A Day at the Park
“How did the rose ever open its heart
and give to this world all of it’s beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light (of love)
against it’s being;
otherwise we all remain too frightened.”
The other day while at the park I saw a dad interacting with his son. He was telling the boy, somewhere around age four, that it was time to go. The child smiled wryly and then bolted off for the monkey bars (actually that is a projection from my era — this was more of a Buckminster Fuller-looking geodesic something-or-other).
“Liam…,” the dad said with irritation in his voice.
“One…………….two………..” and just before three, Liam came running over to his father who had already turned away and was walking confidently towards the bench holding their belongings. Watching Liam, I noted his body-language. His gaze was down-cast and he was kicking at the sand as he walked behind his dad. His left shoulder was lifted up by his face and he was moving his head side-to-side as if expressing an inner “no.” His facial expression was a cross between frustrated and sad, and he was a little collapsed in around the front of the chest. When he reached the bench, his father began handing him things to carry and all that was said was, “Here, take this.” Liam took the articles without looking at his father or saying anything. Then, with dad leading the way, they walked off towards their car.
Many of you will find nothing terribly troubling about this exchange. I have seen different versions of this throughout my life and in the grand scheme of things, no real atrocity occurred. And at the same time, if this is the basic tone of interactions between this father and son going forward, both their relationship and Liam’s long term maturation will be diminished.
As I alluded to in the last post, 1-2-3- Magic! and other methods of parenting rooted in the philosophy of behaviorism can achieve short term changes in a child’s behavior, but at a long term cost of delaying development and promoting immaturity. Let’s take a closer look at the underlying dynamics at play in this everyday interaction.
First of all, the fathers decision that ‘it is time to leave the park’ may very well be the right decision — for Liam and for the larger needs of the family. As parents it is our responsibility to feel into what the child needs — not necessarily what they want — and do our best to provide. (The question then becomes: what are needs? One way to define needs might be the proper nourishment required by the intelligent force of maturation to do it’s job and develop our child into their full potential.) And the father must also consider the needs of the other members of the family, including his own, and then make the best call he can after taking all into consideration. We must acknowledge that this is a challenge we parents face multiple times every day and one that is often not easy.
And when Liam runs away after being told it’s time to leave, how many of us would not experience at least a twinge of annoyance? (Twinge to the x power with x= “the number of things on our to-do list that day!”) So it’s important to acknowledge that difficult and often unconscious feelings come up all the time in everyday moments with our kids. Feelings of hurt for not being listened to, subtle fears about failing to get things done, and feelings of powerlessness are all part of my daily inner reactions to ordinary events like this. So I am totally sympathetic with this dad and feel a certain camaraderie in facing this challenge.
But as the dad starts counting, immediately my body senses threat. I feel the dynamic escalating, even as the dad counts “unemotionally” as the “1-2-3-Magic” guide teaches you to do. My cognitive centers propose that this is either going to end in a punishment of some kind or it will end in a child feeling manipulated, overpowered, and disconnected from his dad. But perhaps more importantly, my bodily state alerts me to the “neuroception of threat” that Liam is likely feeling. (See last weeks post for more details.)
When a child is threatened with a consequence for a behavior he is barely beginning to develop control over, this will provoke anxiety in him. Sure Liam is experiencing frustration for not getting to stay and play longer, but that is not a problem at all. We all need to experiencing disappointment at not getting our way in life. These are important and potentially transformative moments in our development. But this can not occur without the support of an adult who can create a “holding” in which the child feels safe enough to be with his vulnerability and sense of loss. Without that support, the child creates the bedrock himself — a layer of self-protection rather than softness; a shield of armor in place of the capacity to care. So Liam is likely inwardly anxious about his capacity for self-control and how it might get him into trouble with his dad again and again. One of the deepest threats human beings face is the loss of relationship with our significant-others. This is especially true of children who rely on their significant-others — the parents — to provide them with all forms of security like food, water, shelter, and protection. Attachment is a powerful drive in the human psyche at all ages, and for dependent children this drive is pre-eminent.
Now let’s look at how Liam’s Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and state of consciousness have likely been affected by this exchange, and how it relates to long term maturation.
First, we can only guess at what Liam’s dad intends to do when he reaches three. Is it a spanking? The punishment of taking away Liam’s favorite game for a week? Is he going to embarrass him in front of all of us at the park? Or is he threatening to leave Liam behind? No matter which of these punishments were to appear at “three,” Liam clearly knew the consequences were not going to be pleasant: his running to his dad showed us that. He experienced the neuroception of threat which mobilized his sympathetic nervous system to deal with the threat. You have to love the intelligence of this system in helping Liam respond to the demands of his environment. At the same time, as you may recall from the last post, this mode of mobilization is not the state from which our bodies, brains, and psyches can grow and mature most ease-fully.
At this point you might be thinking, “Well, it’s a brief part of the day. There will be plenty of time later to rest and be in the “neuroception of safety” where growth can occur.” This is partially true and likely will happen to some degree for Liam, as it does for most other children (myself included) who face punishments for misbehavior. But there are a couple of important things to consider here. This incident will not just have it’s impact in the moment; it will continue to reverberate in Liam’s body-mind well into the future. Think of when you and your intimate partner are “on-the-outs” with each other. If it remains unresolved, don’t you find that your mind keeps coming back to it? Do you not rehash the argument over and over, finding new and clever things that you could have said, remembering other slights that relate to this fight, and telling yourself how they are wrong? This is what our limbic systems do when we are faced with the threat of separation from our loved ones. And this is in the adult mind where a much greater degree of independence has been established. A child’s mind does the same thing. He re-experiences these episodes many times a day like we do (Just watch them when they they are playing with their dolls or GI Joes and are re-enacting the dramas of the day.) And during each replay in the mind his sympathetic nervous system is re-activated, taking up valuable resources — attentional, emotional, and metabolic — that could otherwise be used for growth promoting endeavors.
And over time, if this is the predominant way of getting Liam to “behave,” he will develop his own characteristic patterns of reaction to deal with these threats. His nervous system, in it’s infinite wisdom, will build adaptive defenses into it’s neural structure, while at the same time never becoming free from the need for attachment to significant others. Studies of physiology show this unequivocally. Even in (and especially in) kids who seem not to care, who act like they do not need anyone or anything, we see elevated levels of cortisol, increased micro-perspiration, and heart rate responses to threats that exceed those of children who have experienced less manipulative environments. These patterns of activation in the ANS and limbic system tend to remain in place over ones life-time unless other relationships are encountered where unconditional love is the predominant tone and healing can occur.
Take Home: Punishment and rewards may not be the end of the world, but they do not support our children in becoming fully themselves. Behaviorism is a crude and unsatisfying way to help our children learn the values we hold dear. And ultimately, no punishment or reward can awaken a kind, loving, and compassionate heart that contains the best of human virtues within it. Help your child develop his inner compass through support and reflection rather than threatening their systems and causing them to chronically look outside themselves for little morsels of approval.