Mindfulness – A RIE Chat Summary

(Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the world shut down, I began a bi-weekly conversation with the parents who had been in my RIE classes. Since not every family could make it to these conversations, but each conversation touched on important elements, I would often write up a summary of the conversation. What follows is one of those summaries.)

Another Saturday, another quiet day on zoom and another fun morning in the park. Last week was freezing and quiet, this week was hot and busy…I think each week of RIE in the Wild will bring more lessons and more joy.

Now, it was a quiet day on zoom, but I wasn’t completely alone! I had the chance to catch up with a family who’s moved out of the area. It was so fun to see their daughter who, after a few minutes of smiling at me and looking into the camera, pretty quickly got down to the business of some seriously busy play…she played pretty independently for the entire time her Mom and I chatted. She did need the occasional check-in, but for the most part she was pretty self-contained. Her Mom and I talked about things that I’m hearing echoes of from most families I talk to during these covid- days.

For example, her daughter’s sleep schedule has skewed later…napping later in the day, going to bed later at night, and then waking up later in the morning. Good news: as she’s still getting as many hours of sleep as she needs and it works for the family, it’s nothing to worry about! No, that schedule probably won’t work when we’re back to the days of preschools and commutes, but for now, it works, so go with it!

We also talked about work-child balance, something every parent who’s working from home is figuring out. Just like every family is making their own choices about pods, nannies, day care, socializing, etc., every family is similarly figuring out how to balance working and being a parent these days. And balance it is…remember to think of ‘balance’ in the verb format, active. Some days are going to be more work-heavy and others will be more child-heavy; some days you can get more done and some days you let more go. Even though we’ve been doing this for months, we’ve only been doing this for months: there’s still a lot of figuring it out as you go along, and that’s okay!

We also talked about screens and technology: true confessions, most parents I’ve talked to are leaning a little more heavily on screens than they feel comfortable with. It’s part of life these days…the most important thing you can do is make informed, better choices about the type of media you use (nature programs, slow TV, interactive things like video chats or online classes with other people)…and hold onto that feeling of discomfort. Just like wonky sleep schedules, life will even out again someday, and you will want to leave ‘too much screen time’ in the dust along with masks and physical distancing.

As these are parents of a toddler, they’ve also been dealing with hitting and kicking and falling apart when things don’t go her way (the toddler, not the mother…as far as I know!). Ugh. I’m sorry: the second and third year of life are ripe with power struggles and all that goes with that. It’s Erik Erikson’s stage of ‘autonomy vs shame and doubt’: what can I do, how powerful am I? Children are figuring out how much they can do and how much control they have…at a stage in their lives where so many things are challenging for their skill levels and their prefrontal cortexes are just barely coming online. The good news is, you are RIE parents, so there’s a lot that your child can already do because you’ve been involving them in their own care for so long now…you’re used to giving them autonomy. Pat yourself on the back and remind yourself: this could be so much worse. The bad news is, your child will still test boundaries, will still fall apart at times, might still lash out when upset. It’s important to keep in mind that this is developmental and expected (not that it doesn’t need to be corrected: Magda once said we are born human, not humane). Boundaries and limits are important to us all at any stage of life, but particularly important now…they help children feel secure and competent at the same time. Actually, this parent shared how much more peaceful her child is now that she no longer has an overly-permissive nanny. She knows where the limits are, so she doesn’t have to keep pushing for them.

Speaking of boundaries and limits and peacefully setting both, I’m so pleased to share with you another resource: Raising Good Humans, A mindful guide to breaking the cycle of reactive parenting and raising kind, confident kids. I devoured this book in a matter of hours…to be honest, that was completely the wrong way to read this book! You see, the author intended to not only share information and strategies, but also to encourage readers to slow down and to practice daily meditations. If I read it and followed it ‘correctly,’ I would have taken a chapter a week approach, practicing the meditations that she outlines in clear and concise language. I was too excited to do it that way, though, because so much of what she talked about resonated so much with what we do in RIE!

The book is divided into two parts: the first asks parents to focus on themselves…which makes sense: you can’t take care of others unless you’re taking care of yourself. “You are half of the parent-child relationship…take responsibility for what you are bringing to the table. When you start to transform your thoughts from harsh criticism and judgement to empathy and acceptance of your humanity, this translates into more empathy and acceptance of others” (p. 68).

The first chapter talks about what happens in our brains when we’re stressed: the reactive parts of our brains hijack the rational, thinking parts of our brains and, well: react. Evolutionarily speaking, that’s a good thing because it’s what got our DNA to persist until present day; couple that with the negativity bias, or the way our brains particularly seek out and pay attention to things that threaten us, and you can see how our ancestors stayed alive. The problem is, we no longer have to look out for lions and tigers and bears (oh my), on the regular, but our brains are still programmed to do that. This is why when your child has challenging behaviors, we tend to focus on those more attentively than we do the positive ones. “Left unexamined and unchecked, our biology is setting us up for a negative experience of parenting. But it doesn’t have to be this way” (p. 15). Clarke-Fields makes a very compelling argument for the ability of a daily mindfulness meditation practice to actually change our brains: to make our brains become less reactive and, in fact, more attentive and able to concentrate. She provides no less than EIGHT different mindfulness activities in the first chapter alone (from eating a raisin to connecting to your body to going for a mindful walk…she even suggests the mindful activity of seeing your child with fresh eyes, something we practice in every RIE class)!

The second, third, and fourth chapters walk you through thinking about and disarming your triggers, practicing self-compassion, and coping with difficult feelings. What I appreciate so much about this book is that she normalizes anger and yelling without giving it a pass, gently explaining both the reasons behind them and the damage they can do (for instance, yelling actually leads to children that are more verbally and physically aggressive). In addition to this, she gives several practical steps for working through and diffusing anger and allowing for self-compassion.

I like how the book slowly walks you through your own brain functioning and emotional responses and leads you right to children and their brain functioning and strong emotions. Chapter 4 is a beautiful example of this: working from allowing ourselves to work through deep feelings to how to help children do that…which is the perfect lead into the second part of the book: listening to help and heal, saying the right things, solving problems mindfully, and supporting your peaceful home. Much of what she says are things I’ve said in other posts, pieces of other helpful books (No Drama Discipline, The Opposite of COMBAT, Beyond Behaviors), which I love…but she goes further and provides simple exercises to help you build those muscles of slowing down, reflective listening, and setting limits in ways they will be heard and responded to (“Let’s face it: in our interactions with our kids, we’re usually trying to manipulate them – to make them do something. We need to change our way of thinking, from changing the other to expressing our own unmet needs” (p. 113). And she wraps the book up with a chapter on how to bring more peace and simplicity into your daily lives. Who doesn’t need more of that?

Throughout every chapter, Clarke-Fields reminds of key truths to life and especially to parenting:

We suffer when we think of our feelings, behaviors,
and thoughts as ‘always’ and ‘never’.
(p. 26)

It’s a shame how often we deride ourselves and each other for having strong feelings. It’s like berating someone for breathing.
(p. 38)

When we’re not meeting our own needs, we have nothing to give.
(p. 43)

Our nervous system receives the simple act of hurrying as a threat, which triggers the stress response.
(p. 64).

Every time your child talks to you, he wants to make a connection…think of the act as a bell of mindfulness –
a reminder to pause and listen with all of your attention.

(p. 95).

I do encourage you to check out this book, take the parts from it that speak to you, and leave the rest. It’s a quick and engaging read that feels supportive and encouraging, without feeling pedantic. If you read it, please let me know what you think about it…and if you want to read it and discuss it with a group, let me know that as well.

Ah…finishing up just in time to head out for a walk as the sun sets. I hope you are all finding something to restore your souls this fine weekend.

Oh, and as much as I love Clarke-Fields’ quotations, I can’t let a Saturday pass without a reading from The Parents’ Tao Te Ching, can I?

64. The Only Step Necessary

You do not have to make your children
into wonderful people.
You only have to remind them
that they are wonderful people.
If you do this consistently
from the day they are born
they will believe it easily.

You cannot force your will
upon other human beings.
You can not hurry children
along the road to maturity.
And the only step necessary
on their long journey of life
is the next small one.
I designed and printed a bumper sticker
when my son was a teenager.
It said,
“My child is an ordinary student,
and a wonderful person.”
My son loved it.
Both of my children are,
always have been,
and always will be,
wonderful people.
The same is true of your children.
No matter what.