My name is Niels Teunis, and I help working parents spend more time with their kids. Sign up here to get weekly tools and tips to help you be more connected to your children.
I use one. Religiously. And it has saved my skin more than once. I cannot recommend highly enough if you have ever wondered what to do with bills you need to pay before a certain date, or any kind of paper you need to see on a specific day.
It is called a tickler file. I have one from David Allen, but he doesn't sell them any more. I am so glad to have found another one I can point you to. This came via Jeri Dansky at the Unclutterer. It looks like a fine tool and I believe you will find it very handy.
What do you use it for? I put bills in there, tickets, mail that needs to be sent later, notes that I want to think about but not today. Whatever piece of paper you have that you need to see again later, on another day, goes into my tickler file.
Here is a pdf from David Allen on how to use it.
I use mine in such a way that I often don't even remember paying a bill. When I started using mine, I would ask myself if I had paid something, and then when I checked I found that I had. I no longer have that fear. I know that my system just works.
Anyway, there you have it. A tickler file to keep in your spot.
If there is one thing that I would like to take back from my pre-parenting days, it is the ability to create silence when I want to. I have to admit that I tend to blame my step-daughter for breaking the silence. But I am wrong about that. The reason I am wrong about that is not that she cannot be very loud. She can be. It is that the rest of the world has become so noisy that I cannot hear myself think.
We live in a world where silence is hard to come by. Max Picard wrote in the first half of the 20th century that
Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence.
My step-daughter is not to blame for the change in the world. She is suffering from it. Her noise is often her own way of dealing with all the stress that she has endured in this loud world. We all are suffering. And our parenting suffers too.
There would be no reason to teach anybody any listening practice, if silence were a companion in our lives. Listening would be as natural as breathing. But it is my wife Angela's job to teach parents listening tools, exactly because they live such noisy lives.
Parenting starts not by demanding silence from our children, but by creating a space for silence in ourselves from which we can listen to them.
If we want our children to listen, we first need to listen to them. There is no other way to teach listening genuinely than this. Any other way of imposing silence is a way of shutting down children. There is a distinct difference between children who have been silenced, and those who can be quiet. There is a difference between shut-down and at peace.
Both parents and leaders can listen better. Let alone leading parents.
Tom Peters has been urging leaders to listen for some time now, and continues to do so. It is the ultimate form of respect, he reminds us. As that is true for leaders, so it is for parents. Listening to children is our way of showing them respect.
Likewise, John Maxwell reminds us that
If you ask questions and you want real answers, you have no choice but to let people know that you are actually listening to those answers. That seems like a simple truism. And yet, we all know the joke: if I want your opinion, I will give it to you.
How often do parents think that way? Not consciously, not spitefully. But the stresses in our lives accumulate to the point where we can no longer hear ourselves think. Parenting is hard. And too much noise is interfering with our ability to listen to our children, to enjoy them.
Only by listening deeply can parents discern the important pieces of information that are right in front of us. The sullen presence of a child, the irritating tone of voice, the indifferent shrug of the shoulders, these are all signs of a child's emotional state. These are not "bad behavior." They are in distress, which is no wonder since they spend so much of their time in school. Schools are prisons to them and intensely dangerous and stressful.
That is why deep listening is the first step to increasing children's empathy. Yes, the stress in children's lives make them less empathetic. But reducing their stress cannot be a one-sided affair of something we do for them. We can teach them and talk to them about all the important things we know of. But only when we come along side them, quietly, presently, will they believe and feel that our empathy for them is real.
Children's empathy is already present. It can be taken away by a noisy society that doesn't listen to them. But I firmly believe that we cannot inculcate empathy where it didn't exist. That we can take it away is alas, all too evident in our politicians. But your child? She is full of empathy. All you have have to do is create a space in yourself to see and hear it.
What place does silence have in your life?
Finally, I here is the trailer if what I hope will be a highly successful film. I know that I want to see it.
I didn’t think I would write this, but here it comes:
You have to be the center of your life!
All of our parenting experience screams at us that our children have become the center of our lives. But when you take up the challenge of leadership in your family, and put connection first, you are immediately required that you put yourself at the center of your world. Let me explain.
When we go to work, we often find that the demands of family life have to yield to work exigencies. In other words, our families really exist to support our work. Except that it is often not our work, but the work of others that we are paid to contribute to.
Leading in a Culture of Connection means that we establish connection within our families first.
And to do that well, we have to be available for connection. So, yes, it all starts with this question:
Who do I have to be, and what do I need to do, to be available for connection?
You are at the center.
Leadership means acknowledging that a part of this world is your responsibility. Parents fit that bill perfectly. You are in charge of your family. You just may never have thought of yourself as a leader of your family, but thinking of yourself explicitly as a leader can do some important things for you and your family.
First of all, if you are not leading, someone else is. And perhaps you already feel that someone else is in charge. That would stand to reason. Your child may feel more in charge than you at times. And then there are the many things you have to do to put food on the table, bring your child to school, and make sure you don’t look the idiot in the process. Even when you feel that your child is in charge, or perhaps especially when you feel that way, it is important to first exercise your own leadership. Letting your child be in charge then becomes a conscious and healthy decision to foreground their brilliance.
What does it mean to be a leader though? Let me offer some ideas.
I have been deeply influenced by the work of Steve Farber who trains people in what he calls extreme leadership. Extreme leadership is the kind where you pursue each day the so called OS!M.
What is OS!M? Well, imagine you are standing in the open door of an airplane with a chute on your back. You are about to jump out. What do you say? OOOOHHHHHH S…. The OS!M is the Moment you say Oh Sh’t. Extreme leaders, who want to make dent in the universe, pursue such moments each day. It is an attitude you bring to your leadership.
Parenting calls for an attitude of extreme leadership. I think that that is true in particular when you want to forge a culture of connection in your family and with the people you interact with. There are too many instances when choosing connection with your family over other options is a radical choice.
How connected do your children feel over Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family, when their main duty is to sit still?
How connected do they feel when you put in overtime at work, or attend the after-work social?
How connected do they feel at school all day long?
I venture to say that of all the events children are part of outside of your immediate family, most of them hinder rather than support connection between you and your kids. And that is just one reason why leadership that supports connection requires that you take risks and say oh sh’t every now and then.
There are other reasons though.
How do you come home from work, obligations, events?
Do you feel that parenting is unfair, because after a demanding day you can’t come home to restore, but you find that you are still on?
When you feel that way, what is your conclusion? Does it make you resent parenting or does it make you resent the activity you just came from?
We are encouraged to resent parenting. We feel that our obligation is just that, an inevitable obligation, as if parenting can be dispensed with, put on the backburner. It is not easy to confront this reality, let alone to decide to change it. It does make you go, Oh S…!
Mad at them
In our day to day, we experience the need for this attitude mostly when we get mad at our children. I believe that we get mad at our children, essentially for two reasons.
First, they remind us of ourselves in the past. This is what is called restimulation. We bring our past and all the feelings connected to our past with us each and every day. And there are many times we get frustrated with our kids, not because of who they are or what they do, but because of ourselves. What do you mean you want to have fun? I never had fun when I was a child!
Second, we have to make our children do things they don’t want to do. We make them do things they resist, and even though they are right to resist them, we feel we have no choice but to make them do it. In other words, their frustration frustrates us. We are frustrated, and the only place we have to put our anger is them.
We are in situations where we feel we have no choice. We have no choice but to go to work, we have no choice but to bring them to school, we have no choice but to bring them to daycare. Not only do we think we have no choice, the situation is so ingrained in us, we are part of the world that believes we have no choice.
We no longer realize that we believe that we have no choice. We just go about the day. And the only thing we can do in such a situation is to take our frustration out on our children.
We could also begin from a place of compassion with our children. If we believe that they are right, and believe they often are, then we can see what they see: we have accepted certain realities in our lives that have greatly limited our freedom to act.
They have to go to school. We have to go to work. I am not qualifying these facts. Whatever you believe about these, the fact remains that they have to be done. Why would we expect that our children are just going to accept this?
The fact is that they will accept a great many injustices in the world on one condition: that they get to accept it with us. That is not to say they are not going to hate aspects of the situation, but if you can stay with them that and see them in it, well, then they cope from a place of being seen, of feeling felt.
When you rush them out the door in the morning to a school that belittles them, why on earth would they agree with that? It is still connection with you that makes even unbearable situations bearable. It is the lack of connection that they resist, not just school, or your work or whatever else gets in the way of their connection with you.
Against the grain
Matthew Lieberman tells us that terrific leaders have two characteristics.
- They are goal oriented and
- they are highly social.
The percentage of leaders that actually have both of these in spades are few and far between though. In the business world they are less than 1%. The goal oriented people dominate, and that makes sense in a world that not only has forgotten that we are social being first and foremost. In fact, many businesses make their money banking on the fact that we have forgotten too.
This is a world where the response to war was to send us shopping (remember that), not to suggest we stick in close with loved ones—like perhaps those we sent to war. Literally, if we are closely connected, we don’t need all that … stuff (I was about to use another word).
Erik Fromm, the psychoanalyst, wrote about loving as an art form. As an art form that we can practice and become better at it, through dedicated study. That practice though requires our supreme focus, and we are not able to give it that focus, because we live in a world where all that focus is on production and consumption.
To practice the art of loving then is a highly subversive practice, one that requires courage. I am not saying this to make you feel hopeless. It is true that the deck is stacked against us, parents who seek to connect to our children, our partners, and other parents. It is no coincidence that our work is so difficult. It is hard by design.
I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it is easy to recognize that an enormous amount of thought and money is spent on making us buy stuff, rather than in supporting us to connect. Even those economists I really like, champions of the middle class and the poor such as Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, focus on our capacity to consume. If the middle class could consume more, we could buy our way to a stronger economy. But not to a more connected household (though less financial stress will make things a lot easier).
What does this mean for your leadership in your family? Quite simply this.
If you want a connected family, if you realize that connection is a basic need and that it is your job to foster such connection, you are bucking the trend.
You will meet resistance, disbelief, frowned brows. You are refusing to play along anymore. That is frightening—we are already feeling isolated as parents, and now we have to potentially isolate ourselves further. I don’t have a simple solution, or a plan of action. You have to take leadership in your family. But it helps me to realize that the reason parenting feels hard is not the result of a defect of mine, not a failure on my part. We are up against “the system.”
Please. I hope that this will make you celebrate each and every victory, however seemingly small. There are no small victories. There really aren’t. Each time you can sing a song when you walk them to the door, when you can make them smile or laugh on your way to the doctor, you have a small victory. Also, you may decide to have a call-in-sick day for you and your children. You skip work and they skip school. You stay home, watch movies and eat popcorn. Once every couple of months or so. These are incidents that may wet your appetite for more connection over and against the “normal” and “reasonable” needs of this society.
Lawrence Cohen’s new book, The Opposite of Worry, is a riveting read. That is quite a feat for a book that deals with children’s anxieties. Sure, his pleasant narrative style takes the reader along in a comfortable pace. You never feel rushed by his writing, nor do you feel like your drudging through a bone dry text. He talks to you and you can just feel it coming. When you want to deal with your children’s anxiety, deal with your own first.
Of course, Cohen gives it away in the introduction. He talks about an experiment he did as a child. He noticed that frightened chickens look to other chickens to see if the environment is safe. And that is precisely what our children do.
They look to us, their parents, to see if they are safe. But he doesn’t leave us hanging there, obviously, but has instead written a wonderful book full of ideas about the ways in which you can overcome your child’s anxiety and your own.
The first and most obvious way to start dealing with your own anxiety he learned from Patty Wipfler: listening partnerships. If the books stopped there, this would be good advice, but we are only on chapter 2 so far. He just reviewed that fear and anxiety are part of life. That your children are scared or anxious from time to time is in some way good news. They are in the world and are interacting appropriately.
The first response he suggests that parents cultivate towards their children when they get scared or anxious is one of empathy. It sounds so basic, doesn’t it? I thought so too, but I have to admit that the thoughts of a non-empathetic parent have swirled through my mind more times than I care to admit, and I probably expressed them more often than I would like to divulge. A response to a child’s anxiety that is not empathetic often has a tone of exasperation to it. “Don’t be a baby.” “You are just imagining things.” “Just do it!”
You know, Larry, she’ll recover better from a broken arm than from being timid and unsure of herself.
These responses have the disadvantage of sounding true to the parent. But even if that is the case they fall in the category of true but useless. As response they don’t work, as Cohen explains, because they don’t convey to your child that all is clear. The all clear signal, is something that they are looking for in their parents, most of all, but in all adults who have responsibility for them.
The real trouble begins when the children can no longer feel the all clear signal. No matter how much empathy you display in the moment, how much your calm presence exudes that they are safe, a really anxious child simply cannot receive the message that they can stop worrying now. Great! Now what?
Engaging the body is a critical way to help your children learn to develop and trust their own Security System. Fear and anxiety shut bodily functions down (no need for digestion when you need to run). But how to re-engage your child’s body depends on how anxious he is. When a child is in full panic mode, physical comfort is really the best you can offer. Cuddling, humming, gently massaging. Your children may, at this point, not express their fear. When they do, you cannot miss it. They will be shaking, trembling, sweating, screaming, crying. If they don’t, asking them to shake on purpose can be very helpful. When they do, well, thank goodness. What they are showing you is disconcerting for you as a parent, but it is the expression of their fear. Cohen calls this, “Getting Unscared.” At this point it is not necessary, nor helpful, to ask them to “use their words.” They are healing.
When they are anxious but not at the level of a full blown panic attack, there are various ways to engage your child’s body. This is where it is necessary to read the book, because you must tailor the approach to your child. Quiet mindfulness techniques or more expressive physical modes, it depends very much on your child, but they can all work to lower your child’s anxiety and help them return to a relaxed state.
Of course, a big question is how to help your child overcome their fears and anxieties. Cohen describes his approach as finding the edge. The edge lies between avoidance and full frontal attack, which typically floods your child with more feelings than he can handle. It is very understandable for a parent to help your child avoid the fearful moments.
It is an unpleasant time for your child and why put her through that. However, “supporting avoidance abandons children to their anxiety and fear.” And Cohen speaks from personal, not just professional experience. At the same time, shoving children over the edge doesn’t bring children and parents closer together. Pushing at this point is most often an expression of frustration and anger. This is not helpful in supporting internal strength and confidence in your child.
When you hold your children on that edge they may pour their hearts out with tears, trembles, cries, or tantrums. That is all part of the healing process, a healthy reaction, even when it looks so hard and difficult for you as a parent. Really, recognizing that your child is healing when they are expressing deep fear (instead of avoiding it) is the hardest thing you may have to do as a parent. To stay close at that time, be a comforting presence, calm and reassuring. That is tough.
Play helps. When you are dealing with anxiety, physical play is often much more effective than words. The point of these games always is to keep children at this edge and be a comforting presence for them there. They may tremble and sweat, talk fast or try to escape. Your job is to keep them at this edge, offer eye contact, keep showing them that you are confident and present with them. And trust that your child is healing. It is not pleasant, for anybody, but it works.
More Play, Less Talk
These ways help your children to reach an internal sense of safety. You comfort children when they are flooded, gently push them when they are avoiding, and guide away from white-knuckle fear toward the edge of facing and feeling.
There are several chapters in the book that deal with much more specific scenarios than I can discuss here. And then Cohen ends his book in such a lovely way.
To parent is to worry, he writes. Let’s not deny this and demand that we are serene and calm in all situations. Rather, Cohen suggests, trust. Trust that your children have an amazing resilience, wisdom and capacity to heal. Trust them, and play!
Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.
The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears. 2013. Balantine Books