Note: I am using the principles that guide the martial art Tai Chi, with its foundation in Taoism. Like my book The Tao of Motherhood, these principles translate beautifully to what I call “Right Parenting.”
“In adulthood we often see responsibility as something dreadful. Why should we dig the ground when the weather is disagreeable? We see activities as obligations, and we strain against our fate. But there is a joy to working in harmony with the proper time. When we do things at just the right occasion and those efforts bear fruit, the gratification is tremendous.”
— Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao Daily Meditations
This principle follows closely on the heels of Principle Four. It deepens our awareness of how to respond rather than react to our children. It helps us learn how to accept and handle our responsibility to them throughout our lives, for being responsive also includes responsibility.
In Tai Chi, being responsive is the practice of learning to become sensitive to others without becoming enmeshed with them. It cultivates a balanced awareness of our surroundings and of the people with whom we interact. We are often so loaded with preconceived notions, family scripting, and social conditioning from the popular media or our social circle that it is difficult to approach anything new without filtering the new through the old.
The Tai Chi student’s most important work is to learn to be aware of the flow of chi and to work with it as he or she does the exercises and movements of the martial art, including sparring with partners or “opponents.” In the same way, we as parents are given endless opportunities to practice awareness about our children’s energy, their individual way of being — what comes with them — so that when we respond to them we are responding to them uniquely, not just as “my kid.”
“When you master the outward by means of the inward, all affairs are unspoiled. If you can attain this within, your internal organs are peaceful and your thoughts are calm; your muscles are strong, your yes and ears are alert and clear. You have accurate perceptions and understanding, you are firm and strong without snapping.”
This principle relates to how we teach our children to respond to circumstances and people, and how we model and teach responsibility.
A lack of responsiveness comes in many forms, mostly unintentional. When you see an irresponsible, disrespectful child, you can look to the parents and the home environment where the child is constantly modeled adult interactions. Often the child is mirroring something going on in the home that is not apparent to the outside world, or even spoken of in the home itself.
Sometimes a particularly sensitive child will unconsciously take on the parents’ problems. Often, when a child goes from being friendly, inquisitive, radiant, and loving to closed down, irresponsible, and difficult, he may be acting out the parents’ unspoken problems. That is why, when a child is taken in for therapy, many therapists want to see the whole family. The therapist knows the child is probably feeing the heavy weight of “something wrong” and is justifiably angry about having to bear the brunt of unspoken problems.
Some irresponsible parents may neglect their children, but it goes deeper than that. Setting up an environment of win-lose, wherein the parent is always right, and where blaming and helplessness prevail prevents us from using the principle in any way. When there is no mutual respect, boundaries cannot be set and negotiated as a child grows older. There is confusion about who is the child and who is the parent.
If anger and emotional and physical reactions are the only feedback a child receives from his parents, the child grows up with little self-motivation and less and less respect for the parents. As a teenager, the tables may turn. The parents become afraid of their children’s anger and cave in to his every demand. Eventually the child looks for other people with whom to have reactive relationships.
So often this child never grows up; in her adult relationships she is either the controller or the one being controlled, by anger and reaction. The child never learns to be sensitive to other people — their feelings, their histories, or what they need. She becomes self-centered, narcissistic, and wants the word to revolve around her and her — by this time — endless need for validation from others.
Responsiveness is self-management, and sensitivity to the needs of others. It follows that it requires empowerment (Principle Three). A person who is disempowered cannot think of others, and cannot even manage his own choices. His chi or vital energy has been disrupted and siphoned off, so to speak, by the disempowering environment in which he grows. Building that back up as an adult is a difficult and usually lifelong process.
If you grew up in a home where you were neglected or constantly on the losing end of a win-lose situation, you will try to build the responsiveness and responsibility of Principle Five in yourself at the same time that you try to maintain it in your household — not an easy task by any means, but one you can handle.
CHOOSING TO BE RESPONSIVE
You can make the choice to turn your family dynamic toward health and spirituality. It is up to you. Look forward to it as a tremendous challenge and opportunity, as another important aspect of your path of parenting, if you choose to see it that way.
The foundation you lay now, even though you may slip back sometimes, will only grow stronger in the future. By the time you are a grandparent, this will all come much more naturally to you, so you can help your kids even more, and your grandchildren’s foundation in these principles will be taken for granted by them.
When you leave this earth, it will be with the knowledge that though your struggle, you have changed generations of unhealthy, unskilful ways of being and have affected all the people that come within the circle of influence of your children, your grandchildren, and future progeny. That is quit a legacy.
RESPONDING VS. REACTING
The moment between stimulus and response is the precious moment when trust is built or broken We need to train ourselves to pause in that moment, reflect, and respond rather than react to what is being done or said. Sometimes this means we need to take a time out for ourselves, to calm down, relax, remember our principles, and choose our response consciously, rather than reacting like we would to a bee sting or snake bite.
Chungliang Al Huang states, “One principle in the practice of Tai Chi is understanding that your energy will reb found naturally unless you interrupt.” This principle, perhaps more than all the others, requires us to be grown-ups, to intentionally re-script ourselves to respond in a deep thinking, empathic way to the people around us — even if we seem to be the only “grown-up” present in a room full of adults.
The great psychologist Carl Rogers said that the true communicator enables the other person to explore feelings and to mature. He was the first to describe the core conditions necessary for a positive, helping relationship. These include unconditional positive regard (respect), genuineness, and empathy (true understanding, from the other person’s point of view).
Respect means you accept the other person as she is and you care about how she feels. She does not need to change in order to earn your respect.
Genuineness means you come across as a real, authentic person, not a “role.” You are straightforward and sincere. You let people know who you are and what you stand for in ways that are kind and compassionate rather than judgmental or argumentative.
Empathy is the ability to feel what others feel and to accept others’ experiences as valid. You can trust an empathic person with your feelings. An empathic person doesn’t judge how you feel, tell you how you feel or should feel, analyze you, or gossip to others about your feelings told in confidence.
When you learn how to practice being responsive, you will also get a good handle on Principe Three (Empower), and become far more empowered. As adults we have the choice to move from childlike joy, wonder, and fun to adult reasoning, sensitivity, and the ability to set boundaries.
Principle Five — being fully responsive — includes learning to easily and naturally move between these poles — of our own volition, not because outside forces trigger it in us.
Being responsive is more than the ability to respond sensitively to your environment. It is the ability to take responsibility for your life, to refrain from gaming circumstances and other people for everything that happens in your life. This is also a “grown-up” principle to practice, because often it certainly appears that circumstances and other people are responsible for a lot of what happens t you. But you are responsible as well. The challenge is to take responsibility for your part in whatever happens, and to see the part of you that must change in order for the externals to change.
If you have been subjected to a lot of shame and blame in childhood, this principle may be difficult to master. There may be unconscious processes going on that you don’t even understand that help create problems for you — still, putting the responsibility for them squarely on your own shoulders is the first step. The beauty of it is that you also get to release the things you are not responsible for to those who are.
We are not responsible for the words and actions of our parents. Yet, we can only blame our parents for so long if we cannot control our temper. At some point, we have to take the responsibility to earn how to do it, and then to teach it to our children if it was not taught to us. The same principle applies in many other areas of life, physical, emotional, and spiritual.
© 2015 Vimala McClure