Gift love

Sometimes love is easy; other times… not so easy. When love is easy it bubbles to the surface of our skin, comes out in words, touch, and little notes. We don’t have to think about it. When love does not come easily it can still be given consciously and with effort. This, is gift love.

This post has been in my drafts folder since A was small enough to nap on her dad’s body. The picture is out of date but I kept it anyway because I like the palpable familial love so visible in it. I like to see M’s eyes sparkle; and baby A in that purple dress with her one-year-old mowhawk before the sides of her hair had grown in. I love the moment when this picture was taken.

Gift love started as my way of thinking about how to reconcile daily grievances, make-up when the unthinkable just happened, and forgive when apologies have not necessarily been given. Anyone with a spouse will relate, but also anyone with any valued long-term relationship; be it with a parent, sibling, lover, child, or friend.

The first few years of parenting are hard on a marriage, and I’m not sure it gets any easier. Why are relationships so hard? Why is it that the people we love most have this endless potential to cause harm; to take the most tender parts of ourselves, twist them into something ugly, and fling it back into our faces?

Gift love, put simply, is empathy. It is meeting a person where they are and saying,”I see you.” In loving a person at their worst we invest in the parts of them that are soft, vulnerable, fragile, and help those parts to grow. To love a child is somehow easier than loving an adult, but it is the same. Each of us was once a child. Each of us started out as precious.

Gift love is the love we give even when we don’t feel like it. It is courage mustered in small moments when we want to roll away and offer our back, but instead roll to and bravely talk about how we feel. It is a love given humbly, in remembrance of the big picture, and to the people without whom we would be lost. When it all falls apart, someone has to start somewhere.

I wish there existed some rote method of reconciliation that everyone was trained in: Then we could just move through the process and get on with it. You speak, and I will listen. I speak, and you listen. We each apologize and take responsibility for harms caused. Forgiveness is complete. Once again, we feel safe and loved in each other’s presence and the relationship is whole. We part ways feeling right with the world.

What holds us back? Part of gift love for me is that I will only take your words 100% seriously when you are clear-headed, centered, and speaking from the most authentic core of your being. I picture a circle of emotions that each of us works with. All of the places we reach for in difficult moments are along the edge: ego, pride, anger, control, defense, greed. The center is where the heart is; the authentic place we speak from when we are feeling vulnerable but brave and can be proud of our words and actions. When we speak from this place it is easy to love ourselves and each other; and when the conversation is over we rest in the knowledge that we did our best.

What do we do with nasty things said in a heated moment? The things we can’t rescind or un-hear hold kernels of truth. Take them seriously and reflect; but at the end if the day, understand that my harsh words are more a reflection of how I am doing on this difficult journey than of how you are doing. Know that I will want a chance to make things right.

Relational stress is the worst for me; it hurts for years. On the receiving end of an ear-full I take your words pretty hard. Maybe I should see that you aren’t centered in your emotional circle and try not to take you so literally. Maybe, if I stay centered, I can resolve some piece of your suffering rather than adding to it.

I am trying out this idea of asking people to apologize. It’s awkward but if you need something, ask for it. If I didn’t believe in you, if I didn’t value our relationship and want it to continue, I wouldn’t bother. I would write you off as a lousy human and move on. Revealing my hurt, is me loving you. This too, is gift love.

As a person who messes up frequently, I have had lots of practice apologizing. I have no shame in righting my past wrongs. If I caused you harm then I was oblivious to your needs in that moment or not centered in my circle. I don’t feel a need to justify my past poor behaviors; so please, just ask. I will hear your words as a gift.

I want to be a refuge for my people; a place where you can come to be heard and understood. I look at myself and my husband in this picture and I see how our lives have become more stressful than they used to be. I see how needs now go unmet; his and mine. Still, on a good day, we make each other lunch. We hold hands and kiss before dinner every night. We prioritize time together on weekends during nap time. I see how these small efforts, made with great love, accumulative into the days of our life. Love given freely always comes back in some form.

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Ten helpful ideas for parenting strong-willed kids (part 2)

In part 1 of this story, I shared our family’s reconciliation between practical parenting needs with our daughter’s strong will. Here, I summarize some points for parents struggling with the same behaviors and provide references for further exploration. Enjoy!

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Strong-willed children cannot be made to do anything they don’t want to do, but they can be convinced. If the expectation is reasonable, and your child understands the reasons and loves you, then your kid will often be on your side. Here’s how:

1. Value your relationship above all else and give up control whenever possible. For example, my daughter gets full control over what clothes, hair-dos, and blankets she wears (life-threatening situations excepted). At age three, she is granted these rights and also the responsibility for her choices. For example, she has full permission to puddle stomp, but I don’t end adventures early because she’s wet.

2. Parent in the affirmative. Say yes whenever possible, as in: “Sure, you can have a treat. As soon as you pick up your toys, like we talked about.” Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do and go along with her antics, ideas, and fun-loving nature when you can. Delight in her.

3. Avoid power struggles and direct commands; e.g. whenever you don’t care enough to take it to the death. In moments of small infringement when I got nothing, I often say, “I don’t like it when you do that,” and go on as if nothing happened. Kids have nothing to lose, and their conviction is often stronger than ours. Instead of mandating what your child must do, explain what you will do, the behaviors you will tolerate, and what will happen if you don’t see some cooperation.

4. Save your breath. Adults who give constant feedback risk becoming innocuous background noise. Remember the teacher from Charlie Brown? Waa wah wah waa wah wah. Don’t belabor the point when behavior is marginal or danger is a mere possibility. Your words may then ring true in moments that count.

5. Allow natural consequences to teach your child. If there’s none then think up an appropriate one and offer it as an alternate choice to the behavior you want. Don’t offer choices you’re not 100% ok with and don’t invest in the outcome. Stay neutral. It’s up to your kid to cooperate or take the consequence.

6. Set a few rules, even for toddlers (age 1) that you know you can enforce. Articulate the reasons behind the rules, the music behind the madness. A strong-willed child needs to understand why rules are in place, and have permission to work the available loop holes. She will be looking for them. When your kid discovers situations where the reasons don’t apply, then bend and hope she’ll learn from your modeling. “I see your point,” I like to say. “I can be flexible about that.” Or “Sure you can; as long as it’s not a problem.”

7. If you want your kid to listen the first time then don’t ask more than once. Assume your kid remembers and understands what you said. Choose a consistent cue like “uh-oh” to let your child know that a choice or consequence is coming. You are not required by law to give a warning before a consequence.

8. Try non-verbal forms of communication. Refrain from verbal directives especially in moments when your child is “on the edge.” Open your arms for a hug. Hold up a single finger for “just a minute.” Learn the sign for “don’t touch.” Reach out your hand to hold when you want to leave. Go get him or move to where you want him and start eating, reading, etc. Give him a chance to follow of his own accord.

9. In emotionally charged, right-brained moments (i.e. tantrums), a. Use non-verbal signals to communicate comfort. b. Offer empathy to validate feelings and help your child get calm. c. Be a good listener or talk a non-verbal child through what happened. d. Wait to reflect and request different types of behavior until your child is back at stasis.

10. Decide what qualities you want to cultivate in yourself and don’t let your child push you to become angry, anxious, or mean. Keep your cool. Kindness can be the most effective way to change challenging behavior. Your kid is going to grow up to be awesome.

Suggested resources:

Circle of Security International www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/

Cline FW & J Fay (1990) Parenting with Love and Logic.

Forehand R & N Long (2002) Parenting the Strong-Willed Child.

Shanker S (2016) Self Reg.

Siegel DJ & T Payne Bryson (2014) No-Drama Discipline.

Tobias CU (2012) You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded).

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Karma bulldogs

This morning my daughter A makes up a little game. One dog food bowl has a little kibble left in it; the other a little water; so she dumps the food into the water, the sloppy wet kibble back into the other bowl, back and forth, to create a ticking time-bomb of a mess. I allow it for one simple reason: I am washing the dishes.

Sink empty, I take on A’s fall out. Wet kibble is harder to clean up than I thought it would be… still I’m feeling fine (I chose this after all). But A is unsatisfied by my contented mood. She looks at me sideways, picks up a bowl of yogurt and berries, and chucks it into the mix.

In a moment of surprising maturity, I look at this small human, who is both so adorable and so infuriating, and in a calm voice I say, “I’m starting to feel mad.”

I’ve been wanting to talk about difficult emotions (I’m a writer; that’s what we do). It was a toss up between anger and shame, but it looks like anger just won.

Photo by N. Hanson

I have tried to build skill around anger for as long as I can remember, but I never improved much until A came into my life. Guess I needed a 24:7 immersion to get enough practice.

Baby A inspires me to do better when it comes to emotional self-control, yet I still fall short sometimes (every day?). I want A to understand how to express her emotions authentically but also kindly. I want her to know it’s possible to resolve conflicts by talking and listening.

I want A to grow up in a peaceful home. I know a non-violent existence is possible even if I’m not there yet. I want to be it so that I can believe it; but also I want to teach my child what is possible through my own example. What is seen is so much more powerful than what is said.

I am always looking for some tip or trick to help me break that quick link between emotion and action, but if you offer Zen advice on how to handle anger skillfully then I automatically doubt you’ve ever experienced the real thing. In my mind your advice can’t be both useful and authentic.

How are any of us supposed to break in a gas-pedal moment well enough to respond instead of react? There is no time to count to five, find compassion, or breathe. Here’s some advice from one who knows anger: Get everyone out of the house. Leave the hard-drives and important documents.

If you want to save the world, it’s best to start with yourself. Maintaining enough perspective during the kibble incident that I actually 1. Remain calm, and 2. Use my words, makes me so proud of myself. It has taken more than a decade of hard work to arrive here. And I’m proud of A too. In response to my words, she lifts her hand, touches me on the face, and says, “Pat, pat, mama.”

Pat, pat is the gentle way I’ve taught A to touch living things. Friendly dogs like a pat, pat. Plants, too, get a pat, pat. Apparently, so do angry mamas.

We laugh. Seas dissipate. Clouds part. Birds sing. At 3′ tall and just shy of 30 lbs, my daughter knows more about how to push my buttons than anyone. But she also knows more than anyone about how to help me feel better.

Just as a parent shapes a child, a child also shapes her parents. Kids are karma bulldogs who lead us down life’s path on short, taut leashes. If you seek patience, you will get a trying child, and thereby you will learn patience. If you seek self-containment, your child will make you an island. If you seek inspiration, you will get a child who makes your heart sing. My child does all of these things for me.

My old habit in handling anger was to get quieter and say nothing until I became mad enough to shut down the party. I had this secret (as in unconscious) three-strikes system: Cross me once, and you will never know it. Cross me twice, and I will maintain. But cross me a third time and I blow like Kilauea.

In a recent moment, my husband was the victim of my ‘three strikes’ system. When I blew, my reaction seemed to come out of nowhere. What he said, with confusion on his face, was: “But you can be so nice sometimes!”

Staying quiet during the initial phase of my anger does my family a disservice. No one ever tried to help me calm down because no one knew I was mad. How could they? They never even saw it coming.

Letting my family know how I feel gives loved ones an opportunity to change course or to help me change course. Also, the use of “I feel” words integrates strong emotions from the limbic brain – a place of instinct and quick decision making – through the rational prefrontal cortex to a more empathetic and reasonable place.

I watch my behavior and try to understand what keeps me coming back to anger. Here’s what I see:

There exists an illusion that anger is useful in regaining order amidst chaos. When rage monster appears in a room, everyone stops and does whatever they can to get her to go away again. When it’s all too much, there’s always the option to go ballistic and bring people back under order.

Anger is effective, but it’s not very nice. Anger justifies itself, claiming you are the only rational person in the room. But really, people appease you because they are afraid or think you’re nuts.

I am looking for a middle way. So, I’ve decided to keep this little phrase: I’m starting to feel mad. I say these words at the first hint of a spark; long before the inner Kilauea starts to boil and all the good people should run for cover. I say these words for my husband, my toddler, or for myself if no one is around. Before the dark cloud moves in solidly over my face, before I yell or threaten, I say these words, and we are all spared.

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