As parents, connection with our children is not only a joy- it is our greatest asset for guiding and protecting. We can either parent based on connection, or parent based on fear. Wow, that sounds drastic right? But a child will either willingly cooperate with you, will only co-operate if they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t, or just plain won’t co-operate! What is the deciding factor between these outcomes? I think in the case of a healthy, well-balanced child the level of co-operation is directly related to how well-connected parent and child are. I do think behavioural-health issues can create a different dynamic (for instance, certain children who are really sensitive to food dyes/preservatives or those with a sensory processing disorder; yet, even here, I think it is the health issues themselves which make connection difficult).
Here are three obstacles to connecting, three connecting helps, and a few ways to meaningfully connect.
Things that Make Connection Difficult
1. Guilt. Guilt eats away at you, dissolving your ability to stay in-the-moment and think in a peaceful, clear-headed way. It keeps you in “hamster-mind”, running around and around on a little mental wheel that doesn’t get you anywhere! When we feel guilty about how we’ve reacted to our children or parenting mistakes we’ve made, we often try to over-compensate for the mistakes instead of being able to see what is really needed at the moment from a place of mindful, grounded thinking. When we feel guilty about circumstances outside of our parenting (getting behind on housework, over-committing outside the home and having trouble saying “no”, fighting with a spouse/loved one and regretting words that were spoken, etc) these things can rob us of our presence of mind, can make us emotionally distant, and can cause us to operate in stress mode- that mode where our stress hormones flood our body and physically shut down our higher mental faculties, reducing us to more primitive cycles of flight or fight responses. For more of the chemistry of stress, just google “stress shuts down the frontal lobes” and you will get ton of results about how stress can cut you off from your intution, your best decision making capabilities, empathy, and the part of you that makes you most “human”.
When my first child was born, he cried. A LOT. I felt like a bad mother; I felt guilty about having him in a hospital. I had tried to give birth at home, but with my water broken for over 36 hours and a fever developing, I changed course. I thought perhaps the stress of being separated from me in a neonatal intensive care unit (a standard procedure for a baby born to a feverish mother in that hospital) must have traumatized him for life. They kept him so far from me, that by the time I would hurry down to nurse him when they called to say he was hungry, he would have given up in tired frustration and fallen asleep. I think guilt really stands in the way of connecting, and by golly don’t we often get served up a ton of parenting guilt, especially as new mothers (whether from well-meaning relatives & friends, or our own inexperienced grapplings)? After that, there were a slew of other mistakes (well-meaning friends who urged me to pursue some very connection-deadening parenting philosophies) and I ended up with a 2.5 year old that I felt I had “ruined”.
It was at that time that I really reached out for an alternative way of being with my son, and settled upon the beautiful, gentle ideas of Waldorf philosophy. What healed our relationship most was a therapeutic story that I told him each night for a while when he was three and four- The Rainbow Bridge story. I adapted it a little- in my version, when the little boy asks to go to the woman he sees, the angel queries “Are you sure you want this mother? She has never been a mother before, and she has never taken care of a little child. She might make mistakes, but if you can be patient and forgiving, you will see she loves you very much and will always try to be the best mother she can be.” The little boy says “Yes, this is the mother I want.” The angel asks again “Are you sure you don’t want to wait a bit longer? There are other children waiting to go to her too, and perhaps you can come along once she’s already practiced being a mother a little.” But the little boy was so excited he didn’t want to wait any longer to meet her, and he thought being the first child to go to her would be such an adventure. This story was probably a lot more therapeutic for me than him- it really healed my guilt and helped me resolve to be the best mother I can be. It was simple, cost nothing (well, I was inspired by the book Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour), and after a while of telling it, our connection was strengthened. There are times when I acknowledge an error or apologize for losing my temper and he replies, “It’s ok mom, I know you are trying to be the best mom you can be”.
2. Judgement. On the flip side of guilt is judgement. Judgement can be an internal reaction to our own guilt, in which case we limit ourselves with ideas (such as ‘you don’t deserve….’ ‘you will never be…’ etc). But the kind of judgment I want to address is the kind we levy on our children. We need to “judge” between helpful and non-helpul behaviours, and keep our judgement attached to the behaviour, not the child. I think it can be a momentary flash of wisdom that tells us the behaviour is not helpful; here the judgement job ends and more helpful mental processes can begin. Once we step into that role of judge of another person, we really limit our ability to connect because we often assume we know their motives or thought processes and so we fail to try to find out where they are coming from and what needs (real or perceived) they are trying to meet with their action. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “Why did you do that?” when really, my tone and body language are saying “You shouldn’t have done that.” I love what Naomi Aldort says about “should”. If a child is doing something, then they should be doing it, because that is their best attempt at living their life and getting their needs met that they know of, right now.
We have about eighteen years to help them get to the place of knowing appropriate and inappropriate ways of getting their needs met, make life-enhancing decisions, and helping them develop their self-control. We can’t expect them to already be there at age two, three, four, five, six… who they are right now is not the finished product; but when we judge them we are putting our limiting beliefs upon them- beliefs that they will carry about themselves for who knows how long? May I never give them a negative prophecy to fulfil! Becky Bailey says “What you focus on, you will get more of.” So true! When we focus on a certain behaviour, it is almost like lighting a flame in the dark and inviting the moth to dance with it. If there is a behaviour that is troubling, the best way to deal with it is to offer a new behaviour, a new paradigm, a new way of being, a new way of getting needs met; not simply negating an old one. If there is a need behind the old, unwelcome behaviour, just cutting off the behaviour can lead to alternate negative behaviours or unmet needs that become the basis for future disruptions of well-being.
3. Busy-ness. Busy-ness, like guilt, can be a stress-inducer and carries all of those same brain-functioning-under-stress implications. But it also robs us of those precious little moments that would slip by unnoticed if we were not unhurried and observant. When my children are playing together happily, I often stop what I am doing and quietly listen to what they are saying and doing- and my heart fills with gratitude and love for them. We don’t do any “extra-curricular” activities at this point. When they are older I’d like to get them involved in a sport or hobby, but life with several little ones can be so full with just caring for their basic needs. They really just need rhythm and the security of home when they are small. And they need mama to be frazzle-free.
Being busy can be as much about the mind as about the physical activities we partake in. It’s funny; you can be a stay-at-home parent and still not really connect with your child in a meaningful way at all, if you don’t really take the time and have the intention to do it. I remember realizing this when my first child was a toddler. Sometimes I just had to purposefully drag myself out of the whirling mentals lists of things to do and constant replay of conversations or situations in my life that I was working through, and make an effort to sit down, make him the center of my attention for a few minutes, make eye contact, and really connect. A meditation practice or simply slowing down and noticing sensory information (What am I hearing right now? Seeing? Smelling? Feeling?) can quickly rescue me from being too much “in my head”.
Things That Make Connection Easy
1. Empathy. Empathy- being able to “identify with… and experience the thoughts, feelings, or attitudes of another” (dictionary.com) is SO integral to connecting meaningfully with a child or with anyone! It is as simple as that! I do suggest learning a little about a child’s consciousness/child development to better enable you to empathize with them; they are not miniature adults, and are approaching the world with more wonder, reverence, imagination, and curiosity than many of us grown-ups. They also need to experience things physically (touch!) much more than an adult.
2. Understanding the Temperaments. My ability to empathize with people has been truly enhanced by my study of the temperaments. I have been absorbing this information since I was very young, because my mother studied them and I’ve been hearing about cholerics, sanguines, melancholics, and phlegmatics for as long as I can remember. I read books about the temperaments in my teens, and having children of three different temperaments has been so enlightening (I’m still waiting for a choleric!).
3. Connecting Within A Rhythm. In her book I Love You Rituals, Becky Bailey gives some great tips on making connection a part of daily life in a rhythmic way. In Hold On To Your Kids, Gordon Neufeld talks about making it a priority to use certain transition periods to re-connect. When we have been “dis-connected”- whether physically away from each other or mentally distracted for a period of time- it is time to re-connect. This reminds me of the Waldorf “breathe-in, breathe-out” rhythm for balancing more outward activities/states of being with more inward activities/states of being.
I try to connect with my kids when they wake up; at meal times; after a nap or freeplay; during our afternoon walk; and before bedtime. Of course these are not the only times I connect with them, but they are the crucial points where connection always occurs that “gathers them up to me” throughout the day.
How To Connect
The basics of connecting are making eye contact, physical touch, eliciting a smile, and perhaps asking the kinds of questions that require more than one word to answer (although I’ve experienced some wonderfully connected times where no words are spoken, haven’t you?). The way we connect will change based on age. Babies love nursery rhymes, rocking & dandling games, and finger plays. These are incredible ways to connect (not to mention they help build vocabulary and develop motor skills without over-intellectualizing!). As they get older, story-telling and singing together are great ways to connect. That is as far as I can go in my current parenting experience, but I imagine the future holds a lot of listening and sharing interest in hobbies…
I also think there is a spiritual element to connection, and if your beliefs align, I love the idea of asking a child’s guardian angel for help in connecting with a child and better understanding what the child needs. This can be done quietly as they fall asleep… and also provides the mother with a sense of shared responsibility, a sense that she is not alone and she has help within the spiritual realm as she nurtures and loves.