When it comes to building our child’s self-belief and esteem, telling and showing them that we love them as often as possible makes a big difference, no matter what age they are, he says. Even on difficult days or after a disagreement, when we might not feel particularly loving, it is most important to reconnect with our love for them and to express it.
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
Nothing is more precious to me than the discussions I have with my 19-year-old daughter. I consider her frequent use of me as a sounding board my crowning achievement as a parent (yep, I’m taking full credit for this one). After keeping so many secrets from my own mother, this element of our relationship has been a tremendous surprise and immensely flattering. Here’s what I believe has made it possible:
“Seeking the ‘railings’ he needs to feel secure, a child will continue to test a caregiver until boundaries are clearly stated. Power struggles are a necessary part of the development of ‘self’ for the child; however, the outcome must be that the child knows that the adult is in charge. Children do not usually admit this, but they do not…
“Seeking the ‘railings’ he needs to feel secure, a child will continue to test a caregiver until boundaries are clearly stated. Power struggles are a necessary part of the development of ‘self’ for the child; however, the outcome must be that the child knows that the adult is in charge. Children do not usually admit this, but they do not wish to be all powerful and the possibility that they might be is frightening indeed. Children raised without firm, consistent boundaries are insecure and world-weary. Burdened with too many decisions and too much power, they miss out on the joyful freedom every child deserves.”
Great advice from Janet Lansbury – Elevating Child Care
How do we discipline our kids? There are plenty of violent prisoners in penitentiaries who were disciplined as children with spankings, beatings, screaming and neglect. Though I had my children take “time out” sometimes, now I question the popular use of that as a disciplinary technique because it links quiet time alone with punishment.
When children, even toddlers, are given explanations for rules, allowed to voice an opinion, and even to disagree, they become more skilled at exercising their power, their social “muscles,” when they relate to others and learn to cope with problems by reasoning out the right responses. It may take more time to talk than to hit, but, in the long run, the lessons you are teaching will be more far-reaching and will develop a broader range of social skills in your child. Use reasoning to help your child understand the concepts of restitution and making amends, to understand that apologies don’t automatically excuse them from out-of-control behavior and that words can hurt as much as punches. Many research studies have concluded that the use of reasoning and discussion as disciplinary tools is one of the most effective ways to foster a child’s positive moral development.
One inventive mother went to a nature store and purchased several small rocks with words carved on them such as: sisters, brothers, family, love, kindness, peace, truth, forgive, gentle, cooperation, and so on. When one of her children misbehaved, she chose one of the rocks and gave it to the child, explaining the word and what it meant in this particular situation. She repeated the word several times, having her child repeat it back and explained its definition. The child was the led to his room or a “safe place,” and asked to think about what that word meant to him for fifteen minutes. Then his mother would retrieve him and they would discuss the word. In this way, the child was not punished, but an “intervention” took place, which allowed the child to learn values and connect those values to his behavior.
2. Learned Powerlessness
There are many ways we unknowingly teach our children to be helpless rather than empowered. Helplessness is taught by:
- Doing things for children ins teach of teaching them, in steps, how to do it themselves.
- Explaining poor performance in school in terms of intelligence or inability, instead of effort or motivation.
- Explaining the cause of difficulty as internal (“You’re not good at that”) rather than external (“You can try harder next time and do better”).
Girls are socialized to be more vulnerable to criticism and tend to interpret it as permanent and pervasive rather than temporary and external. The are more likely to explain difficulty as their fault, due to their character defects, whereas boys are socialized to attribute difficulty more to outside circumstances or temporary lapses. So with your girls be especially conscious of explaining, when disciplining, that when they’ve done something wrong it does not mean there is something wrong with them. Explain that wrong behavior is something that is temporary, related only to the subject at hand and is something that can be changed. Remember also that we all need to feel we have some control over a situation and/or our feelings about it in order to develop resilience and resistance to adversity. Helplessness robs us of resilience.
Tai Chi’s “listening power” can be used to reason with your kids at any age. In this practice, you stay with them and feed back to them in your own words what you hear them saying about something they have just done, felt, or experienced, from their point of view. Stay with them long enough to be able to act like a mirror, helping them reason their way to the conclusion that delineates right from wrong. You can help them “be their own boss,” and evaluate their own feelings and actions. You can help them see how consequences are tied to actions, and how, if they have done something wrong, they can make amends with dignity. At first you may sometimes have to take the role of teacher and guide them firmly through this process. When you do this, try to refrain from filling in silent spaces with lectures. When your feedback is wrong, they will let you know. Be patient and ask them with sincerity to explain again what they mean.
Dr. Suzette Hadin Elgin says that “Talking to a child, especially after the age of five or six, is essentially the same as talking to an adult you outrank.” They understand much more than they are given credit for. She also says, “You have to let a child choose and introduce the conversational topic. You must support that topic every few sentences. And, hardest of all, you have to listen while the child talks, with your heart, your head, and with full courteous attention.”
When you ask your child to do a chore, be sure you include all the information he needs. For example, instead of saying, “Jack, take out the trash,” you could say, “Jack, please take out the trash right now because the garbage truck is coming at noon.” Tone is important. Try as hard as you can to use a respectful, relaxed tone that assumes your child wants to help. Along with your tone, smiling eye contact or a touch can help communicate your positive intention. If you mess u-p, apologize. Say, “I didn’t mean to sound harsh” (angry, impatient, and so on). “I’m kind of stressed out right now and could really use the help.” Be sure to thank the child when the task has been completed. At dinnertime, you could say, with an eye-contact smile, “Jack, it was a great help to have the garbage taken out on time. Thanks a lot.”
Try to be alert to whether your child is hearing what you are saying the way you want her to. If you feel a negative reaction, you can say, “I’m not sure I said that right. Let me try again.” Or, “Did I say that in a way that didn’t feel good to you?” Again, communicating respectfully with your kids help them learn respectful communication and empowers them to take responsibility for themselves and the way they communicate. You are laying a solid foundation for their future relationships, so it is definitely worth the time.
© 2015 Vimala McClure
Teaching and Modeling Respect
Using force, physical punishment, lectures, and tirades does not empower; it means you are stuck in the yang side of the yin/yang balance. Your children will then inherently try to balance you by either yielding too passively and losing their own power, or by resisting you to maintain their own power. The predominant style of our grandparents’ generation — “You had better . . . or else!” — is outmoded. It will not only block you from using this principle, it will disempower you, for eventually your children will laugh at you, knowing they were born with more internal power than you will probably ever have in your lifetime.
This is the secret to raising children in the new millennium: understanding that these kids are coming in with more innate knowledge, greater power, more intensity, and more ability to keep pace with the speed of the new age than you have. They will be dependent on you to walk your talk — to model, not just tell them, what to do. They depend on you to be honest, for they have even better radar for hypocrisy than we did when we were young. If and when you must take a stand, you must do so with great deliberation, grounding yourself in principles (using “sinking power”), so that the result is respect for you as an elder. As your relationship becomes more healthy, interdependent )able to need others and respond to others needing you, appropriately), and respectful, the need for you to motivate and/or discipline your child decreases.
Respect goes both ways. When I teach infant massage, one of the first things I teach parents, or help them to remember, is that infants are human beings and deserve respect. We have specific techniques we use to show babies that respect; we touch them respectfully and allow them the power to communicate what they want and don’t want so they see right away that they have power and are not just playthings with which their parents (or anyone) can do whatever they wish.
Discipline conducted with respect does not distemper or overpower. The concept of obedience tied to ultimatums is not empowerment. It may get short-term results, but will end in long-term losses. Making too many choices for your children leads to a loss of empowerment, too. They become overly dependent on others — authority figures — to tell them what to do, and why and when to do it. They lose the capacity to think deeply for themselves and to go against the norm when they need to.
The Right Use of Power
In Tai Chi, power is often thought of in terms of aggression versus non-aggression. But non-aggression does not mean passivity. It means you do not constantly oppose your children, their ideas, wants, or needs. You follow them, with “listening power,” listening closely to them and mirroring back what they say from their point of view. When you do this, they learn to think more deeply. You respect their ability to come to sound conclusions and learn from their mistakes, and you communicate that respect through your words and actions.
Abandoning your children to their own devices, their peers, and the world does not help them learn the right use of power. In fact, it pushes them into learning the wrong use of power, as we can see in the headlines every day. Many parents do not understand the difference between healthy separation and abandonment. Often parents are so disempowered themselves that when faced with a rebellious or challenging child they go into what I call the “Wizard of Oz Syndrome.” They act as if they are big, all-knowing, all-powerful, scary, and so on. This works temporarily. But eventually the child gets curious and pulls back the curtain to discover the parents’ show of power is all pulleys and levers, smoke and mirrors. Respect disappears, and you’ve lost your leverage with your child. So don’t even try it. Get yourself straight first in terms of dealing with your own childhood, and continually work on your own use of power as you go along, showing the sharing with your child how you work on it, so when he or she becomes a parent, they will know what to do and will not resort to techniques that don’t work.
Your Personal Power
To help your children learn how to use their own personal power, you must be able to access yours and use it on a daily basis. Principles One and Two, relaxing and slowing down, help you begin to get in touch with the infinite power available to you, power that comes through the earth and is in the prana or vital energy all around you. As my spiritual teacher said, “The Force that guides the stars guides you, too.” That’s a powerful force.
Showing your children the right use of power is simple. Set goals for yourself and take small steps toward them every day until you reach them. Share the process with your children — it makes great dinner-table conversation. During the writing of my books, for example, I always talked about the process with my kids. I didn’t lead them to believe it was effortless. I shared how sometimes sit was really hard just to make myself write a paragraph that day , and that sometimes I knew that paragraph would end up in the trash! I emphasized persistence, and said that sometimes we have go backward in order to go forward, or re-route around an obstacle in order to achieve what we want. It wasn’t easy to remain patient and self-motivated, but it was worth it to me for the long-term satisfaction of having completed a book that might help others. Sometimes I’d read small parts to them and ask what they thought, and that would open up a whole new area of conversation.
I tried to show my kids that, even though we often didn’t have a great deal of money, it was important to be contented and try to do the things we wanted to do. Going to India to see my spiritual teacher every couple years was important to me. So I would save and borrow to do whatever was necessary to achieve that goal. I explained to my kids that those trips fed my soul, and were therefore important to my long-term feelings of connectedness to the world, to God, and service to those in need (in India, service was part of what I did). When we were in financial crisis, my kids saw me take an extra job to bring in more money so they could continue going to a school that was important to them and to me, too. It was important for my own personal power and self-respect that I provided what I knew my children needed.
Many challenging things happened to me during their childhood — I had serious illnesses and surgeries, and spent almost two years in bed due to virulent forms of diseases I contracted in India. I lost my second-hand car (that I had saved up for a year to buy) the day after I bought it, when someone without insurance borrowed it and totaled it before I had insurance. I knew how I handled these things would be an important example for my kids in the future, when unforeseen crises may come into their lives. I didn’t always do a great job of responding powerfully, but I tried. When I didn’t — when I behaved in a powerless way — I would find some way to laugh at myself, and to point out to my kids what I’d done and discuss other, better ways I could have responded.
I fought my feelings of despair, anger, and helplessness, and tried to emphasize what I was learning: that things can be replaced, starting over is a part of life, and just because you are disabled you are not unworthy of love and life. These things were not always clear and obvious to them, but I do believe from talking to them now that they got these messages. I gradually got better and began to be able to meditate and do my yoga again. Eventually, I even found the car of my dreams.
My children were able to see that there is no one way to act powerfully. Sometimes power comes from a very quiet, compassionate, seemingly “weak” looking place. For some people, it looks like a big, muscular, fighting spirit. For others, it looks like a small, serene, compassionate, redemptive heart. Mother Teresa had tremendous power.
My kids are now adults with their own children. I have been able to observe them using and teaching the use of power. It gives me great joy to see them parenting in ways that are respectful, healthy, and empowering.
To find your own sense of power it is important to learn to listen to your inner voice and to follow it, regardless of what others tell you. You may seek out the input and advice of others with more experience, but ultimately the only way to increase your access to your own power is by relying on it and respecting it, eagles of how it looks in your life. When your power comes from the infinite source of power — the Tao or God or the Force — it is right, good, clean, and clear. Do whatever it takes to stay connected with this aspect of your being. You will need it over and over again, throughout your entire life.