The Ultimate Context

“The most important factor in the parenting equation is not what we do, but who we are to our children.” — Gordon Neufeld


The last post — “A Day in the Park”— elicited many great comments and questions from you all. It became clear after reading them that we need to unpack this very brief and ordinary incident with more precision and clarity, lest we leave ourselves open to attack from our own judging minds and the defensiveness that often ensues. Allow me to make a couple of points that may not have been clear in that post.

It was not intended to be an indictment of this father, of counting “1-2-3,” or anything else. I relayed this very common, real-life example in order to provoke reflection and to explore the many layers of context surrounding events like these. I really do not know anything — about this child, about this dad, about their relationship, about the circumstances in which this dad chose this course of action, or about any possible repair that might have occurred in the car or beyond — so I won’t speculate on their specific case. I do, however, know some things about human development and human nature more generally and feel that it may be useful to drop these reflections into this conscious parenting community’s awareness and see what we can learn together as these insights mix with your own real-life experiences. (So keep the comments and observations coming as our collective wisdom will take us farther than my thoughts alone.)

One of my aims in writing this blog is to begin to make a distinction between the mainstream style of parenting in this culture — which is rooted in the theory of Behaviorism —with what I believe is a more conscious and insightful kind of parenting. This new conscious parenting approach is made possible by the findings of Attachment theory and the emerging field of Interpersonal Neurobiology. Add practices rooted in mindfulness and self-inquiry and you are on your way to using this parenting epoch of your life as a path of conscious transformation.

The research on attachment and neurobiology support the notion that children mature optimally in relationships grounded in unconditional love. This stands in stark contrast to to the conditional doling out of attention and affection extolled by the field of Behaviorism. A Day in the Park was a very brief snapshot of one event I experienced which became a “way in” to talk about the differences between these two general approaches. (And lest this distinction seem to neat and clean for you, let’s come at it another way: most likely there is a behaviorist and an unconditional lover inside each of us.)

Many of you wanted me to suggest an alternative course of action for this father given the scenario. I am not going to do this in this post, but promise to offer some alternatives down the road a bit. Here is why:

One of the tenets of Essential Parenting is to not be prescriptive. I don’t want to get into the business of offering you “The 10 Steps to Perfect Parenting” or trying to provide you with a “How to Manual.” Human relationships do not work that way. They have to flow from being-to-being, not from rational mind to rational mind. For your relationship with your child to be enjoyable and supportive of their optimal maturation, it must flow from you intuitively.

It’s not that you can’t look outside yourself for various perspectives and information (I am reading different perspectives and information all the time!), but these different insights need to be digested and made your own. You are the expert of your own body-mind. You are the expert on your family and it’s dynamics. And you have within you a “truth-detector” that tells you when something fits or not; when something works. Trust that. Trust your bodily response that goes “clunk………this feels right.”

By being open and curious to new perspectives, by adding them to the mix when they fit, and by trusting your bodies “yes” you will be re-engaging your own process of maturation which is my primary intention with Essential Parenting. Notice that the blog sub-title reads: “Enhancing Developmental Potential, One Parent At a Time.” I don’t believe in trickle-down economics, but I am positive that trickle-down parenting happens every day.

I want parenting to become your own unique art form. Life made you in a particular way on purpose, providing this world — and especially your family — with specific talents, flavors of energy, and your own nourishing form of love. Let the information in this blog and from other sources take you deeper into these gifts and into the insights Life is offering you. And relax into the possibility that these unfolding layers of revelation and transformation can happen right here, right now, in the middle of our crazy lives: we can grow up together as a family.

Having said that, I will now offer some general questions that arose for me around this incident:

  • Was Liam prepared for an imminent departure or was it sprung on him unexpectedly?
  • What was Liam’s state leading up to this interaction — hungry, tired, over-stimulated, frustrated?
  • What was Liam’s underlying motivation for running away (Maybe wanting to stay at the park; maybe wanting to be chased by his dad. The latter of these two is easy to “blend with” harmoniously, eliminating the need for intimidation.)
  • What is Liam’s capacity for impulse control given his age, current state, and developmental history?
  • What is the background from which Liam is likely to interpret the fathers counting? Has this happened many times before and ended badly causing Liam to have a gut reaction of fear that causes him to run? Or is he running for the fun of being chased, which dad is clearly not up for this time, and Liam made a quick adjustment?
  • Maybe the father is at the end of his rope and can’t do any better today — totally understandable. And yet I wonder: Is there room for the father to do better in the future? Could he read Liam’s current state better? Could he do a better job preparing Liam to leave, making it more likely that Liam will find his way into alignment with the dad’s request? Could the dad improve on his own capacity for impulse control and impatience? What about touching in when Liam came over to the bench — a little eye contact, or a few words to be sure that any disruption in the relationship was repaired?

Again, these questions are not intended to indict Liam’s father, but rather for you and I to use as way of deepening our capacities of self-reflection and empathy. In doing so, this capacity for what Daniel Siegel calls mindsight, becomes the primary skill through which we can create an environment where harmonious relationships and long-term development are optimized. I can think of nothing more valuable to work towards — can you?

Take Home: Counting “1-2-3″ is not a problem at all; it’s the context that matters most. If your practice is to hold yourself and your child in a field of unconditional love as often as you can possibly muster, then there is nothing to worry about. The force of your love will wash through all difficulties, mis-attunements, and perceived disruptions experienced by your children. This is the ultimate context where all is forgiven as the imperfect business of being human — the field in which we become enlightened to the suffering inherent in our humanity and the strength and invincibility of the vulnerable human heart.

Try: The next time your child is engaged in some behavior that you feel needs modifying, see if you can embody a force of love that outshines your re-direction. As your son goes to muck with that phone again — looking right at you anticipating your response — see if you can say “I love you” with your entire being as loudly as you say “Move along!” with your voice.

It is really challenging to do both at the same time, but I promise you it is possible. Sometimes it can be helpful to imagine them being grown up and moving out, imagine them being very sick, or simply inhale fully into your chest to provoke your heart-swell. Once you feel this fullness, then add the redirection that is needed for safety or harmony in relationship. Play with it and let us know about your experience.

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