~ By Kathy Gordon
According to anthropologists, we are hard-wired to cooperate only with those people with whom we are in relationship. This hard wiring is part of our survival mechanism. If we were to wander off from our tribe, or follow the lead of someone from another tribe, our life would be in great danger. Since our neuro-physical make up evolves very slowly over time, we still have this natural inclination to cooperate with those to whom we feel connected. This is a great thing for us, as parents to keep in mind.
Now it is certainly possible for parents and others in a position of authority to override or bypass our natural desire for connection in order to force someone to cooperate. We can use punishments and rewards, in the short run, to make someone to behave a certain way, and do what we want them to do.
But in the long run, punishments and rewards do 4 things:
1) Create a culture of “it’s OK as long as I don’t’ get caught”
2) Create a culture of ‘what’s in it for me?”
3) Damage our relationships because they are built on fear, rather than love
4) Make life stressful, and that stress can cause the brain to over-produce the hormone cortisol, which over time can damage brain tissue along with other regulatory systems in the body.
Most of us were raised with punishments and rewards. Most of our schools, work places, government and much of society use punishments and rewards to make people cooperate, ostensibly, for our own good and the good of society. We are socialized to judge people by their behavior, then reward them if we approve or punish them if we don’t. The conditional love and acceptance we experienced as a child, then influences all our relationships in life. In fact, most of us think our happiness depends upon people behaving the way we expect them to behave.
How can we shift from the disconnected place of judging and controlling behavior to a place of unconditionally connection and love? We can start with:
1. Owning our stuff: Every time we are upset by another person’s behavior, we are being re-stimulated by some hurt from our past.
In his book, “Parenting from the Inside Out”, Dr. Dan Siegel writes, We are not really listening to our children because our own internal experiences are being so noisy it’s all we can hear. Part of our job as parents is to heal those old hurts, so that we can listen and connect unconditionally with our children. Siegel suggests mindfulness meditation and journaling. I suggest the Hand in Hand Parenting tool of Listening Partnerships. Getting regular uninterrupted Listening Time from a friend who does not give you advice or try to fix you, will allow you to discover, offload and heal old hurts, so that you are no longer re-stimulated.
2. View our children’s behavior as communication, and their best attempt or strategy to get a core human need met. When we discipline ourselves to view human behavior as a person’s best attempt or strategy to get a core human need met. we stop making people wrong. We can be unconditionally loving. We change the culture of our families and our world from one of power-over to one of peace.
However, we cannot do #2 until we start practicing #1, or we will keep being re-stimulated and continue to blame others for our old hurts.
3. Look at our thoughts, expectations, routines and even rules that may be causing disconnection. Again, it’s tough to do this until we own and heal our own stuff. Recently a Mom told me that she viewed her daughter’s resistance to a situation as ‘being lazy’. I offered that it might be anxiety and fear driving her daughter’s resistance. The Mom found that difficult to believe, so I asked, ‘which thought connects you and which thought disconnects you?’ The thought or judgment that her daughter was being ‘lazy’ makes it difficult for them to connect. Holding the thought that her daughter is feeling anxious, allows the Mom to move in, connect and look to help her daughter move through those feelings.
That’s all sounds good, you say, but how do I get my kids to go to bed at night? How do I get them to pick up their toys, clean their rooms, get ready in the morning… how do I keep us moving forward and make our life work?
Connection! Connection! And more Connection! Connection fosters cooperation.
It’s important to find 5 or 10 minutes every day to give our child our undivided attention. This tool is called Special Time. We follow their lead, and delight in everything they do. Recently, I chose to spend an entire day connecting with my son. Here is how it changed our dynamic:
3 icky days in a row! Everything with my son felt like a fight. He seemed to be more crabby than usual and I seemed to have less patience, or maybe I was triggered more. You know how that is… You are on a roll and the ride is not fun! On the evening of the 3rd day, it occurred to me that we’d gotten into a pattern of disconnection. As part of my son’s Neurological Reorganization program, he does something called ‘masking’ or bag breathing, and he gets to do this in front of the screen. It’s the first thing he wants to do when he gets up in the morning, because of the screen time. As a single parent it makes my life easier, as I can get breakfast and get organized for the day, that he get this piece of his program finished.
Unfortunately, I’d gotten into the habit of letting him eat in front of the screen and generally keep himself entertained for another hour or so. Then when I’d say it was time to turn it off and move on to the rest of his program, I’d get a big eruption that would set the tone for the rest of the day. Everything seemed hard from that point on.
I thought, ‘I need to change this pattern and start our day with connection’. That next morning, I did just that. I announced that we were going to start our day with a little meditation. We sat on the couch and I led us in a quick body scan. You simply close your eyes and feel your feet on the floor, back of the legs against the couch, feel your butt on the couch (that made him giggle), your back against the couch, etc. Then we did a Loving Kindness Meditation. You start with yourself, then someone you love, someone neutral, someone challenging, your friends/family, then the whole world. Thinking about a person or persons in each category, you wish them happiness, health and peace.
After our meditation, he asked if we could take a bike ride after he finished his NR program. I agreed, but told him before we went out, I would also need him to put his clean clothes away. I was in the kitchen cleaning up from breakfast when I noticed the apartment had gotten very quiet. I went into my son’s room and there he was putting his clothes away. He often needs help with this – particularly hanging things up – so we usually do it together. But here he was doing it all by himself without me having to remind him or do it with him. What a shift!!! And since we spent the whole day connecting, the entire week seemed easier, too.
The Takeaway: If you’ve hit a rough patch and there seems to be little cooperation in your home, look for ways to connect. Look at your routines and patterns and see if you can shift them to create more connection. As an experiment, just for a week, give up a concern that may be a ‘connection stealer’ – especially if you find yourself repeating yourself or nagging. As often as you can, give each child at least 5 minutes of Special Time. Give them your undivided attention during which you follow their lead and delight in everything they do.
The Trap: Expecting or even demanding that a child behave the way you want because you’ve given them your undivided attention. Connection fosters cooperation, but it is not a one-to-one correlation, as in: I give you attention, therefore I expect you to behave.
In fact, the opposite may happen. When we give our children, partner, friends our undivided loving attention, we create a safe space for them to show us all the stress and hurts that may be stuck in their mid-brain or limbic system. Our attention tells their emotion center that they are safe place to unload or discharge those feelings.
Recently a good friend called me just to tell me how happy she is that I am in her life. Without a pause, I began to sob. Her good attention allowed me to release my stress through tears. Our children do this, too. When, they do, this is your opportunity to deepen your connection, by moving in close and Staylisten to their feelings, murmuring empathy until the storm passes.
The Big NO-NO: If we give our attention and connection as a reward or pull it away as a punishment, we’ve walked right back into the power-over paradigm, and are using fear to control behavior. We give children our unconditional attention for the same reasons we feed them healthy food.
We parent by connection because:
– It deepens our relationship and our love
– Enhances our child’s brain development, emotional intelligence and physical health
– Creates a culture of love, peace and cooperation in our homes and ultimately in the world.
As we enter this busy Holiday Season, I encourage you to put Connection and Special Time on your daily to-do list. ‘Tis the season for peace, joy and deep connection.
Kathy Gordon is the single adoptive Mom of a 9 yr old boy, and a Certified Parent Educator through Echo Parent and Education. She teaches ‘Parenting Tools’, ‘Stop Blowing Your Top’, coaches with families individually and works with schools and educators. Her practice is called Unconditional Connection as that is what we all long for – to be unconditionally loved and connected. She can be reached at mkgstar [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. Her website is currently under construction.