I write these blog posts and every week before they are posted my family reads through them first and sometimes I get this comment “you can’t post that” and I respond, Why not? They will judge you and I laugh. Judge me, for what saying the truth? Yes! You just can’t go around smashing the truth into everyone’s face like a cherry pie. Do you know what will happen? What? They will talk about you. Yeah so? They talk about me already, at least now maybe they will talk about the truth. There is a possibility that people want to hear the truth and my family says no, they don’t. So what do you say?
I stood on the corner of 83rd street and Amsterdam and admitted my biggest secret. “Do you know that my daughter is 7 years old and I have finally come to a place where I can honestly say I love her.” My wonderful friend says, “ha, your lucky it took me 16 years.” We both start laughing and I recognize again how often we lie to each other to look good, how we accept certain things as true and then believe them wholeheartedly to the detriment of our lives so that we can pretend that we are doing it right. More often than not, (don’t tell anyone) I don’t have the loving feelings I am “supposed to.” How interesting? Where does this belief, that we are supposed to love them all of the time, come from? Who said that as soon as they come out we will feel this amazing amount of love?
I have learned this year, that we all share similar experiences but are afraid to admit it. I wonder on this day whether many of us feel like loving our children sometimes feels impossible but the guilt of saying this out loud emits such stress that we hold it in and pretend. We believe that if we don’t admit the truth, then eventually our feelings will change and we will fulfill the “responsibilities” we have as parents.
Today I am here to offer a new opportunity, an opportunity to admit that maybe, just maybe, the belief that we must love our children all the time, is false. In my experience when we can recognize the truth of the situation, we have an opportunity to truly love them. Not because we are told we must, but because the guilt from not always loving them can dissipate and we can be free to see what is actually here.
Tonight I spent 30 minutes journaling about all the mistakes I made today as a parent, the guilt on that page was dripping in tears and anguish. And then, a light bulb went off and I realized that all of this guilt I was creating, all of the punishment and all of the beliefs that I am supposed to be the perfect mother who loves my children in every moment, was unnecessary. And then I changed my tune. Rather than writing down all of the mistakes I made, I began writing down all of the good things I did and do you know what happened? I could see the good in my children rather than the bad in myself. You see it was in the moment of letting go of the belief that I must love them that I could actually see the truth. The truth was, that there is a lot of love for them. Not because I am supposed to love them but rather because I can.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let our bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Kahlil Gibran (1883 - 1931)
By Naomi Aldort
Author of Raising Our Children Raising Ourselves
My husband and I are often complimented on our children's behavior and demeanor. People think that we discipline them. We don't. It is ourselves we discipline.
We meet our children's needs, provide for their protection, and expose them to life's possibilities. We do not, however, meddle in their play, their learning, their creativity, or any other form of growth. We love, hug, feed, share, listen, respond, and participate when asked. Yet, we keep our children free of insult and manipulation resulting from "helpful" comments and ideas - influences to which children are so sensitive in their state of dependency.
This type of discipline is not easy. Not only does our society not support it, but the temptation to break the "rules" lives within us. The drive to intervene in children's activities is rooted in our upbringing and reinforced in our culture.
For me, the most difficult challenge to overcome has been a narcissistic impulse to show off my children. One day, when our oldest child was two years old, he played a smooth scale on the piano. I was amazed, yet held fast to my rule and stayed out of his way. Free to play out of his own love and interest, and not to gratify me, he went on improving his scale with tremendous joy and concentration for quite some time. Not until my husband came home did I fall into the trap. Unable to wait for a repeat performance in its own time, I covertly tried to direct our son to the piano to do his "trick."
Untrained in doing for the sake of pleasing, he was not fooled. He sensed the hoax and refused to play. Several weeks passed before he again immersed himself in the scale. This child loves to do things for others, enjoys helping and serving; yet, when he does something out of self-interest, that is how it must remain.
Although the self-discipline required of a parent is often challenging, it becomes second nature with time and experience. For me, this type of discipline developed gradually, beginning with "descriptive acknowledgment"1 and culminating in unadulterated staying-out-of-the-way a few years later. My best allies have been my realizations as a mother and educator, Daniel Greenberg's book Free at Last, and discussions with Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept, about letting children be themselves.
At first, I thought that commenting, acknowledging, and praising children for their achievements express love and build self-esteem. In time, I realized that these well-intended interventions do just the opposite: they foster dependency on external validation and undermine the children's trust in themselves. Children who are subjected to endless commentary, acknowledgment, and praise eventually learn to do things not for their own sake, but to please others. Gratifying others soon becomes their primary motivation, replacing impulses stemming from the authentic self and leading to its loss.
Contrary to common belief, children feel more loved and self-assured when we do not intervene in their activities. Not only do they remain secure in our love and support when we refrain from intervening, but they need us to protect them from these intrusions, which can interfere with their progress, self-reliance, and emotional well-being.
When we intervene with praise, wants, advice, and rewards, doubts sneak in and shake loose our children's trust in themselves and in us. Sensitive and smart, they perceive that we have an agenda - that we are manipulating them toward some preferred or "improved" end result. This awareness gets them thinking: "Perhaps what I am trying to achieve is wrong - I can't trust myself to know or choose," or "Mom and Dad have an agenda that I must fulfill if I am to have their approval and their love."
Gradually, a shift occurs. Children who were once doing for the sake of personal pleasure or understanding begin doing for the sake of pleasing. No longer do they trust in their actions, and no longer do they trust us, for we are not really on their side. Along with the shift to pleasing us comes the fear of not pleasing us. Emotional and intellectual dependency, low self-esteem, and lack of self-confidence invariably follow.
Even when we intervene with casual commentary on our children's imaginative play, doubts sneak in. What children are experiencing inwardly at these times is so often remote from our "educated" guesses that bewilderment soon turns to self-denial and self-doubt. Moreover, children perceive the phony and patronizing remarks for what they are, and may conclude that it is OK to be insincere and pretentious.
From Praising to Observing
It is difficult to stop dishing out praise. For one thing, we are hooked on our conditioning as well as on the "hard sell" of the holy cow called Praise. For another, we are easily misled: the praised-for-every-achievement child seems like a happy, successful, highly self-esteemed child. In reality, such a child has shifted to the pleasing mode, driven to success not by personal curiosity or delight, but by the desire to oblige us and live up to our expectations. As educator John Holt has said of children, "They are afraid, above all else, of failing, of disappointing or displeasing the many anxious adults around them, whose limitless hopes and expectations for them hang over their heads like a cloud."2 In short, the esteem we notice is not self-esteem, for the self has been lost in the early years of this type of conditioning. The happiness we see is not pleasure, but rather relief that another pleasing act has been accomplished, securing parental approval (emotional survival) and concealing a feeling of deep loss.
Children, too, can be fooled into believing that these pleasing behaviors originate within and have everything to do with who they are. The ultimate deception comes when children grow up to become seemingly accomplished and happy adults. Psychoanalyst Alice Miller, in her book The Drama of the Gifted Child, gives voice to the lamentable conviction that arises: "Without these achievements, these gifts, I could never be loved.... Without these qualities, which I have, a person is completely worthless." Miller goes on to explain why achievement based on pleasing denies self-understanding and, in so doing, leads to depression, feelings of 'never enough', and other emotional disturbances in often the most successful people.3
To "follow one's own drummer", a person needs to exercise the muscles of free choice and self-learning from the start. The difficulty we have in trusting our children's ability to flex these muscles stems from our own experience of not having been trusted. Trusting is, simply, not natural to us. Only as we make a concerted effort to get out - and stay out - of our children's way do we discover the wonderful truth: the magic is already in our children, ready to unfold in its own way and in its own time.
Nearly every child comes to life equipped with a self that is capable of blooming to capacity. Unhindered in its growth, this self will lead the child to skills and knowledge and, in the process, self-actualization. We have no right to attempt to control the direction of this growth. Instead of training our children through various forms of intervention to fit our vision for them, we need to train ourselves to respect nature's creation and to safeguard its full, authentic bloom.
Indeed, the end result we are looking for - an able, highly self-esteemed, creative, curious, and responsible human being - is already observable in a two-year-old child.4 Allowed to put these gifts to use in a self-directed, self-trusting way, the youngster will develop capabilities while enhancing these desirable qualities. Maturation will then come as an authentic expression of the self, rather than as an appeasement to parental authority and other forms of domination.
Getting out of the way gives us an opportunity to become curious observers. At the same time, it frees us of power struggles and initiates an approach to parenthood that is infinitely more enjoyable and fulfilling. I know of no more interesting, engaging, fascinating, and glorious "entertainment" in life than watching children unfold freely.
©Copyright Naomi Aldort
1 Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (New York: Avon, 1980), pp. 171-200.
2 John Holt, How Children Fail (New York: Pitman Publishing, 1964), p. xiii.
3 Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 104.
4 Daniel Greenberg, "A Paradigm Shift in Education". An audiocassette available from The Sudbury Valley School Press in Framingham, MA.
For More Information:
Greenberg, Daniel. Free at Last. Framingham, MA: Sudbury Valley School Press, 1987.
Holt, John. Escape from Childhood. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974.
Holt, John. How Children Learn. New York: Dell, 1972.
Holt, John. Learning All the Time. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1989.
Liedloff, Jean. The Continuum Concept. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1986.
This article originally appeared in Mothering, Issue 71, Summer 1994.
©Copyright Naomi Aldort
Naomi Aldort is the author of, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves. Her advice columns are published in
progressive parenting magazines worldwide. Aldort offers phone guidance and counseling by phone/Skype
internationally regarding all ages, babies through teens: attachment parenting; natural learning; peaceful and
powerful parent-child relationships. Products, counseling, and free newsletter: www.authenticparent.com
As I put my 7 year old to sleep last night, she burst into tears. “Mommy I don’t want to sleep alone in here, I want you to stay.” As soon as the words left her mouth, my reaction was run. My mind was shouting, “Get out! She wants to suck you dry. You will never be able to do the things you want to do if you stay here with her. It’s already 8 o’clock. You could be attending the class you wanted to go to or finish watching ‘The Next Food Network Star’ on TV but no Lori wants you to stay with her.” My mind runs rampant with the desire to bolt and this is my first cue. So I say to my 7 year old, “I can’t stay.” I give her all sorts of good reasons… “Its 8 o’clock. You asked to change your bedtime and we did. So, now you have to go to sleep.”
She says, “Mommy, you can’t go. I can’t sleep in here with this empty bed next to me. I am dumbfounded. The empty bed?! What’s wrong with an empty bed? So, I ask “what’s wrong with an empty bed?” and there are more tears and less understanding. And I realize after a while (and I mean a long while) that she needs me and I can’t give her what she needs. So, in a moment of parenting stupidity or wisdom (i am still trying to figure that out) I say “Lori, sometimes it must feel like I don’t want to spend time with you, like TV is more important to me than you.” A new wave of tears pours forth and I say “I love you but sometimes it is hard for me to be here.” As the words leave my mouth, I hear the judgment rising “how could you say that to her?” And then I realize. Pretending that it’s not true is probably worse than admitting that it is.
I do not have the naïve notion that my children don’t know exactly how I feel. Sometimes, they know it even before I know it. So, what’s better; hiding behind a secret or opening up the discussion? So I do. I tell her that I love her but sometimes it is hard for me. When I was a little girl I felt like no one wanted to spend time with me. So sometimes I recreate that. She looks up at me through tear stained eyes and says, “I love spending time with you mommy.” And with all of her sweetness I can see that she is still ok. I have not done the damage I often believe I have. she can still open up to love and be vulnerable and I know in that moment that we are ok. Now I have the opportunity to grab onto the parenting moment and show her that she is more important than any old belief system or TV show. I allow myself to lay on the bed reading my book and watching her eyes close and listening to her breathing deepen as she slowly drifts off to sleep. I realize in this moment that there is no better place in the world to be, than lying next to my sweet innocent daughter and showing her the love I couldn’t feel.
One of the greatest things about raising children is that they bring out all of our issues to work on, all of the things that we thought we grew out of. What amazes me, is that we repeat history. Family dynamic is pretty amazing. No matter what, if we are not aware, we as parents, together with the children, will recreate the same dynamics that our parents created. With my children, I see myself withholding love from them. I have a difficult time sitting on the floor playing with them, ironic considering the fact that I am a play therapist. I think this must come from my childhood where I got the feeling that I was annoying to be around so I automatically place this on them. My sweet innocent children who are not annoying in any way become something else through the eyes of my childhood. Now I want you to understand something; people tell me all the time that I am a pretty good mother but what I am saying to you is that even good mothers recreate bad situations if we are not aware of past patterns and family dynamics. If you looked from the outside you would say, “Wow, she is doing a good job!” Looking deeper and fine tuning helps me to grow and helps my children. It makes me even better. Considering that they’re only 3 and 7, you’ll have to let me know in a couple of years how I did.
The week between school and camp is usually met with a cringe on my part. This week I was excited to spend time with my children relaxing and enjoying them and I did but come Saturday and I was done. Spent, sensitive, sick and selfish are all words I could use to describe my Saturday and unfortunately the kids got the brunt of it. Although I was able to hold on to most of my patience, I was quiet and moody and a part of me feels guilty. So now in this moment I have the opportunity to beat myself up for it or be kind to myself. The question is what is the benefit of beating myself up does it make me a better parent?
I recently went to a talk by Geneen Roth author of Women, Food and God. For any of you out there who have not read her book I highly recommend it. She speaks of a non-diet approach to weight loss. She encourages trusting our bodies to self regulate while at the same time exploring the beliefs we hold of ourselves that cause us to eat. During the Q & A someone in the audience asked her if she ever falls off the wagon, if she has ever had a relapse and started bingeing again. And her response was lovely,(this is paraphrased) “Sometimes I go into the kitchen and say to my husband, Matt I am going to have a binge now you can join me or not. And then I sit at the table and eat as much as I want and it is usually not that much more than I would have normally eaten. I allow myself to eat I get up and move on with my life I don’t judge it, I don’t hold on to it and I don’t beat myself up about it.” I loved it, we can have a bad day, and we can welcome the bad day or we can have a bad day and punish ourselves for it.
I choose compassion and love for myself. Okay I wasn’t the greatest mother today. I am lucky in that there will be a new day, a new moment, a new opportunity to embrace my children with all of the love that I am. For now I will just rest in the knowingness that I am ok even when I make mistakes, even when I have a bad day. So with this in mind, I will verbalize to my children my sadness over the missed opportunity and open them up to the wonder that what will unfold in this moment. My children in their resilience will be able to develop a trust in the fact that I love them even when I am having a bad day.
I went to a friends house recently who has an adorable five year old son with the energy of a bouncing ball, zooming from one end of the house to the other in seconds. That day, there were 10 children over and the house was flying. Mom was frustrated because everyone dumped their kids in her house including me. At the same time we were working on catering a party. We were baking hundreds of cookies, assembling platters of hors devours and cutting lots of fruit. Talk about overwhelming!
This little boy only wanted his friend to come over. Granted there were 10 children there but not one was his age. He had the choice to play with the 3 year olds or torture his older sisters. And of course, as the day wore on this became too difficult for him until finally, he snapped. He pinched my son so hard that my son started to cry and his mother marched him upstairs for a timeout.
Oftentimes we say, “enough with this behavior.” We don’t take the step back that’s necessary to see why our children are acting in this way. As parents it is our responsibility to figure out how we can support our children to make better choices and to feel more contained in the chaotic world that we live in. Five year olds aren’t always so good at verbalizing their thoughts and feelings therefore it is our responsibility to notice when there is just to much stimulation and when our children are losing it. It is in this moment that we can notice when our children are feeling overwhelmed and respond to their needs with love and understanding.
During lunch that day he started climbing on the table and acting like a monkey. His mother said “just ignore him. He only wants someone to come over to him and invite him to the table to eat. He just wants someone to give him attention.” How interesting that we are taught to ignore the child rather than get down and dirty and figure out what is really going on. When we can take a minute to figure it out, we are showing the child that they are the most important, that nothing else takes precedence and we believe in them and their own ability to self regulate. When we punish children we are putting outside constraints on them rather than teaching them to regulate themselves. But we can’t ask them to regulate themselves if we are not mirroring for them their own behavior rather than our own annoyance. Mirroring for our children the emotions and difficulties they are experiencing validates their feelings. If we mirror our stuff then they can’t develop their own sense of self, of who they are. They just become a mirror of who we are or should I say who our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are. It is remarkable because we have the opportunity to encourage growth in a child by just mirroring for them who they are rather than who we want them to be. It is our mistake to believe that we as parents can teach them what they need to learn without engaging with them. It is only in the moment getting down and dirty that the true lessons can be learned. If we come in with our own agendas, with our own history’s we don’t strengthen our children we strengthen our pasts.
The most important thing we can give our children is our presence. When I say presence I mean our full undivided attention within this moment without using our old thoughts and beliefs to guide us but rather using the moment itself as the guide. When we are able to be fully present with our children discipline becomes a new opportunity to love them and each moment we as the parent have the chance to meet that opportunity or let it pass us by. Oftentimes I see a child who is misbehaving, as we as parents perceive it. This misbehaving is met with a look of disdain from a parent. Oftentimes I hear parents say to ignore a child when they are looking for attention using negative behavior. I believe the goal is not to ignore the child but rather to notice what it is about the behavior that is roping us in. What belief do we have about that behavior that causes us to react negatively. When my child is roaring like a lion and trying to get my attention but at the same time I am getting annoyed-that is a sure clue that it is my turn to look inside and recognize my issue and let it go. Was I discouraged from making noise when I was younger? Was I discouraged from acting silly? Were my parents annoyed that I was around? What belief system or thoughts come in when I hear that loud roar? And in this moment can I let them go? Then I am able to meet the moment, bend down and look into my dear sweet innocent child’s eyes and say, “Hey, what’s going on? What are you trying to tell me?” When it appears that our children are trying to annoy us, when we feel our children are driving us crazy; that is the moment, the split second when we have the opportunity to go from being a good parent to a great parent. It is in this moment that we get to look inside of ourselves and recognize our own meshugas about our own childhood. The beliefs we have about how to love and the stories we keep repeating. In this moment we get to make the ultimate parenting decision. Do I allow myself to repeat history or do I grab onto the moment and transform my past into my children’s future? What an amazing opportunity for us.
Wow, becoming parents, what were we thinking? Some of us spend our whole lives planning the day that we will hold that newborn baby in our arms. We start from very young rocking our dolls, feeding them bottles and cooing at them. Thinking this child will give us all the love we ever needed. They will fulfill our dreams, accomplish our goals and make us whole. Little do we know, that they will shape us, teach us who we are and open us up to the truths of this life we lead. If we are honest and caring the expectations we have, will fly out the window and this child will humble us and break us open until we live the authentic life we were meant to lead. That is if we allow it to be, if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and learn from the teachers they are born to be. Being a good parent means opening ourselves to the lessons the child brings to the table. Parenting gives us a chance to be aware of our past and come into the present that is here and now. Who better to teach us this than a child who is always present, always now? Our children need our presence more than anything else. This is the time to take responsibility for our past; to let it go and give to our children what they need rather than all the things our parents couldn’t give us.
Barbie Dolls, the bane of my existence. A doll whose body wouldn’t be able to stand straight if alive; a doll that is modeled after a German sex symbol. A doll whose body image was far from my own who I believe contributes to the growing body hatred experienced in this country.
I have always felt that the Barbie Doll was a symbol of women’s inequality. An encouragement of women to be less than real, to be a body rather than a person. And my goal was to keep them away from my daughter. I didn’t want her to be influenced by those ideas. Little did I know at the time, that this wasn’t the point. Now I realize this is her journey; a journey I can’t control. Interestingly enough, as a young child, my mother didn’t let me have things and you know what happened I only wanted them more, held on to them so hard they started to hurt me. These days my daughter has Barbie Dolls; not many but enough. And the truth is she doesn’t care so much about it. She plays with them or she doesn’t but I have learned to give her space to let her grow. This blog is about taking our cues from our children allowing them to be the person they are growing into and separating our past from their present.