The Benefits of Not Managing Stress

There was a time, perhaps in your childhood, when only adults experienced stress. The adults might not have known the word ‘stress’, but they experienced it. There was a living to earn, a family to provide for and raise, parents to look after, social and community roles to fulfill: adults were under pressure.

 Children, by contrast, were said to lead carefree lives. No responsibilities, no worries. They were loved and provided for, and all they had to do was to go to school and study and play. Life was easy for the kids.

Today, even 2-year olds are stressed. From going to classes with parents, weekday activities, weekend classes, social events, technology, trying to learn the alphabet, knowing their table manners, how to speak with adults of every age – they have already begun the juggling act. And it is vital that they keep all the balls in the air. Children of all age groups learn this from their parents: no matter how old (or young!) you are, you cannot afford to let anything drop.  

As a parent, you try to make it easier on your kids. You show them how to juggle so many things. (And they don’t even have to deal with half the stuff you do!) You show them how you make lists, prioritize, keep to a schedule, and then make time for relaxation. Yes – you’ve even managed to make time to ‘de-stress’! 🙂  So maybe every first Saturday of the month you head off to a spa early in the morning for a full-body massage. Bliss! 🙂

Except that you’re scrambling to wake up and get to the spa, and the moment your massage is done, you’re back on the treadmill, achieving goals and managing stress.

I have a slightly different suggestion. Just for a change, try not to manage stress. The moment you feel you are stressed, take a break. Act like this is the last straw, and you can’t handle any more.  

I can see your disbelief. What?! You’ve spent months of your life reading up on how to manage stress, how to handle increasing amounts of stress without breaking under the strain, and along comes some idiot suggesting you undo all that learning and practice; suggesting you start crying ‘Wolf!’ at the slightest sign of stress! Well, the way your life is right now, all you’ll be doing is taking breaks all day long – nothing will get done!

Excellent! 🙂  I’m more convinced than ever that you need to stop managing stress. In the process, you’ll also teach your kids to not-manage-stress. What you’ll really be doing is teaching them to stay off lifelong physical and mental health issues.

Take a moment to think about it. Why do you want to increase your tolerance to stress? So that you can accomplish more?

That’s like saying you must keep playing – even after your muscles have cramped up, and you’ve developed a hairline fracture from stress. Why? So you can tell people I can play even when my muscles have frozen and my bones are broken? And how well do you think you’ll be playing in this condition? And what’s the point of it anyway? The only thing you’ll get is frozen muscles and broken bones!

Quit this madness.  

Look at your life when you ‘manage’ stress: You’re worried about someone backstabbing you at work. You’ve got this under control – when you get home, your family doesn’t see how stressed you are. You feel good about your ability to ‘manage’ the stress.  

You haven’t slept too well because of the office situation, and you have an argument with someone at home – your partner, or your child. Again, you dig into your well of patience and tolerance, and don’t blow up. You keep with the script, getting things done, making sure everyone’s ready and out the door when they should be.

The argument is piled on top of the work stress; but you’ve got it ‘under control’. You feel even better about yourself – you can manage ‘more’ stress.

You drive to work. You don’t need me to spell it out. You manage this stress as well. Pat on the back. 🙂

Get to work. Your supervisor makes an unreasonable request of you, or makes an uncalled-for comment. Especially in view of the cagey situation at work, you put your best face on it, and doggedly soldier on. Super! 🙂  You are the king / queen of stress management!

Sorry to burst your bubble, and welcome to the real world. As you go through your work day, the feelings of irritation, resentment, worry and annoyance simmering inside you bubble up, till you can’t concentrate on your work. You turn in less than your best. You can’t concentrate; you miss obvious facts, draw unwarranted conclusions; things just don’t come together.

More stress. More worry. Drive back home. Child calls: “Please pick up some special craft paper for a project.” Partner calls: “Honey, I’ve got stuck with some urgent work. It’s my turn to fix dinner, but I’ll be home really late.” You remember: partner was planning some fancy dish, for which the ingredients are in place. You can only make burgers, and all you have at home is sliced sandwich bread. The queue at the supermarket is serpentine. At the craft store, you can’t figure out the kind of paper your child wants. Ten minutes on the phone trying to figure out which kind of craft paper you need to buy.   

You get home to find your children complaining about each other, or about what happened at school. Or they say, “Oh no! Not burgers again! We were looking forward to…”.

E-X-P-L-O-S-I-O-N!! Then guilt

But there is another way: the not-managing-stress way.

You get home worried about a situation at work. You spend time with the family, and then tell them you want to take time out to think about something. You shut yourself up in a room, or go for a walk, or listen to music… Basically, you deal with your fears and all the what-ifs of the office situation. You feel better. You don’t lose so much sleep at night.

When someone pushes your buttons in the morning, you get mad, but instead of acting ‘normal’, you say, “I’m mad, so please don’t talk to me for a while. I need to calm down.” Going through the morning routine without further provocation calms you.

You drive to work and take a few minutes to work out the kinks in your neck and shoulders from the tense drive, or chat with your colleagues, or drink a quiet cup of coffee at your desk. You’re fresh, and ready to do your best at work.

Your boss makes an unreasonable request. Instead of shouldering the burden, you take a mental time-out, and consider the request. You figure out how you want to deal with it; you make a conscious choice, and feel empowered. No stress. The day goes on like this.

This is the only way you can be sure that YOU are the one making decisions, doing things. Otherwise, you will merely be reacting, much like a puppet whose strings are jerked this way and that by people and circumstances.

Do you know when I figured how wonderful not-managing-stress really is? The first time my daughter told me, “I’m much too angry to talk to you right now. I need some time by myself. I’ll talk to you when I’m feeling better.” 🙂 

Go figure!

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When Parents Fight: How to Reduce Your Child’s Pain

At the heart of parenting is the idea that you are the best parent in the world when you are yourself. Sometimes, unfortunately, when the parents of a child are themselves, the combination is explosive. They clash too hard or too frequently or both. This leaves the child feeling lost, insecure, responsible, and guilty – the last two because she is convinced that it is she who is in some way responsible for her parents not getting on.

You ache – for yourself, for your child, for what could have been with your partner – if only he or she would… but there’s no point going down that road.

Say you want to have another child, and your partner doesn’t. You both have ‘valid reasons’ for the way you feel. (The inverted commas are because everything everyone feels is valid, though most of us forget this! 🙂 ) It has gotten beyond discussion and reasoning. Each of you is unwilling to give in, and no half-way compromise is possible.

As the tension slowly ratchets up, you see the fun, the laughter, the joy, the togetherness – all of it, dissolve under the weight of this conflict. And you see your once happy family of 3 breaking up under the strain.

Your son is perplexed. All he can see is Mom and Dad being nasty to each other. If they are not openly warring, they are making snide comments to each other or about each other, or giving each other the silent treatment.

And he’s trying to figure out how to fix what is wrong between you two.

Can you do anything to make it easier on your child? I’m convinced that you can. You can lessen his pain, make it easier on him.

Only you can do this.

You can do this by acknowledging that there is conflict between you and your partner. Tell your child that the two of you disagree about something, and that is what is causing all the fights. Let him know that the conflict is not related to him.

The best course of action is if both of you agree on what to say and sit together with your child to reassure him that the conflict is not his responsibility. But this is not always possible. Sometimes there is so much bitterness that you may not be able to do even this together.

In which case, tell your partner that you would like to reassure your child about the tension in the household. Tell your partner what you intend to tell your child. Give him or her the choice of being present as you tell your child.

If communication between you two has broken down to the extent that even this conversation is not possible, just go ahead and speak with the child yourself.

There are two things you must do if you decide to speak to your child about your conflict with your partner.

The first is to put it in context. Depending upon your child’s age and temperament, you must tailor the message so that he can understand what you are saying. You cannot tell a 2 year old you are fighting about whether to give him a sibling or not.

You might say, “When you fight with your friend about whose turn it is on the swing, you are angry with your friend, but not with Mom and me. Just like that, Mom and I are angry with each other about something, but it has nothing to do with you. We will keep being angry for some time, but we are trying to stop being angry and be friends again.”

You might tell your 5 year old, “Dad and I are angry with each other because he wants something and I don’t want it. Suppose I want to bring a dog home. I love dogs, but you are scared of them, so you and I will fight about whether or not we should adopt a dog for a pet. There is no ‘right’ answer, and we both feel strongly about it. Dad is out of this picture. Just like that, Dad and I want different things, and we’re fighting. Not pleasant, but that’s how it is. You are out of the picture – the fight has nothing to do with you. What you need to know is that we both still love you and always will. It is silly for us to be fighting when we tell you not to fight with your friends, but grown-ups are silly sometimes.”

You might tell your 8 year old, “Mom wants us to have another baby – a sibling for you – and I don’t want another baby. That is what we are fighting about. Let me explain: you always want to go to the beach on vacation, and Mom and I love going to the mountains. So sometimes we go to the beach, and at other times, we go to the mountains. But when it comes to a baby, we cannot sometimes have a baby and sometimes not. We either have one or we don’t. Do you see? And we can’t come to a decision, so we’re arguing and shouting at each other. We’re upset because we each believe what we want is right for the family. But what you need to know is that both Mom and I love you, and whether or not we have another child, we will always love you.”

It’s a good idea not to tell your child why you feel the way you do. If you tell her the pros and cons of the issue, you will be actively involving her – the very thing you’re trying NOT to do!

Also, depending upon her one-on-one relationship with you and with her other parent, she will be more inclined towards one view or the other – again, she will be involved, and will feel responsible about the conflict and its outcome.

The other thing that you must do is NOT to vilify your partner. This is a much tougher thing to achieve.

You are hurting, you are bitter and you are angry. It is very likely that these emotions will spill over into your explanation to your child. You don’t need to actively say, “She’s bad” or “He’s wrong”. The tone of your voice, your body language, the way you put your point of view across – all of it can communicate to your child that you feel your partner is cruel and unfeeling not to give in to your point of view.  

But remember, you and your partner are the first relationships your child has. If he gets the impression that “Men are unfeeling” or “Women are wicked” or whatever, these ideas will influence all his relationships throughout his life – at school, at work, romantic and social. These ideas will become his worldview. It is a very high price for him to pay. Just because you could not hold back your angst.

When you say negative things about your partner to your child, you are forcing him to choose between you, and he gets caught in the middle – not fair!

Not fair to him (why should he choose between two parents?)

Not fair to your partner (feeling differently from the way you do does not make him / her a ‘bad’ person; it does not disqualify him/ her from being a loving parent)

Not fair to yourself (your child will always remember that you made him think badly of the other parent. At some time or other, I am positive, your child will resent, maybe even hate you, for doing this.)

In your own interest and that of your child, avoid saying negative things about your partner to your child.

But what if your partner is saying negative things about you to the child? It becomes even more important that you desist. Show your child an alternate way of being, of loving, of living. If the child confronts you “… says you’re really mean because you don’t understand the problems (the other parent) is having”, you can say, “Yes, … feels this way. It doesn’t make me mean. … just feels I’m being mean.” And stop right there. Don’t defend yourself, and don’t accuse your partner. Leave it there. Your child will not question you further on this.

Your conflict is your choice. Your child is caught up in it through no fault of his – he has no choice in the matter.

The best you can do is to assure and reassure him as often as it takes, that he is not to blame for what’s going on between you and your partner. It is difficult, but it needs to be done.

And you can do it! If you let your love for your child be your guide.

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When Parents Fight

We are so unnatural around little children! We don’t want them to know about hurt, anxiety, anger, fear. More precisely, we don’t want them to know that any ‘negative’ emotions exist outside their little world. We behave like Gautama Buddha’s father 🙂 – let them not know there is anything but joy and pleasure and ‘good’ things.

But some day, your son will know. However hard you try, someday he will know that these troublesome emotions do exist. Someday he will learn that people are vulnerable to these emotions at every age, that no one is immune to them. Someday, he will have to learn to deal with these emotions.

One of the most common ways we try to hide the ‘ugly’ bits of life is the way we handle adult conflict around children. I’m not talking here about the ‘you were so thoughtless’ or ‘you were so rude’ kind of arguments. I’m talking about basic, major conflicts that you may have with your partner.

These may not be at the forefront of your consciousness: so you don’t argue all the time, but you wish your life could be different, your partner could be different, your relationship could be different. Or the conflict may be a living, breathing reality in your life: you are hanging on to the tatters of the relationship by your finger-nails, wondering how, hoping, praying, to make it work. Sometimes, you are trying to make it work only because the alternative is too scary to contemplate.

When your baby is little, you are too tired to put much energy into disagreement. As she grows, and your routine slowly swings back to normal, you feel more yourself, and more ready to make a point with your partner. You are still careful around her. But she sleeps enough hours in the day to let you have it out with your partner. So you feel she is protected from the conflict you are both experiencing. Any protection she enjoys is only relative, however.

I say your baby is only ‘relatively’ protected for two reasons. Firstly, I believe children take in a lot subliminally, especially when they’re babies. So somewhere, your argument is registering in her subconscious, if you are having it around her sleeping form. Secondly, if the argument is fierce, you will both be feeling its after-effects, and it will affect the way you will be with each other in the near future (till the problem is sorted out – if at all it gets sorted out). When she wakes up, she will get the unfriendly vibes that you are sending each other. Oh, yes! She will definitely know that there is conflict. So any protection she enjoys is only ‘relative’.

After a while, it becomes difficult to control yourself. Arguments may flare up for any reason at any time. There are hundreds of reasons to clash with someone, and only one to hold your peace.

You and your partner disagree about something. Both of you are unyielding. It might have started as a discussion of whether to go to Australia or Switzerland on vacation, but it has degenerated into how each of you is impossible to live with.

As the disagreement escalates and tempers flare up, vocal cords are out of control. One or both of you may start banging doors or throwing things around. If you realize in time that your child is awake and may be listening, you may put the fight away for the moment – till she is in bed, or elsewhere, so that no ‘damage’ is done.

You are proud of the fact that you don’t show conflict in front of your child. You present a united stand. You are loving parents who love each other. Yours is the ‘happy family’ that fairy tales end with.

Is this a good idea? I doubt it.

I believe you are doing your son a grave disservice by making him believe that life is a bed of roses. The sooner you can acknowledge reality and introduce him to it, the better equipped he will be to make his way through life with relative happiness.

He must know that people have differences of opinion, and that they work (or argue or fight!) to resolve them. He must know that it is normal to disagree with loved ones. It doesn’t make the love any less real. He must know that it is okay for people to feel anger and resentment against loved ones, and still be ‘good’ people, still be lovable.

In his life, he will be faced with conflicts. How will he handle them? If you don’t handle at least some conflicts in front of him, how will he learn how to handle conflicts in his life, in his relationships?  Would you rather he learnt how to handle conflict from the TV programs he’s hooked to or the movies he watches? He has to learn from somewhere, and he’ll learn from whatever and whoever is available. It is your decision to make. 

But there is a much more immediate cause for concern when you hide conflict from your child.

No matter what you do, your child will know something is wrong between the two of you. You may think you’re giving nothing away, but he knows

Children are egocentric – they consider themselves the center of the universe. 🙂 Whether at age 2 or 12 or 16, when it comes to their family, the world revolves around them.

So when your son sees or senses conflict between you and your partner, he unconsciously but naturally considers himself responsible for it. There must be something he’s doing or not doing, some way he’s behaving or not behaving, that is causing this rift between you and your partner.

You won’t be able to make any of this out from his expression. He might be stoical or matter-of-fact about your fights, but in his head and heart, he’s wondering how he can fix what’s wrong between the two of you.

He may become extremely docile to please you and make you happy. In his mind, this happiness will then spill over into your relationship and all will be well. Fixed! Or he may go wild. His wildness will give you both a common agenda and draw you closer together – towards happiness. Done and dusted!

But this doesn’t really happen, does it?

Your child struggles under the weight of the conflicts you are either suppressing or giving vent to.  Not quite what you’d intended when you started out as a parent, is it? More tomorrow…

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The F-word You Don’t Want Your Child to Say

Background:

In my family, we use bad language sparingly. I don’t mean sparingly around children; I mean even left to ourselves and with an adult audience, we don’t use too many swear words. So my daughter has grown up in a fairly artificial atmosphere – some of it my doing.

For instance, I refused to use the words ‘stupid’ and ‘idiot’ as part of general language. I wanted her to know that the words meant something real – that they were not just words to trot out when you disagreed with someone or something.

She confronted me about it when she was 7. “You told me ‘stupid’ and ‘idiot’ are ‘bad’ words, but all my friends use those words. And they don’t even think those are bad words! They think I’m weird when I tell them that these are bad words to use.” (I’d told her when she was not even 3 years old!)

I told her, “This is how I feel. Others can feel differently. It doesn’t make them better or worse than us – just different. You feel free to use them if you want to. It doesn’t bother me. It’s just that I choose not to use them frivolously.”

Now for the real story:

I had picked up my 11-year old from school. We both enjoy the rare occasions when I do so. Nothing much happens, but she’s full of what happened at school and I’m happy to get her news “hot off the press”.  

Today, she was silent. Something was wrong. When I asked her what had happened, she said, “It was a terrible day! I don’t know how to tell you what happened.”

My heart promptly sank. What could be that bad? Obviously, I started prodding her to tell me what had happened – I needed to be put out of my misery. I had to know! No response from her.

Finally she said, “I’m wondering how to tell you.”

I was concocting all kinds of dire scenarios. We were both in our own private hells.

Eventually, she started to speak. “Someone said something terrible to me!”

My heart began to resume something approaching its normal rhythm. Someone said something – things definitely could have been worse.

“What did they say?”

“This girl – she said – she said” and here, she threatened to dissolve into tears. “I don’t know if I can even say it!”

I’d had enough. “Just spit it out, will you?”

“She said ‘F- you!’”

You’ll probably be appalled at what I did next. I burst out laughing. I was laughing so hard I had to pull over. 🙂

A few minutes later, when I had wiped the tears of laughter streaming from my eyes, I managed to look at my daughter. She was aghast at my reaction.

“How do you know this word? Who told you it is a ‘bad’ word? Do you know what it means?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve heard some seniors use it in the bus and at school, and I don’t know what it means, but I know it is supposed to mean something bad,” she said. “How can you laugh? I’m so upset! Someone said something so bad to me, and you can’t stop laughing!”

I was still smiling as she said this! 🙂

But it was definitely time to make her feel better! “Yes, it is considered a ‘bad’ word, and it means something specific. I’ll explain later exactly what it means. Right now, what you need to understand is that this is a word that everyone uses all the time.”

She was disbelieving. “What! No way – I’ve never heard anyone use it.”

“Well, people try to avoid using it around children, but every single grown up uses this word. Think of any single human being you know – even people you admire – they use it too. But the most important thing you should know about using this word, or others like it, is that people don’t mean anything by it. It’s just a way of expressing their frustration or annoyance. Some people use such words four or five times in one sentence. It doesn’t mean anything. Like when people say, ‘Shit!’ they don’t really mean the exact meaning of that word.” 🙂 My laughter threatened to explode once more.

She wasn’t amused. “But why say something if you don’t mean it? That makes no sense!” She was upset, and simply didn’t get it.

I assured her that it was about as serious as the girl having said, “Shut up!”

“Then why is it supposed to be a bad word?” she persisted.

“Well, it’s not considered polite to use it – that’s all, really. But everyone uses it – in some situation or other, if not all the time. And some people use it all the time.”

She was still put out. “It makes NO sense.”

That got me thinking. It really doesn’t make sense.

If you choose to use f-words and other swear words, you should have absolutely no problem with your children using the words too!

Why this ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude? Maybe you want people to think your kids are well brought up. I’m sure your parents want people to think the very same thing – even though you’re an adult now!

Excuse me, if you’re trying to be an effective parent, you’ll have to admit the truth – to yourself, if not to anyone else. Children use the language they hear at home. That’s all there is to it. If you are so bothered by your child abusing, listen to yourself. Catch yourself when you are abusing, and bite your tongue.

For some of you, if you want to do something about it, you might feel like you need to pull your tongue out by its very roots! 🙂

You might want to tell your kids openly: “It’s okay for me to use these words because I’m an adult, but they don’t sound good coming from you because you are a child. When you’re grown up (mention a specific age), you can use these words too, but till then, don’t!” They might take it from you.

There’s nothing wrong with any word. I mean that – yes, me, with my antiquated definition of what constitutes a swear word.

But if you’re particular that your children learn how to use language appropriate to the situation and company they find themselves in, you might consider modeling the behavior you’d like from them.

 

 

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Motivating Your Child

Motivate (verb): to provide with a motive or motives; incite; impel.

I’d agreed to conduct a few sessions on Fun with English as part of an Integrated Summer Workshop. One day we explored Creative Writing. The next day, a Grade 8 girl’s mother came to meet me.

“I really liked that you made them write something yesterday. My daughter writes quite well. Have you seen what she wrote?”

I told the lady that I hadn’t yet looked at what the children had written.

She continued, “I keep telling her she should write something – if not every day, at least every week. But you know how children are – they don’t listen to their parents. 🙂 I wish you would tell her to write something and show it to you. She enjoys your workshop – I’m sure she’ll be motivated by your telling her, and she’ll write something for you.” She looked hopefully at me.

Many years ago, I was convinced we could motivate our children. Give them enough inducement (enough ‘carrots’) and they would fall in line – with their parents’ wishes, of course. Even with my own child, I would keep trying to ‘motivate’ her to do different things – try skating, solve puzzles, write a journal… The three I mention here were dismal failures. Others had more satisfactory results, but I was beginning to tire of the whole bag of tricks.

It was such a lot of work for me! I had to keep on and on at it. Also, when I’d first start motivating her, it would seem to work. But after a bit, it would take enormous amounts of motivation to get her to make the slightest change.

There had to be a better way, I guessed. So, from being a convinced motivator, I graduated to just flirting with the idea of motivation. Sometimes, I’d just dig my heels in and NOT motivate her. Let’s see what happens, I’d think.

And I found what I’d have realized a long time back if only I’d stopped to think dispassionately about it. (Ah! But that’s the rub – it’s so difficult to be dispassionate about your children. :-)) Nothing happened! Nothing at all – neither good nor bad.

Say I’d been trying to get her to wear a T-shirt she disliked. When she was very young, what seemed to work was, “It’s so nice!” She’d eye it doubtfully, but give in. After a bit, I had to up the ante. “It’ll make me happy if you wear it.” (I know! I’m writing the blog from cold, hard experience! :-)). That didn’t work for too long!

One day, as I was looking through my closet for ‘something to wear’, she handed me a dress that had been hanging there forever. It was appropriate for the occasion, but I didn’t want to wear it. “But you’ve never worn this dress, and it’s been hanging here for months!” she said. Well, years actually, but – er…

I get a direct stare from her. “You should wear it. It’ll look nice on you. It’ll make me happy. I think you’ll look great in it. Think how much money you spent on the dress.” I was handed all my own arguments in one big bundle. I fumbled for a response.

Finally, I resorted to pulling rank. “Listen, I don’t want to wear it, and that’s that.” Obviously, I never again tried to get her to wear the tee (or anything else!) that she disliked.

So: motivation? I don’t know.

At the end of the day, people do what they feel like doing. That explains procrastination as well. You need to work on that report, but you don’t feel like it. You’ll find any number of ‘reasons’ why you couldn’t get to it, and then stress yourself out trying to do a good job and get it in on time.

Why should it be any different for your kids? They are complete human beings (except, with shorter life experiences) in their own right.

Your son draws great cartoons, and he’s doodling stuff all the time. You can appreciate what he draws. You can tell him you’d be willing to let him to take a class in cartooning if he wishes it. That’s about all you can do. Beyond that, it is his call.

Your daughter may be great at gymnastics. She’s so good she could go professional, the teacher at school tells you. You ‘motivate’ her to go to a class. Maybe she’s just not interested! Maybe she’s happy with gymnastics as just an activity.

But you’re so intent on ‘motivating’ her ‘for her own good’ that you keep pushing it at her. Besides, you are a ‘dedicated’ parent, and want to ‘help’ your child fulfill her potential and not ‘waste’ herself (a sentence full of ‘inverted commas’: a life lived inside inverted logic, actually.) You will both feel pressured and unhappy about it. However hard you try to ‘motivate’ her, your effort will end in grief.  

The bottom line is: no one can motivate anyone else. Not as a parent, not as a spouse, not as a friend – it simply ain’t happening. (Think about it: if we could be ‘motivated’ by others, we’d all be fit and super-successful at our jobs! 🙂 🙂 You may be inspired by someone, but motivation is a different ballgame.)

Motivation, the only kind that matters, comes from inside a person. No matter how much you ‘motivate’ him, beyond a point, your son won’t do something he doesn’t want to do. Besides, for how long will you go on motivating him? On the other hand, if he’s motivated, you’ll have to move heaven and earth to deflect him from his chosen path! 🙂

Know, as you try to ‘motivate’ your child, that you are systematically harming your relationship with him.

He will resent your inability to accept his choices – he will resent your inability to accept him. Like everyone else, he wants to be appreciated for who is he now, today – not be treated as a work-in-progress which will be fully appreciated once it is complete.

I told the parent at the workshop what I thought about ‘motivating’ children (or anyone, for that matter). “If her writing is to have any meaning, she must write for herself first – before she writes for anyone else.”

She wasn’t happy with what I’d said, but she saw the point. “But what should I do?”

“Let her be,” I said gently.

What you can do – all you can do – is to encourage your child in whatever he is motivated to do.

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The Power of Expectation

A lot of people think I’m crazy. Well, it’s a free world, and people can think what they want, is my response to that. What’s interesting is why they think I’m crazy.

One of the reasons people think I’m loco is that I talk – to children – even those who are just a few months or weeks or days old. And I talk to dogs, but that’s not who we’re trying to parent here (not that there’s much difference, if you ask me, and that includes toilet training! ;-)).

If I have to quiet a squalling baby, I will pick him up, and talk to him. I’ll tell him to quiet down. I’ll keep talking to him till he’s quiet. Sometimes, the baby will yell even more loudly when I pick him up. In which case, I’ll put him back down, and – yes, you’ve got it – I’ll talk to him. I’ll tell him to quiet down, and keep talking to him till he’s quiet.

Obviously, this is not how to deal with a baby who’s crying because it’s hungry, or needs a diaper change. But this is true for all the other times that babies yell.

And every single time, the baby quiets down. Some kids take a few seconds, while others take a few minutes, but never has any child taken more than ten minutes. There’s nothing magical or special about me. It’s just that I expect the child to understand what I’m saying. So I talk to the child as if it really does comprehend every word.  I don’t have the slightest doubt in my mind about this. So, whether the child has heard the words or not (heck, whether the child has heard the language or not!), I talk to it expecting it to understand what I’m saying. And the baby does understand. Simple.

I’ve shared this with lots of people who know me in real life (as opposed to digital life, via the blog). They’ve gone back happy and excited to have finally found a way to manage their kids’ crying jags – “especially when she’s so little that she can’t understand what I’m saying”.

Uh – you can guess what happens next, can’t you? They come back telling me I’m crazy. They’ve tried it with their kid and it doesn’t work. “Maybe it’s you – you just sort of ESP them or hypnotize them or something, but it doesn’t work when I do it.”

They take the idea of talking to the child and want to use it like a magic pill. Pop it in the open, wailing mouth, so that blessed peace is restored. It don’t work that way, honey.

You’ve got to believe that she can understand you. If you can get yourself to believe it (maybe make-believe the noise emanating from the pint-sized piece is annoying background music as you try to speak with the mature adult facing you!), your voice, your pitch, your tone, your eyes, your body, everything will be geared towards communicating that the baby should be quiet. And you will expect to be understood. You will expect her to understand what you are saying. And if you believe that she can, she will understand what you are saying.

This is why some people seem to have no trouble getting through to others. (Using the power of expectation is only one of the reasons, so let’s not blow this out of proportion.)  

You’ve been hearing complaints about your daughter’s disruptive behavior in class for years now, and as you drag yourself to her school for another meeting with the teachers, you’re prepared to hear more of the same. As you shuffle apologetically up to the teacher’s table, you’re taken aback by the beaming smile she gives you. ‘Must have mistaken me for someone else’, you think, as you sit down. You introduce yourself. The teacher is using words you don’t quite seem to understand: “wonderful – intelligent – lively – pleasure -”. Suddenly, your brain clicks on – she’s talking to you! About your daughter! But how?!

An amazed and disbelieving you, first speechless and then stammering with joy, gets up from that table looking surreptitiously for the broomstick the teacher sits on. You get home and confront your kid. “Your teacher praised you to the skies! What have you been doing all these years to get such bad reports about your behavior? What is different about her? What is different about you with her?”

Your daughter, in her typical communicative style, shrugs. “Oh! She’s alright. Fun sometimes, actually.”

“How does she do it?” you wonder. Well, I just told you! She expects that children will understand her instructions – whether they are about class work or acceptable behavior. And because she expects it as normal and natural, the children consider it normal and natural too, and so they deliver. They live up to her expectations.

Yup – expectations – they lift people UP – you’ve got to live UP to them – there’s no ‘down’ around here.

Think for a moment, of the opposite. You tell your son he has to help wash the car, expecting him to cheek you. Even as you tell him, you are defensive, preparing for his onslaught. Simultaneously, you are convinced about your moral right to ask him to help you wash the car. ‘Mom does lots of stuff for you. You’d better help me with this.’  No matter how stern, or how matter-of-fact or how authoritarian you might try to sound, a part of you is also preparing for him to defy you. That’s the part he cottons on to. Don’t ask me how he does it, but kids always know.

It might seem manipulative, getting kids to behave a certain way, but it’s not.

Because the power of expectation only works when you have reasonable expectations.

Your mind always knows when you’re coming from a place of ego, from a place of ‘I’m-your-parent-and-I-want-it-this-way-so-you’d-better-do-it-my-way’.  If you begin from this point, you might as well pack up and leave. It won’t work. However hard you try, you’re guaranteed to fail.

The power of expectation doesn’t take away your child’s right to make free choices. What it does do is help you create an atmosphere where such choices exist – because every moment is no longer a power struggle between you and your child.

Expect him to be reasonable about most things most of the time (don’t say “even though he’s a child?”! Children are almost the only reasonable human beings on the planet today ;-)) – expect it with all your faculties – and see him live up to your expectations. Enjoy a carefree parenting experience! 🙂

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What to Do When You Can’t Set an Example

One of the ways you show your love for your child is by telling him things which are good for him. Like ‘eat healthy food’, ‘get enough exercise and sleep’, ‘plan your work so you can get things done on time’, ‘put your things away so you know where to find them when you need them’. There are so many things you say.

Does your child do as you say? If yes, you are one of the lucky few! 🙂 It may start out that way: he may do as you say; but inevitably, he will begin to do as you do. You may say anything (and you do!), but what do you DO?

At first, your child may not openly question you. He may not ask: ‘Why should I eat healthy if you’re eating junk all the time?’ But he will certainly think it. Keep telling him what he ‘should’ do, and he will begin to question the discrepancy between what you say and your behavior.

He has every right to ask: ‘Your closet is a mess. Who are you to tell me to keep mine clean, organized?’ (No, this is not a made-up scenario. I know a lady who is chronically incapable of keeping her closet organized. The rest of her home is spick and span. When I first met her, almost 20 years ago, I asked her how she kept such a neat home but such a cluttered closet. “It’s my husband,” she explained. “I’m a stay-at-home wife with no kids. When we were first married, he’d walk in from work every evening to find the house looking like a tornado had blown through it. Three months later, he gave me an ultimatum: the house had to be ship-shape or else… But the closet is mine, so I indulge myself there. Today, she is the mother of two teenagers. Her home is still a model of organization. Her closet is still a mess. “Call it self-expression!” she says. :-))

Your son questions your right to give him advice that you don’t implement in your life. You have no answer. You know you’re struggling with yourself. You know you are doing your best all the time – doing your best to be your best. In some areas, you are not as successful as you’d like to be; but that doesn’t mean you want him to go through the same pain you have lived through.

You don’t want him to be like you – hunting frantically for the wedding license or ring at home (that you KNOW you kept so carefully right here) when you were due at your own wedding half an hour ago.

And what about the big ones? The principle is the same, but if you have an addiction, and you are counseling your child not to smoke, or drink, or abuse substances – what then? You are in the trap – maybe keen to get out of it, or maybe not.

But for sure you don’t want to see your child in the trap. And you don’t know how to convince her. Because she has every right to question you (and she will) when you say, “Don’t!” Because you can’t set her an example. Because you are still with the habit or behavior you are advising her against. But you would give a lot to make sure she stays away from it.

How can you reach your child in such a situation?

As always, honesty is the best policy. Tell him how you started. Tell him your journey. Tell him the mistakes you made. Tell him how you’ve felt over the years about this habit or behavior. Tell him what happens in your mind and body. Tell him how you’ve tried to stop; what it is that keeps you stuck. Share the experience – all of it.

Of course, you need to be careful, and tailor it to your child’s age and temperament. But share. It is the only way she will even think about doing as you say and not as you do.

Maybe it was peer pressure. Maybe you wanted to look cool. Maybe your ‘friend’ introduced you to it. Maybe you were very stressed at a point in time, and began the habit or behavior to deal with that stress, but couldn’t get out of it. Maybe you come from a home where this is the norm. Whatever the story, share it.

Show her the horror.

I used to be fairly disorganized as a person, but one day, I hit rock bottom. I was at the airport, at the check-in counter to board an international flight with my 15-month old, and I discover my passport is missing. I almost dropped the baby I was holding in my arms. I had to make this flight – I had no options.

Heart pounding, mouth dry, hands clammy, stomach roiling, sweat all over my body in 20°C temperature, legs trembling, knees crumbling, mind numbed with horror, facing a questioning airline ground crew member, managing handbag and cabin baggage. And before I could take it in – you guessed it – my daughter started screaming and flailing her arms and legs. The tension in me got to her, I guess.

I’ll spare you the frantic phone calls to my husband and his cross-city scramble to get my passport to me.

Today, I manage the family finances, and am considered a model of how to file (and retrieve! :-)) all manner of papers and things, so there’s a happy ending to this story. But it was a long, painful journey – one I could complete only because I shared the pain with my daughter and enlisted her help. “Remind me. Nag me. Make sure I put things away.” She loved it! 🙂

The fact is that each of us is dealing with some issue about which our children can ask us how we can dole out advice to them when we are not able to get our act together.

Don’t let their questions stop you from giving them advice. Tell them – despite not being able to set an example. It takes courage to acknowledge you’re not doing as well as you could be, and your child will recognize (and applaud) it, if only you take that courage in your hands, and SHARE. And you DO have the courage – your love for your child gives you the courage.

Who knows, you might just overcome the issue with your child’s encouragement and support. Maybe he’ll be the one to set you an example. 🙂 At any rate, there’s a good chance he’ll take your advice.

 

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When Your Children are Embarrassed by You

“Hello! We’re having a meeting of Grade 3 parents with all the subject teachers on Monday at 8am. It will last one hour. I’m calling to confirm you’ll be coming. You haven’t attended any such sessions over the past 3 years, and as the Parent Representative, I’d like to know if there’s a problem. Is there something I can help you with?”

As I finished saying my piece, I could sense the lady’s discomfort over the phone. We were both silent for a few moments.

As I was about to prompt her, she told me she had ‘no problems’. I told her I was glad to hear that, but that she might still have concerns she’d like to discuss with the teachers and other parents. Also, it was a good way to find out what was going on at school, and with other parents and the children.

After a bit, she said, “Actually, I don’t wear western clothes. I am more comfortable in traditional Indian clothes. And my daughter, she feels I’m not modern. She doesn’t like me to come to school. So I stay away. She wants me to come in pants and dresses like some other mothers. She feels ashamed to see me always in Indian clothes. She gets very angry. So…” Her voice trailed away.

Another silence on the phone.

I couldn’t say a word because so many emotions were warring inside me. I was incensed at how cruel the child was. I was pained by the hurt in the lady’s voice. I was horrified that a child could think this way about her parents. I wanted to charge in there and ‘do something’ about it. A moment’s thought, and wiser counsel prevailed. There was nothing I could have said that wouldn’t have sounded either patronizing or obnoxious.

Gently, I repeated, “You should consider coming for the meeting. It’s quite important. If you have anything at all to discuss…”

“No,” she replied. “Typically, my husband would be there, but he’s traveling, so we won’t be coming.”

I replaced the phone, contemplating what I would do to this girl if I could have my way with her.

But when I had gained some distance, I found perspective too. I found I could not blame the child. Her parents were responsible for her attitude. They had only themselves to blame.

Over the years, dozens of parents have confided in me about how they have strict instructions from their children about how they (the parents) should appear in public.

“You must wear lipstick.”

“Don’t come unless you’re wearing a suit.”

“You don’t speak English properly; it would be better if you don’t come to school. Send Mom instead.”

“You’re so short – you don’t look like a parent at all.”

“You’re so fat – lose some weight before you come to my school.”

In one instance, a 6-year old actually publicly refused to recognize her father because he was not (according to her) appropriately dressed! In the two years the child had been at school, she allowed only her mother to visit the school, because the father wore clothes indicating his religious affiliation. One day, the mother was stuck somewhere, and couldn’t get to school to pick the child up. She called her husband and asked him to rush to school as it was already very late.

After a while, the mother received a phone call from her daughter’s class teacher, who said, “There is a man here to pick up your daughter. He claims to be your husband, but the child says she doesn’t know him. What should we do?”

The lady had a hard time convincing the teacher that the man in question was her husband and the father of the child. It took over 15 minutes of conversation back and forth between the four people involved before the child consented to go home with her father.

This was narrated to me as an example of how fastidious the child was, how well she knew her own mind!

I tried not to show how appalled I was. And they were actually proud of the child behaving this way? If the primary school-aged child could refuse to acknowledge her parents, what was in store for the family when she grew up?

How come your children are embarrassed by you? After all, children are born ignorant, without any notions of good or bad, pride or shame. Where do they learn these ideas of being ashamed of themselves or their parents? From the parents themselves!

In the lady’s case, it was her own insecurity, her own lack of confidence in herself that the daughter picked up on and reflected.

Another mother might well have said, “Well, people dress differently. I prefer wearing traditional clothes, and I dress to suit myself. It doesn’t make me any less presentable than anyone else. It’s not clothes who make the person, but the person who makes the outfit.” Her daughter would have accepted the explanation happily, and taken pride in her mother’s appearance.

Another father might have explained to his child, “I believe in this religion. I was brought up believing in it, and it is an important part of who I am. My faith has helped shape my mind and my heart. I would not be the Dad you know and love without this faith. I am proud to belong to this faith, so I dress this way.” She would have understood and taken great pride in her father’s integrity, in the fact that he stood by what he believed in.

The most obvious thing about these two might-have-been incidents above is that the children would not have asked their parents for any explanations about their beliefs or behavior.

If you are clear about the person you are and what you believe in, you radiate it from every pore of your being. You are comfortable with yourself – being yourself – wherever you go, whoever you meet.  Your child sees you comfortable being yourself. It will never strike him to be embarrassed by who you are.

There is, of course, one honorable exception to this. When your kids approach teenage, they will suddenly become embarrassed by you.

“You talk too much” I am told. 🙂

My response: “You’re growing up, and becoming super-sensitive to others’ opinions. I am still myself, though I’m changing too. But know this – you will be a lot more embarrassed by me before you begin to be comfortable with me again. It’ll get worse before it gets better.”

Her response: “Oh, okay. And when do you think it will be better? ” 🙂

I shrug. “Who knows?” And we smile at each other. 🙂

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What Would You Say If You Could Only Say One Thing?

Today is the 10th anniversary of the horror that was 9/11. On this day a decade ago, many people didn’t know it, but they had said the last words they would ever say to their loved ones, friends and acquaintances.

As we remember everyone who was affected by the event (is there anyone, anywhere in the world who was not affected? I doubt it), we tend to take a fresh look at our own lives.

Here’s a scenario: You are a brave explorer, and are setting out on an expedition to Antarctica. You will be gone 5 long years, during which you will have no contact at all with the outside world. It has been a very difficult decision, because you have to leave your family and loved ones. But you decide to go, and you have the full support of your family – yes, even your children! You will return – that is guaranteed – so you can expect to meet them when you’re back. But for the duration of your trip, there will be no contact with the outside world at all. You can neither send nor receive news. You will be completely isolated on Antarctica.

Here is your question: What would you say to your children if you could only say one thing to them?

You will give them hundreds of instructions, pieces of advice, things to do and not to do, people to befriend and those to steer clear of, whom to obey, whom to go to if they have a problem – so much to say! And you will repeat yourself endlessly, desperate not to miss a single important thing. You might even draw out long lists (printed for easy reference, on the computer for when the paper gets lost, and backed up on two hard drives in safe locations for when you might lose the data on your computer) to make sure you haven’t missed anything out.

But at the moment when you turn your back on them, there will be one thing – the last thing – that you will say to your children. What will it be?

I’d like you to try this exercise. Really to sit down and think about it when you have the time. Figure out the one overriding message you want to leave your children with. If you have more than one child, you might have a different message for each one.

It would be great if you could share your message(s) to your child(ren) by posting it in the comments. I’ll write more on this, including my own ‘last message’ in a while.

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The Only Choice You’ll Ever Make

When you agree with somebody, there is no problem. You both feel the same. If there is a difference, it is a difference of degree. You like Tom Cruise, the other person loves Tom Cruise. But both of you feel positively about Tom Cruise, so you’re both happy.

‘Problems’ arise when you feel differently from someone else. And if that someone is your child, the problem assumes huge proportions. You are torn apart by your love for the child and your desire to see him ‘happy’ on the one hand, and by your ‘knowing’ exactly what will make him happy on the other!

Your son says “I’m going to get my left eyebrow pierced.”

You wince, cringe, bite your tongue, speak civilly to him about it, try to dissuade him with ‘logical’ arguments – and then all hell breaks loose. Your son is going to do WHAT?! You can’t believe it! How does he think he’s going to find an after-school job with a pierced eyebrow? And what of his position as a star of the school debating team? They won’t send him to the nationals (and he’s good enough to qualify) with a pierced eyebrow! He’ll blight his own future! All because of a silly whim! I mean, how will a pierced eyebrow add to his happiness? Does he have to do this to be part of the ‘in’ crowd? Who cares about such an ‘in’ crowd? (Umm – apparently, your son does.)

It goes on and on – for days, weeks, maybe months. Either he will get his eyebrow pierced, in which case, you will throw a blue fit, and blame every social, academic, physical, mental and emotional issue he will face in the future on the eyebrow-piercing. (Perhaps till he’s in his 30s – if he’s lucky enough to be forgiven that soon! :-))

If you emerge victorious (yes, I’m using war language, because this has become a battle between the two of you), he will blame you for everything. (“If you’d let me have my way, I’d be happier, and I’d have studied harder and got into an Ivy League college” (!), for instance.)

It might not be eyebrow-piercing. But there will be something or other about your child that drives you to distraction, that makes you feel as if you have no choice but to react as you do.

You teach him how to make the bed, and he learns. What’s more, he actually makes his bed every day! 🙂 But he’s not making it the ‘right’ way (also called ‘properly’ or ‘correctly’), and that is a problem. If it is his bed, he will have to make it (and lie in it! :-)) all his life. I ask you: doesn’t he have the right to make the bed his way? What difference does it make, after all?

She was solving problems in differential calculus before she turned 10 years old, but she wants to clean, trim, buff and polish people’s nails at a salon. Obviously you’re tearing your hair out by the roots in frustration. What else can you do when she simply won’t listen? You have no choice!

That is not true. Whatever the issue: habits, attitudes, thinking, choices regarding friends, careers, significant others – you always have a choice. And it is always the same choice!

At every moment of every day, you choose either to be RIGHT, or to be HAPPY. There is no other choice.

Amazingly, most of us choose, almost all the time, to be RIGHT. And that sets us up in conflict with other people. Arguments, slanging matches, tension, anger; loss of focus, time, energy, health, relationships – we accept all this. Accept? We actively choose it!

Because we’d rather be right than be happy.

You want your child to do as you wish because you believe you know better. You may know better. But you may not! You refuse to even consider the second option. Comfortable in your higher age, your greater ‘experience’ and ‘maturity’, you are immovable in the notion that you are ‘right’.

Well, so what? Even if you are right, why should she listen to you? Some day, she has to learn to make her own decisions. How long will you look over her shoulder? How will she learn what works for her and what doesn’t? When will she be her own person?

You know it’s a criminal waste of her abilities if she works in that salon. Actually, so do I. I am 100% with you on this. But once you’ve coaxed and wheedled, explained and pleaded, threatened and blown up at her, there’s nothing left to do.

At the end of the day, you can’t ‘make’ her do anything. It has to be her choice.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t get your children to see your point of view. You are the parent. They do not have the breadth or depth of thought or experience to know as much as you do. But once you have informed them, exposed them to the consequences of a decision, you have to learn to walk away.

It has to be your child’s decision.

Meanwhile, you have your own choice to make. Will you choose to be ‘right’? If you choose this, you will be resentful of your child’s choice, there will be unpleasantness, fights, and you will create a deep rift in your relationship with your child. Because your love for her is set up in conflict with what you ‘know’ is ‘right’ for her.

What if you chose to be ‘happy’? You may obviously never be HAPPY about her choice, but now that she has made it, you may choose to accept it. Now you can choose to be happy that she is doing what she chooses, even if it is not what you wished for her. You can tell her frankly that you disagree with her choice, but that you are willing to respect it. And then go ahead and respect it!

From your point of view, at worst, she will ‘waste’ her potential at that salon all her life. But she will remember and value your support and respect for her decision. You will have a wonderful relationship with her.

At best, she will become impatient with the lack of challenge and choose again; something more in line with her abilities. She will not ‘waste’ her life. She will remember and value your support and respect for your decision. You will have a wonderful relationship with her.

It’s your choice.

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