When your baby begins to crawl around by himself, you can be assured of a devoted follower. Bathroom doors are no longer closed, and every task requires a creativity you may never have thought you had. Two of the most important characteristics you can develop to help you stay relaxed are keeping a sense of humor and understanding the impermanent nature of childhood stages.
When your child gets on his feet, the roles reverse. You become your child’s devoted follower, for heaven knows what he is going to get into next. A “childproof” house is essential, so that you can be assured there is not much in harm’s way. Great playthings include household items without potential for harm.
Tools as Toys: Cooking
At this later toddler stage, you can add other creative options. Young ones love to emulate you, so miniature versions of your cooking and cleaning supplies can be helpful; while you’re making dinner, the little one can be at your feet stirring her own pot. Plastic bowls that fit inside one another make for hours of fun, as do the same kind of containers with easy-fit lids. Your child can practice putting things in and taking them out. Big boxes from moving companies with holes cut out for windows make great disposable playhouses. Paper towel tubes can make marvelous toys, as can large paper bags and other things that are free, recyclable, and don’t present a hazard.
You can keep a stool handy for little kids to help at the counter, and whenever possible let them pour their own drinks from a tiny pitcher into a tiny cup during mealtimes — cultivating coordination as well as a sense of involvement.
Tools as Toys: Gardening
One project my kids always loved was making their own Easter baskets. In February, I bought cheap baskets at a large craft store, and a bag of soil and some grass seed. We lined the baskets with foil and my kids, using small plastic bowls or cups, added soil almost to the top. Then they sprinkled grass seed on top, and covered it with another small layer of soil. They put their baskets on the seat by the bay window, and watered them with my sprinkling can every other day. When Easter came around, the baskets were full of beautiful green grass. The night before Easter Sunday, the Easter bunny came and filled their baskets with treats, covered them with Saran wrap, and hid them. I dipped the end of my fingers and thumb together into some brown paint, and placed bunny footprints all over the place.
You can get big buttons and sew them on pieces of felt, cutting buttonholes in another piece, and let your child play with buttoning things. Purchase or make a cardboard sewing toy, with holes in the board and a big plastic “needle” with yarn.
Kids love to help out. Saying yes to those offers is more important than we might imagine and helps us raise kids who are more likely to take on household responsibilities as they get older.
Rather than toy versions of tools, get them appropriately sized real tools (to use with supervision). You can get plenty of useful, not-too-large tools at your local hardware store. As kids get older, invest in adult-sized tools they can use for a lifetime. Starting at four years old they can have woodworking tools and access to scrap wood. If they love to turn machines on and off, You can get them a hand vac as a gift. They’ll use it for years, immediately on the scene to vacuum up crumbs like a man on a mission.
I saw a video once where a baby was giggling, bouncing with joy as her father ripped a piece of paper. She apparently thought that was hysterical! Who needs toys?
Observe, and Practice Madhuvidya
At this age constant supervision is a must. Observing your toddler is fascinating and can teach you a lot about being present. See how totally in the moment she is, how complete her concentration can be when she is involved in an interesting task. At this point, she will often wander back to home base (you) to touch in, making sure that you are still there, that continuity and safety are maintained as she begins to widen her interest in exploring her environment.
These are the months and years of practicing what in the great spiritual tradition of India is called madhuvidya, or “sweet knowledge.” This means simply the realization that all is one; no one activity, person, or time is more important than another. This may be the only period in your life, for a very long time, when you have the chance to learn about this so urgently, for as your children grow, you all get busy with worldly life and with others.
Think About It: You are a Higher Power to Your Child
When you know that in some sense you represent the Tao, Infinite Consciousness, God to your child, you can begin to deepen your own relationship to your spiritual base. Thus, your observation of the relationship between yourself and your child can teach you a lot about Oneness.
What kind of God do you believe in? How do you want God to relate to you? Is God all-loving, all-forgiving? Does God love you unconditionally? Do you want to be lifted up when you fall? Do you want your prayers answered? Do you want help to find and empower yourself, your destiny, and your dreams? Do you want your Higher Power to listen to you patiently and comfort you, not leave you alone to tough it out? That is what a parent needs to be for his or her child.
As you practice being that way, you begin to realize you have a greater — some say higher or deeper — power in your life that cares for you in the same way. So, to practice being the Tao for your child every day brings you closer to God (a thousand names for the force that guides the universe), and also helps your child stay connected to the spiritual source from which he has come.
Help Yourself with Relaxation
The precious toddler years are a time for this level of spiritual learning for parents. Often your toddler needs you to simply witness him play; you may sometimes feel like you are doing nothing, and impatience can set in and grow. In many other countries where extended families live together, this is when grandparents come in to provide the patient, observing, teaching witness a child needs. In western countries, parents are required to be both this slowed down, tranquil, in-the-present witnessing “master” and the busy manager of the family. It’s a daunting job. For the sake of your child’s and your own spiritual growth, take time every day to be in the present with your little one. It is more important than the seemingly urgent things that call you away. When you are old, these seemingly empty moments are what you will remember as real. Remember, as the Taoist masters do, that relaxation is fullness, not emptiness. What is real remains, the rest falls away.
If You Want Something Done, Ask a Busy Person
As children grow, and especially when more children come, life gets more hectic and relaxation takes on a different quality and meaning for parents. In my circle of friends, I noticed that the most relaxed parents were the ones who happily had four or five kids! By then, they had surrendered. While their households were messy and noisy, and one or the other parent was always in the car, driving kids to various practices and functions, there was a kind of flow to the chaos. Perhaps these parents had found the “zone” where one thing just flowed into another, where all was included, and they realized it was useless to sweat the small stuff. I studied these parents to learn that art.
Somehow these parents always found time for their relationship, and each of them had outside interests they continued to cultivate through it all. The only way they were able to do this was to have a strong sense of mission, to understand the importance of balance and role modeling, and to consciously, each week or month, make decisions as to what they would and would not do, what they were willing to forego in the short term for their long-range mission: a happy family.
I also knew stressed-out parents who never took time for themselves and each other. Creating a happy family takes parents committed to certain kind of mission and lifestyle, and often, while we start with the best intentions, at some point we lose focus, drift apart, allow betrayals to fester into permanent rifts, and divorce to happen. Some people are better partners than they are parents, and vice versa. Some can do both smoothly. The Tao teaches us to accept it all and try to attain a level of relaxation through all the changes life brings our way.
If you are on a path of spiritual attainment, it is bound to bring you changes you are not at all comfortable with, changes that naturally tighten your defenses. When I was pregnant with my first child, I had been meditating for years, four to six hours a day. I realized as my pregnancy progressed that I would no longer have hours to sit in meditation alone and in silence. Everything had to change. After trying to figure out how I could still meditate in the way in which I was accustomed, my baby was born — unless I relaxed and accepted big changes, I was bound to be unhappy.
began to think, I will be all-knowing, unconditionally loving, I will be a guru to this child; I will represent God — the Way — the Tao. Knowing this prepared me for parenting in a way no book could prepare me. My meditation took a back seat. It was time for me to learn madhuvidya — meditation in action. My mothering became my meditation; I was God to my baby — he was God to me.
The practice then is not to ward off change (which is impossible) but to notice when change is causing you to tighten. At those times, consciously allow your body and mind to relax and slow down enough to understand the deeper reality and make better decisions. Let your children know this is what you are doing, and you can teach them to relax as well.
Babies show you clearly that from the beginning, change is stressful. You can model a relaxed way of handling change, and you can teach your baby how to relax. This is one of the many benefits of infant massage; you must relax and slow down to be with your baby in this way. Part of the massage routine (Touch Relaxation) is teaching your baby to relax his body when you touch him through conditioned response.
Pay Attention to What is Not Happening
In Taoism, it is important to keep an awareness of emptiness. That is, what is not there is as important as what is there. The t’ui who circle is a calligraphic meditation on this subject, in which the student makes a circle with a calligraphy pen and meditates upon it. Without the emptiness of what the circle contains, there is no circle. So it is important to pay attention to what is not happening as well as what is. A child’s silence does not mean he has nothing on his mind.
Make a physical connection through massage and relaxation at bedtime to facilitate talks with an older child. Especially if you have massaged your kids as babies, giving them nightly massages creates an atmosphere of trust. If your child needs to cry or express fear, let her; assure her that what she feels is natural, that she is always guided and protected, and that it is okay to cry sometimes, to let out tension, frustration, fear, or grief.