Family, Learning, Parenting

Nine Days

Those of us who experience ugliness in our family dynamics often prefer to remain concealed. There is less shame when one stays underground.

– Tracey Watts, “The Explosive Child” in Brain, Child Magazine

In two months, the school year ends. I’ve scheduled the vacation from work. I’ve cancelled the trip to Myrtle Beach. My son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

This is a luxury. Most working parents crave time like this, time with our over-scheduled and growing-too-fast kids. Be grateful, Smirk.

Gratitude yes, it is here. It just happens to be mixed with a shot of dread. I am mystified about how to make the nine days anything but miserable for us both.

How many parents are sitting on a locked vault of tangled up feelings? It can’t just be me.

(Maybe it is just me.)

I’m not very skilled as a parent. Loving, sure. Dedicated and creative and willing to learn. But bumbling, too. Perplexed. The issues that arise are rarely what I predict and never what I’m prepared to face. My responses miss the mark. I careen around our home, swinging between tight-lipped and screeching, in the face of my boy’s constantly shifting needs.

The loving bond that grows dense and loose in my friends’ families is, in ours, a stunted thing. At the end of our weeknights together, when Bug finally stops arguing about homework, bath time, and how many chapters we’re reading, when he finally conks out, I’m sapped. The thought of facing a mere weekend together wears me out.

Nine days?

The thing is, I’m willing to learn. I’ll eagerly dedicate these next two months to preparing for those nine days. My son is nearing tween-hood.  This may be our last best chance to cultivate the trust and connection that he’ll need as he slogs through the tar pit of adolescence. I have a stack of books. And blogs. And habits to practice both in anticipation of what might come and in response to what does. When I turn to it and start learning, it all makes sense. The way forward is clear.

Then almost as soon as it appears, that clarity begins to blur. In creep the other responsibilities. Up goes the volume on their demands. The fact is, only so much of the strife in our home is a result of “parenting” as some discrete set of techniques. Of our troubles, far more than I’d like to admit, arise from me.

I live 23-1/2 of every 24 hours in a state of low-level panic. A thirty minute cardio high is the only thing that reminds me of the world outside my hall of mirrors.

Unresolved financial concerns haunt me. How can I leverage my skills and energy to move into a higher-paying position? With this question nagging, I push harder at work. I submit a conference proposal, step up on a search committee, and get involved in the new DC undergrad internship initiative. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I stay a few feet back from the financial cliff.

The anemia of my social life concerns me. How can I give Bug a strong community of peers if I don’t build one around us? With this question tugging, I reach out to the people around me. I schedule a walk with a girlfriend, volunteer at the Unitarian church auction night, plan a weekend playdate, and put a potluck on the calendar. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I are woven into a rich and supportive community.

The paucity of my creative efforts prick at me.  So, too, the half-assed attempts at mindfulness, the chaotic closets and filthy windows, the short shrift I give to the relationship with my Mister, the public meetings I fail to attend for the condo association and local school board and VDOT as they make decisions that upend the value of my home,  the urgent call to action for racial and economic justice, the runaway bad habits of eating too much and staying up too late that destroy my sleep and mood and ability to manage any of this with grace. . .

Does growing into a better parent begin with focusing on “parenting”?

Or with 10 minutes of morning journaling? Or with a commitment to a professional development plan?

With daily exercise and 8 hours of sleep?

With a counselor?

With breath?

With less?

What heals a frayed bond between a 9-year-old boy and his mama?

We love each other, of course. All of this begins and ends in love. This hard work, these questions about how to proceed, they pull at me to build a home that can be my son’s sanctuary and his launch pad. Every question comes down to love.

In its most active, living form, what does love need? As it tries to push itself up from the root, how do we cultivate it?

This question churns under all the others. Sometimes I forget this simple truth, and the details topple me. That is when I roar until my throat fills with mud, and I am swamped with shame. That is when I want to sink into the earth.

And that is precisely when I most need to remember that my love for my son is under everything. It won’t let me sink. It catches me and helps me find my way back to the surface.

Then I — then we — get to keep on learning.

In two months, my son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

I have no idea what to do to prepare.

My son and I have nine uncertain years left together.

I have no idea what to do.

I guess I’ll do it anyway.


Children, Family, Parenting

Outgrowing Punishment

Boy Swing

After another night of ignoring, hitting, and name-calling (the kiddo to me, not the other way around, thankfully) and a morning with even more of the same, I’m lost again.  Serious anger is roiling around inside my son.  His cold fury manifests as prickling hands and words.  He seeks to  needle.  He seeks split the seams and set fire.

I recognize my tendency to respond to my son’s daggers with my own verbal stabs.  I roar.  I exert dominance.

These choices escalate the war.

Recovering from a recent hellish family trip to California, I posted this:

Bug’s had nine years to become the person he is.  I’ve had 42.  If I hope to cultivate healthier ways of being in our family, I’ll need to do it one itty-bitty step at a time.

I’m trying this now.  Seeking out and attempting tiny new approaches.  Even if I have no idea what or why or how, I’m trying something.

In the spirit of taking tiny steps, I choose this morning to read about natural and logical consequences.

From Alyson Schafer, “Positive Discipline: Signs your ‘Consequences’ are Punishments in Disguise”  in the Huffington Post:

A logical consequence must include three distinct qualities, and if any one is missing, it’s a punishment.

1) Related
The consequence must be directly related to the child’s behaviour. This is what makes it logical. Most importantly, the child must be able to see the connection. For example, if you don’t put your clothes in the laundry hamper, a logical outcome is that your clothes won’t get washed when it’s time to do the laundry. If you tell that same child that they won’t get screen time — one of our favorite things to confiscate — if they don’t put their clothes in the hamper, the child’s perception is that their parents are using their personal power to be mean and make them pay for their mistakes.

2) Respectful
Anytime you show a child disrespect, you are being punitive. (Quick test: Would you speak the same words to a friend or a coworker? If not, chances are it’s disrespectful.)

3) Revealed in advance
The child must be given all the information up front so they can make clear choices in their behaviour.  For example: “If you would like to eat, you need to stay at the table. If you get down from the table, you are excusing yourself and we’ll accept your choice and see you at the next meal. Please know there will be no food until that time, so when you get down, you’re done.”

In short: “Stay and eat or get down and wait until the next meal to eat — your choice.” But parents must be sure to actually follow through with implementing the consequence. Too frequently we simply threaten the consequence and the child fails to learn.

Photo from The Good Men Project

Children, Learning, Parenting

Back To Each Other


Think of your child as a plant who is programmed by nature to grow and blossom. If you see the plant has brown leaves, you consider if maybe it needs more light, more water, more fertilizer. You don’t criticize it and yell at it to straighten up and grow right.

Kids form their view of themselves and the world every day. They need your encouragement to see themselves as good people who are capable of good things. And they need to know you’re on their side. If most of what comes out of your mouth is correction or criticism, they won’t feel good about themselves, and they won’t feel like you’re their ally. You lose your only leverage with them, and they lose something every kid needs: to know they have an adult who thinks the world of them.

– From “Building a Great Relationship with your Child” in Aha! Parenting

On our spring break trip to California, my son rounded up other kids at the hotel pool and played for 4 hours without pause.  At the San Diego Botanical Gardens, he climbed up into tangled two-story treehouse and built a shelter out of balsa wood.  On one bright morning, he hiked with his grandma and me through the hills at Torrey Pines as Pacific tides lapped at the cliffs.

He also fought, screamed, raged, cried, hit, kicked, and hurled insults.  Every single day at every point of conflict, his body went rigid with defiance.  He said hateful things.  He brought his grandmother and cousin to tears.  Me, to worse.

Continue reading “Back To Each Other”

Parenting, Reading


One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt akin to it all.

There is no walking away. Not this time, not ever. It astounds me that he still behaves as if I am truly leaving, his face opening up in fear, his body chasing after the warmth of mine.
“You can’t hit, buddy,” I say in a quiet voice. I hug him gently and walk with him back to the bed. I keep my hands off of his body, trying now to guide with word and deed. Trying to practice what I preach. It is not so easy to stay good. We slip-slide up this steep learning curve together. I understand that some of his intensity is just being Bug at six. Some of it, I’m ashamed to admit, is me.
I keep my voice gentle as the tears press against his. “You have to use words instead of hitting when you want something to be different.”
“It wasn’t really hitting,” he says, crawling back into the bed. “Hitting is like with a fist.”
“You’re right that it wasn’t hard hitting, but it was still hitting instead of talking about your feelings. You cannot hit.” I pull the covers up over him.
“Can’t you just read one more book?” He asks. His eyes are wide and frightened. I understand his worry. We never deviate from our bedtime routine. This choice rattles me, too.
“No. I’m sorry. You hit me, so no more stories.”
“Can’t you just turn on one more light?”
“It’s bedtime.”
His face is quivering. I crawl in next to him. “I’ll sing you one song,” I say. “First, can you tell me what you were feeling before you hit me?”

Overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of everything, he rolled over and over and right off the deck of his boat and into the sea.

For a long moment, he is quiet. Then, “I didn’t like what you were doing.”
I knew the instant everything turned for him. We had reached the page where the little mouse is bobbing in the water, possibly about to drown. His boat is bowled away in the wind. Amos frets about what he should do and what big fish might be coming for him. I had asked Bug about Amos. “Does that face look worried? How would you feel?” When I stepped out of the story long enough to wonder at the fears of the waterlogged mouse, Bug turned on me. His face tightened, he scowled, he hit me. Twice.
That’s when I closed the book. I stood and turned out the lights. “No hitting. Time for bed.”
Now, I say, “Baby, if you don’t like something a person is doing, you have to say something. Say, ‘Please stop. I don’t like that.’ Maybe they’ll stop or maybe they won’t, but you can’t hit. You have to figure out other ways to deal with your feelings.”
Bug scrunches down under his Dora blanket.
“Can’t I just have one more book?”
This kills me. It is our one precious sliver of Us every night we are together, this ritual of reading. Three books, three songs. Today we only made it through one book and part of a second, and now we have to call it quits.
The kiddo has been struggling at school the past few weeks. Twisting a classmate’s arm, disrupting, ignoring the teachers. Notes have come home. Red days on the calendar. Something is amiss, and I ache to help him. I have no idea what I am doing. I hate that sometimes I have to sacrifice our sweetest gift so that he can learn to check this behavior. I hate it more that I have no idea if this is the right approach, and if I might be risking our very bond by holding this line.

Morning came, as it always does. He was getting terribly tired. He was a very small, very cold, very wet and worried mouse. There was still nothing in sight but the empty sea. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, it began to rain.

“Just one more? Please?”
I stroke his hair. “No more books, sweetie. One song, though. We always need a song.” I begin to sing.
Baby beluga in the deep blue sea
As the tune drifts around use, I rub my boy’s belly and stroke his arm. After a moment, he shakes me off and turns away. His lip is pooked out. “Please stop touching me,” he says to the wall. I remove my hand and finish singing to his shoulders, his spine.

As he was asking himself these dreadful questions, a huge head burst through the surface of the water and loomed up over him. It was a whale. “What sort of fish are you?” the whale asked. “You must be one of a kind!”

When I finish the song, I lay with him for a moment. I tell him about our morning, about how we will need to leave extra early so I can go to the dentist to have him put on a crown. When I had the root canal in November, Bug came with me and watched. Now, he turns back towards me, suddenly fascinated with the topic. We talk about enamel, roots, and how teeth draw nourishment from below the surface the way trees do. How the crown is like armor to keep the tooth from breaking.
“Is it metal? Or liquid?” He asks. “Will he, like, pour it on?” He gestures the fluid cascade. My mouth, the waterfall. The meteor shower.
“I’ll let you know when I get home tomorrow. For now, though, you should get some rest. We have an early morning ahead of us.” He pulls the blanket up over himself. I keep my hands behind me, stilling the urge to tuck and fuss. It is hard, this lesson in boundaries. He is forever my flesh, it seems. I can still feel his feet seeking purchase against the walls of me.

Amos said he’d had enough adventure to last him a while. He wanted only to get back home and hoped the whale wouldn’t mind going out of his way to take him there.

“You know what, Bug?” I say. “I am so pleased that you asked me with your words not to touch you a few minutes ago. It really worked. I think that choice deserves another song.”
Bug ooches around and smiles. I open up my voice.
The wind is in from Africa. Last night, I couldn’t sleep.
My boy presses sideways against me. “Can I cuddle?” I whisper. He nods and turns a little more into my body. I put my arm around him and he folds himself to me. I sing the song and he breathes quietly, his gaze softening, his eyelids drooping. He lets me drop a kiss on his cheek.

What a relief to be so safe, so secure again! Amos lay down in the sun, and being worn to a frazzle, he was soon asleep.

Excerpts from Amos & Boris, by William Steig. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York: 1971.



Happy 100 Days: 97

Reasons for gratitude on the day the teacher emails half a dozen times in 24 hours, calls home once, and sends the kid to talk to the school guidance counselor:

  1. The teacher emails and calls when the kid is having trouble.
  2. The teacher responds to email replies and returned calls by providing additional information and suggestions.
  3. Tee copies me on every correspondence with the school (and I do the same for him) even when the teacher forgets.
  4. The school has a guidance counselor on staff who has time for kindergartners
  5. My kid has a whole team of caring adults supporting him.
  6. Next year, he will have a different teacher.
  7. At the end of the school day, he can run off all that accumulated talking-to and think-iness at Chicken School.
  8. Grandma makes a veggie lasagne and pulls it hot out of the oven as soon as we walk in the door.
  9. At bedtime, Bug stumbles across his first word search in the coloring book he brought to bed. Fascinated, he looks for the correct adjacent letters then draws his brown crayon around the words, “hunt,” “movies,” “safety,” and “tell.” He sounds out each letter, following along with the key at the top of the page.
  10. After books and songs and cuddles, Bug presses his face into mine, kissing my cheeks sideways. He giggles twice then rolls over and falls fast asleep.

Structural Integrity

In the park, a dad holds hands with one son while his other boy darts off into an empty batting cage. “Garrett, come on,” the dad calls. “We’re leaving.” Dad and little brother are strolling at a toddler’s pace. They have plenty of ground to cover before they reach the parking lot. Clearly, they are not leaving yet. “Bye bye, Garrett. We’re leaving you here.” Garrett, God bless him, ignores his dad. He is in a cage. A deserted one. How dangerous can it be?
I have only one kid. I’ll concede that I can’t fully appreciate the challenge of managing more. How does a parent keep an eye on the one who has run off when the other is foraging in the dirt for cigarette butts? Like every other parent out there, Garrett’s dad is doing his best with the tools at hand to keep his sons safe. Still, I can’t help but think “bye bye” is a flawed strategy for roping the calves.
Garrett has undoubtedly heard his dad’s ploy before and knows it for the idle threat it is. I watch as he moves up and down the cage, lacing his fingers through the fencing. He is busy exploring and marveling, and his dad’s farewells ping off his deaf ears. “Garrett, now.” Ah, yes. Escalation. The wheedling has not worked, so Dad kicks it up to demands. Garrett stands at the gate for a moment before turning and re-entering the cage. Dad’s voice edges upward. “Come here, now. Five, four, three. . .”
I do not stick around for the next installment. The father will figure something out. So will Garrett. That’s the thing about kids and parents. We are always figuring things out. More often than not, what we end up learning is not what anyone intends.
It seems like eons have passed since I last counted down towards a punishment. It has been almost as long since I have seen Bug’s temper go volcanic. Parenting tactics in which I was engaging almost daily are now abstract memories. “If you don’t get over here by the count of three, the cinnamon toast goes in the garbage. One. . . Two . . .”  Threats are disappearing from my vocabulary. Time-outs have also been enjoying their retirement.  Occasionally, warnings about endangered privileges still slip out. My voice became accustomed to the feel of “If you don’t ____, then you lose ___.” These tics still skitter past my lips before my brain can intercept them. Like Garrett, Bug ignores these ploys. I usually do, too. We return to mending whatever is frayed between us.
From time to time, I still walk away. Before I respond, I need to quiet down my own howling, growling head. I am not always so good at telling Bug I need to step away to catch my breath, but I hope I am getting better. When I explain I will be back and we will figure it out together, he usually manages to wait for me without going off the rails.
They say twenty-eight repetitions form the habit. New approaches I established in my interactions with Bug are actually working. We get into the car for school most mornings now just by moving together through the preparations. It stuns me to watch my boy perform the straightforward exercise of walking out the door, sitting down in his car seat, and picking up his book. For months as long as lifetimes, that stretch between bed and car was a minefield. Now, I explain the expectations, give him choices, and speak in an upbeat tone about what is unfolding right in front of us. The former slog has become a simple morning routine.
While Tee and I were leaving kindergarten orientation last week, Bug threw not one, not two, but thee rocks at me. They all missed, but not by much. My vision constricted and my jaw set. I walked away from the first throw (which is why he hurled two more). Trying to stay calm, I called over my shoulder, “I cannot be near a little boy who throws rocks at me, even though I love him very much.” He had been asking to stay with me that night. It was, however, his night with his daddy. Repeated requests and increasing volume had not worked, so he scaled up to aggression. He was also tired, having forgone a nap at preschool, and was a little disoriented by his tour of the new elementary classroom.
All of these facts about his experience in that moment were right there for me to notice. Shifting my gaze away from my own rising temperature and back onto my son had the effect of cooling and centering my mind. In a previous post about Bug’s defiance, I wrote about focusing my attention on just one measure when deciding how to approach my son: Does this choice strengthen or weaken my relationship with Bug?
Halfway up the hill, I paused. Looking back, I saw my little boy standing all alone. He had been left behind. Even Tee was walking away, explaining calmly that Bug was going to lose his movie that night for throwing rocks. With yet another punishment added to the burden, Bug was cracking under the weight of it all. Somehow, he was supposed to swallow the disappointment and describe rather than act out his feelings in an unfamiliar location while being incredibly tired. He had almost no resource to handle the task before him. Clearly, he was far too small for all the decisions required of him in that moment.
A number of options are available to a parent to get a situation like this under control. Roaring, wheedling, doling out consequences, and putting the kid in a time-out all are on the table. The simplest approach might be to just ignore the behavior and continue walking. Wouldn’t this deprive the kid of a the satisfaction of a reaction while also making him practice moving through his stormy emotions? Any of these options might make Bug drop the rocks and get his butt in gear. They also might further fracture an already strained relationship.
The mantra about strengthening the bond reminded me to set aside every extraneous objective and slip back into alignment with my child.
Down the hill, Bug’s face was set somewhere between tornado and downpour. My response could determine which climactic event would occur. I took a breath. Then I walked straight out of the tight corset of my own anger and returned to my child. I knelt and opened my arms. He collapsed against my chest. I spoke in a very quiet voice. “You threw three rocks. You must have been feeling something big.” He quivered and sobbed. “I feel disappointed when something doesn’t go the way I want. I feel like throwing and breaking stuff, too.”
He quieted against me. “Yeah?”
“Yep. But throwing and breaking usually hurts people and makes things worse. So maybe I say how sad and disappointed I feel, or I cry, or I go find a hug. You did that. You cried and now you’re getting a hug.”
I kept holding him and letting him hide his face in my neck. He was as small as he needed to be. He was small enough to disappear. This was just fine, because I had become a big sanctuary carved into the side of a mountain.
For the first year or more of the separation and divorce, I lacked integrity. I understand this now. The foundation was cracked, the floor bowed, and the walls were caving in. My flawed judgment and instability led to poor choices. I was not able to face the truth of my limitations and situation, so I found escape in dishonesty. With upended priorities, I forgot how to be Bug’s refuge. He did not know who inhabited the tilting room that was supposed to hold his Mommy. Would he be entering Opelia’s haunted quarters or Medusa’s lair?  Would his pre-dawn knock awaken Miss Havisham or one of the Scylla’s sleeping heads? Sometimes, he did not find anyone at all. His grandmother had to fill in the sinkhole left in my absence.
“There is nothing easy about divorce,” writes Abigail Trafford in Crazy Time. “It is a savage emotional journey. You don’t know where it ends for a long time. You ricochet between the failure of the past and the uncertainty of the future. You struggle to understand what went wrong with your marriage, to apportion the blame and inventory your emotional resources. There is one thing you are sure of almost immediately: you know that life will never be the same again.”
During those falling-down months, I was not Bug’s safe place. Now, I can be now. The new floor is laid on bedrock. The beams are carved from oak.
“Tell you what,” I murmured into his scalp. “When I pick you up day after tomorrow, the doggy and kitty and grandma and granddaddy will all be at our house. We will have a special dinner. Anything you want. What is your all-time favorite meal?”
“You know,” he said, pushing his head up under my lips. He could not get close enough.
“Pizza,” I say.”
“No?  Hmm. Lasagna? Ham and eggies? Chicken on the grill?”
“No. You know.” He was smiling in his shoulders now. Stone pillars no longer pressed them down. He grinned up at me. “Thai food!”
“Really? You want Thai on Wednesday?”
I lifted all fifty pounds of him into my arms and carried him like a baby up the hill to Tee’s car.  “I will get a whole order of spring rolls just for you.”
Five whole orders!”
I want to tell Garrett’s dad that his kid never needs to hear that he will be left behind. Not even a struggling, just-good-enough father would abandon his son in the park. Even if the little boy cannot keep up, even if he tests how far the radius of his parents’ attention extends and moves an inch or three beyond that, he will never have to find his way back by himself. This is the contract that we sign with creation when we become parents. We commit ourselves to being the safe place.
Building a refuge requires measuring with precision. We speak truth first to ourselves and then let it guide our voices. Because we know we would never hurt or leave our children, we should not say aloud the lie that we might. A threat, even a toothless one, is that first termite eating its way into the frame of our relationship. Either our children believe the lie and our rule is one of terror, or they do not believe us, and the emperor wears no clothes. Trust is brace, footing, and bolt. Trust is the stuff of integrity. If I have faith in my mind and the good universe to guide me along the parenting journey, then my son can have faith in me. He can even dart out of my reach from time to time, and I will always be there to carry him back home.

Trafford, Abigail. Crazy Time.. New York: Harper Collins, 1992. Print.


Self Help Book

“Don’t look back.” This is a handy rule for keeping a journal. Write forward, write now. Or, in the priceless words of Natalie Goldberg, “Keep your hand moving.”
Not looking back is also a handy rule to break. Inside those nights that flood your throat with brine and scour the art from your hands, you might have no choice but to turn around and fix your eyes on the shoreline. Open the old books from the previous years. Peek at where you were. This is a good way to remember that you have arrived at exactly the place you need to be.
Tonight is such a night. My year-ago self hollers directions across the distance separating us, calling me back from the undertow. It is awfully cold and not a single star orients the sky. A person could take an unplanned detour into the Bermuda triangle. Thank goodness that girl packed the map and a bullhorn.  
The entry below, from April 30, 2011, is translated more or less directly from the cursive.

So, you let go of your joyful thing because you are not as good as the good ones (you tell yourself), you lack the drive or talent or passion (you believe), they are wise and better and more together and older (or something) and you feel so young and directionless and wide-open and full of unlimited possibility.
And so. You let go. You move on to a different hobby, find a love or a project or a child or a simplified identity to consume you. And your life is full, you smile a lot, you have friends, you climb things and make things and learn things and master things, and life is good.
It is all just rocking along until one day you stumble across a person doing the thing you used to know as your joyful thing. And that person? That person is so very young. That person has cobbled together a way to do the joyful thing from scraps of potential, a handful of opportunities, a pinch of time. That person is just as muddled as you were (and, in fact, still are). But, that person is doing the joyful thing anyway. Doing it with dedication, doing it well, making something beautiful with it. And you see now that no one was wiser than she is now. No one was wiser than you were then. You had an answer in your hands, in your life, in your daily practice.
Do your joyful thing. Do it badly. Do it in the spaces between. Do it sloppily and selfishly and with too much self-absorption. Do it no matter how much better someone else seems to be at it. Stumble doing it. Be awkward doing it. Make an ass of yourself doing it. Improve and adapt your way of doing it. Seek new approaches to doing it. Talk to others who do it (but not too much – you need to be doing it, not talking about it). Do it for an audience of 1000 even if no one shows up. Do it for god, for the neighbor kid who beat you up, for the other kid who rescued you. Do it for your ancestors and your grandchildren. Do it because you know you have to.
Do it because you suck at it but the world doesn’t care that you suck and the world doesn’t care if you’re a genius. It is not up to the world.
You are not great for doing it. You are not a martyr for not doing it. You are only less you if you don’t. You are only getting one thing right if you do.
Practice. Every sing day, practice your joyful thing.
It’s true you may never be any good at it. So, you should spend the rest of your days doing it because it is yours. You cannot escape it. It will haunt your years if you don’t do it. Don’t fool yourself. If you are not engaged in the daily practice of doing your joyful thing right now, something is askew in your life. You may be drinking too much, or having dreams of infidelity, or living a little too stretched to fit the role you’ve taken on, or you hate your job, or you don’t quite have the energy to make a decent meal, or you spend your evenings watching TV and zoning out on Twitter, and something feels wrong but you can’t put your finger on it. Maybe you still do your joyful thing a couple times a year, and you think of it as a hobby, and call your life “balanced.” But when you do it, it feels hard and a little forced, and doesn’t feel like the joyful thing it once was. And so you wonder, Was it just a passing fancy? Maybe it wasn’t really my joyful thing. . .
Don’t let yourself off the hook. You know better. The reason your occasional attempts fall flat is because your joyful thing is rusted out, thirsty, and in need of a good cleaning. You can’t just hop on and roll it around the block once or twice a year and expect it to function optimally. You’ve got to get back in there, take it down to bolts, oil it, prime it, feed it, get it moving. You need to work the kinks out a little every day. Every damned day.
Your joyful thing is not a toy. It’s not a hobby. It is you. It is your limb. An organ, maybe. You have to treat it as an undeniable, irreplaceable, necessary part of you. A part that will turn septic and poison the rest if the nourishment is cut off. A part that will feed and energize and balance the rest, if properly attended to.
It doesn’t take much. Just daily practice. Start today. Do your joyful thing.
Now, this very second. This is when you return to yourself.


Postcard from the Backcountry

You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.

Mark 1:11

This bungled, bumping journey with you is quite an adventure. Your unique sense of direction steers us into wondrous and uncharted territory. When I pause to look around, I see the strangeness for what it is. The high canopy shelters, the bright blooms startle, the roots hold the shifting soil steady enough beneath our feet. You carry me to a way of knowing I could not have visited without your companionship.
Because of you, I am learning new habits for walking well. As we go, I will pack these ways close and keep them within reach.

  1. Ignore the clock. No one wins any prizes for being on time. Misery cancels out the gold star for punctuality. When we are trying to dress to get out the door for school, moving between your two houses, or just gearing up for the next activity, we can make our way with care. A too-abrupt transition into the chaotic press of the outside world is like stepping straight from the bubble bath into rush-hour traffic. The mind needs to gain its footing. You will have your moment to stretch, to fuss a little, to hear about what waits on the other side of the moment. I can sit with you, touching you gently. Hot cocoa is waiting in the car, I remind you.  The kitty cat was asleep on your bed in the middle of the night. Your Grandpa Bill is coming next week.  A light touch can welcome you back from the unscheduled bliss of your play, your dreams, your lazy wanderings. We will get where we need to go eventually. In the meantime, let’s greet one another and enjoy the hello all over again.

  3. Seek positive intent. When you knocked over the child at the party, I know you wanted something but did not know how to communicate your eagerness. I will try to say, “You were excited about the flag the little girl was holding. You wanted a turn with it. You grabbed and pushed her, but that hurt her. You could say, ‘Please, can I have a turn with the flag.’ If that does not work, come get me and I will help you figure it out.”  Even when you are hitting me, I know you are trying to achieve something. I empathize with this. You are trying to tell me you are disappointed about the pleasure you believe you have been denied. Your hitting hurts, though, so I will help you learn to say “Mommy, I am so angry and frustrated.”  I will let you cry. I will show you ways to be gentle with your big, hot feelings. In training my eyes to look for your positive purpose, I learn to see the intent in other people’s actions, too.  When folks around me behave in ways that strike me as wrong, I remember that they are trying to manage their own complex lives. So many of us walk through our days feeling we have failed ourselves and others, that we have fallen short. Yet, we are all doing our best with the resources we have. I am, too. When I pay attention to the good at work inside confused behavior, my heart softens.

  5. Forgive, forget. Forced apologies are hereby banned. You have had enough with feeling bad about yourself for the time being. Saying “sorry” is only useful if you feel contrite, and we both know you cannot achieve anything as subtle and generous as repentance when you are tied up inside. For now, it is my job to forgive you when you make a mistake, even if you are not ready to admit you made one. I will decide you are trying your hardest, and I will remind you that you are good, no matter how tangled up you feel. We have time to untie the knots.  I will sit with you until we both simmer down, and then we will make our way out of the jungle together.

  7. Apologize freely. True apologies are not an admission of failure. When I catch myself acting with fury or aggression, I will stop and tell you I am sorry. “I really got mad and started yelling when you were kicking the shower door. I’m sorry, Bug. I should not have yelled. It did not help at all. I was actually scared before I was mad. Next time, I will try saying, ‘I am worried about you breaking the glass doors. I do not want you to get hurt.’” My job is to keep you intact and well. When you act out, you have something roaring inside you that needs to be heard or received. At the same time, I am trying to help you get somewhere safe.  I know we can work together to solve the problem.  I can say I am sorry for boiling over. Then I can turn down the heat and train my attention back on you, on us, on the opportunity before us. As I speak my apology and act to guide you to a calm place, I forgive myself. I release my grip on the mistake, and re-commit myself to loving you well. My mind is clear of the fog of self-loathing and hopelessness, and I begin to see options again. I can help you find your words. The path forward begins to lay itself bare.

  9. Come out of hiding.  When I slip into my room to piddle around on the computer, start tapping on my phone, or open the paper, I am not really with you. Long days of parenting and working can drain energy stores and leave me grumpy. My exhaustion manifests as a vanishing act. My sleight of hand does not fool you when we are together, because I am attempting to disappear in plain sight. When I withdraw, I believe I can shield you from the ill effects of my mood. I know better, however, and so do you. It’s no wonder you lock yourself into a suit of armor when you feel dark things. You see very few people giving name and face to their distress. My ducking and avoidance have far more of a negative impact on you than the blahs and blues of my presence. I want you to have more choices than “got it together” and “invisible.” I will try to stay with you, in my ups as well as my downs, and even the flat places in between. If I need to work on a project or take a few minutes to myself, we will discuss it. I can explain what is happening before I shift gears, and assist you in setting yourself up with an activity. You are learning to be perceptive about people and their needs. I can help you by naming my own place in time, talking you through what I expect, and being transparent about my behavior.

You have led me towards these small, immense lessons. I hope to continue to hold them close as we make our way through this tangled landscape. Walking this path is not easy, but it is the only one for us. In your company, I learn to be a better parent. This also means I am learning to be a better friend, neighbor, and inhabitant of this teeming planet.
During this leg of the journey (as with so many others), you are teaching me how to expand my capacity for love. You help me see more clearly, and I see what a beautiful boy you are.


Nowhere Near Kansas

Defiance is always a relationship problem. If your child does not accept your direction (‘I don’t care what you say, you can’t make me!’), it’s always an indication that the relationship is not strong enough to support the teaching. This happens to all of us from time to time. At that point, stop and think about how to strengthen the relationship, not how to make the child ‘mind.’  – Laura Markham, Aha Parenting

When the brain is no longer in survival mode, it has the opportunity to come up out of the storm cellar and assess the damage. A weekend of nourishing activities and a few days of rest have calmed the skies. Climbing up into daylight, I can see the havoc this two-year typhoon has wrought on Bug’s and my relationship. It is hard to believe the thing is still structurally sound. It is even harder to face my own role in wrecking the place during my mad dash to get us to safety. Survival-mode parenting may keep the roof from blowing off, but it does not do much to help a kid learn to learn how to build anything solid.
This is not just guilt talking. A raw empathy for Bug also surges through me when I survey the scene. I want to be able to go back to the beginning and throw myself around him. He is too little to face so many of the events unfolding around him, and I wish I could protect him not only from the storm but from my own botched reaction to it. Alas, no one has yet perfected a time machine. Bug and I will have to pull what we can from the wreckage and start rebuilding right here.
As an earlier post described, my kid is struggling hard to manage life in two homes. Transition times yield the most resistance, but explosions occur at bedtime, in the morning, and during any activity involving additional people. Strong feelings seem to flood Bug all in a rush, and he acts before he has a chance to find his footing.  It is normal to look for a causal relationship between a child’s behavior problems and a single, identifiable event. The conventional approach is to wonder if his new teacher, the long commutes, a split home or a food allergy might be to blame. In my gut, I know better. I know that displacing my child’s distress onto circumstances beyond us has been a way for me to manage my own sense of being overwhelmed.
I also know better because I was a child once. The difficult situations around me were never the real challenge. The challenge was in not knowing how to make sense of my feelings about difficult situations. We all have painful childhood memories; for me, the ones with deepest imprint have nothing to do with the precipitating event and everything to do with fearing the fallout from my responses. Somehow, I was supposed to get my act together, yet I had no idea how to go about doing this. A sense of indistinct danger hung over my tangled feelings. The memory of distress is so vivid that even as I write about it from the safe distance of three decades, my heart begins to gallop.
A kid’s emotional vocabulary is rudimentary at best. I am guessing my childhood home was not the only one unacquainted with the “I statement.”  I remember how very difficult it was to know how to behave when I was feeling sad, scared, angry, or disappointed. This is not an indictment on my parents or any family culture. The language of loving guidance is a foreign tongue to most of us. Feelings are strange and slippery things, and they can seem even more perilous when we attempt to face them. Even as an adult, it is tough to gain composure, think clearly, speak rationally, and act well when the pressure is on. Who wouldn’t duck back down into the cellar and pull the hatch closed?
When I am feeling anxious or upset, I want someone to remind me that I am safe. That I am loved. That the world does not hinge on this one decision, that it is okay to take my time to sort it out, and that I have help if I need it. When I do not have these things, I become more prone to burst. Why would things be any different for Bug? In Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, Becky Bailey suggests,

When your children are having a hard time obeying you, they need to believe that you have faith in them. They need to sense that you have confidence in them before they can develop confidence in themselves.

Yet, when my son is acting with aggression, what do I do? Increase the pressure by threatening “consequences.” If he does not put his toys away and put on his jammies now,he will lose books at bedtime. If he does not stop saying “shut up,” he will go straight into time out. I take away his ability to gain confidence in his own decision-making, and he loses trust both in himself and in me.
I understand the argument that children need some form of punishment in order to learn to behave appropriately. I understand it, and I do not agree with it. I have been attempting that approach for months because my own stressed brain has not been able to come up with anything better. However, the more I attempt to will Bug into compliance, the wider the rift between us grows. Sure, he may hop to it if I threaten to pour the hot cocoa down the drain, but he only grows more tightly coiled as the day rolls on. Against this survival parenting, my heart and mind have been gently, insistently reminding me that my own intense and stressful responses to my son are exacerbating his defiant behavior. My child has been begging for help in learning how to face a tough situation. Because I have been so very tired, I have largely left him to twist in the wind.
What is the alternative? As I squint into the new daylight, this is about as much as I can discern: I need to mend what is torn between Bug and me. Laura Markham suggests that “the most effective discipline strategy is having a close bond with your child.” This is what my heart tells me to do. It is also what practice has been reinforcing. No matter how aggressive Bug’s behavior, I remind him that I love him and that I am on his team. “It seems like you are having some big feelings, buddy.  Let’s see if we can figure out what to do.” I try not to snap. I know what it’s like to have someone get angry at me when I do something I know is wrong. It only makes me feel more hopeless. Suggesting my kid has to “get it together” before he is allowed to be in my company or in the company of others sends the message that only his proper, polished-up self is invited to the party.  I want to reverse course, and provide affection and support to the messy, work-in-progress my son truly is, as all of us truly are.
I am practicing staying with him. I am learning to let him cry or blow up a little or say what he needs to say. Afterwards, we can talk it out. Maybe we will have a do-over or experiment with something altogether new. I try to remember to use just one scale to measure an approach before I take it: does this choice strengthen or weaken my relationship with Bug? I do not always get it right, but as I breathe through my own confusion, I remember that the thing my son needs more than anything right now is me, loving him.
Now that I have clocked a few good nights’ sleep and opened up the cellar door, I can see the debris strewn around. The gift of this perspective is that the sun shines under the broken places and reveals treasures I never knew existed. Where structures once stood, rich soil, long fallow, offers itself up to us. Here and now, my son and me. We begin.
Bailey, Becky. Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.