A few weeks ago we were at a family dinner with my sister, brother-in-law and our three parents (my mom, my dad, and my dad’s husband–how’s that for a Bay Area family?), and Niels and I confessed that we often don’t have plans on Friday evenings even when Leah is with her biological dad. “Why?” My parents wanted to know. “We’re too tired.” We admitted, perhaps lamely.
My dad’s husband (my stepfather), turned to me and said, “From helicoptering all week?” Niels and I looked at one another with raised eyebrows, aware of course that this was a reference to “helicopter parenting” (i.e. hovering, which usually implies, unnecessarily).
“As a matter of fact, yes. I sure am tired from all my helicopter parenting!” I said, and I smiled broadly.
Let me throw in here that I have a great relationship with my stepdad, and I took his comment as a good natured way of teasing me–perhaps a touch clumsily after two glasses of wine, but still–about my “connection-oriented” approach to parenting. So I let it go. We all laughed and moved on to other topics.
But the next day, my stepfather emailed me an article from the New York Times called “The Cure for Hyper-Parenting.” I opened the article and groaned, seeing that it was written by Pamela Druckerman, who wrote the very popular book “Bringing Up Bebe” that I had heard waaaaay too much about over the years–often in opposition to the approach I teach, Parenting by Connection. From what I had gathered about the book, in Bringing up Bebe, Druckerman praises the French for being “hands off” parents, who drop their kids at parks and go have glasses of wine in cafes. I was chagrined to realize she was still ranting on and on about “over-parenting,” and apparently–as an author published in the NY Times–Americans are still listening.
In reading the article though, I realized that we have more in common in our approaches to parenting than I previously thought. Namely, we both feel bad for parents because of how darn hard parents are working to raise their kids, and we both provide ideas for giving parents a needed break. I loved her point that many parent crises arise out of sheer exhaustion, and her solution is perfect: she recommends that we follow the same bedtime routines for ourselves that we do for our children: bath, book, bed. Fabulous. Great plan. Add a glass of wine, and I’m in.
We also agree that toddlers aren’t savages and that parents can talk to their children as if they are intelligent beings; and that we should do what we can to enjoy the process of parenting more than stressing about the outcome of it. Yep, I totally agree. It also sounds like she’s read some of the same brain science books that I devour, and she is aware that children at least benefit from close, attuned interactions with parents. Her argument is that all this “hyper-parenting” isn’t good for the parents.
So… here is where we begin to part ways in our thinking, Ms. Druckerman.
First, “hyper-parenting” is bad for both parents and kids, if by “hyper” we mean the anxiously overactive, vigilant monitoring and intervening that adults who had “anxious attachment styles” with their own parents can be prone to (me included). If you’ve ever had someone watch over you anticipating every possible negative outcome of the project you are engaged in, you’ll understand how children likely feel when they are “hyper-parented.” It’s invasive and unsettling for the child, and yes, exhausting for the parent.
But helicopter parenting might be different than hyper-parenting. For example, helicopter parenting might mean keeping an antenna tuned in to the experience of your child(ren). While an anxious parent is wrapped up in their own worries and thoughts, in order to be tuned in to what a child is experiencing, the parent has to be centered in herself to begin with, and–from that secure seat of herself–noticing and responding to the child. And this kind of tuned in, relaxed, available-and-responsive-but-not-invasive, way of noticing of one’s children, is the kind of attention that children need in order to grow their brains, develop empathy for others, feel part of and in turn cooperate with the family system, and develop the emotional intelligence that even Druckerman thinks is important for parents to teach.
So just to briefly review the neuroscience on why feeling emotionally connected sets kids up to thrive: when a child’s limbic system (social-emotional brain) can tell that an adult is nearby and available (relaxed, present, and open to being engaged), the child’s limbic system sends “safe and secure” feelings throughout the child’s brain and body. This is the “attached state,” or the limbic-ally anchored state, and from here a child’s whole system can operate optimally: the child’s body temperature, heart rate, and immune system all regulate, the child’s emotions become more manageable, and the child has access to the thinking, rational part of her brain. In short, a kid who feels emotionally anchored is healthier, more stable, and more present and available for learning and thinking creatively. In addition, an emotionally anchored child can feel the interconnected system she is part of, and she is predisposed to want to cooperate with that relational system, and participate in its smooth and happy functioning. So, emotionally connected kids are usually more cooperative kids.
Providing a strong and steady sense of emotional connection for children–helping children regularly feel felt as the neuroscientists call it–isn’t “extraneous” to good-enough parenting: it’s central to it, right up there with decent nutrition, physical safety and shelter from the elements (check out my page of resources if you want to read more about this). Responsive, attuned parenting isn’t something parents should be cured of, it should be something they are supported in. Heaven knows that when parents don’t have the resources to provide the secure attachment to build the architecture of a strong, flexible mind of the child, society pays the price.
And you know what? It’s true, providing emotional connection for children is HARD WORK. It’s especially hard work for a parent when no one provided this for you as a kid, and it’s especially hard work when you live in a society that’s moving a hundred miles an hour, where there aren’t structural supports for your hard work as a parent, like seven-week family vacations every year, three-hour lunch breaks for families to be together, paid maternity leave, free quality preschool, and all the other supports that are provided in France where people are bringing up bebes. Yes, parenting in the U.S. is hard work, sometimes even excruciatingly hard. And that sucks. But so are lots of endeavors that adult humans take on–like working crazy hours building bridges that can withstand earthquakes, or being a doctor in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic…or dealing with global warming–and I don’t lean across the table at family dinners and suggest that any of my relatives are tired because of their hyper-doctoring, hyper-engineering, or whatnot.
Yes, my job is hard, and I love it as much as you love your very hard job.
And besides, just because parenting in the U.S. is so hard doesn’t mean our children need us to do any less. Children here in fast-food nation, with terrible school systems, youth-on-youth violence, and a frenetic, stressed out adult world buzzing around, don’t need attuned attention any less than children in more family-centered societies like France. The sad news for parents here is that American children probably need limbic anchoring even more than les enfants lucky enough to be raised in France, even though we are less set up to provide it.
I think this is my biggest bone to pick with Druckerman, who seems worldly and international in her assessment of things, and yet somehow misses the obvious error in her thinking: how can you possibly pluck out the parenting practices of one culture and recommend them to the parents of a different culture, devoid of all the cultural and structural edifices that make that parenting style possible and effective enough in the first place? Well, the short answer: you can’t. It isn’t news that human beings are shaped by the social systems we are subject to. Luckily, it also isn’t news that we have power to reflect on our social systems and to change them when needed.
So here’s the thing. American parents don’t need to try and parent like the French. Rather than staring enviously at the French parents drinking wine in cafes, or criticizing ourselves for not parenting that way, OR downplaying how much children need the emotional connection that science tells us they need, let’s honestly face and assess our own situation. We are here in a society that doesn’t support the work of parenting, and our kids aren’t doing well. If we borrow anything from the French, let’s borrow their social policy around families. Our responsibility as American parents is to look at what our children need and figure out what it would take to provide for those needs here and now.
Our children need us close and paying attention–not anxiously, not over-reaching to solve their every challenge for them–but tuned in, responsive, and available as they sort out how complex a world they are entering… so that they can develop the kinds of minds that will be able to handle the future we are delivering to them.
Forget about French parenting styles. Let’s just do our best to bring up our own babies.
My husband Niels and I were standing in the kitchen one morning, emptying the dishwasher, and chewing on some issues that were coming up at our daughter’s school. That’s when it came to us, almost like a moment of divine revelation: one day every child will be heard, and every parent, teacher and caregiver will be supported. And part of that is our work to do.
But let me back up.
When my husband Niels and I fell in love, my daughter was five years old. He was a very brave man: I wasn’t just a mother, I was a parent educator with some very strong opinions.
It’s to Niels’ credit that he not only endured, but enthusiastically participated, in hundred of hours of conversation about children, parenting, and what it’s like to do it in the world we live in. He also quite readily put himself into the throws of day to day life with my child, without hesitating, pretty much right away.
When most new couples would have been enjoying candle lit dinners, we were eating hot dogs and watching my daughter twirl around the living room between bites. When most new couples would have been enjoying weekends in Napa, we were teaching her to ride a bike. When most new couples would have been enjoying luxuriously long days in bed, we enjoyed stolen moments on the couch (while my daughter slept in our big bed).
Niels, being an anthropologist by trade, adapted to this new culture (life with a child) in a heartbeat. Just as he had done on four continents in a myriad of different cultures before this one, Niels learned the ways of this world, and excelled at them.
He also brought to the work–of parenting, of parent education–a broader perspective about people, relationships, and social change. And we joined forces. He officially joined me in my work, and we created Parent Connect East Bay.
That day in the kitchen, we began to see just what this would mean for the long trajectory of our lives. We began to see the shape of the movement we are participating in.
Every Child Heard | Every Parent Supported
You see, there’s just no doubt any more about the essential conditions that help children grow into confident, empathic, innovative thinkers: a deep sense of emotional connection with parents and primary caregivers.
It’s the daily, tuned in, contingent moments of communication and connection between adult and child that build the very structure of the young developing brain. The way we are with children–what we model, the emotional atmosphere we create, and how we respond–these things literally build their brains. (I’ve got a whole page dedicated to resources about this, if you’d like to read more).
When I tell parents this, however, color drains out of their faces. Sometimes a look of despair even sets in–I think they are flashing back to the last time they totally lost with their kids. So I tell them: before you run down the road of “I’m-going-to-bad-parent-hell” remember this: your kids’ brains and bodies are also designed to be resilient, to heal, and to make the most out of challenges. The brain is plastic and the nervous system is built to bounce back, with help.
I also tell parents, it’s totally not your fault that it feels impossible many days to provide the tuned in, gentle but firm, playfully responsive attention that children look for and need. After all, did anyone do this with you when you were a child? And how many other things were demanding your attention when you lost it with the kids–was dinner on the stove? Had you been up since 5:00AM and on your feet every moment, even for meals? Had anyone recently taken you aside and said, “Wow, you are working so hard with your kids, and they are GREAT. How can I help? Here, let me take that laundry basket”???
We can dump volumes of great advice and research findings from neuroscience into the laps of parents, but until the world becomes a place where parents receive the kind of respect, attunement, and support we are asking them to provide children, we haven’t really done them a good enough service.
Without supporting parents, we haven’t done children much of a service at all (likewise, teachers, childcare providers, etc).
So there we were in the kitchen that morning, discussing these things while emptying the dishwasher and finishing our tea. “This is just not the way children need the world to be.” We fell quiet and still for a moment, wondering what this all meant for our work with parents.
And then it came to us, almost like a promise whispered from on far: Every Child Heard | Every Parent Supported. And with this clear direction, an awareness: the tide is changing, and we are riding a wave. Humankind knows now more than ever before in human history what children need to thrive. And we need them to thrive more than ever: the world they will inherit will require empathetic hearts, innovative minds, and courageous spirits, all around. There will be no more going on autopilot, these kids have to be vital and vigorous. And we know what they need to develop these attributes. It’s something we can totally do. But we have to do it together. Together with many others.
Giving children what they need, and supporting the adults who provide it, is the best way of shaping our collective future. And WE have a small, but critical part to play.
We believe this so strongly that we’ve made this the motto that organizes our life and our work.
So, how do we get there?
Well, there’s a lot we still don’t know, but we know these things for sure:
- Children who feel emotionally connected to their parents are children who THRIVE.
- Parents must feel emotionally connected to be able to raise emotionally connected children.
- The world we live in now does not support close emotional connection for children or parents.
- We need community leaders who understand the value of connection in the lives of children and parents, and who create organizations, practices, and policies that support connection.
- Community leaders must feel emotionally connected themselves to be able to support parents and children to feel emotionally connected.
There are many, many wonderful resources out there to help parents learn how to build the contingent, connected relationships with their children that they need to grow, develop, and thrive. It’s wonderful (and sometimes daunting) to be raising children in a time when so much known about what they need to function at their best. I teach Parenting by Connection because I think this approach offers some unique tools and perspectives, particularly when it comes to supporting children in their most emotional moments, and in understanding that parents need emotional support in order to be able to provide it to children. I see this approach transform family after family. But this is not yet enough.
We know that the manifestation of our vision is something we will do with many, many other community leaders. To learn more, we spent the Summer of 2014 interviewing community leaders who are committed to creating the best possible outcomes for children and families. It was mind-blowing and heart-warming to feel the commitment that leaders have to young people and their parents in our community. It was also clear that these same leaders feel as stressed, as isolated, and in need of new connection-based practices, as anyone.
One Small Step: The Community Leaders Group
Starting in September 2014, Niels and I took a small step toward creating the kind of group that we think will help community leaders feel emotionally supported in the hard work they do for children and families, and support them in bringing connection-based practices further into their work with children and parents.
This Group is called the Community Leaders Group.
Right now the group is made up of several local Parenting by Connection Instructors, and other community leaders–a home-based childcare center director, a teacher, a minister, a doula, a therapist, and the director of a new connection-promoting business in the East Bay.
All of these people are parents themselves who have been through the introductory Parenting by Connection course and have continued to use the Listening Tools, and other practices to build connected families and bring connection to the broader community of families they serve.
Right now our focus in this group is on providing lots and lots of support and listening to the Community Leaders, whose leadership begins at home and extends outward into the world, and who carry substantial responsibility in each realm of their lives. This group is intended to bring support to the critical work these leaders are doing in every realm of their lives: from the most intimate on outward. (Interested? Click here for meeting dates and times).
But we have a lot more we’d like to bring to this group. We want to bring everything we’ve got: my fifteen years work in the youth development field on policy change and program development, Niels two decades in the field of anthropology and work as a college professor, and both of our experience as ministers. We are taking some time to plan for an expansion of the offerings we make to Community Leaders beginning in September 2015, including much more support and training for connection-oriented leaders who serve children and families.
We are excited to be in the process of developing this content, so stay tuned for updates in the early months of 2015.
Every Child Heard | Every Parent, Teacher, & Caregiver Supported
Do you have a part to play?
When my daughter was two, we were making our usual visit to the Thursday afternoon Farmer’s Market in Berkeley when we encountered another toddler having a temper tantrum on the lawn. The toddler’s mother was desperately trying to get the child off the grass–where she was wailing and kicking–and back into her stroller. The mom had the horrified look that we all get when our children “lose it” in public.
My daughter dropped my hand and walked over to the child on the grass, gently lowering herself to the ground on her back beside the wailing child. The child stopped her thrashing, but her sobs continued, and my daughter carefully inched toward her until their heads were touching lightly together. My daughter turned her head slightly and gazed sideways at the other child, head-to-head with her.
Then, to the amazement of the adults who gathered around, two other toddlers who had been playing nearby joined my daughter and the crying girl on the lawn, laying with their heads all together on the grass, their bodies like spokes of a wheel. The crying child sobbed for another minute or so while her new toddler friends stayed calm and close, and then as we parents looked on, our jaws hanging, she carefully sat up and slowly climbed back into her stroller.
Common lore says that toddlers are too young to be able to empathize with others, but this hasn’t been my experience at all. What my daughter and the other toddlers demonstrated that afternoon at the Farmer’s Market was that children are inclined toward empathy, and that when they witness it, they want to participate in it.
This was not a stand-alone event, though. My daughter was just doing what is normal at our house: when feelings begin to flow, those who love you move in close, make contact and listen without trying to solve the problem. And when everyone has had their good cry or needed outburst, we can carry on with a smooth day together (for the most part). Leah was showing what I received over many years from an array of amazing teachers, and what has become a way of life for me.
Let me explain.
Twenty years ago, my dear friend Jasmin Sanders showed me a radical way of being with children that she had learned from her teacher, Patty Wipfler, the founder of Hand-in-Hand Parenting. So when I was thirty five and struggling with a baby who wouldn’t nurse, wouldn’t sleep, and wouldn’t stop crying, I looked Patty Wipfler up—and thank God that I did! She taught me how to companion my daughter compassionately (though not permissively) through all that life threw at us (and that was considerable).
Annie Tyson, who trained with Patty for the twenty years when her two children were growing up, has been my closest teacher during these years of parenting. Her spacious, loving, available attention was my lifeline especially through my years as a single parent, simultaneously living with a chronic and debilitating digestive condition. With regular doses of her extraordinarily loving attention, I was able to return and be present again for my unfolding relationship with my daughter.
I had some preparation before becoming a parent though. For several years before my daughter was born, Barbara Knyper was my teacher. She taught me how to lean into all my life experience, sensing deeply into even the painful parts rather than shying away. This equipped me for parenting in ways I could not have anticipated. Parenting breaks your heart open again and again, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, and being able to stay open to that, has also allowed me to stay open to the connection, the sweetness, the depth of love. In Barbara’s powerful presence, and in the field of her gentle, curious, courageous attention, my own presence was welcomed forth.
Rev. Karen Foster, Rev. Rebecca Parker, and Rev. Lynice Pinkard all modeled for me how to minister with my head and my heart in concert with one another. They each “got” me, and showed me how to bring myself forth–my mind and my compassion–to my relationships with congregants. And, oh my, that helped during the years when my congregation was reduced to one: one stunning, brilliant, demanding and spirited child, my Leah…who needed me with her fully, head and heart.
But my first teacher, and the teacher that has been with me the longest, through thick and thin, is my own mother, Karolyn Jernigan. My mother has taught me to be tenacious about sticking with the learnings of parenting, and how to make a priority of ones relationship with ones children. She has modeled how to turn every challenge, every wrinkle, every conflict, even every devastation, into a chance to learn and grow in love, and a chance to deepen our relationship.
So, yes, I have been blessed with a truly extraordinary line of women teachers who have helped me develop my own heart, my own presence, my own capacity to listen and pay attention. They said many things to me over time, but the greatest teaching was in how they were with me. In being spacious, offering clear, precise attention, warmth, acceptance, and confidence in me… they infected me with their empathy, with their courage to stay open and present through difficulties, m y own and those of others.
Empathy is a like a wonderful virus, a highly communicable one. The women teachers in my life each infected me with their own variety of it, and I then could not help but pass it on to my child…
And that day at the Farmer’s Market, I watched as Leah infected the other toddlers with her warm, generous, accepting attention. And I thought: yes, child, take up this lineage we have been so privileged to participate in, and pass it on with your gorgeous self…
Empathy breeds empathy.
Pass it on.
In Learning to be White: Money, Race and God in America, Unitarian Universalist minister and author, Thandeka, describes the early experiences of shame, self-betrayal, and fear that are at the root of people’s eventual agreement to participate in systems of oppression–even for those who are privileged by those systems.
When children tell us, “It’s not fair!” we need to lean in close, make eye contact and listen. Even if we don’t agree with the specific example they are upset about, don’t worry, this one is probably just a pretext for expressing the deeper feelings associated with witnessing injustice.
We when listen carefully and respectfully to children, even if we can’t grant them what they are wanting, we are keeping intact and even sharpening their ability to discern and respond powerfully to injustice.
Let’s keep our kids as radical as they were at birth. We need their moral compasses intact if they are to effectively shape this world they are inheriting.
I know this from my marriage. Now that I am in a solid and consistently loving relationship, I feel MORE free to explore my own thoughts and ideas. I go further and deeper into my own adventures now. And I always know I can “check back in” if I need to or want to, because I know he will be there, excited, interested, ready to share from his own adventures.
My daughter will let me know when she needs me. I do not need to step in so quickly, solve anything for her, or assume that I have the answer she is struggling to find. I am here, and she knows how to get to me if she needs or wants me. I am practicing waiting to be asked for help.
Connection and independence are not adversaries. Joyful connection breeds joyful independence.
“Mama, how did I get in your belly?”
I did not feel prepared for this conversation. I searched my mind and seemed to recall something I had read about being sure not to be more specific than necessary so as not to overwhelm your child with TMI. I took a deep breath and said,
“Daddy put you in there,” thinking this might satisfy her. But no.
“Through your belly button?” She wanted to know.
“We’ll, no,” I said, a little dismayed that we were already having this little talk. “Through my vagina.”
There was a long silence. Relieved, I though she had fallen asleep. But then, at long last, through the dark I heard,
“With his finger?”
So much for keeping it non-specific. So I told her it was with his penis. I told her about how men have “seeds” in their penis that can grow into babies inside women (I used this language because we had planted seeds together many times in the earth).
“Oh, ok,” she said, and rolled over and went to sleep.
A few weeks later she asked me if she would need to find a man to marry who had lots of seeds in his penis, since she hopes to have many kids. This opened a conversation about some of the many ways that babies find their way to their parents: from adoption to two-mom families where the “seeds” come from a man who they are not married to, but who wants to help. She liked knowing she has options, and from time to time she muses about whether she’ll marry a man or a woman, and how they will get their babies.
I have had the good fortune of having great listeners in my life who I could tell these stories to and laugh and feel horrified and embarrassed… and remember the details of the strained conversations I had so many years ago with my own parents, who (as well-meaning as they were) both grew up in evangelical Christian households and managed to pass on a good bit fear and shame around bodies, sex and reproduction. Having non-judgmental places–out of my daughter’s earshot–to talk and laugh about this stuff has made a huge difference in how relaxed I feel in these conversations with my daughter. While initially these little talks felt awkward to me, I have come to appreciate the openness and relaxed tone of our conversations about all things related to bodies and reproduction.
This week she told me all about the kissing games going on among her first grade classmates. I was aware that by her age, I already felt enough shame that I would never have talked to my mom about such things. But I was able to be curious in a relaxed way, asking questions about how it feels to her during the kissing games, and how the other kids are reacting. She mentioned that at school they tell the kids not to kiss “because of germs,” but reflected that this seems to have led some kids to think that kissing is bad. I asked what she thought, and she said, “Kissing is good as long as everyone is having fun when it’s happening.” And how do you know who is having fun? “If you don’t know, you ask!” She said. Thatta girl!
As much as I dreaded this aspect of parenting, I am finding that it is a very enjoyable part if our relationship. As in many areas, trying to keep up with the demands of parenting is healing my own “issues” around bodies and sexuality. What a gift! And I know we have just begun. I plan to call the listeners in my life as often as I need over the years to keep the conversation around sex relaxed and open between me and my daughter. And if you need to do the same, call me!
Before I became a parent I was deep into my practices. Every morning and afternoon I entered contemplative prayer, a form of meditation from the mystical Christian tradition. I had a daily yoga practice and daily writing practice. I created lots of art.
When I was pregnant I remember thinking that these things would continue to be a big part of my life when I had a child. Her dad and I planned ahead that we would swap an hour each morning so we could do our “morning things”–me by the altar, him with the paper and a cup of coffee. I didn’t know that in that “morning hour” I would be finishing the dishes from the night before, running the vacuum through the living room, enjoying a private moment or two in the bathroom, maybe even (finally) getting a shower.
When my daughter was a baby I was lucky enough to have the challenge of being home with her during the day, so that first year during our long slow walks through the neighborhood, and while laying next to her on the bed during nap time, I still felt the whispers of my previous contemplative life. I could still hear the rich silence and rest in it.
But by the time she was walking and talking, that began to fade away. We still had quiet moments for nursing, and nap time, of course, but between them there was a lot of activity. A lot of noise and busyness.
The quiet was being crowded out with mommy tasks and playing and helping her with new words and new feats, like climbing stairs, and later, trees.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. Loved her like nothing I had experienced before. But I also missed my spaciousness, missed myself.
With the help of some amazing mentors and teachers, I began to understand that parenting can be my practice. I could breath and be present right with my daughter, noticing the feelings and thoughts that would press in with the urgency that parenting seems to foster, and remain available for our unfolding connection.
I learned to sense into and savor my love for her, giving myself and my daughter established times when I would pay attention to her and only her, following her lead and allowing my delight in her to flow through me.
I learned to notice the new kinds of worries and divisions in my mind that parenting seems to foster (“If I were a good mom, I would be…”) and draw my attention off of them, back to the present moment of connection with my child and the tasks of mothering.
I learned to stay really present when my daughter started struggling with things–through meltdowns on the kitchen floor, refusals to get in the bathtub, and later, struggles around not wanting to go to school–offering my love and my warmth even as I set needed limits.
I learned a listening practice that I could do with other parents to air out the clutter in my head, the decisions that had to be made, and the many worries of parenting–and drop into the feelings that parenting aroused–allowing me to find my spaciousness, confidence and love for my child when these things felt hard to reach.
I learned how to let loving my child be my practice. And just like any practice, there are times of delightful ease and times of wrenching challenge in it. But this practice of parenting has wrung me out, awakened me, and set me free like none other. By following and being with what comes up as a parent–and getting support from my teachers and other parents in my community–I am more fully alive, more fully myself than I’ve ever been. And I get to be with this amazing person, this miracle, my daughter Leah.