As a mother of two young children with lives as busy as my own, I am constantly trying to do more than I can achieve. Sometimes with all of the multitasking, school runs, thank you notes and household responsibilities, not to mention my professional life, I feel like I am doing so many things, none of them as well as I could. My main priority, far and above anything else in my life, is my children, their happiness, stability, individualism and well-being. In your opinion, what are the most effective ways to be with one’s children? What is most important in terms of their emotional and mental development? Are there specific things we can do to help them grow up to reach their full potential?
Camila Batmanghelidjh replies:
Parents could be forgiven for feeling bombarded by childrearing advice. It begins with a multitude of books, internet sites and professional wisdom in relation to your infant and it continues into oppressive literature on “toddler taming” and trench warfare in relation to adolescents. In fact, the subtext of all this advice is that if you put your foot down wrong in relation to bringing up your child, you commit “parent crime” and cause lifelong damage to your offspring. How terrifying to be a parent!
Undoubtedly different techniques work with different children. Some need firm and clear boundaries. Others are too willing to comply and will respond to praise. But the most important task is to identify the essential parenting ingredient – an absolute stable law that one can use in all circumstances – and adapt the philosophy to suit the task of the moment.
So the big question is, “What’s the most important task in being a parent?” To help us understand, I’d like to share with you some of the findings from brain science. We now know that the human brain is sculpted and created predominantly as a result of the interactions to which the child is exposed. There are two very important parts of the brain that loving care programs. The front part, right behind the eyes, closest to the skull, is called the prefrontal lobe. This area is responsible predominantly for executive functions, i.e., it’s the organizing part of the brain doing the planning, looking ahead, anticipating the consequences of one’s actions, experiencing empathy, and expressing care toward others and the self. This part of the brain helps to calm down and soothe the emotional expressions that emanate from the limbic system: a deep structure mid-brain from which our emotional repertoire, our memories and our more impulsive reactions emerge.
A well-cared-for individual achieves equilibrium or a sense of balance by using the front part of the brain to calm down the emotional parts of the brain. Children learn through the experience of being cared for how to calm themselves down and organize their own emotions constructively.
Deprived and abused children experience challenges. Lack of love leaves an underprogrammed prefrontal lobe, devastating the child’s ability to calm themselves down. Violence, trauma and being in situations of chronic terror overprograms the fear centers of the brain, making the child hyper-agitated, impulsive and difficult to calm.
We have this knowledge because our ability to scan the human brain has allowed us a closer look and a greater understanding. It is due to this knowledge that the single most important element in a child’s development has come to be recognized as exposure to consistent loving care, which is imparted to the child through their attachment to a mother or father figure. Ideally, it should be their biological caretakers, but it can be any parent substitute who is loving, caring and consistent.
As a parent contemplates the most important tasks, they need to take on board both the sophistication and the simplicity of being with their child in a thoughtful way. Your children don’t need excessive material goods or constant trips and gifts. The best present you can give them is the availability of your mind. When your child feels you are thinking about them, they will experience being held and connected to you as if they are in your mind and they can similarly carry you in their mind.
So learn the art of just thoughtfully being there: noticing them, praising them or maybe doing simple things together. It could be a bedtime story, cooking and washing, or going to the park together. You could read books or newspapers to your child or simply notice what they’re doing. While they’re with you, they could draw, do their homework or just lounge around.
What research shows is that in the presence of a caring companion, the calm from the caretaker’s brain can create calm in the child’s brain. Because their brain is not developed fully, very young children will need the adult consistently with them to help them manage emotions and energy. But as the brain develops, the capacity to calm down is “internalized.” The child carries the memories of this ability and can use it to soothe themself when distressed because they remember how the parent did it.
Parents can’t be calm and gentle all the time. You will lose your temper, shout and scream and behave impatiently. But if you apologize and “own the problem” as yours, the child will feel they are not the bad one. They will learn resilience, which, in effect, is the ability to fix bad situations and get the good out of them or transform them into positive outcomes.
The best way to think about the parental task is like “banking care” so that your child can draw upon the resource when they need it.
– Camila Batmanghelidjh
Camila is a psychotherapist and founder of the children’s charity, Kids Company.
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes replies:
As the mother of two daughters, now 22 and 18, and a psychologist in full-time private practice, I am well acquainted with the incredible balancing act between work and one’s own life and the needs of family, particularly children. What I have learned from my own experience as well as listening to my patients over many years are some key ingredients in raising healthy and well-adjusted human beings. I believe the most important aspects of being a healthy individual are having good self esteem, good judgment and the ability to self-soothe in constructive ways. How do children develop these attributes? I feel that being available to one’s children emotionally is the number one priority in helping them grow into good and productive people. What I mean by this is that as parents, we must see our children for who they are without constantly projecting our own needs and wishes onto them. In order to accomplish this, we must spend time with them, listen to them and most of all, HEAR them. Children let you know what they need and they act out when they are not getting their needs met. A good example of this is with overprogramming children with too many structured activities. Children will regress, withdraw and misbehave when they are too overstimulated and programmed. Sometimes they need to just be home with their parent or caretaker and play imaginatively. If we can step back and put our needs aside sometimes, children are very clear in their communications.
In this day and age, with both parents often working or busy outside the home, it is very difficult to find quantity time, but quality time is as important. The small but powerful moments are all very valuable in helping our children feel cherished and adored. Eating meals together whenever possible is a wonderful time for connection.
Several other thoughts...children need boundaries. They feel safe when they know what is expected of them and what is predictable. They also need consistency. For example, No means No. I also feel very strongly about this: Children need to be helped to adapt to their environment and not always have the environment shaped around them. Parents today often try too hard to make life easy for their children by manipulating everything in their lives. This does not teach children to cope and eventually leads to low-self esteem. In essence, when children know they are loved and seen for who they are and are taught to adapt to their surroundings, they have the best chance of growing into happy, well-adjusted and productive adults.
– Karen Binder-Brynes, Ph.D.
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes is a leading psychologist with a private practice in New York City for the past 15 years. See her website, DrKarennyc.com, for more information.
Heidi Butz replies:
I’ve found that one of the most effective ways to be with our children is to try to make sure that they always feel heard. The forums for this change as they grow older, but it was important to us that from a very young age that our children knew that their opinions mattered and that they had a voice.
When they were toddlers, we incorporated them into the routines and decision-making of the household. This was not just a matter of getting them to pitch in. The daily goings-on in the house provided a setting in which the children could exercise their judgment and their preferences. On trips to the store, we gave our two-year-old simple choices about what to buy. It was up to her whether we would have striped or polka-dotted beach towels for the summer. The same was true of getting dressed in the morning. No color coordination is worth forfeiting the empowering feeling of putting together an outfit. For toddlers, this is the equivalent of your parents hanging on your every word.
Our dinner table reflects similar priorities. We work hard to ensure that the opinions of our 10-year-old son and his thoughts on the Presidential Inauguration are given as much air time as those of his politics-obsessed father. While it’s sometimes a struggle to stay as focused on the details of our seventh grader’s 11-0 field hockey game when her high school senior brother is waiting to recount his nail-biter basketball story, that validation goes a long way.
I’ve noticed that the lines begin to blur on the topic of being heard when the kids get into high school. I’m not sure that they want or need to be heard nearly as much as I want to hear them. And they know that information is power. It never occurred to me when I was doing call-and-response clapping with our two-year-old son in Kindermusik that 15 years later, I would stand in the kitchen anticipating the slam of the front door after practice, hoping his grunt of “hey” might turn into a conversation. Or that I would be aware that the odds of getting the first eye contact in three days go up dramatically if he happens to be “starving” and pauses at the refrigerator on his way down to the basement. But I’m trusting that beyond thinking that I’m a needy mom, they know that we value and learn from what they have to contribute.
We don’t outgrow the longing to be heard. I recently returned to work after 18 years at home with our children. At the end of the interview process, I met with the man for whom I would be working. His questions and attention to my narrative made me feel like I had truly been heard and understood. I knew immediately that hour had made the whole journey worth it – regardless of the outcome. I did end up getting the job but I also got a reminder of the importance of actively listening to children – of any age.
– Heidi Butz
Heidi Butz lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband and their four children.
Cynthia Bourgeault replies:
I don’t know if I’m pulling rank here: I’m speaking now as a grandmother, not an active-duty mom. But my four grandkids have given me a second chance to learn the lessons that I missed the first time around. Or maybe it’s simply that the passage of time lets one see the forest, not just the trees.
The single most important thing is to take time to LISTEN to your children – as fellow human beings, not just as your charges or pet projects. There’s a wise little human soul in there, ageless in heart even while young in time. Follow her lead. Listen to what she says and DOESN’T say. Don’t just manage her, but allow the things she’s interested in to open and energize your own heart. That’s the secret of eternal youth.
Second, don’t be afraid to be real with your children. I’m not speaking so much here about being honest with your feelings (that’s generally good, but don’t forget that as a parent you have a primary responsibility to hold a safe space for your kids, and your self-expression should never overwhelm or frighten them); rather, I’m talking about being transparent about what you truly love. For eighteen years my own mother managed, scolded, imposed manners, dragged us kids off to Sunday school, arranged lessons in necessary social graces, chaperoned parties and supervised homework. And yet, for all that gray blur of duty, the one day I truly remember from my childhood was the day she simply gathered up her beloved oil paints and marched us off to a local arboretum. As my brother and I explored the gardens, I watched her a short distance away, poised before her easel, golden sunlight streaming down her face, completely entranced in what she was doing. How I loved her in that moment! And the unspoken lesson on following your bliss has remained with me for nearly six decades.
– Cynthia Bourgeault
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada.