Confession time: My daughter and I have been experiencing a bit of friction in the last few days. Today before school was particularly loud and adversarial and my preparedness to see the pain beneath her complaining voice was getting very thin on the ground. On further reflection, I think a little self-righteous impatience crept in and the energy behind my requests for calm and respectful communication was more accusatory than empathic.
As a psychologist and meditation teacher, I have been practicing mindful awareness of my thoughts and feelings and had paused to reflect on the situation. My attempts at connecting and empathizing fell on deaf ears. I felt frustrated when my mind reached the conclusion that this has gone on long enough. I had switched from kind and curious mindfulness into stress mode and the consequences for all of us were not great.
So this excerpt from Mindful Discipline could not have come at a better time (well, maybe the day before would have been even better!). Reading it, I was able to see more clearly where I had gone wrong and correct with a little self-soothing and forgiveness while she was at school. This is what Chris wrote:
Say "Yes" While Saying "No"
Your children are going to start to assert themselves. This is a natural part of their individuation. Through their behavior, they will -- in part -- be asking you, "Can I really be me -- can I really feel and express what I feel -- and still have your love?" If we want our children to become autonomous -- and paradoxically if we want them to also be empathic and compassionate -- we must do our best to communicate, "Yes. Absolutely. I want you to be you. I may have to help you with appropriate expression so you don't hurt other people or yourself, but that is a separate issue." Allow space for them to assert their will wherever appropriate. And where the behavior or the desired outcome is not appropriate, say, "yes" to their inner world, and separately say "no" to the outer-world action.
Say your 3-year-old son becomes frustrated because another boy has a toy that he wants, and he is about to hit the other boy. You grab his little arm as he is about to swing -- communicating a clear "no" to the hitting -- but get down low, use a soft, but clear voice, and make eye contact to let him know that all is well. You may say to him, "I can see you're frustrated, but we don't hit, buddy." Your nonverbal communication is saying that neither his frustration nor his behavior can disrupt your connection. The overall transmission is, "You and I are fine. It is just that behavior that doesn't work right now."
This reduces feelings of shame and frustration and will help him develop emotional intelligence and better self-control in the long run. And perhaps most importantly, your son will trust your guidance more in the future; he knows you are with him through thick and thin. When we do this well, our children will become better able to modify their behavior because they don't feel a sense of shame.
Too often, parents say "No!" with such a force and lack of connection that children come to think there is something wrong with them as a person. When we say "no" to the behavior, but stay connected to them and let them know through eye contact, tone of voice, and body language that "you and I are fine," they internalize the experience in a completely different way.
Through repeated experiences of saying "yes" while saying "no," their implicit sense becomes, "There is nothing bad or wrong with me. I just made a mistake and need to practice in this area more." This preserves their sense of self as a process, which is absolutely essential for healthy, lifelong growth.
I have re-read this passage several times and each time I am struck by the essential nature of the insight that my task as her mother is to ensure she feels that there is nothing wrong with her and that she and I are fine -- but there are boundaries around what is acceptable behavior. It's something I will endeavor to remain mindful of moving forward.
So for now I am looking after myself. I am sending myself kindness and understanding in this moment because I am not perfect and need to be gentle with myself when I stumble like this. This will refuel me for more heart felt connection with her when she gets home from school. I am grateful for the practices I have learned and can come back to in taking care of myself in this challenging area of motherhood -- and for this excerpt!
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