The future of the world passes through the family

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

The future of the world…passes through the family. ~ Pope John Paul II

Actually the full quote is, “The future of the world and the church passes through the family.” Though I’m not concerned with the future of the church (all due respect to those who are), the recognition that the future is determined by what goes on in our homes is extremely compelling.

Compelling, and a little intimidating.

I chose parenthood and entered into it with the benefit of personal, marital and financial stability. I actively prepared for it and continue to make it my priority. Still, I feel unequal to the task of nurturing two future changemakers. I make mistakes every day. I lose my temper and raise my voice. I work more than I should, and spend less time with my kids than they deserve. I don’t feed them enough fruits and veggies, and sometimes we have pizza three times in a week.

But at least I have a road map when it comes to my own family; I have an idea of what I want to accomplish. My obligation to my own family is clear to the extent that my goals are clear. What is significantly less clear to me is my obligation to the community at large. It is not my responsibility – indeed, not my right – to tell others how to live. Yet I have a deep conviction that our world would be a much better place if people developed a more peaceful approach to life, and I want to facilitate that shift.

If I want to see non-violence in the world, how can I support other families as well as my own?

I work hard to practice non-violence as I understand it. I encourage my own children to do the same. But we are just one small family, and while our family is important I want to do more.

On my home altar, I have the above message from Thich Nhat Hanh: Peace in oneself, peace in the world. On the one surface it seems obvious, hardly worth stating even, that peace on a large scale begins with individual people making individual choices that support peace. But this is one of those teachings that has layers of meaning that are peeled away the more you sit with it. Taken to a deeper level, peace is more than the absence of overt violence, and cultivating a peaceful heart has more subtle and more profound effect than simply refraining from causing obvious injury to another.

Recently I was listening to a lecture by MIchael Nagler on non-violence and mirror neurons. Neuroscientists have found that we have neurons that behave the same way when we do something as when we watch someone else do it, which helps explain why we feel nervous when someone checks out the strange noise in a horror movie and we cry when we see a Kleenex commercial.

I understand this as an anatomical or physiological underpinning of “vibes”. When I am around someone who is stressed out, I feel stressed. Spending time around someone who is angry leaves me feeling a bit angry myself. But when I am with someone who is peaceful and centered, I take a bit of that with me. My own state of mind is impacted by the people around me.

But it works the other way, too: we impact the states of mind of others. In this way, we can promote peace with everyone we meet without saying a word. If we walk in the world with peace in our hearts and minds, others people’s mirror neurons will reflect that and they will feel a bit more peaceful than they otherwise would have. The more we elevate the level of peace in ourselves, the more it is elevated in the people around us, and around them, and around the world.

How will you boost the peace factor in the world today?

The $64,000 Question of Attachment Parenting

courtesy of flickr user kenleyneufeld

courtesy of flickr user kenleyneufeld

I talk about Attachment Parenting a lot. I lead an API support group, and I’ve given talks to numbers of moms’ groups locally and internationally.

I’ve noticed that when I give my talks, someone pretty much always asks some permutation of this question: “I hear what you are saying, I’ve read lots of books, and I love the idea of AP. But still when my buttons are pushed, I can’t help but react out of habit by [yelling, or guilting, or punishing, or whatever]. It is so frustrating! How do you DO it? Tell me how to BE an Attachment Parent!”

I have come to think of this as the $64,000 Question of Attachment Parenting.

This has been my answer in the past:

  1. Really, you never DO it in the sense that you never achieve perfection. Or at least I haven’t. Give yourself some love because the fact that you are working to create a home environment that is in line with your values of mutual respect and love is really awesome.
  2. AP is not a set of techniques but a way of living and interacting with other people in general and our children in particular. (I always feel like a loser when I give this answer. People want to know what they should do and I’m not telling them! They came for answers, and I’m giving them nothing!) Playful parenting and talking so our kids will listen and all the rest are tools we keep in our toolbox and take out when we think they will help us connect with our kids. They are ideas we can use to help us connect from moment to moment. They are not “Attachment Parenting”.
  3. It takes time. For awhile, you will learn about AP and sill continue to react out of habit by yelling or punishing or whatever. Then one day you’ll be in the middle of a habitual reaction, and you’ll stop yourself. Finally one day, your child will do something that would normally set you off and you’ll do something calm and connected and loving and brilliant and the seed of a new habit will be planted and it will feel great. (And then five minutes later you’ll do something out of habit again and realize how much work you still have in front of you.)

As I’ve gone on my own journey – through life, through marriage, through parenting, and through Attachment Parenting – I’ve come to realize that all this can be summed up in one word:

MINDFULNESS

Attachment Parenting, and non-violent living, is a commitment to be mindful of our own habits and triggers, of our child’s (and spouse’s, and friends’, and the guy standing behind us in line at the grocery store’s) habits and triggers, and of how those two interact. It is a parenting/life philosophy that demands of us the willingness and the ability to look hard at ourselves so we can create space between stimulus and response in order to come closer to those around us.

In NVC, they call this the difference between reacting and responding.

I don’t know about anyone else, but this does not come naturally to me. My habit is to react, but I am working very hard to cultivate the ability to respond. Through hours spent in meditation, and hours spent studying Nonviolent Communication, I have been able to more clearly see my habits of mind, which create my habits of behavior. Slowly, I have been able to push open a crack of light where I can stop defining myself by my reactions. Instead of “I am frustrated”, more often I think “Right now I feel frustrated. This too shall pass”. It may not seem like a big difference, but I assure you, it’s huge. Life changing, even.

The next time someone asks me the $64,000 Question of AP, I will have a better, or at least a more efficient, answer. I will say:

The key to successful Attachment Parenting is introducing some sort of mindfulness practice to your life so that you can begin to recognize your habits and replace them with something new.

Do you have a mindfulness practice? Has it affected your relationships? How?

On motivation and ego

Photo courtesy of flickr user JasonUnbound

Photo courtesy of flickr user JasonUnbound

Yesterday I met with two moms who are going through the process of becoming Attachment Parenting International leaders and will soon be co-leading the Skylands API New Jersey group with me. (Hooray!!) We spent a lovely couple of hours at the county library chatting about all things AP while three of the kids played and the infant slept.

Together we laughed about how we give babies voices, like when he is crying and we try this and that and the other thing and finally get the crying to stop, and we say something like, “Finally! I thought you’d never figure it out! Just because you’re cold when it’s 75 degrees doesn’t mean I need to be dressed like an Inuit!” We mused about whether or not there is a word for that.

If anthropomorphism is attributing human characteristics to a non-human animal or entity, what is the term for an adult putting words into a baby’s mouth?

Because I have nothing better to do, or because the nerd in me loves an entomological challenge, I gave this a fair amount of thought. I think the term would be pedomorphism, or the retention by an adult of juvenile characteristics. But I’m open to suggestion.

So then I started to think, what would the word be for describing the reverse situation, attributing adult characteristics or motivations to a child? After all, it happens all the time so we really should have a word for it. A baby cries and we describe her as being impatient. A toddler has a tantrum and we describe him as manipulative. A preschooler wants to wear a bathing suit to school in February and we describe her as stubborn. The second we sit down to read our child asks for a snack and we describe him as inconsiderate.

Of course, none of these things is true. They are simply being children, driven by ego.

But we tell ourselves these stories, and it puts distance between us and our children. We interpret their age-appropriate behavior through the lens of adult emotions and motivations, and we get angry and frustrated. That’s not to say that we aren’t responsible to teach them consideration, honesty, patience and flexibility. Of course we introduce these characteristics in an appropriate way over time so that eventually they grow to be adults who are kind and pleasant to be around. But words like “manipulative” and “inconsiderate” are loaded, and they make a lot of assumptions.

Children are simply trying to get their needs met. Nothing more, nothing less.*

I wonder what would happen if, when we see these judgements arise, we do a little rephrasing. Instead of “She is being manipulative”, we tell ourselves “I feel manipulated.” What is that about for me? What is the story? Maybe I am thinking something like, “She doesn’t trust me to meet her needs, and that’s why she is manipulating me instead of being honest. I’m a bad mother.” Or maybe it’s something like, “She does not care about me at all. I do so much for her, and all she cares about is what she wants.” I could be, “Everything has to be a struggle with her all the time. Why can’t she just take no for an answer?”

Try it, and let me know how it goes.

*Of course, this is true of everyone! But ideally with age comes maturity and consideration….