4-17 mexicoWe’re just back this week from a vacation with our children. The 6 days we had together, the variant pace at which we were able to live for the week, and the challenges that bubbled up offered some reminders but also some fears for me. We’re always on quicksand while raising children. Parenting demands exceptional grace but also exquisite flexibility and immediate rapid-fire insight. Our job descriptions, as parents, are ever-evolving; we’re asked to shift what we know as we step from stone to stone and into something new as quickly as our children do. The minute we feel we’ve figured something out — whammo — a new challenge arises we never even thought to consider.

The stakes are high. Of anything that unites us all as parents it’s knowing that truth. Along the way we will fail, fail, fail and have wondrous little successes too, thank goodness. Yet the tasks involved in raising a child will never look just like they did last month. I loved a This American Life (#553) segment I listened to this past week where a mom discussed some of the complexities in the requisite shifts she faced raising a principled little 7 year-old boy named Elias who is vegetarian and very emotional about animal-eaters. He finds himself living amid a family who explores an occasional pepperoni pizza and turkey sandwich. As his parents upend the way they eat at home (they end up banning all meat at home because of their son’s feelings) narrator Ira Glass states,

“If you’re hearing all this and you are feeling judgey about these parents and I know you are, because that is a national pastime — judging other people’s parenting – I just want to say I totally felt that way until I heard Elias….just like she says. Hearing Elias made me realize ‘oh, right, she actually is in a really tough situation. Where she has these two kids and those both have really strong feelings about this and she doesn’t want to crush either one of them.’”

Judging others’ parenting is often just the malaise of parental insecurity. We all have our own shakiness at times, especially as we’re asked to rise to new heights each new day. It’s of course so easy to judge, and so much harder to elevate and emulate others. In my mind, the best we can do while parenting (failing or succeeding) is tease out others’ profound moments. Learn from them but also copy and try those things out ourselves and see how we can make them work in our own lives.

Time away on holiday always startles me because there’s time and space to reflect on the reality that so much of what we want to give our children in life has to do with levels of confidence they feel, their patience and kindness with their community and with themselves, their commitment to giving back to the world, and their smarts to surround themselves with loving people. We want to infuse their lives with social capital.  We want to bolster emotional quotient and intelligence. Call it whatever you want but most of us who are fortunate enough to raise children circa 2015 continue to hear messages that grit is more important that IQ and that mental outlook is more predictive of survival than medical risk factors. Our culture and the evolution of understanding of the mind (and body) has redirected the parade of parenting advisors to helping us raise children who are strong and bright but primarily self-aware, too.

“Every moment can’t be a learning moment” ~ Rush Sabiston Frank co-founder of Institute for Social Emotional Learning

Thank goodness we don’t have to be on all the time.

Once we protect and master securing shelter, healthy food, and access to an education, many of us have already done heroic things in nurturing and supporting the growth of our children. But most of us move onto the layer of cream so many parenting books and advisors focus – the 1% of doing this well. Parenting with insight and raising emotionally strong children. It demands parental intelligence too so not only must we work on supporting our children and their social emotional skills we also have to work on ourselves. Attending to our own spirit also eases our brains. We think clearer, are often more kind, and more of who we want to be as parents when we sleep, exercise and connect with those we love. Sometimes it means giving up things that people judge us for. Insecurities abound…

Thinking on all this while away I was reminded of a lecture I heard last year on social-emotional learning. The instructors reminded us that, “the cafeteria, [a game room, the playground, a sleepover] is far more intellectually demanding than the library.” Children really leverage a toolshed of skills in self-soothing and emotional management when dealing with peers. We talk about self-regulation when we think on our toddlers and their tantrums, but with our school-aged and teen children the ground quakes around moments of deregulation. We’re not just worried about stares from strangers when our children “lose it” we’re thinking about how our children navigate the complex web of people they adore and things they need. Astonishing how powerful and potent regulation is for social success. Think of the (perceived) failures of your own childhood – most have to do with messing up on who you were and how you reflected that not what you did or achieved. Right?

“Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls.” David Brooks in his NYT Op-Ed Amy Chua Is A Wimp

With all the time in the world on vacation this past week I found myself at times impatient, opinionated, and short with my sweet boys. Really remarkable (those fail, fail, fail moments) how much more clearly I can see those with the time and space vacation provides. But I also will share that there were moments where I problem-solved anxieties my children experienced deftly in novel ways and found a bit of success letting my boys roam in previously undiscovered ways. I felt wondrous and proud of the letting go of the leash and was delighted to see the growing confidence my 6 year-old gained in navigating foreign spaces and places without being right at our side. May these little nudges of progress incite more.

3 Ideas For Nurturing Social-Emotional Confidence

  • An Exercise: Try this SEL exercise taught by leaders at SEL Institute.  Share 1) what you loved as a child 2) what you do to relax 3) what you remember that is funny/wonderful from the past week with your children with a friend or spouse. Have them do the same for you. Think and focus on the responses you make, how you listen and the mindfulness that comes from it. You can do this exercise with your children, too. This, Rush Sabiston Frank suggests, can help us bring children into a “playful” mindfulness and active reflection. She describes that learning how to expand a conversation with another friend or partner is like an elastic band. Give, take, listen, learn, bounce things back. Continuing to practice social skills in responding to another’s story and moving the conversation forward; it’s a skill we can all improve. The practice of reflection can be built. Frank asks, “how did you feel at the beginning, middle, and end of that exercise?” Children will often tell you the truth making note of their own patterns. Recognizing what they’re strong at and places they can work.
  • Keep a daily journal for 10 days about your life. Keep it short if need be but detail a few thoughts about your day’s feelings, successes, frustrations and limitations. Some opine that daily journaling (even just one sentence) not only helps build the practice of mindfulness it may spin more happiness, too.
  • Inner Critic: Remind yourself and your children (!) about the inner critic, that nagging voice inside your head that criticizes or makes bookkeeping errors on who you are and how you give to the world. Once children are in school, start mentioning and letting them know that their voice and inner-critic is there. Help them recognize the self-talk they are participating in and ask them how it helps them during they day. Ask them if it trips them up. Here’s a video and more information on acknowledging and managing this inner critic.