Raising confident, loved children means tuning into the flow and letting go of the schedule | By Hollee A. McGinnis (Summer 2020 issue)
On the Monday in mid-March after we were informed that our 12-year-old and four-year-old were not going to be returning to middle school and pre-school because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was ready. On the family whiteboard “command station,” I was armed with a schedule for every hour of the day: Breakfast, learning, lunch, helpful time, quiet time, outside, play, dinner. Yes, scheduled play!
The truth: Your days are currents, not boxes
Reality hit when by the end of the week that the schedule had completely disintegrated. In the first week, we were all responding to the disruption of the weekdays we had believed was our “normal.” But it wasn’t working. My four-year-old could not go a day without a major tantrum and meltdown. I boxed my 12-year-old into his online schoolwork, expecting him to figure out where it was located, when assignments were due, and how to do them.
I was irritated that my children did not seem know that they needed to be “busy” so that I could eke out some hours to get my work done, while also worrying about how to limit electronics, what to make for dinner, how to go shopping, do laundry, baths, and keep a regular sleep schedule.
As we all struggled with the new normal caused by the pandemic, I came to understand this truth: Your days are not boxes to block in and constrain your time. This is an artifice created as we industrialized human labor at the turn of the 19th century.
As I released trying to manage time, I came to realize our days are actually currents; energy currents, or currents of a river. They flow and ebb. We can fight against the current of the day —- have you ever tried to paddle upstream or ride your bike into the headwind? It is very exhausting! Or, we can tune into the current of the day, dipping a toe or finger into the current from time to time, and altering our course and direction to be in alignment with others, and in the flow of that day and moment.
Children have their own currents and so do you
During the time of COVID-19, I became keenly aware that children rarely respect boxes, except as a place to climb in and play. In school, children are surrounded by teachers, peers, and an entire ecosystem designed to guide their energy flows in one direction. So, boxing the day into a structure can be followed, but it takes a lot of work —- by full-time professionals —- to get large groups of students to follow through on a schedule. Most children thrive on the structure at school, but it is a very different environment at home.
Setting a schedule of blocks of time for various activities like they had in school was just not working at home for us. And, the fact is, most parents can’t do that. You cannot be a full-time teacher, a full-time employee, and a full-time parent all at the same time. I tried it that first week, and I beat myself up for not being able to navigate my boat upstream against the current during a tidal wave.
Tune into your own current first
By the second week of COVID-19 social isolation and distancing, I slowly let the time frame of the schedule slip away. Yes, they would have breakfast, but it did not have to be at 9 a.m. Yes, my 12-year-old would have to do some schoolwork, but it didn’t have to be between 10 a.m. and noon. As I let go of trying to manage every minute of my children’s time, which I admitted to myself was my way of coping with pandemic-related disruption and disorientation, a new way of structuring the day began to open up.
I began to work with the current of the day. I began to notice and respect my children’s flows and needs, my anxiety abated, and I was slowly able to relax about what everyone was doing during the day. I even began to give a bit of time and attention to myself.
What parenting with the current means is this: You stop. Take a breath. And notice what is happening, both within you and outside of you. The most important task is to tune into your own current first. Did you have a bad night’s sleep? Do you have a looming deadline? Are you preoccupied about finances? Are you worried about the health of a loved one? Worries can proliferate and can trick us into feeling that we have to gain more control.
Take a “time-in” for yourself to fill your well
Knowing the thoughts and conditions affecting your mind and body will help you to understand your state of flow in that moment and the current that you are swimming in. The hardest thing for parents to do is to give ourselves a time-out —- or rather, what I like to say is a “time-in” for ourselves. How can you give yourself a time-in? I call this “Filling Your Well”.
Can you find five minutes just for you? Maybe that is savoring a morning cup of coffee, doing some stretches, meditation, or prayer. Whatever it is, just give yourself five minutes to close your eyes, take a deep belly breath, and ask yourself, “What’s present in this moment? What do I need?”
A friend of mine, a parent of an 11- and 13-year-old, told me that when she finally tuned into her current, she needed a full day of time-in to refill her well. She was that tapped out. And that might be necessary for you (and of course ever harder to do in this time of the pandemic). But at the very least, on most days, try to fill your well a little bit.
Children are a gift: They want us to be present
We adults get upset at our children because we do not want to be present. We want to do what we can control, master, and plan. We get irritated because we feel our children are pulling us away from what we need to do, have to do, are supposed to do. They want us to drop everything to watch them dance, to get them a drink, or play with them.
What if the truth was that what they want in that moment, is exactly what we need and want too?
When we join with our children, we are joining the current of the day together. Imagine floating on a large inner tube down a lazy river on a hot summer day. That’s what happens when we join with our children’s needs and energies in that moment.
Resisting our children’s needs leads to more persistence
When we resist joining with our children and push them away, we often end up setting up our children to persist in demanding what they need. When we say, “No, my needs are more important and take priority over yours. Can’t you see how busy I am?!” we are no longer flowing with a moment, but against it, down our own current.
Then a tirade may ensue as parents and children both push for their own needs first. This might go on longer than the time you would have spent if you had decided to engage with your child at the moment they asked.
So, try an experiment. If you notice yourself getting irritated with your child, pause. Take a deep belly breath and ask, “What’s present? Am I attending to my needs first and ignoring theirs? What would happen if I let go of my needs and joined them, gave them what they are really asking for?”
What your children are really asking for is you
What all children really want is your presence. You are the one they want. Not the juice, or the toy, or the TV. Those are just the only ways little ones know how to get our attention; and any little bit of attention —- even distracted and irritated attention —- satisfies their need.
However, the more distracted and irritated attention we give our children, the less our children are satisfied, and the more they will come back and ask of us.
They want the real deal. They want our full presence. They don’t want just the glass of juice. They want us to see them, and their needs, and to receive the message from us: “I see you. I love you. And, I will take care of you.” It’s not about the juice. It’s about you.
Give your child what they really need: Your presence
By the third week of quarantine, I gave up trying to be everything for my children —- their teacher, their friend, their playmate —- and focused on being what they most needed: To be their parent, first and foremost.
Having children means you don’t just get your own current to paddle in each day, but rather, you are merging your current with another. Children don’ t actually need a lot from us, but what they do need is to know they are being seen, attended to, cared for, and loved completely.
When our children receive the gift of our full presence, they can wait. When they don’t know if they will ever get our full attention, they become anxious and impatient. Their anxiety makes them more needy and demanding of us because we have not reassured them that they are important and that they are a priority worth our complete, undivided, whole presence.
Plan some time to fill the bank
In my training at the Yale Child Study Center, we talked a lot about Dr. Alan Kazdin’s work in helping parents modify children’s behavior with positive behavioral reinforcement. While it’s important to affirm the behaviors we want to see in our children, as a parent, what I found even more important is the advice we gave based on attachment theory: Make time to be with your children completely, not matter how old they are.
So, experiment. Try to make sure that on most days you spend at least 15 or 20 minutes of undivided attention with your child (this can be broken up through-out the day too —- no rules!). Maybe that’s playing a game, going for a walk, throwing a ball. The key is you let your child decide and follow their lead. You are not trying to teach them how to read by reading a book, or how to be good at sports by throwing the ball. You are just giving them your undivided attention and being with them as they are and want to be.
Consider this time to be like putting money into the bank. This is the currency you can barter with later because it is actually filled with the jewels of your attention. This increases your child’s motivation to do what you ask because you tuned into what they most needed and gave it to them.
Being with the current is what we all need
I have found that giving our children what they most want —- the gift of us
—- doesn’t take a lot of time. But it does require the intentional practice of getting out of our own heads and giving our undivided attention to our children. I have found that when I give myself permission to follow my child’s request and allow myself to flow with their current for a bit —- for even just one to five minutes —- they are satiated for longer. I actually end up gaining more minutes back to focus on the tasks I need to complete.
So, if your child comes running in, wanting you to dance with them, experiment. Stop what you’re doing. Take a deep belly breath. Note how you are feeling, and check if those feelings can wait. Look deeply into your child’s eyes and smile and say to yourself, “Why not?” You might just find out that those five minutes of dancing will gain you 20 more minutes to do your work, and that those five minutes of dancing was actually what you needed, too.
Hollee A. McGinnis, PhD, is a writer, scholar, and professor of social work who has been musing about adoption, race, and identity for over 25 years through her personal reflections as an intercountry transracial adoptee and professionally since founding the adult intercountry adoptee organization Also-Known-As, Inc. in 1996.