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Holding Up a Mirror to Our Children’s Behavior
DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
Author and clinical social worker Krissy Pozatek fears that overly-protective parents are preventing children and adolescents from building emotional “moccasins,” the internal resources need to successfully navigate life’s natural challenges. In this excerpt from Brave Parenting: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Raising Emotionally Resilient Children, she offers an explanation of how upholding natural and logical consequences for a child’s problematic behavior is a “parent’s best friend.”
A hallmark of leather laying [inappropriately shielding children from potentially stressful or upsetting situations] is when parents’ efforts are aimed at “getting through the day,” rather than giving children the necessary limits and boundaries to struggle with, to build skills for the future. Because I largely work with parents of teens, many of these children are now eighteen, and yet they are still emotionally much younger than their ages, because their parents worked so hard to get them through the semester, school year, winter break, summer, and so on. Parents are doing all the “efforting,” which removes responsibility and the maturation process from kids.
Why are parents doing so much efforting? One of the reservations we have concerning setting and enforcing limits for our children is that we may upset them. Many parents think that a large part of their job is to comfort feelings and cheer their kids up, so parents wrestle with thoughts like “How do I give a consequence for my child’s poor behavior when he may cry and feel angry – aren’t I also supposed to soothe him?” Many parents flip-flop back and forth between setting limits and then removing them and comforting their child. This ambiguity actually disrupts the moccasin-building [internal resource-building] process, because kids are rescued from their feelings and from facing consequences. Consequences, however – whether natural or logical – provide a mirror, which is a parent’s best friend.
In many of his books and lectures the Dalai Lama speaks of self-discipline. He says that all discipline is self-discipline. If discipline comes from the outside, it is hegemony. Of course children are not born with self-discipline – it is learned. The Dalai Lama elaborates in Advice on Dying that self-discipline only comes when we are aware of or experience consequences. Consequences are really gifts that steer and guide behavior. As an example, he shares a story of having stomach flu. Despite liking spicy and sour foods, while sick, he had to refrain from these to care for his stomach. In this sense he was disciplined. This type of natural consequence gave him feedback in the moment about his food choices. Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says in Smile at Fear that the world is always giving us feedback; any choice we make, positive or negative, has corresponding feedback about actions we make or actions we avoid. We can trust that there will always be a response from the world.
If we don’t do our homework, we may fail the class. If we don’t go to work one day, we may lose our job. If we treat our spouse/partner poorly, he or she may choose to end the relationship. We all have choices every day, and natural consequences inform our choices. There is always cause and effect; there is always a mirror. The same exists for positive choices: if I work hard at my job, I may advance my career; if I work hard at school, I may learn and get good grades; if I treat my spouse well, I may have a happy marriage. Of course, good choices do not always equal happiness, as life is unpredictable, but awareness of positive and negative consequences certainly does help us more successfully navigate life.
This response from the world – this cause and effect – can be relied upon by parents, as it means we don’t have to intervene and direct; we can allow the natural course of things to happen. For example, if your child forgets his snack, he will be hungry; if your child forgets his hat and mittens, he will be cold; if your child kicks a hole in his bedroom wall, it will be there to remind him of his anger. None of these consequences are safety issues, so we don’t need to layer on more negatives or try to fix the problem. Yet how many parents work hard to remove consequences and also remain frustrated that their children are not responsible?
We all have the capacity to self-regulate based on the natural consequences of our choices. In the adult world, natural consequences seem to be lurking around every corner. If you forget to feed your meter, you get a parking ticket; if you send your bills in late, you accrue a late fee; if you don’t buy enough food, there may be nothing to eat for dinner – there are constant reminders of consequences for adults. Yet for kids, skipping a chore, yelling at a parent, playing endless video games, or avoiding homework might not invoke an obvious natural consequence. Still, I believe these behaviors elicit natural consequences in subtle ways: a child’s self-esteem may drop when he mistreats his parents, a child will not feel a sense of contributing to the family if he shirks his chores, and his education is impacted by avoiding homework, for instance.
But since these subtle natural consequences are implied rather than explicit, parents have to also hold up a mirror and create an additional logical consequence for their child. I recently heard a story on the radio about a weight-loss program that a corporation was offering to its employees as part of their health plan. A group that chose to participate committed to attending one of the many exercise classes that the corporation offered each day. Each week the group met for support and to assess how well they were achieving their goals. The group all agreed that they needed a consequence to keep them on track, so they came up with a logical one. They devised a sign-in system for each class – if a member of the group missed an exercise class, that person had to come to their next meeting in his or her bathing suit. As you can imagine no one missed an exercise class, and their group was deemed successful.
Awareness of consequences tend to keep us on task. For children to develop self-discipline, children must experience both the natural and the logical consequences of their choices – perhaps not humiliation, but a loss of a privilege. Kids have to have some investment – some skin in the game – that their behavior is real, with real consequences. Some good examples might be leaving a party early for pushing another kid, losing a night out after breaking curfew, losing computer privileges for looking at inappropriate content, or simply losing a mother’s attention after showing disrespect. We can still be compassionate to their feelings, but we cannot take away consequences because then our kids will never learn this precious skill of self-regulation. We are not doing kids any favors by skipping or removing consequences. These mirrors we hold up as parents allow children to see what they are doing, to experience a consequence, and to adjust their behavior—this helps them build their moccasins.
Many parents feel it’s “mean” to give a logical consequence, because children are upset when they lose a privilege. Furthermore, many parents meddle in an attempt to remove other natural consequences in a child’s life: asking a teacher to change a poor grade, talking to a coach to get a child more field time, paying a child’s excessive cell phone bill, or hiring an expensive lawyer when a child gets in trouble with the law. Parents work hard to mitigate their children’s struggles. All of these responses can be understandable, but if we see life as a journey on a rocky trail, removing one bump does not help a kid prepare for the bigger boulder that’s around the bend. Before kids have the chance to get in trouble with the law, it is best that they struggle safely in the home with made-up consequences.
Gratitude for Small Struggles
Small, contained struggles are good. Though unpleasant for parents, struggles around homework, cleaning a room, or following through with tasks are precisely where we want kids to learn how to build their moccasins. This is the fertile soil for skill-development. I would much rather have my daughters struggle daily in the home and learn to master tasks, chores, homework, and respectful communication than for them to have a more adult struggle outside the home without having the tools to deal with it. Parents can reframe all these small struggles – to see them positively and even be grateful to them. For example, having your child experience rejection or failure in the fourth grade can be a great blessing. Yet many parents today go on attack when their child has any negative experience at school.
When parents see that the home is the rich soil where endless daily lessons regarding choices, behavior, consequences, and staying with discomfort are learned, there does not need to be a negative tone attached to children’s behavior. When parents ask an older sibling to take a break after shoving a younger sibling, there does not need to be a tone of “I am so disappointed with you!” When we shame or blame our children they simply build up a wall and most likely miss the lesson of the consequence. If we say instead, “I feel sad when you use a threatening tone in your voice” or “I feel concerned when I see you pushing your brother,” we can communicate in ways that continue to give kids information about how they impact others. Parents can then provide the logical consequence.
This feedback, communicated through I-feel statements and logical consequences, is directed at modifying the child’s behavior – rather than at labeling the child as “good” or “bad.” Parents have to distinguish the person from the behavior. Kids can always adjust their behavior from looking in the mirror or experiencing a consequence. Remember, consequences and struggle are good; this is the process of moccasin building.
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