How To Make Parenting and Everything Else Less Hard Work

IMG_1543-0.JPG I used to say being enlightened seemed like too much work to me. I imagined all the urges you would have to conquer. You would need to study, and meditate, and pray, and do hours and hours of yoga, I thought. It seemed much easier to give in to the urge to eat too much, drink too much, talk too much, spend too much, even if it meant sometimes having a panic about it all. Not to mention, wouldn’t you get bored, just sitting around all day long thinking benign thoughts. I would have to work really hard to tolerate the stillness, the vast silence of enlightenment. I assumed that I was just not spiritual and that was that for the Infinite and I.

I never considered whether it was hard work being unenlightened.

Now, I think that it must be, because you are always acting on urges or assessing your actions. Either you are working to satisfy your ego by attaining goals, or you are trying to recover your resources in some relatively healthy or unhealthy way. Your mind naturally turns to the next step, the outcome, the anticipation of pleasure or success. When plans work out, it is great, but there is always a next thing to think about, so relief is short-lived. When life does not seem to be going well, frustration, anxiety, or despair wraps us in dark cloud. It is like living on a battlefield, mobilising your troops this way and that, day in day out. The rush of winning, or the respite of truce can feel wonderful, but the other side is always there to take you down.

I began to realise that people don’t become zen by winning their battles, but by leaving the battlefield altogether. It is not an act of seizing ultimate control, but one of relinquishing the need for it. I also understand that you can be spiritual by appreciating the moment you are living right now, and putting your faith in people around you. No studying, chanting, yoga, or meditation is necessary. All you have to do is settle down, maintain an open mind, and establish a rapport with the world.

Obsessing over the urge to change, or escape from, your current situation is hard work indeed, and without enlightenment this is what people are doomed to do. Whether you are trying to control yourself or your circumstances, it is a fight that you are creating. This is fabulous news, because you can also walk away from it. I use the pronoun ‘you’ here, not to differentiate between me and you, but in the rhetorical sense to indicate that this applies to myself and others ALL the time.

Sometimes, I can feel when I am fighting my present moment, and stop doing it. At least, I can reliably spot the signs of unnecessary struggle after the fact. I can look at my smarting emotions and realise that I just charged into a battle and came out the worse, but it is all invented anyway, so I can get over it and move on. I am learning.

Like the other day, our youngest daughter woke up crying and I went to comfort her. She carried on wailing and I continued to try and ‘get her down to sleep’. I tried stroking her head, rocking her, offering her a dummy, a boob. Nothing was working and she was disturbing the other kids, which was not going to help.

‘She’ll go off in a minute’ I kept thinking, but she didn’t.

I kept trying to get her off to sleep in her room because I thought ‘what if I set a new precedent and she decides she wants to get up every night?’. Leaving the room was inconsistent with our routine and might disrupt her sleep even further. I had been warned that, now she had entered toddlerhood, it was the time to ‘lay down the law’ and to be firm about rules. I was scared that she had grown into a new phase where the comfort measures she was accustomed to had started to fail and I couldn’t think of anything new to do other than let her lie there and cry.

Our son woke up and also started crying. I tearfully told our daughter that I didn’t know what to do. She kept crying and I lay there unhappily next to her. I gave up on the idea of ‘getting her off to sleep’ and I picked her up. We headed for the living room. She immediately stopped crying and was soon asleep. I sat there by the fire, holding my sleeping baby. Recovering myself a bit. I took her back to bed in her room and she didn’t wake up.

In the morning, I could see the situation for what it was. When our daughter woke up and cried, I tried everything that usually worked to get her to sleep and it didn’t. I was resolute that she should go back to sleep in her room, and was worried about the dire, far-reaching consequences of this not happening. She was unable to sleep in those conditions, so in that particular moment we were at impasse. All I could do was lie there feeling awful and listen to my child crying. It was only when I gave up and we left the room that she could do what she needed, and wanted to do, which was exactly what I wanted her to do too. When I abandoned the conditions about how that should happen, the effect was immediate in both of us.

Doh! It’s always so damn obvious after the fact: “Get out of the way mum! I can’t work like this!”

It is easily done. Parents often get stuck in ideas about how things should be, when actually they just need to look at how things are. Parents are often advised to take control over their children: ‘They won’t like it, but it’s for their own good’. There is a difference though, in helping them to establish good habits, and in trying to force them to conform to an ideal. It is important to have faith that children can guide themselves too. To consider that they sometimes know what they need better than we do. With faith, there can be rapport and partnership.

I can’t say that I see the more enlightened path every time it presents itself. However, I can see how much less there really is to do and to worry about than it would sometimes appear. Looking at the web, you can see that normal everyday things like ‘baby sleep’ have become, not just issues, but industries. There are so many sites devoted to discussions, queries, forums, techniques, so much advice. It’s easy to believe that all this struggle must be really important, vital even, to your wellbeing and your kids’. Especially when you feel tired and depleted, it is easy to buy into the apparent ‘big dealness’ of hitting milestones, and getting your offspring to conform to particular expectations.

Children are working on growing up all the time, so what we have to do is support them. There is not nearly so much worry about kids developing the ‘pincer grip’ between thumb and forefinger, which they become able to do in the second half of the first year. This is a huge milestone in terms of being a human baby, but it is barely noticed because little collective attention is given to it. No one talks about teaching babies how to do it. My goodness, they actually do this on their own when left their own devices!

So, in my humble experience, I have to wonder whether working to ‘teach’ babies how to sleep, is worth the effort. Do you expend more energy getting some sleep any way you can, and not worrying about it too much, but waking up more often, or by putting a regime in place and sticking to it no matter what, through tears and determination? I imagine the answer is different for different individuals, with different babies, in different places. That’s cool with me. I am not here to judge.

For anyone who feels that they are struggling, there is a real alternative to the battlefield. That is acceptance and presence. To stop caring so much about how many hours of sleep, how many wakings, how much time spent in your own bed. To not let the word ‘milestone’ get attached to a number or a date. To just go with the moment, and see what happens. Do a reality check now and again to see if your kid is actually more capable of doing it themselves than you are giving them credit for.

In assuming that kids should set the pace of their upbringing, my workload feels much lighter. All I have to do is listen to them and be prepared to step off the battlefield. When you stop trying to teach and just help them learn, everything feels easier. I hope they feel that too. I love witnessing their pride when they master something, and you never know when something will just fall into place.

There is no need to focus on established routines or future consequences, only to stay with the moment and examine the possibilities that open up. When you stop thinking about the past and future, and focus on NOW, the battle disappears, because the problem cannot survive without some kind of time reference.

Life in general feels much less hard work when you also get off the battlefield with yourself. If you stop struggling with what you want to become or achieve, and the fear that you won’t, this allows the best in you to rise. That is a good old fashioned, everyday spiritual experience. Perhaps there is hope for me and inner peace after all.

What battle can you stop fighting today?


Regression Frustration: Being Compassionate about Learning Setbacks

Help! I seem to have had a yogic regression.

Help! I seem to have had a yogic regression.

I’ve been dwelling on the topic of regression. Baby Evie had been sleeping for longer stretches, even approaching five hours some nights. The four month old ‘awakening to the world’ phase began and Bam! Suddenly two hours unbroken sleep seemed like a luxury. Over the last two years, Rosie has been having months of successful toilet learning, where she goes dry panted for weeks. Each time we breathe a sigh of relief to have this potty stuff sorted out. Then the accidents start up, often to the point we run out of clothes to put on her. A general welling up of frustration over regression has been a familiar sensation these past few years. Especially with Sam, who according to some websites, had a bad case of four, five, seven, nine, and ten month sleep regression.

The concept of regression rankles with me. It suggests that we learn skills in a linear fashion, in isolation. We pretty much begin as newborns, and go from A to B to C to D with sleep, toilet learning, driving, and so on, until we have all we need to function as adults. The regression comes in when we get ‘stuck’ at point C and need to return to B before we can progress again to D.

I tend to prefer a more holistic view of behaviour and abilities: that when and how we learn one skill is affected by our mastery of others, and that what appears to be an isolated ability can be broken down into a matrix of sub skills. Learning is not like creating lonely footpaths, but building a sprawling metropolis where the new gets built around and on top of the antiquated, and it’s all connected by various transport systems.

I don’t need to look very far to find articles which support this latter idea, such as this excellent one by Jean Mercer.

As Mercer states, regression is often cited as a consequence of psychological struggle, even trauma. This means, there is an inevitable hammering on the parental guilt button when your kid seems to be backtracking in an area of development. Happily, regression can also be seen as a consequence of developmental progress. In which case, you can embrace apparent potholes in the road to success as a sign of your child working out how to do something better.

As long as your child is as happy as a 4 month old baby at 3 in the morning (Let’s play Mum!Look! I have feet!), your main worry is that unless you take action of some sort the ‘regressive behaviour’ will  be with you forever. There is much to be gained from acceptance that you cannot make your child sleep or urinate on cue, and that attempts to try will be, at best, futile; at worst, detrimental to your child’s eventual success. At times, it is possible that mums and dads struggle because we need to go through some sort of development in the way we parent, rather than attempt to change our child’s behaviour.

Mercer concludes that it is best to relax about regression. There is no real back and forth going on. We should accept what our child is doing or not doing at the present moment and leave it at that. It is easy to forget this advice when you are told that your baby will not learn to sleep unless you do X, Y, Z, or that your child will still wet herself when she’s 20, because you didn’t start potty training at 8 months (ok, that’s a mild exaggeration).

An encouraging point that Mercer makes is that when children learn to control bodily functions, such as sleep or urination, they can only master them by learning to a) let go when they are in the correct place to wee or sleep, and b) to hold their urges when it is the wrong time to wee or sleep. These are two separate skills and when it seems they cannot control their urges, they may well be practicing the art of the sudden release. A baby must learn how to override the urge to sleep, just as a child learns to override the urge to wee. However, the baby must be able to fall into slumber, as a child must open the floodgates when the time comes. It’s no wonder it takes them a while to sort it all out.

If your child is not a happy little sunbeam at the time of regression, then it tends to be more worrying. However, the scientists who wrote the bestselling book, The Wonder Weeks report that development spurts in young infants have a consistent form: a fussy, clingy phase in which the baby needs a lot of support, is followed by a some kind of new leap in development and a period of comparative ease. I love this book, because now I can see that these changing phases are normal and more importantly, not my fault. Being reminded that, no matter what I do, ease and difficulty are temporary is a comforting thought, in that it makes me appreciate the good moments and know that the bad ones will not last. When Evie is wailing for no apparent reason, there’s a puddle on the floor, and we’re headed into some sort of toddler/ older child meltdown contest, it helps.

In my experience, these ideas apply to grown ups too. When I regress in my ability to do something, there is a related struggle involved, and often a frayed temper: My yoga practice is not what it was. On the one hand, I’m less flexible and carrying some extra baby weight. I have bigger boobs from breastfeeding that never seem to be in the right place. On the other hand, my arms are stronger from lifting infants, and I am more grounded in my body after going through pregnancy and birth several times. One challenge is that I need to find a new way of doing yoga, which is in tune with the mind and body I have now. The main reason I’ve let my yoga slide though, is that I have been too busy learning to balance life with a baby and two older children, to find the time and energy for working out. I find my mood is far from soft-focussed calm and part of me resists even trying to change that because it seems like too much effort! Now that things are settling down a bit, I can get back to a regular practice and banish the urge to sit on the sofa and eat chocolate instead.

Mercer says that children’s development is more like weather than a path: sometimes parents get to bask in the sunshine of our child’s facility, and sometimes we hang onto the coattails of their personal whirlwind. I think we can apply this to the ups and downs of our own lives too.

So, the best thing we can do for our kids and ourselves is to be compassionate about setbacks. To see them as a natural part of a learning process. Hell, of a living process. Be kind to yourself and others. Take a deep, resolute breath, and know that the only way is, not forwards or back, but up and down and up again. Except for wee. Always encourage your child to wee downwards.

Having said all this- I would welcome any tips and hints for helping kids learn to conquer the loo once and for all! What can parents do to empower their children in acquiring new skills?

Sent from my iPad

The Family Mind Machine


I’m feeling a bit abstract. This last week I’ve been wondering ‘If my family shared one mind, how would it work?’

Some Important Features of a Family Mind

My family mind would contain two grown up minds, an almost four year old mind, a 20 month old mind, and soon, a primitive little newborn mind. According to Alison Gopnik, author of ‘The Philosophical Baby’ (2009), these minds function very differently. I’ll list the differences between my husband and I, and our kids at the ages we are now. If I were talking about older children there would be a lot less difference because many of the features of what I am calling the ‘parent’ minds start to be acquired while children are primary school age. I am only comparing differences across our particular family as we are right now, so this is a snapshot in an evolving state of affairs.

Parent Minds Vs Young Child Minds

1. Autobiographical Memory

Adults remember things that happened to them in the past, and can link them both to the present they find themselves in, and their imagined future. They know that these experiences are ‘theirs’, different to general knowledge, and are able to understand them as ‘my life story’. So parent aminds have an ‘inner autobiographer’ who catalogues their memories.

Before age five, children have not started to order events in this way. My almost 4 year old daughter knows that she went to theatre on the bus in the past, and that one day it will be her fourth birthday. She remembers specific events and knows about some upcoming ones, but these are lumped together in heaps rather than arranged chronologically. It is like she has a big box of past memories marked ‘yesterday’ and one marked ‘tomorrow’ with her expectations and hopes for the future. However, she does understand that the memory of the theatre is hers, as her forthcoming birthday is hers, and she relishes the opportunity to tell people about them.

As for her younger siblings, they are able to learn from past experience, and use it to guide plans in the immediate future, but the ability to think of this experience as something that happened to ‘me’ has not yet developed. My son has a specific memory of how much he enjoyed the Wiggles DVD when he watched it. He knows he wants to see it again at the nearest opportunity. This is part of the general way of things for everyone as far as he is concerned. Newborn baby knows simply that when she cries she will get attended to, but has no idea where that knowledge came from.

2. Executive Control

Adults have the ability to suppress what they want now in order to get what they want in the future. This is different to making plans to get what they want in the present moment, because it means that sometimes they have to care about a future, imagined, self, more than their present self: I will submit to a thorough and uncomfortable dental cleaning today, so that my future self will not get diseased gums. As well as the inner autobiographer, there is an ‘inner executive’ who is in charge of planning present action and calculating future benefit. In the parent mind, this inner executive is responsible for telling you to do all those things you would rather put off in favour of a nice cup of tea and a sit down, like getting on with the bedtime routine, or stopping the toddler from inserting a ham sandwich into the DVD player.

The ‘pain now/pleasure later’ logic is largely pointless as far as our children are concerned. However, if there is much gratification to be had, and a short period of delay, our eldest child shows she is starting to understand this control.

While my husband and I may not feel like piling the kids into the car and driving to the beach on a Sunday afternoon, we know it will be nice when we get there, and the children will spend many hours happily playing in the sand. My eldest daughter may not want to get in the car, but after being reminded that soon she could be digging a Big Enormous Hole, she will leap willingly into her seat. My son will not care a jot for his future gratification if he is not in the mood for travel and will try to self eject from his padded seat, yelling in frustration. A newborn will be happy as long as needs for food and comfort have been met. Engine noises are comforting and car seats are comfy. What’s not to like?

3. Stream of Consciousness

While adults are swept along in a river of constant thought, young children paddle in a series of rock pools, each with a distinct point of interest. This is partly due to the absence of an inner autobiographer and inner executive, and partly to do with language: young children’s minds are not transported back and forth to experienced past and imagined future and neither do they have the inner voices which accompany this process. The parent minds, on the other hand, are chock full of language, so much so that they are often swept up in listening to the various voices in their head, rather than paying attention to their present environment. This means they may miss the rock pools their children inhabit altogether, but does help with activities such as making plans for the weekend or knowing whether the baby bag is sufficiently full of nappies, clothes changes, snacks etc.

Gopnik describes various pieces of research into when children begin to experience conscious thought. The answers indicate that our 4 year old would be aware of herself thinking when engaged in an activity or particularly absorbing bit of contemplation, but would not consider her thinking ‘switched on’ all the time like an older child. She will sit in the car deep in thought and announce ‘I’ve got a good idea! Let’s make a rocket/cookies/ theatre! ‘ so she has an awareness of her own thinking and of individual thoughts. With little language at younger children’s disposal, it is unlikely that they have conscious, separable, thoughts like big sister. For instance, our son will pick up the phone, put it to his ear, and say ‘hello’ which shows a thought process of making connections between objects and actions. A newborn will learn to smile through reflex, and then repeat the action because it yields such interesting results in those around her. In both cases, there is thinking, but no sign of awareness of thought. This mental set up allows the children to be present in their environment and to seize maximum opportunities to learn from it, without being bothered by a voice pointing out connections between this and other moments, or suggesting they consider a career in accountancy.

These differences between parent and child minds are down to what we use our minds for overall. The children are learning so fast that, every few months, they completely change their understanding of the world. This means they have little use for mental systems which encourage them to hold onto past beliefs, or imagine futures, as the inner autobiographer and executive do. Grown ups and older children develop more fixed patterns of belief and a greater sense of self, which allow them to plan for their own survival and satisfaction in the world, first in near future, and then in the long term. Their future success and happiness may depend on paying attention to their inner autobiographer and executives. Though understandings of the world may change, such shifts in belief occur far less frequently than in infants.

Though this is still a somewhat limited sketch of what parent and child minds do, it gives me something to build my family mind machine on. Here goes…

How Our Family Mind Might Look

Picture a Heath Robinson style contraption with alarm clocks and weird paraphernalia attached to it, whirring and clanking away. The family mind would be a number of different, yet connected, machines which serve different functions:

1. A Memory Library

This could be a tree- like construction which acted as an archive. The branches would house chronologically organised memories which make up The Family History. Here, the life stories of family members would be kept track of through complex notations, and for the most part these would be maintained by the parents. Leaves and flowers could bloom at intervals from the main tree representing the memory of specific events, like the colour, shape, and flavour of the birthday cake we baked. The two older kids and parents tend to these together, adding more as life progresses. Eventually, the newborn’s memory would develop enough and she would join in.

2. The Storage Area

The storage area would have two main sections: one for short term use and the other for the long term.

There would be a long term filing cabinet for beliefs which experience has reinforced many, many times. The certainty that day follows night, or that teeth should be brushed before bed. Even the newborn would start to build up awareness of patterns like these on a rudimentary level, starting by distinguishing a difference between night and day. The parents would keep more of their beliefs in the long term filing system than the children, because they have beliefs which are more static, less prone to change. So, imagine some big, robust filing cabinets operated by hands on springy extendable arms flitting between them storing and retrieving information relating to different concepts, which are cross-referenced with one another.

Imagine that linked to this long term filing machine is a short term belief drop which acts as a filter system for new ideas. Let’s say there is a small canal, with a stream of new ideas arriving on paper boats. Each boat holds a different belief, and they float into a temporary holding pool. Every time supporting evidence is found in the outside world for a belief, or a good link is recognised between it and those already in long term storage, the boat gets heavier. When this happens, the boat sinks down to the bottom of the pool into an underwater processing station. Here, the beliefs are available for short term use. If the beliefs are of long term significance, the mechanical hands can remove items them to the long term filing system. The boats that fail to gather weight float away downstream and are disposed of, as are short term ones which are of no further use. The toddler and 4 yr old make particular use of this machine, though the others in the family also drop beliefs into the boats.

3. The Learning Centre

The storage area is fed by the Learning Centre. This is a roaming robot device which is fitted to obtain information via sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and emotion. There would be fingers, cameras, tongue and nostril like sensors, and probably some lasers too. Why not. The purpose of all these gadgets would be to gather new ideas, new information which are worthy of at least short term consideration. This would be used to update the short term belief drop and long term filing system.

Though the parents make frequent use of the learning centre, the kids all make intensive use of it. This is where they are in their milieu, learning with great efficiency. With their greater understanding of language the parent- operated part of the learning centre would be more concerned with detailed linguistic input, while the kid- operated part would deal more with non- linguistic concepts. However, as they develop their own language use they would rely less on the parent minds to fathom this kind of information for them.

4. The Control Centre

This would be a command pod where you’d find lots of cables, screens, levers and buttons that help the different parts of the mind machine to communicate with one another. There would be a lot of clocks and timers and clipboards keeping everyone on schedule. A crystal ball would be used to gaze at the hypothetical future. Plans would be calculated using input from the other parts of the machine and combining them with these future visions. A steering mechanism would be used to instruct the family in fulfilling these plans.

Some of the activity organised by the control centre would be the province of the parents at first, but be ceded to the children as they become capable of performing them. For instance, the parent would control access to food at first, but as the child learns to self feed this physical activity would fall to them, though the time it occurred might be parent- controlled. This might be part of a larger parent planned activity involving shopping for, cooking, and consuming food. An older child might have more input into these parts of the process, than a toddler.

As the learning centre would be a child dominated mechanism, the control centre would be more the domain of the parents. Though the children might contribute to calculating plans and sending instructions, they would not be able to fully work the clocks or the crystal ball, and they would not have all the access codes to the memory library or storage areas. Therefore, to operate in everyone’s interests, a major function of the control centre is to move the mind machine to locations where the learning centre can be fed, as well as maintaining the various functions of the machine overall.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Drafting out this bonkers family mind machine has been interesting for me, because it really made me think about what my kids are capable of, what they need from me, and how this should affect the roles we play in our family unit.

For example: I had been feeling a bit frustrated because my daughter has been toilet learning for a couple of years now, and she still goes through stages of being accident prone. I do try to keep upbeat and unflustered by accidents, and to accept that this is an ongoing process, yadayada. However, sometimes I think ‘Come on! You know how to avoid this!’. I realise now that the issue is that my little girl cannot put her future self ahead of her present self, so if she is playing an absorbing game she will ignore her urge to wee, even though she knows what will happen. She does like being a ‘big girl’ like her older friends, so she does try most of the time now. This means it is my role to exert some executive planning and remind her to wee at these moments, and praise her for her progress when she remembers the rest of the time. As she learns greater executive control, she will take this role on herself. It sounds very obvious now, but for me, clarity came from writing this.

There is plenty left out of this mind model, that should by rights be there. Imagination and Emotional Intelligence are but two very important areas of a family mind, which I haven’t touched on at this point. Perhaps there will be an update to this effect later on. Enough mad scientisting for now though. Time to listen to my inner executive and get on with making lunch.

I would highly recommend Gopnik’s book to anyone interested in this sort of thing. Follow the link for more info on The Philosophical Baby.

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