift — and altogether disappointing.

Suddenly my child, who’d embraced her surroundings with the wonder we all aspire to, had somehow become jaded. For her world had categories. And these categories not only elevated some things — the effect we’d anticipated — but they also made others worse.

Serendipitously, around the same time that her understanding of favorites took hold, we hired a fantastic babysitter. She was fun, childlike, compassionate, and she brought her ukelele with her to let my daughter play with it.

After one session with her, my 3 year old approached me, darkness in her eyes.

“Mommy,” she said, “Steph is my favorite person.” I was taken aback. Deep breath. “How wonderful that you love your new babysitter!” I managed with genuine enthusiasm. But her small, pensive face was clouded with conflict.

What could it mean to a developing toddler, to feel she has to rank someone above the person who for her whole life was her safe place? How might that compromise her feeling of safety, of attachment?

I did my best to explain that we could like “this and that.” That people didn’t need to be ranked above other people. That parents especially didn’t need to be ranked. We have special relationships with our parents, and they will always be special in ways that other relationships aren’t.

But it was too late. Sure, my ego was bruised briefly. But for her, the concept of favorites made her world a little less safe, a little less open and a little less welcoming. For suddenly she felt compelled to make and declare a choice that somehow lessened her primary relationship.

If I could take it back, I would.

In our world, it’s not altogether realistic to avoid the concept of favorites. It will emerge eventually. But to extend that joyful, unconditional innocence of toddlerhood, I’ll do my best to keep “favorites” out of my vocabulary the second time around.

What is your experience introducing the concept of favorites to your children?

Impact of praise, an inside view

pregnant headstandI’ve been on board with limiting praise for my kids ever since reading Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. I understood the negative impacts of praise in theory, I learned how to limit praise in parenting and I was happy with my decision.

But I didn’t understand the internal impact of praise until recently.

The Back Story

My good friend is a yoga teacher, and while she’s relatively new at it, she’s also a total rockstar who’s managed to pack her schedule with enough yoga classes to more than compensate for the corporate job she left behind.

Recently she received feedback on her teaching from the owner of one of the studios where she works. We sat down to process the feedback, which shook her confidence a bit.

One of the recommendations was to stop praising — not that she does it very often. She asked for my thoughts on the matter.

As a coach, I know that praise moves us from a place of unlimited support to a place of judgement. By saying something is good or bad, I limit my clients’ experience so I’ve learned to leave praise out.

As a parent, I also know that praise takes a child’s focus off of himself and directs it to praise-seeking activities.

But as a yoga practitioner? I actually enjoy having the occasional “good job” or “nice pose” thrown in there. It gives me a lift and makes me feel good.

I shared my feedback and trusted my friend to process the issue on her own.

My Experience of Nonjudgement

At my friend’s next class — I attend one of her classes weekly whenever possible — I noticed that she didn’t praise. Not once.

And I noticed a shift within myself. As I adjusted and knew not to expect the praise, my attention began to focus more on my internal experience of my yoga practice.

What I began to realize was that those “good jobs” gave me a momentary high, but it was the kind that fizzles on the next pose when I wonder why I’m not receiving more of them. Am I not as good at this one as I was at the earlier one? Is someone else better than me?

In the absence of praise, I was able to understand the freedom of not being judged as good or bad. An authority person’s feedback, be they a teacher or parent, has a gravitational draw that brings our attention out of our own experience and focuses it on their assessment of us. The ego then kicks into high gear, measuring us and comparing us to others.

It’s taken me years of practice to learn to keep my eyes on my own mat. But in the process of eliminating praise, my friend helped me bring my full attention to my own experience.

The Implications

By focusing on my own experience, I suddenly am liberated to be present with my practice, noticing any tension or emotions arising that need my attention. I am freed by being in the present moment by feeling connected to everything that is happening, in exactly the moment in which it happens.

By stepping into my ego, which I experientially know is activated by praise, I step into a state of lack, of wanting or needing attention in order to be okay. This is what I call the “gimmes” — that place where you think you need stuff in order to be okay, be it praise or things. This gimme state just feeds on itself, creating a gimme monster.

I don’t want to disservice my children by shifting them into this mindset of lack.

Parenting as a Spiritual Path

mother kissing babyRaising children is hard work. It’s deeply trying, physically and emotionally. Many studies have confirmed the drudgery of parenting, finding that the work itself is more tiring than chores or paid work . For those of us who have little ones, whether we care for them all week long or after hours, that’s no mystery.

Parenting is an all-in occupation, with every bit of us being needed for the job, including those parts of us we’d rather forget about. Parenting pushes all of our buttons on purpose. It’s our second chance to dig up and heal all of those old traumas we’ve buried. And depending upon how many kids we have, it’s also our 3rd chance, 4th chance, etc., because with each new character in our brood those feelings emerge as freshly as we experienced them in childhood.

How do you react when you hear your child screaming? It hits you deep down, right? And you’d do anything to make it stop. And that’s by design. By observing how you handle that feeling, and your reaction to your child as they get bigger and push your buttons, we get a unique window into our own childhood, into our parents’ experience, and theirs before them.

We are the inheritors of a unique legacy. All of us come out of childhood with some form of baggage. And we spend an outsize amount of our lives burying it so that we can “function normally.” But normal functioning isn’t dancing on top of a garbage mound and pretending we’re at a beauty pageant. It’s digging down and finding out who we are under all that garbage. It’s allowing and even welcoming all the experiences of life, and all the messy emotions that come with them. And if we have children, we’ve signed up for the messiest of those duties.

Childcare is physically challenging, but as babies turn into children, we find that the emotional challenges feel far more difficult than those early months when our bodies ached from constant carrying and personal hygiene fell low on our priority list.

Parenthood holds up a huge mirror that helps us see our stuffed feelings, our ideas about what’s wrong with us and our beliefs about who it’s acceptable to be in the world. Dealing with that gracefully is difficult on a good day, much less when your charge has smeared peanut butter in your hair and peed on the carpet.

Here are three ideas to get you through:

  1. Laugh! A sense of humor can get you through just about anything. Another benefit is that laughter is healing, in that it lets us release tension and it tells our brain to celebrate. And celebrating is definitely the correct response to useful information that will help you to free your inner child so that you can actually enjoy watching your kid splash in the puddles while wearing her sneakers. Or better yet, join in!
  2. Take notes. I know it’s difficult to find time to journal when you have a kid, but some of us somehow find ways to send texts. So text yourself when you notice a pattern, when you’ve caught a glimpse of yourself (good, bad or ugly) or when you find something you’d like to ponder later. These truths about ourselves are gems, and it’s worth taking a few minutes to jot it down if you can.
  3. Roll with it… Yes it’s difficult. And it’s hysterical. And it’s sad. And every other emotion you can imagine. When we open ourselves to our inner experience, we can be present to what’s happening in this moment with our child, which is all there ever is.

A Home Birthing Story

I’m pretty sure it never occurred to me I’d ever give birth at home. The first time around, I headed straight to the hospital, hooked up to the epidural, pushed her out and breathed a sigh of relief.

After researching homebirth extensively while co-writing my book, my perspective on birthing began to shift. Birthing was not a medical event in most situations, I realized. It was a life cycle event that belonged to the realm of the family, and it could be meaningful and loving and powerful.

Eight days ago, I gave birth to my second child at home in my bedroom. My three-year-old was watching raptly, making me laugh, bringing me presents and playing with the midwife’s birthing stool. My husband and two midwives rounded out my team of supporters, helping me to move through resistance and bring a beautiful new soul into the world.

homebirth baby

When my midwives came by the day after the birth to check on us, one remarked that my labor was a million births in one. What did she mean by that, I asked, having only been present at two myself. It had its boring parts, she said, like when she showed up and I was laboring in the tub. It had its intense parts, like when we were all shouting “yes!” in unison as I was pushing the baby out. It had its restful parts, like when I fell asleep between contractions during transition. It had its calm parts and its fearful parts and its dramatic parts–like when the baby’s head was out and he began kicking his body visibly inside me, trying to work his way out, something my midwife had never seen in her 35 years of practice. It had its funny parts, like when I initiated a round of laughter yoga and my midwife joined in. It had its romantic parts, like when I asked my husband to kiss me as I pushed the baby out.

For me, though, the birth came down to a tremendous physical and psychological challenge–overcoming my fear of the intense sensations I was feeling and finding my way through them using tools that shifted with each contraction. One contraction could be mitigated through rhythmic breathing, another through back massage, another through hugging my husband tightly. I was afraid, not of what could happen to me, but of what was happening to me, of why I was unable to mitigate the sensation through relaxation as I have been able to in yoga. My midwife wisely explained to me that my goal wasn’t to relax my uterus, which actually needed to be clenching and tightening in order to push that baby out.

When I finally pushed and then pulled my baby out and held him on my chest, I felt a huge sense of relief, as if I’d conquered a physical challenge akin to a marathon or massive mountain climb. I felt humbled by the experience yet elated by the magnitude of what I’d achieved.

Everything about birthing in my home environment was perfect: being available to my 3-year-old, even nursing her back to sleep while I was in active labor; having free range of my house, including bed and bathtub; having access to my clothing, blankets, pillows and food; being surrounded by skilled caretakers who followed my lead and contributed helpful suggestions when needed; and not needing to go anywhere when it was over.

My birth experience was challenging, it was exhilarating, and it was memorable. I’m glad that I had the courage to stick with it while living a society which has been trained to think of birth as a medical event fraught with danger. I’ve added birthing to my personal list of mothering experiences that I’ve been able to reclaim as my own.

Creating space to “hold” your child’s emotion

As any parent knows, the size of a person’s emotions has nothing to do with the size of his body.

Babies and toddlers stretch us emotionally by confronting us with feelings that we’ve been taught to dismiss, ignore, or stuff down to get by in Western societies. After all, it wouldn’t be cool for an adult to throw a temper tantrum in a mall or at the supermarket.

To avoid the squashing of emotion, we parents are taught to validate their children’s emotions – giving the feelings names, and letting the kid know it’s okay to feel the way he feels. This is a powerful tool for helping a child navigate the world, and knowing he’s got someone in his corner.

The tool we’ll explore today takes that validation a step further, and it doesn’t necessarily involve words. It’s also incredibly healing to the adult who can pull it off. And I speak from experience, though I’ve only pulled it off once.

By way of introduction, we’ll start with a metaphor. A great Kabbalistic teacher once illustrated the principle of receptivity (which is what Kabbalah means, by the way) by handing an apple to his disciple. The disciple reached out to take the apple. Again and again the teacher reached out with the apple, and pulled it away when the disciple went to take it. Frustrated, the disciple looked to his peers. “Don’t take it,” they advised. “Accept it.” The disciple breathed out his confusion and curved his palm up into a bowl, and his teacher dropped the apple into his outstretched hand.

When babies have big emotions, it can be trying for their parents, who are often emotionally invested in their child’s happiness. We come at them with anxiety, frustration, the agenda of solving their problem, and sometimes even anger at the disruption.

To become receptive, we must hollow our feelings out like the outstretched hand of a student. That doesn’t mean ignoring or banning our feelings and perspectives, but accepting them, then letting them be. We approach our child with the intention to accept his feelings – to make a sacred space for our child and all the feelings inside him, and to hold them lovingly inside ourselves.

We create that internal space, a space of non-judgement, non-striving – a vacuum really. Not only are we accepting everything that our child has to give us, we are embracing it. Through that act of unconditional love and support, we are able to connect on a profound level – not only to our child, but to ourselves and to that something greater.

There are few paths that offer the depth of testing, learning and personal growth than parenting. It can either be a struggle, or it can be a joy (and for most of us, it’s both). By reaching in deeply and letting our child know he’s okay – not only okay, but that every part of him is completely, deeply lovable – we channel more love into the world, and into ourselves. Parenting can heal our wounds, and it can help us to heal this deeply troubled world, one moment at a time.

Conscious parenting resolutions for the New Year

Like most parents, I have resolved to be the best parent I can be. And for me, that means integrating proven best practices as I come across them, incorporating them into my parenting toolbelt.

The end of the year is a time when many of us start looking to the future, reflecting on the positive changes we’d like to make in our lives. In the spirit of New Year’s, I’ve consolidated my top parenting resolutions here.

1. To love unconditionally.

Most western parents today were raised using a model where we were given or withheld love based on our behavior. Our desired behavior was rewarded and undesirable behavior, punished. While this type of reinforcement is effective with animals, with whom these techniques originated, they also send our children strong messages that shape their self image and self esteem. Love is contingent upon children satisfying our expectations, we communicate.

On the contrary, when children are given unconditional approval, which can be expressed through the absence of praise and punishment, they learn that – at their core – they are loved. Conversations about acceptable behavior can take place without communicating to a child that they are “good” or bad”.

2. To validate emotions and experience.

Little children experience big feelings. If adults can be overwhelmed by strong emotion, imagine the experience of a child who has no coping tools and very little power.

We can help children move through the turbulence of emotion by naming and validating their emotions. By making their emotions both relatable and acceptable, we give our children a safe space within which to grow. “You’re feeling angry because Johnny took the ball away from you,” we might say after witnessing our toddler’s rage. Offering to hold your child or speaking together to Johnny about the incident may help the child work through their feelings.

3. To instruct using positive language.

As newbies to our world, children have tons to learn about appropriate social behavior. The word “no” in isolation is minimally instructive, as it provides no actionable information about what is desirable. Spoken over and over to a baby or toddler – or teenager for that matter – it can evoke strong frustration.

Practical information about what is acceptable maximizes support while minimizing frustration. “Food is for eating, balls are for throwing,” can be a helpful response to a child who throws his food. While challenging at first, aspiring to reduce or eliminate the use of the word “no” can be a powerful tool for parents. A child’s boundaries can be set even more powerfully when the realm of acceptable behavior is clearly defined.

4. To model what I wish to elicit.

Children learn by watching what we do, not by listening to what we say. While it’s tempting to demand respect from our children, one of the most productive – and fulfilling – ways to elicit respect is by extending it to them. Using polite language like please and thank you, responding to their requests with love and understanding – especially when they can’t be granted – and providing a safe space for them to create and make mistakes all send powerful messages about love. When we honor our children as separate beings with equally valid preferences – keeping in mind that it’s our responsibility in advance to limit their options to those that are supportive of their healthful development – we create a mutually respectful relationship.

5. To assume the best of intentions.

Have you ever noticed how the world rises to our expectations? Expect to have a bad day, and you’ll notice the frustration of hitting an empty tank of gas. Expect to have a good day, and you’ll pay special attention when that lady lets you go ahead at the supermarket.

Children are extremely responsive to our moods and expectations. We can avoid some huge potholes by refraining from labeling our children, i.e. “she’s the smart one” or “he’s the aggressive one”. We can also do our children a huge service by assuming that they have the best of intentions. Your child wants a strong relationship with you, filled with love, affection and mutual respect. And as long as you assume the best, even when he’s pulling the cat by her tail and throwing rice across the room, you can educate and nurture in a way that preserves a loving relationship. Remember, we’re all students here. And perhaps never more so than as parents.

6. To learn from my child.

Children come into the world with a lack of inhibition that is tremendously instructive. They show no shame in asking for what they desire, and they act instantly upon their most primal instincts to meet their needs. Ever notice how young children will suddenly start running around, or singing at the top of their lungs?

While most adults have learned to repress their desires, children are in touch with their basic needs – food, love, and exercise. When your child demands attention, take a cuddle break and relish the opportunity to love and be loved. When your child declares a dance party or initiates a wrestling match, join in! These feel-good games raise your heart rate and release your natural joy. What could be better?

7. To be present.

So often, we get caught up in our thoughts or to-do lists. While we can experience a sense of temporary relief or satisfaction by making progress on standing projects, the high only goes so far. Children live the grace-filled experience of being in the moment, each and every moment. By letting our agendas go and allowing a child to draw us into his world, we experience the aliveness of living in the present moment. While we’re giving the child a gift by attentively joining his game, that gift returns to us tenfold in each moment that we’re consciously present.

This year and every year, above all, I aspire to embrace the gifts that parenthood and life have to offer. I wish the same for you, in 2013 and beyond.

Love through the eyes of a new parent

We spend a lot of time thinking about faults. Our faults, those of people around us, our employers, politicians, even the world’s. In fact, once you start looking, you could spend a lifetime finding faults.

But finding faults makes us feel awful. It weighs us down and darkens our experience of life. Just as finding beauty boosts our experience of joy, finding faults pulls us into misery.

In fact, once we start looking at the world through a lens of joy and gratitude, we can recognize another world, hidden inside the one that we believed to be hopelessly flawed.

Once we start to recognize the light that shines from within each of us, we stand witness as it glows and flourishes, brightening the space that had been filled with shadows.

For me, motherhood was that pinnacle moment when I began to see how much light is in the world. My greatest teacher? My baby.

Babies are new to this world, possessed of an innocence that draws us right in. As we begin to bond and connect with them, we are drawn into their experience, surrounded by love and adoration. We find parts of ourselves awaken, those that yearn to nurture and nourish. We find our logical brains shutting down, bringing us into an experience of pure emotion and awe.

For me, those early days were some of the most pivotal in my life. While I didn’t recognize exactly what was happening at the time, I knew something inside was shifting, something I will be processing for the rest of this lifetime.

Parenting a newborn can provide a reset button, an opportunity to view one tiny soul as being entirely pure, and wanting to pour all of your light into them. Imagine if we shined this lens on everyone around us!

The vast majority of parents succeed in viewing their children through a lens of pure love, at least for an instant, now or then. What if we could sustain that focus in the lives of our children? What if we shined it on our spouses or companions? Our friends and families? Our coworkers? On world leaders?

The possibilities are endless. The more we approach our parenting from compassion, the more light we’re able to experience, and the more joy we have available to shine on our children. The same holds for every other relationship we have.

What if we could look past expectations, past deeds, even current behavior? What if we could see each person for the light that they bring to this world? What a beautiful world we would make.

Parenting from the ego vs. intuition

I just finished an eye-opening book about tapping into your inner guide, the source of wisdom and intuition. In order to better hear its voice, which is always speaking to us, we can practice overriding the voice of the ego, which is based in fear.

What types of things does the ego lead us to do? It has internalized past hurts and projects them onto current relationships in our lives, forcing us to relive our painful pasts time and again – in situations that have absolutely nothing to do with the original hurts. And for parents, it’s the source of the anger and frustration that leads us to lash out at our children.

When I look at the difference between punitive parenting and conscious parenting, I see the difference between parents who are acting from their egos and those who are listening to their inner guides. Punitive parenting comes from the belief that humans are flawed and children must be made to hurt in order to prevent them from hurting others. Sadly, being hurt is just more arsenal for the ego to bring forward and justify attacking others in the future. Conscious, or natural parenting, comes from a place of faith in humanity, a belief that children are innocent and look to us to model love and respect, and set fair limits.

All of us have experienced varying degrees of hurt in our lives – that’s part of the human experience. The big question for us is how do we process that hurt before passing it along to others. It’s easy to act from the ego – it’s the dominant voice in our minds, and it takes active, repetitive effort to take back our thought space. But for those parents who have endeavored to work on themselves in order to pass on even more love to the next generation, the journey is well worth the effort.

Conscious parenting is gaining ground, and some of the most helpful resources out there recognize that the most important work we can do as parents is to work on ourselves.

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