The Art of Counting “1-2-3”
Two weeks ago I reported on a little scene I saw at the park. The whole thing lasted maybe 30 seconds, was very ordinary in many respects, and yet my bringing it up has stirred up many comments, questions, and even anger. (I had one conservative friend from the midwest tell me that what I was saying was “dangerous.” She might be right: it probably depends on what kind of adult you are hoping your child grows into.) One of the recurring questions was, “What do you propose as an alternative for this dad from an attachment parenting perspective?” On wednesday, at the very same park, I witnessed one possible answer.
“He is gonna go down the slide,” he said pointing to Kai.
“Yeah…looks like he is. You goin’ down Kai?” I asked.
Kyle looked over towards his mother and then started in on something new.
“One time, I was with my brother and he was near this…”
Kyle got an “awwwwwwww” look on his face and started limply down the slide; half smiling but with a scrunched face. He kind of laid at the bottom of the slide for an extra second or so. I was watching both the mom and Kyle to get a read on what was going down. This is fun stuff for a developmentalist.
“Two and a half….” He started laughing as he grabbed his shoes and turned back toward his mothers direction.
Before she could finish the sentence Kyle was speeding over saying “Sorrr-rryyy” with a huge smile on his face, and again, a touch of embarrassment. As soon as he arrived at the gate she grabbed him and acted like she was “eating him up” around the neck-line which made him giggle like a tired little toddler during wind-down at night.
Kyle and I were talking while on one of the play structures. He appeared to be somewhere around six years old.
“Come on Kyle,” I heard from the distance: “Time to go.”
“One…” called out his mother.
Kyle hit the ground running and said ”Coming!”
Half-way over his mom says, “Where are you shoes mister?!?”
Kyle smiled wryly again, flopped his head over to the left — half embarrassed — and B-lined over towards his shoes sitting near the Buckminster-Fuller looking thing (you really got to check this thing out).
“Two and a quarter…” she called out playfully. He laughed and sped up to 95% capacity.
Another mother sitting on the bench said something to Kyle’s mother. The mom shook her head and said something back, all inaudible to me. While the two mothers engaged in their brief exchange, Kyle got sidetracked and started to tell a story to a friend of his on another structure. When the mother turned her attention back toward him and saw that he was “chatting it up with one of his buddies” she yelled, “KYLE, I AM SOOOOO HUNGRY RIGHT NOW — I AM GOING TO EAT YOU UP!”
Checking in with my bodily response to all of this I felt a fullness through my chest, a brightness in my face and eyes, and an overall relaxedness. It felt like a combination of joy, gratitude, and a sense of the rightness of things. As they were leaving I called out: “Nice spacious counting.” She smiled, and I could feel that she too appreciated the playful dance that had emerged.
I thought this was a beautiful example of working with reality — as it is — in an intuitive and “on-the-fly” kind of way.
This mother wanted to go. She was hungry. And she was aware that Kyle was not likely to come right away and probably prepared herself to be a little patient to meet her short-term goal of getting the desired behavior. She also seemed to be aimed towards maintaining a solid relationship built on trust and a desire to support Kyle’s long-term maturation. She danced with her discomfort and her desire to get moving towards some food. She also embodied a belief that we should be respectful of people, hungry or not; especially our loved ones even if they are children. She continued to give him signals that she wanted to go, but refrained from making him bad or wrong for his forgetfullness and delay. She comunicated her needs without shaming him. She included her “needy” parts, but was free and creative in expressing them (“I AM SOOOOO HUNGRY RIGHT NOW — I AM GOING TO EAT YOU UP!”).
As she exercised her own impulse control, she invited Kyle into relational harmony with her, thereby helping him to work on his own. She invited him to use other peoples feelings to guide his behavior, rather than the threat of a punishment or the enticement of a reward. These capacities of impulse control, empathy, and compassion will serve him well in the long run: punishment and rewards diminish all three.
Clearly this is not “the way,” but rather it is “a way.” There will be times when the child is pushing their agenda more stubbornly and we may have to become more creative or even more powerful and clear. It appears to me that children in the first six years of life respond to physical clarity and interventions more than verbal reasoning. Sometimes we have to just move in and pick them up. Again, if the force of our love is communicated effectively as we set limits, our children benefit enormously from our clear and compassionate action.
And there will be times when we are just too worn out to be creative, patient, and loving in the ways that we want to be. Sometimes we are just all about “getting the hell out of the park” and making it home before someone gets hurt. These are the times when I shift my practice toward getting re-regulated: take the focus off of Kai, tune into my own body-mind, and use my breath and mindful awareness to be a soothing “holding environment” for my own discomfort. Life is hard. Parenting is hard. Acknowledging the truth of this can help lift that silent weight of perfectionism off our backs.
The times that we do act out with our children in ways that are hurtful and temporarily disruptive to the relationship, we must do our best to come back to them and make a repair once we have calmed down. Ruptures and repairs are essential experiences for children. These encounters provide them with an internal mental model that supports resilience: “Even though daddy and I sometimes have difficult exchanges, we always come back together in love.”
Through modeling, we teach our children that even grown-ups have difficulty with feeling angry or tired or frustrated and are still practicing controlling our emotions so as not to hurt the ones we love. This modeling helps children to be patient and steadfast in the face of difficult emotions; both within and without. The children are invited into their own mixed feelings, into developing their temper or “on-the-other-hand” feelings, which over time evolves naturally into the qualities of wisdom and compassion. These “imperfect moments” can become the perfect nourishment for a developing mind.
In the end, I think we just have to learn to dance with it; and I mean all of it. We have to mindfully work with reality as it is. We have to see and accept things as they are, stay as connected as we can, and then allow ourselves to be moved by our own wise and loving heart.
As Jack Kornfield says,
“Do not doubt your own basic goodness. In spite of all confusion and fear, you are born with a heart that knows what is just, loving, and beautiful.”
Try: This week, when the time seems right, try counting “1-2-3″ for your child in a way that maintains an open connection between the two of you, and helps your child toward harmony with you and the family. Be willing to be spontaneous — feeling into your own state of consciousness, the state of your child, and the surrounding circumstances — and just let your own intuition guide you. There is no ‘right” here — only the artful display of the moment.
Share what emerges from this practice with the rest of us!