I worked with a client whose son suddenly began displaying aggressive tendencies towards her and his younger siblings. She told me that they were going to hold her son back a year from kindergarten because when it comes time to play football in middle school, there’s a big difference in size between the kids who entered kindergarten at 5 and those who entered at 6. He had just started playing, so I asked him to join the session and asked if he was enjoying football. “I hate it,” he said. “I want to build robots like my neighbor Sam.” When I asked her if she’d be willing to take him out of football, she said “But everyone here plays football; he HAS to play!”
And this is what we do. Rather than tuning into our children, who are as varied in physiological, psychological, and emotional makeup as are their fingerprints, we listen to everyone else. At the very least, this trajectory leads to an adult who is so split off from their authentic self that they indulge in too much food, too much drink, too much of anything, just to feel alive. At the worst, we end up with the scenario in Dead Poet’s Society, where the talented actor whose parents insisted that he be a doctor, rather than betray his own soul, decided to take his own life. Yes, the stakes are that high.
When we make decisions about our children's’ diet, sleep, potty readiness, means of discipline, or any number of choices that will affect their health and well being, according to the opinions of others rather than the needs of our particular child, we are committing a betrayal on the level of the soul. Rather than empowering them to listen to their own voice, to stand up for what is right for them, to bring their own authentic gifts into adulthood, we are crippling them, gagging them, and crushing their spirit. When it comes making these choices, we need to tune out society and tune into our kids.
Here’s what has worked for me and my clients:
At times, I have to literally press my lips together to remind myself not to interrupt when my son is talking to me. A great place to listen is on routine car rides because it’s low pressure. Turn off the music, have the phones put away, and just allow the silence to happen. Kids will usually start talking to fill the silence, and that’s when we can get valuable information about what they are thinking, feeling, and experiencing.
Ask for input.
Asking kids for their input about decisions that are age appropriate can increase connection in the family and give children a voice.
Practicing mindfulness is one of the most effective ways to increase our ability to tune in.
When I get down to play with my son, he will tell me everything that happened in preschool through his Thomas the Tank Engine trains. It’s also a good opportunity to teach him about social/emotional dynamics (no, Percy, if you are going to hit me, I can’t play with you). This works for teenagers too. I have clients who started playing video games with their kids as a means to connect.
Streamline and stash the phone.
Where can we trim some time out of our schedules to connect with our kids? Most importantly, let’s put the phone away, especially during meal times, car rides, and connection time so that our kids know they have our undivided attention. I have clients who have seen a dramatic improvement in their children’s behavior just by becoming aware of how much the phone was creating disconnection.
In the end, my client chose to take her son out of football. Almost overnight, his aggressive behavior disappeared. She found a robotics/computer science program for young children, and he is thriving. “You won’t believe what he can do” she told me during our last session. “He’s so talented at this, and I almost missed it.” But she didn’t. She chose, rather courageously, to tune out society and tune into her son. And that has made all the difference.