Today, after many requests, we founded a new facebook discussion group. After a lot of thought, I made a decision to title it Mindful & Proactive Parenting. And of course, the minute I pressed the “Create” button, I began thinking about how to explain why I called it that, and what I mean by advocating for a style of parenting based on those two words. It seems simplest, as in all things, to offer examples and analogies, and to break it down a bit by age, so that it can make practical sense to those of you who have infants, or toddlers, or preschoolers, or teens (or children of any age!)
But before i do that, I feel compelled to answer the question that seems to arise in nearly every critique of what some-purported-parenting-or-child-development-expert-or-fad-follower seems to write on the internet, namely “Why do I need a PHILOSOPHY of parenting?” or the complementary variations: “Our parents didn’t have any “philosophy” and they did fine!” or “Give me a break, yet another article to tell me all the things I’m doing wrong…why does everyone have to bash parents these days?” So, why do you need a “philosophy” or “method” of parenting? (drum roll) You don’t. If you feel like everything is going well, you don’t have concerns or many frustrations about your child and his or her schedule or behavior, and you feel like you’re headed in a great direction that will produce the sort of grown-ups (someday) that you would want to know and that you will feel proud to have parented, it seems like you’re doing fine. You may be excused. I repeat: You do NOT need a philosophy. You do NOT need a method. The one thing that I would argue that most of us DO need is intentionality. (ooh, that would have been a good name, too “Intentional Parenting”…or maybe that’s a bit too close to “Planned parenthood”, eh?).
Here’s the thing. Kids grow up. Every day. All of them. Whether you need or follow a philosophy or not. And by far the greatest majority of what they learn, they learn from us—from what we say, from how we treat them, from the tone of our voice, from how we respond when they do something that frustrates us. And parenting–believe it or not–is not really innate. It seems like it’s innate, but what most of us mean when we say that is that we parent like our parents parented us. If that was great in every way, then once again, you’re good to go. If there are things you want to do differently than what your parents did, it will require intentionality. It will require intentionality because to do what your parents did is automatic. It’s programmed. As they say about Prego, “it’s in there.” To do it differently requires thought and intention. The experts and pseudo-experts who write all these blathering things on the internet (present company included) are not writing them because you are doing it wrong or because you need to do it their/our way. They/we are writing all these blathering things because,well, because it’s just stuff to consider. Really. That’s really all there is to it. No blaming, no criticism, no “parenting police.” Just “stuff to consider” in the event that in case you’re already wondering, in case you’re already trying to figure the whole thing out and make some decisions for yourself, in case you already feel like something you’re doing is not working all that well or not producing the results that you want. It’s just stuff to consider. In this case, the stuff is about Mindful and Proactive Parenting. It’s really something else, actually–some word that beautifully and poetically encompasses the crossover between those two words–but I can’t figure out what that word is, so there you have it.
So…what does it mean for something to be both Mindful AND Proactive, say, in infancy? I think right away of two examples that are sometimes laughed off as kind of silly, but which exemplify both philosophies beautifully. In this post, I will focus on the first of these–the way in which we pick up infants and toddlers. The second concerns the way in which we interact with infants and toddlers when we are changing diapers–that will be the subject of a separate post.
Pretty much all of us have randomly picked up an infant or toddler. It’s time for lunch, it’s time to go to the grocery store, it’s time to leave the park and go home. We walk over–sometimes we say “it’s time to go” (and sometimes we don’t!)–and we pick them up and hoist them on to our hip and walk off, perhaps with a smile and a kiss. What could possibly be wrong with that? First of all, it’s not “wrong.” We all make all sorts of decisions every day, some are more important than others. Sometimes we’re distracted. Sometimes we just don’t want to put so much &$&# thought into every single thing we do, we just want to go to the grocery store. Sometimes we’re exhausted, and we do what’s easy. It’s okay. Really. As I’m sure you’re thinking, there are a WHOLE lot of things that we can do with our kids that are worse than picking them up. Right?!?
Still, humor me for a minute, and let me ask you to step back. Because right at this moment, you’re looking at a screen and probably not picking anyone up. 🙂
I want for you to imagine, for a minute, sitting on the floor, maybe at a meditation retreat. You’re deep in thought, you’re processing a talk you just heard. Maybe you’re writing in a journal, finishing a small painting, or rolling a stick or a leaf around in your hands. So let’s see…you’re sitting on the floor, so you’re, what…about 3 feet tall at the top of your head? In the midst of your thought, a person walks into the room (they weren’t there a minute ago!). Maybe they’re behind you. Maybe not. You’re still engaged in whatever you’re doing. People come in and out of the room all the time. No big deal. You glance up. This person is ELEVEN feet tall. Yeah. ELEVEN feet tall. Within seconds, the huge person reaches down and picks you up, your legs swinging in the air. Your journal or painting or stick lies on the ground, and there you are, 8 or 9 feet in the air. Maybe the person said something brief, like “time for lunch!” or “time to go” before they picked you up. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they just picked you up. Maybe they even came in the room and picked you up from behind, without you even knowing they were there or that you were about to take flight. I want you to take this image in, and imagine it for a minute. How do you feel? What is your response to what just happened? What is going through your head? Do you feel respected as an autonomous person?
Now, although it is probably completely obvious, I want you to think about the fact that this describes the lives of most of our infants and toddlers every day. Yes, even the measurements. The average height of a 12 month old is about 30 inches. The average adult is somewhere between 60 inches and 72 inches, so more than twice the child’s height, if standing. If they are seated, then you seem even taller. If you, like me, believe that children are full people, complete individuals, with their own minds and spirits, from birth, how is it that you know for certain that they don’t feel some of the ways that you felt when it happened to you? If it did not feel respectful to you, do you imagine it would feel respectful to your child? Is there anything that you might do differently, knowing how it feels as a result of the visualization above? For me, the answer is yes. This is the Mindful part.
Mindfulness is often described as “paying attention to your intention.” That’s it.
As for me, my intention (at least in part) is to communicate to an infant or toddler that I respect them, their thoughts, their bodies, their thinking, the space that they occupy in the world. For myself, I cannot reconcile suddenly picking up a young child with that intention. So I do what I would want to be done with me. I get down low. I get on their eye level. I wait for a minute, sometimes more– for their attention to shift from what they are focusing on to my face. When we are making eye contact and connected, I say calmly that I need to pick them up because it’s time for lunch or we need to go the store. And then I put out my hands, and wait for them to indicate, with their arms or hands or body, or in the case of very young infants, their expression and focus, that they are ready to be picked up. And then I pick them up. This is the way I would want to be treated. With respect.
So that’s the Mindful piece. But what of the “Proactive” piece? Is that a different set of directions, a different way of picking them up? No. It’s the same method, the same intention. But it’s a “thinking beyond”, its a “why” moment that goes beyond the idea that that’s the way I’d want to be treated. The Proactive piece is about thinking about the traits that you are intending to build in your child through your interactions with them, and how those will play out in the long run.
Yes, I know that right now they’re “just” infants or toddlers. But brain development tells us that this is when patterns are laid down. Yes. This early. The things that we teach infants and toddlers, the ways that we interact with them, these things set the stage for their traits, behaviors, and expectations for the rest of their lives. Yeah, it’s heady stuff. But it’s true. It can be an overwhelming thought, I know. Rather than thinking of it as a defensive “So I have to pay attention to every single thing that I do or I”m sunk? Great.”, I choose to think of it is an amazing and awesome opportunity. In these early years of life, we have the chance to establish powerful positive patterns that will serve our children well throughout their lives–what an incredible privilege.
So..the Proactive piece in all of this, like I promised (I do ramble sometimes, you’ll get used to it.) The Proactive piece here is that I want to raise a child that does not, in their teen and adult years, allow people to touch them or do things to them when they are not paying attention. I want them to feel as if people treat one another with respect, and that connection and human interaction are worth waiting and patience. I want them to feel like they have a voice, like they have a choice, like other people don’t make decisions for them, but that they are active participants in their own lives, including the way in which they move through the world. I want, when they are ten years old, to not simply move or push a smaller person out of the way in the interest of doing something they need or want to do. I want them to show respect for others, and treat others the way they would want to be treated, regardless of age.
Yes. Those all sound like big things. “You get THOSE from picking up a baby??? Don’t you think that’s a bit of a leap???” (I’ve been asked these questions more than once. Okay, more than a hundred times.) Yes. I get those from picking up a baby. And no, I don’t think it’s a leap. Respect is respect. Patterns are laid down in infancy–I know this from brain science and mountains of child development literature. Babies are human beings. Complete human beings. Yes. I get that from picking up a baby.
“You think too much about all of this, Robin.” Yeah. I do. I think that things that are really important are worth thinking about. And I can’t think of anything in the entire world that is more important than raising the next generation.
Mindful and Proactive. Join us.