Parenting (February 2006)
The most exacting (and rewarding!) spiritual discipline I practice is parenting. My son, Simon, is one of the most patient and forgiving teachers I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. Together we tread the bumpy relationship of mother and child, often hitting obstacles and sometimes cresting a hill and seeing a spectacular view. We have had some shining moments in which I am able to see him as the spiritual guide that he is. The other day in the car he asked me, "Mama, who will die next?" Several people close to us die in the past year, including my mother. I replied, "No one knows when they will die, but Nani and James were very sick and we don't know any one right now who is very sick, so maybe no one close to us will die any time soon." Then he asked, "Mama, when will I die?" I said, "I don't know, but you are very healthy and young. It's likely you will live a long, long time, probably more than 3,000 weeks." He asked, "Mama, will I live as long as God's love?" To which I replied, "Yes, God's love will shine through you as long as you live and when you die, your Spirit will be with God's love."
Other times, our lives are hectic and full of confusion. The other day we rode the bus to his school. When we got on, I sat us down in the front of the bus. A young woman and her children were friendly to Simon and smiled, but he began to whine and complain. I tried to distract him by reading to him, then a woman got on the bus and sat right next to him and he started to cry. I sat with him crying, whispering my 'expectations that he behave' into his ear and feeling mortified that all around me were witnessing this low moment in my parenting. I was focused on my idealistic, impractical vision of how Simon "should" be behaving and how I "should" be parenting, rather than staying present with Simon, not judging him or me, but responding honestly and simply to the situation. Finally we reached our stop and got off. I sat with him. He cried and was very upset, he said he didn't want to go to school. I convinced him to walk across the South Street bridge. We walked or I held him silently most of the way, sometimes he would still cry out. As we turned the corner half a block from the door to his pre-school, I was able, finally, to take a breath and ask him what was wrong. He said that he really liked to ride in the back of the bus and that he hadn't liked being so crowded in the front. I suggested that next time we would sit where he liked and that it was easier to listen to him if he used his words, rather than whining. He and I found a way forward out of the chaos and our next bus ride was a pleasant adventure. I've learned that the missteps are inevitable and there is as much to be gained from these as there is from those shining moments -- that Simon and I need the muck, too, sometime just as much as we need the sun to grow.
I've found validation, challenges and support for this approach in the wonderful parenting books listed here. Each book mentioned is offered at a 10% discount until next Tuesday, February 7th.
Gently Lead: How to Teach your Child about God while Finding Out for Yourself by Polly Berrien Berrends (author of the very fine _Whole Child/Whole Parent_) is a collection of moments in the author's life with her children that suggest the presence of a greater parent to which she and her children often refer. She talks of balancing love with encouraging independence and making space in your life with your child to listen for God. The book is structured like a devotional book, with one moment featured per page or two, with the associated discovery or understanding brought to light. She talks about the importance of "unhugs" -- moments when a parent confirms the viability of the child, rather than holding him or her close. She talks of the frequent times when she and her children deal with a problem by sitting quietly and waiting for God to give them an idea. She speaks of paying attention to the presence of God in your relationship with your children and helping them to become aware of those moments, too. She also speaks of the muck. I've come back to this book again and again and almost always found within it wisdom for the particular situation I was facing with Simon. This book is, unfortunately, out of print, but we've found a number of used copies -- available while supplies last.
How to Negotiate with Kids... even when you think you shouldn't: 7 Essential Skills to End Conflict and Bring More Joy into Your Family by Scott Brown sounds as though it is merely an incredibly pragmatic "how to" book, but it is really a rather insightful guide to practicing integrity (forthright, gentle and complete honesty) with one's children. The author, a negotiator and negotiation trainer tells many stories about specific situations in families and then presents scripts which outline alternative ways of handling various conflicts. At the core, he speaks of a kind of radical honesty which isn't harsh or rude or impatient, but helps your child become more aware of the factors involved in various situations and allows them some say in the manner in which boundaries are set and consequences are established. Brown is very clear about the importance of striking the balance between establishing parental authority and fostering freedom and responsibility. He elucidates several specific skills such as managing your own emotions during a conflict, seeing the argument from your child's point of view, learning to persuade rather than coerce, and dealing with sibling rivalry. I've learned from this book the importance of taking the time to really discuss a conflict with Simon rather than taking the easy road, the "because I said so" road, and it has made our relationship stronger. Simon is quicker to listen to my requests and to trust that I'm fair, because I spend a lot of time really listening to him.
One Small Plot of Heaven: Reflections on Family Life by a Quaker Sociologist by Elise Boulding is the single best guide to Quaker parenting that I have seen. Boulding grounds her personal reflections in her own experience parenting and creating a family with the understanding that family life is a testing ground and microcosm for the larger society. She contends that if one can live peaceably and lovingly in one's family, the implications for all of society can be huge. Her essays move from the individual child outward to the society. In "Children and Growing Up" Boudling examines children and solitude and the personhood of children. In "Quaker Family Life" the author focuses on Friends testimonies in the home, peacemaking within the family, Quaker foremothers as ministers outside and within the home, and the new dimensions of family that gay and lesbian families reveal. In "Family and Society" explores her understanding of family as a small society and the great changes that can be begun within it. Elise Boulding elucidates family life in her thoughtful, creative book.
Answering that of God in our Children by Harriet Heath, clerk of the Quaker Parenting Project, is focused on the opportunities moments of wonder pose for spiritual growth and learning or, as she puts it, "growing into goodness." She believes that wondering happens when children stand in awe at a beautiful sunrise or try to understand issues of fairness. She illustrates these moments eloquently with observations of children and the caring responses of their caretakers. She offers principles to help to guide the wondering without becoming either ineffectual or pushy. She offers suggestions for empathetically guiding the child's learning in a section entitled "Creating an Environment that Nurtures Wonder." This is a small book packed with wisdom for responding to and helping to bring forth that of God within each child. Heath's principles have been a wonderful guidepost for me as I witness and help to foster Simon's seeking and discovery.
The other day Simon lifted a rather large cylinder down from a high stool, then looked at me and said, "I am a strong lad." Indeed he is and may my parenting help to make him stronger.
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