Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Parent Like a Rock Star

At one time in my life I had a dream of performing on Broadway playing the role of Fantine in Les Miserables.  That dream died quickly when the reality of adulthood set in and I envisioned an ambitious and naive young actress huddling over a radiator in a shoebox sized apartment wondering if the bundle of coins in her pocket was enough for the next meal.  Instead I opted for a more predictable life, choosing family over fame, but I must tell you that the performer in me never died.

This morning, like most mornings, I awoke early to the sound of my alarm, hoping to steal at least fifteen minutes of silence before my children crept in the room.  I made my way to the bathroom to get into the shower.  I had barely slid the shower curtain over its rod, when the bathroom door opened, and standing in front of me were two sleep-eyed youngsters waiting for their morning kisses.  I stepped into the shower, listened to their conversation and threw in a word or two to let them know I was interested in their morning dialogue.  From the shower I traveled to the bedroom and then to the kitchen to get breakfast, all the while with two children in my shadow.   Since I had an early morning meeting, I knew this would have to be a multi-tasking breakfast.  I grabbed the mirror and my makeup from the bathroom and sat down at the dining room table to put my face on.  I started with foundation and both girls scooted close to me.  I reached into my case to grab the eye shadow and they moved even closer.  As I was adding the last few brushes of mascara, my oldest daughter Scarlett said "Mommy, you look really beautiful." 

At that moment I realized that my dream of performing on the big stage is a dream realized every day as a parent. No production of Les Miserables can ever compete with the Rock star role I have now.  I am the lead in my own production and I have two of the most adoring fans in the world.  They sit outside of my shower, waiting until I emerge and offer a smile, a kiss, or a kind word.  They watch my every move, whether I am putting on makeup, reading a book, doing dishes or talking on the phone. Like a good fan, they follow me from room to room, encouraging me to perform with my words and actions and trying to steal every moment of time and attention. Their plea for an autograph is concealed in the words "Can you play with me?" or "Do you want to throw the ball?" Their fan club is like no other.

The great psychologist Alfred Adler and the educational philosophy of Reggio Emilia remind us that children are keen observers. They learn and acquire skills by watching the world around them. They adopt behavioral roles based on what they see. If big sister is the "golden child" who can do anything, maybe little sister will learn that the quickest way to get mom and dad's attention is to misbehave and be the "unruly child". This is even more of a reason to be aware that at every moment of the day, you are on stage. The spotlight is shining on you, sometimes so hot that it is unbearable, but nonetheless, you are center stage. Your children are the adoring fans right in front of you studying your moves, your cues, your actions and your words. Perform with precision, always remembering that no one becomes a Rock star without years of practice. Sometimes you will be off key, miss a cue, stumble and fall on stage. Fine tuning only makes the next performance better. Learn from your mistakes and approach the next performance with understanding and forgiveness. And don't only step into your role as a Rock star parent, but celebrate and party like a Rock star too. You have the hardest and MOST IMPORTANT job in the world.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Pony Tales on Mindful Parenting

This past weekend I attended a reception at the home of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in celebration of the First Annual New Orleans Book Festival. I mingled with various event partners and sponsors and reveled in the excitement and anticipation of the festival the following day. One of the most enjoyable conversations I had was with Kaye Harris, owner of Molly the Pony and founder of Molly's Foundation. Molly is a three-legged pony with a prosthetic fourth leg. Kaye's retelling of the events surrounding Molly's injury is what I want to highlight in today's blog.

Kaye lives in St. Rose Parish, a rural community outside of New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina hit, she and her husband Glenn evacuated nearly twenty horses and ponies from their farm. Post –Katrina, Kaye rescued Molly and several other animals, including a pit bull. In the months after Katrina, Molly was attacked by the traumatized pit bull and Kaye risked her own life by pulling the dog off of Molly. Kaye stayed with her pony, holding her leg that was now torn to shreds and Molly's leg came off in Kaye's hands while she was laying and consoling her mare. Kaye took one look in Molly's eyes and asked her "What do you want to do?" Then she grew quiet and listened to Molly's response. She quickly googled equine prosthetics found a company and started raising money for Molly's leg. Despite the advice Kaye received from veterinarians, she knew that there was "something about that mare". It was Molly's wish to live and share her spirit of resilience. Now Kaye and Molly the Pony travel around Louisiana telling their story and sharing the importance of listening to nonverbal and physiological responses.

Molly the Pony's story connects beautifully to the principles of mindful parenting. In the book Parenting from the Inside Out, the authors elucidate the importance of taking what is on the inside and putting it on the outside, or making the implicit more explicit. I could regal you with an overview of brain function, memory and mental patterns, but instead, I will just put this in simple terms. When parenting your child, have you ever had a moment when you felt a sensation or a reaction in your body that felt strange, out of place, or inappropriate for the situation? Have you ever reacted in a certain way to your child and thought, "that didn't feel good" or "that's what my parents used to say to me and I don't want to repeat that with my kids." I will give you a personal example. Whenever my daughter and I are shopping in Target, checking things off on our shopping list, she catches a glimpse of the toy aisle. She runs over, enamored with all the things to see and touch and she starts making her own shopping list and asking for one toy after another. I feel a marked physiological change in my body. I start to get irritated and impatient, hustling her along and telling her that we are not at Target to buy toys. Somewhere in my litany of responses is the phrase, "you should be grateful for the toys you have at home already." Now, it is perfectly normal for a young child to want toys, to be fascinated by the toy aisle, and to share the excitement of everything that beeps and talks. However, telling my child to be grateful for what she has is an undesirable response and I want it to change! If I explore a little more and dig a little deeper, I know that the change in my sensations is about implicit memories of not having much as a child, rarely being able to buy anything at the story, and hearing the same words repeated to me, "you should be grateful for what you have". Mindful parenting is about listening to your ticker tape or inner dialogue. Unless I listen, take the time to get in touch with that implicit memory and find its source, my explicit response, or reaction, will always be the same. The tricky thing about implicit memory is that it is activated unconsciously and therefore, affects your reactions even when you don't know why you are feeling a certain way. If you find yourself responding or reacting to your child in an undesirable way, take time to pause, tune into your ticker tape and journal about some possible deeper causes for your undesired response. Most importantly, listen to your inner dialogue and pay attention to your mind-body connection. Listening alters mental patterns and creates a new script for you as a parent. You can hobble around on three legs, longing for a change in your parenting patterns, or you can listen to your inner dialogue, pay attention to sensations, make connections with earlier experiences and ultimately change the way you walk through life as a parent.