The Ripples of War

me and dad

I grew up on a fruit farm. Ten acres to roam around on, climb trees, build forts and generally live outdoors. We also had a bunch of farm cats who lived outside and every year, had litters of kittens.

I loved those kittens. Really loved them.

From the time the mother cat allowed me near them, I’d watch them and snuggle them and pretty much spend most of my waking moments being with them. I watched them squirm around and search for milk with their eyes still glued shut. I would wash their eyes with moistened cotton balls as they got kind of gummy and started to open. I played with them. I took them for walks in my doll carriage. I’d sneak them into my room so they could lay on my lap while I read my books (until my Mom would find them indoors and make me take them out!)

But it was a farm, after all. And these weren’t coddled house cats. Inevitably, many of them died.

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I remember one summer, I was particularly attached to two little kittens I named Pinky and Fonzie. But Pinky, a sweet little calico kitten, got run over by the farm truck as she tried to run across the driveway.

I was devastated.

And that night, I lay in bed, trying to sleep but silently sobbing into my pillow. Eventually, I got up and walked to the kitchen, where my mom was still working, to get some kleenex and blow my nose. I may have been looking for some comfort too – I don’t remember but that would make sense.

My mom looked at me as I walked in. She took in my red-rimmed eyes and sniffly nose. And she said “Oh quit making such a big deal about a cat. What would you do if I died?”

That was it. I got a message that day, and through more subtle signs over the years, I’m sure: feelings aren’t for sharing in this house. Suck it up, don’t make a fuss, keep it hidden. Or, better yet, just don’t feel it.

Even when one of my closest friends was killed in a car accident during my Grade 12 year, I didn’t share anything at home. I cried at my friend’s house.  Or walking alone. But when my mom sat on my bed and said “you know, if you want to talk about it, I’m here…” – I almost snorted. The thought in my head was simply “no thank you!” Of course, I just said “thanks” and rolled over to indicate I was going to sleep (and hopefully to signal her to leave).

As the parent of three intense, sensitive and highly gifted kids, I’ve made different decisions. I knew how it felt to be afraid to feel. I also knew the physical effects of bottling up all those strong emotions that I felt (as a highly sensitive person, myself) – reading “When the Body Says No” by Gabor Mate made me realize the effects of stress on my body and mind! And a life lived trying to learn how to feel again – after years of trying not to, keeping people at a distance and feeling nothing but depression and fear. So I’ve strived to be very different with my own kids.

I’ve encouraged feelings. I talk about what I’m feeling. I help my kids self-reflect and identify their own feelings. I try to create a safe place for them to be honest – with themselves and with other people in their lives – rather than hide or avoid discomfort, fear, anger, sadness, etc…

Because ultimately, feelings are feelings. When I hide my “ugly” feelings and try not to feel them, I turn off my access to joy and wonder as well. You can’t selectively turn feelings off – it just doesn’t work that way!

One day, while visiting my mom’s house during summer holidays, my daughter had a meltdown about something. I don’t remember what. She’s a sensitive kid who feels deeply, which isn’t always easy for her to handle! I focused on her, helped her work through her feelings and the issues at hand, we talked, and eventually, she moved on. All good!

Afterwards, my mom was sitting at the table, looking pensive. I sat down with her. She quietly said “You know, you have to make her stop doing that. She can’t do that – get so upset.”

Inside my head, I kind of laughed. Yeah, right. I’ll just make her stop doing that. Stop feeling. Why in the world would I do that??

I looked at my mom. And I had one of those light bulb moments.

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“Mom,” I said. “You’re exactly like her. And you were exactly the same age as she is now when your family had to pack up what you could carry in a wagon, moved to (Nazi) Germany and lived as refugees all over Eastern Europe. Fleeing bombs. Travelling at night. Running from the advancing Russian line. You were twelve and starting puberty. Your brain was developing. What did it do to you to have to hide all those feelings you felt? It was truly life or death for you – you HAD to learn not to feel.”

She looked at me. Said nothing. And quietly started crying. She couldn’t talk about it. And, well, my family just doesn’t talk about things like that. We talk about the weather. Or the evening news. But not feelings, that’s for sure!

I realized in that moment, and have often pondered since, that war doesn’t just affect soldiers being shot at or families running from bombs. It isn’t limited to the time and place where a war happens.

War ripples through generations.

My parents and their generation learned coping mechanisms that helped them survive World War II.

Their coping mechanisms don’t work for me and my kids anymore. What served them well, to keep them alive when the threat against them was so severe, just doesn’t work in this time and place. The threats now are different. It isn’t bombs that will kill us – it’s the silence and avoidance, the internalizing, the fear of vulnerability and the lack of secure relationships that is killing us. It’s trying to hide from ourselves that breaks us down. It’s the shame that comes from feeling like we “shouldn’t” feel or do the things we do that whittles away at our hope and passion and joy.

Though no one really talks about it, there has been a lot of mental illness and struggle in my generation within my extended family. Divorce. Breakdowns. Even suicide. Depression. Anxiety. This is no coincidence, I’m positive.

I’m trying to break those patterns, because I don’t want these ripples to flow down to another generation. My children deserve better. I deserve better.

My mom deserves better too. But I’m not sure if we’ll manage to move past the weather to talk about feelings again. We’ll see…

Posted in Anxiety, Live, Love and Learn, Parenting | Leave a comment

Kids These Days

I remember going to the park when my youngest son was two years old.

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At one point, I was sitting back while he played with a beach ball. He kicked it over into a group of teenagers, mostly boys, who were walking through the park. And I immediately jumped up and started to run over. Why? I asked myself, as I hesitated a moment mid stride, watching the interaction develop.

I realized that I was anticipating a negative response from the teens – rude, inappropriate, maybe bad language or acting “scary” to my young child. I mean. They’re teenagers. Teens are like that, right?

Instead, one of the boys picked up my son’s ball and ran toward him. The others followed. They had smiles on their faces. They crouched down or sat on the ground and chatted with him. I wasn’t close enough to hear what they were saying because I’d stopped to let the scene play out without adult intervention, but I could see my son’s body language and facial expression – he was ecstatic!

The teens stood up after a few moments, said “bye bye” to my young son, and even looked around to see who was looking after him. They made eye contact with me, used hand signals to ask if he was mine? To which I responded and thanked them for returning his ball. Then they happily wandered off, continuing on their way.

Wow.

How come I had immediately jumped to the conclusions I had? And how come the actual interaction was SO different from what I had expected?

They looked and acted like a typical group of teens. Not the neatest clothing, hats askew, loud voices, energetic, and eclectic. And they behaved just like the teenagers did when I was that age – kind, excited, polite and even responsible. Like real human beings. Hmmm…

Teenagers. The immediate reaction I’ve noticed when the topic turns to teenaged kids is eye rolling, heavy sighs,  and usually some sort of exasperation. It’s just the way it is, right?

Kids these days… They’re all stuck to their phones, don’t know how to interact socially, they never listen, they talk back, they’re entitled and spoiled and the world is going to hell in a hand basket carried by this irresponsible generation…

That’s the “story” we’ve told ourselves about teenagers. Maybe it’s the story every generation has told themselves about their kids.

I started paying more attention after that. Whether I was at the park, at a mall, in a restaurant, in a school. I found teens quite a pleasure to talk with. Sure, sometimes it took a little bit of small talk and an obvious openness on my part to get past some defenses. But wow – teenagers are NEAT people!

But they also push our buttons. They challenge us (adults – parents and teachers, in particular). They challenge authority. They challenge “the way it’s always been.” They talk back to us. They slam doors. They become secretive and don’t tell us everything anymore (like they used to, when they were younger). They don’t clean their rooms. They fight us about doing the dishes, or taking out garbage or doing homework. They’re on Facebook or Tumblr or YouTube or something like that, seems like ALL the time.

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Now I have two teenagers in my home. It’s not easy some days. They bring humility into my life (“Mom, you’re doing what you told us NOT to do!” Doh!) I’m exhausted at the end of every day. Not physically, like I used to be from chasing after a toddler. Now I’m emotionally and mentally exhausted, because they make me think, and question, and grow as a human being. I am becoming a better person in order to be the parent they deserve!

I have to admit, sometimes I prefer hanging out with kids and teens vs. being with adults. There is an energy, honesty and idealism that fills me with hope! That maybe the world really can change. And things can get better.

And maybe therein lies the reason we have this “story” about kids these days – they challenge us and all of our beliefs about the world. They challenge our sense of security and stability, the illusions we have that we “know” how things are and we “know better” than they do.

Thankfully, kids aren’t fooled by our illusions about our “expert” knowledge of the world. Or perhaps they’re just stubborn. They are certainly naive and passionate and persistent. And they do exactly what we need them to do – they challenge the status  quo.

Our challenge, as the adults, is to build real and meaningful relationships with these developing human beings. To build trust, so they can rely on us. To be a “safe” place for them, so they can turn to us for guidance. To truly listen to them and value them, so we can reflect back to them the wonderful people they are! And to teach them, usually through our own modelling, how to questions respectfully, to believe in their own voice, to fall and get up again, and to pursue their dreams.

As Dr Dan Siegel says in Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain – we must strive to be their safe harbour AND their launching pad.

No small task.

But kids these days – they’re amazing. And so very much worth the effort!

Posted in Kids and School, Parenting | 1 Comment

The Privilege of Being Motivated

I came across this picture on Facebook:

willing to learn

It was getting shared and liked a lot. In theory, it sounds great, right? It’s up there with motherhood and apple pie – we accept it as a fundamental truth. It’s a belief that is central to many education change dialogues.

If you are motivated and interested, you will learn.
Nothing can stop you.
We just need to find the way to motivate each learner.

It’s one of the beliefs behind inquiry based learning. And project based learning. And the integration of technology. etc…

In reality, I see this exact belief as one of the greatest flaws in our education system.

Although, to be fair, from birth to five years old, it was kind of true – (almost) nothing could stop us from learning! It wasn’t really about being determined, willing or motivated though – it just came naturally to us. It was self directed, developmentally appropriate, and naturally individualized. Though there was a point at which to be concerned (eg if a child isn’t walking at 2 years old, doctors probably worry), there was also a relatively large variation accepted (one child might be walking at 10 months, another at 14 months). Some talked early – some late. Some liked writing their names in preschool. Some played dress-up. Others could sit and build things with Lego all day.

Learning oral language is also very natural – we all do it, in one way or another. We may learn different languages, but the vast majority of children learn to communicate with sound with very little intervention. Our species has a very long history of oral communication.

Then comes school. And a timeline of expectations and things kids have to learn. With much less variation tolerated. And it’s not “natural” learning anymore. If you’re 7 years old, you’re in Grade 2 and you’re expected to learn how to add and subtract numbers and write in your journal with full sentences and proper punctuation (most of the time). If you don’t do that by June, there’s a problem.

Here’s the thing – kids who engage with the material expected for the year and learn it, are considered “motivated” learners. And there is something magical that happens when a child is excited about learning – they persist longer, they work harder, and it doesn’t even feel like work. It’s what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow.

But if kids DON’T engage with the material, is it because they’re NOT motivated?

Dr Ross Greene’s research has validated what I had already experienced with my own kids: all kids WANT to do well. They’re already motivated. They don’t need anyone to make them more motivated!

Then what stands in the way?

Lagging skills. But usually, very specific kinds of lagging skills.

  • Executive function weaknesses
    • Shifting: ability to make transitions, tolerate change, problem solve flexibly, and switch one’s attention from one focus/topic to another
    • Emotional Control: ability to regulate one’s own emotions
    • Initiation: ability to begin a task or activity without being prompted
    • Working Memory: our “mental juggler” or the ability to hold information in mind in order to complete a task, etc…
    • Inhibit: ability to resist impulses and stop one’s behaviour at the appropriate time
    • Planning and Organization: ability to set a goal and determine the steps required to reach it. And to bring order to information and one’s environment.
    • Monitoring: both task oriented and self monitoring

There are many reasons why kids might have challenges/weaknesses in their executive function skills:

  • Autism
  • Gifted
  • ADHD
  • Sensory integration issues
  • Highly sensitive/emotionally intense
  • Mental health challenges
  • Kids who have insecure attachments with their caregivers for any reason:
    • death in family
    • divorce
    • poverty/insecurity re: food, housing, etc…
    • drug use
    • caregiver mental health issues
    • overly inattentive/distracted/unreliable caregivers
  • Kids who have survived trauma of some kind
    • accidents/injuries
    • physical or emotional abuse

And I’m sure there are more reasons I’m not thinking of right now. But the point is, there are REASONS why kids lack the needed skills to be successful and “motivated” and excited about learning.

The idea of “motivation” that is epitomized in the Facebook photo is one of privilege – it is the privilege of the neuro-typical and securely attached.

And it creates shame and humiliation for those that don’t fit in that box – in ways that damage a child’s self image and create or aggravate behaviour problems, mental health issues (in particular depression and anxiety), etc…

So, if we believe that kids do well IF THEY CAN and they are already motivated, then what do we have to change?

Posted in Anxiety, Attachment, Gifted Learners, Kids and School | 1 Comment

The Time to Teach

One of my kids woke me up at 7am. On a Sunday. When I thought I’d get to sleep in. Sigh.

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My kid slept over at the grandparents. They were going to go out for the day. A text message arrived. A plea for help. Please please bring me some pants, I only packed shorts. I’m freezing!

I hesitated before responding. This could have, maybe even should have, been avoided, with proper planning. Alas, despite the hesitation, I got out of bed, left a note, found the requested pants and drove 15 minutes (each way) to deliver them.

Now, you might read this and think “See? Just another example of parents rescuing their kids too much! That’s the problem with kids these days…” You know, that whole “helicopter parent” thing that often gets pulled out when parents do something to help their kids.

I don’t take that concern lightly either – it’s a constant question in my mind. Am I “saving” them too much? Supporting too much? How do I know what is needed vs. what is hurting them? I don’t want to raise kids who feel entitled to all sorts of things they haven’t worked for.

But I went anyway. The kid came out to the car, thanked me profusely, gave me a big hug and ran off happily for the grandparently adventures.

On the way home, another text message arrived. Thanks again!

Again, I hesitated. For just a moment, I thought “I should say that next time, advance planning needs to be better.” I thought “I should seize the teachable moment.” Again, despite the hesitation, I didn’t. I took a deep breath and checked in with myself, with what I felt my kid really needed, based on the day we had before and the stuff going on in life. And I responded You’re warm, so all good! And I got a hug. Smile 

And then my kid taught me a lesson that I kinda knew but hadn’t articulated yet. The next text message was It really means a lot that you try to be there for me even if it’s inconvenient and you don’t start making me feel bad about it when it is.

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That was an ah-ha moment for me!

It’s so easy to get caught up in thinking “I have to teach them…” that we lose sight of WHEN that teaching is appropriate.

In the heat of a moment, when a mistake has been made, the LAST thing you want is to be lectured about how you should have done better. Come on. If you’re asking for help, you probably already know you could’ve done better. You may even be beating yourself up for making the mistake in the first place!

In the heat of the moment is NOT the time to learn a lesson. It will make you feel worse about yourself and it’s really hard to learn something through a cloud of feeling upset or humiliated. Chances are, it will make you feel resentful of the person trying to teach you.

Yes, there are teachable moments. But kids (actually, people in general, not just kids) need to have safe places to make mistakes, so that they can (later) learn from them.

There’s a time to teach kids. And there’s a time to just be there for them. Knowing the difference is important. In fact, I’d say it’s CRITICAL to raising secure, independent human beings.

Cultivating the patience needed to wait, to bite my tongue and to trust that I’ll remember to come back to the teaching at an appropriate time – that’s how I can be my children’s safe place to land. Because we all need a safe harbour, a place to “come home” to – so that when we’re ready, we can venture out, take risks and make mistakes.

 

To learn more about how dependence leads to independence, the importance of secure attachment and the role of trust/security in the process of psychological maturation, read:

Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate, Hold Onto Your Kids

Dan Siegel, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain

Posted in Attachment, Parenting | 4 Comments