Choosing to Sit in the Dark

Brené Brown is a researcher at the University of Houston whose work centers on shame, empathy and vulnerability. She has written several books and speaks all over the world on these important topics, which have a dramatic effect on the ways we live, work and raise our children.

I just love this segment of one of Brené’s presentation’s about empathy that was turned into an animated clip.

silver liningShe speaks about a topic that is so important for everyone, of all ages, but I especially love it as it applies to parenting. I know as a mom, I often want to “silver lining” things for my kids. They are struggling and having a hard time, and I want to help them feel better. I want to turn an unhappy situation around. My first instinct is to go for a response that minimizes the negatives and emphasizes the positives. It’s like I want to make my kids forget about what’s upsetting them so we can get back to being happy. To brush it under the rug.

But Brené makes an excellent point in that rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.

Instead of silver-lining things to help my kids feel better, I need to meet them where they are with those heavy feelings. I need to sit in the dark with them. I need to be present and not try to sweep their feelings under the rug just because they are unpleasant, but reach out and connect so that they know what they are feeling is normal. Only then will the weight of those feelings be lifted.

Here’s the difference between “silver lining” and “sit-in-the-dark” responses:

Child: “My friend was mean to me today. He didn’t want to play with me and just left me to play all by myself!
Silver lining: Well, you still have your other friends to play with.
Sit in the dark: Oh, I know you were looking forward to playing with your friend today. You felt hurt when he didn’t want to play.

Child: “I am losing this game AGAIN! I ALWAYS lose at games!
Silver lining: That’s not true; you do great at games! We’ll play another one, and I’m sure you’ll win the next time.
Sit in the dark: It’s so hard to lose a game. You feel really angry. I bet you wish you could win all the time!

Child: “I am trying to build a blanket fort, but it keeps falling over! One part won’t stay when I let go, and the other part isn’t tall enough. I can’t get it right!
Silver Lining: What do you mean? This is a great fort! Look, you have a little cave you can hide in!
Sit in the dark: Oh that sounds frustrating! It’s not working out as easily as you hoped? I wonder if there’s something you could do to help make it more stable.

Child: “I’m trying to do this magic trick, but it’s not magic at all! It doesn’t even float in the air like the picture shows!”
Silver lining: But now you have a cool magic wand to play with. You can use it as a prop with your dress-up set!
Sit in the dark: Yeah, the picture makes it look different, doesn’t it? That must be disappointing. You wish the wand would float all by itself, so you could see real magic.

Sitting in the dark with our children means understanding that their feelings are real. It means not minimizing them or trying to wash them away but validating and embracing them. It means teaching kids how to feel. We may not necessarily agree with a child’s feelings, but we must communicate that we accept them. This is the essence of connection.

We must listen not with the intent to respond but with the intent to understand. ~Steven Covey

Make a “Play” List with Your Kids

My son is seven and a half, attending public school, and  just getting everything done in a day is a challenge. He is exhausted from being around kids all day and I have client emails to send and dishes that need washing. From the alarm in the morning until bedtime, we are negotiating transitions, trying to get things done, and we don’t always have the same wants or needs at the same time. It’s easy to lose connection with each other in the midst of that.

So, I was very interested to hear Brené Brown talking about play in The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion, and Connection. She referenced Stuart Brown, a play researcher, and gave his simple definition of play.

  1. Time spent without purpose
  2. You lose sense of self and don’t feel inhibited or self-conscious
  3. You lose track of time

Play is a great place to connect with our kids (and ourselves), when it’s really play for both of us like when we use our roller skates with our parents back in time. It helps foster the attachment that we build with them as babies, and that can get strained when we’re spending so much time apart or needing to get things done when we’re together.

But there’s a catch. The activity has to feel like play for all the parties if the goal is to play together. Play for my son may include endless LEGO battles, but that feels like work to me. It meets none of the criteria of play.

  • 1) The purpose is to hang out with my child.
  • 2) I feel self-conscious because I don’t really know how or why to have battles.
  • 3) I’m very aware of how much time I’ve spent doing it.

What do you do when play for one of you is miserable, or not fun, for another? Figure out what you both like to play. Brené  Brown sat down with her family and they made a list of what fit the definition of play was for each of them. Check out this list of 50 Fun Indoor Games for Kids from Twin Cities Kids Club! Many activities, like Candyland, did not overlap. But the ones that did went into her Venn Diagram (yes, she made fun of herself for making a Venn Diagram of play, and yes, I totally loved the idea). The overlaps in their diagram helped Brown’s family determine what they’d spend time doing on the weekends, what kinds of vacations they took, or what they’d do together for fun.

The importance of playI loved the idea so much that we made up our own play lists and checked for overlap at our house. Both my son and I love to make up songs and rhymes, lie in the hammock and read a book together, jump at Jumpoline under the disco lights, play some board games (but not others), and many more. We also made a list for things that can feel like play for awhile, but that one or the other of us gets tired of  sooner, and we put those activities on our limited play list. We can do them together, with a time limit, so the other person isn’t having to work to stay interested.

The list has been really helpful. We’re playing UNO more often, have remembered how much we like to play in the water, and the list is a go-to resource when we’re needing extra connection because we’ve been busy or one of us is having a hard day. The conversations we have during or after play are more connective too.

For more ideas about how to integrate play into your parenting, I highly recommend Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. And for the research behind play, Stuart Brown’s book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul is a fascinating read.

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