Brave Parenting - Introduction

A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Raising Emotionally Resilient Children

Moccasins

Shantideva was an eighth-century Indian monk who was born a prince but renounced the throne to follow the path of the Buddha. His wisdom, particularly the quote used in the epigraph of this book, remains relevant in our age of anxiety. In this excerpt, Shantideva said, in essence: When you walk on the earth your feet may get cut. He illuminates metaphorically how, in an attempt to control our life situations, we lay down leather wherever we step so we don’t hurt our feet; we try to gain control over our external environments. We think if we have more control, more security, we will feel less anxious about the unknowns in life. Yet, as Shantideva points out, this as a futile process because we cannot lay hides of leather to cover all of the earth. Instead, we can simply wrap leather around our feet.

Most of us endlessly focus on ordering ours and our children’s immediate environments to avoid experiencing any discomfort. We are perpetually warding off pain and trying to keep unease at bay. This is understandable, yet problematic. Attempting to control our environments not only limits our lives—it creates a false reality, as most things in life cannot be controlled. Mother Nature reminds us of this fact, with hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. We’re also subject to the buffeting winds of financial collapses, terrorism, bullying, school shootings, family or health problems, and illness or death—nothing is completely secure.

Fearing that things may go wrong, however, does keep anxiety and tension in our lives, which wall us off from direct experiences in the present moment. Most of us are “on guard” in our lives—especially as parents— yet these barriers prevent us from experiencing moments in our lives and moments with our children: a beaming smile or a meltdown, a success or a failure.

This trap of “control” heightens when we have children. In childrearing today, we try to create the perfect environment for our kids, from the “right” baby gear, foods, and toys, to the “right” friends, school, teacher, sports, and clothes, so our kids will not experience any suffering—and in turn we as parents will not feel any pain. We are endlessly vigilant, trying to make our kids happy, boost their self-esteem, and help them experience success.

Yet in our attempts to find control, we are actually putting our kids at a disadvantage, because their little feet are still exposed to the sharp rocks at the edge of the leather—rocks that they don’t know how to navigate. And as hard as we try to steer and guide them, we cannot control where they step. When we keep laying down leather, we are increasing the emotional vulnerability of our kids, since they are used to us fixing all their discomforts. This is a disempowering pattern and interferes with their ability to be emotionally resilient.

Many of you may be thinking, “Well, Krissy, there are real threats out there. What are we supposed to do, nothing?” Of course not. We actually want our children to face what I call “safe struggle”: daily struggle in the home and school, struggle that we can frame as a problem that we ask our children to solve, rather than anticipating it, fixing it, and smoothing it over. Homework issues, sibling conflict, friendship tensions, upsets over household or school rules, chore frustrations, and parent-child conflicts can all be valued and highlighted as perfect material for moccasin building. We don’t need to hover over and manage and fix everything. We can compassionately leave these problems in our children’s laps. When kids can navigate safe struggle they are more likely to have skills when they face more real threats outside the home, such as rejection from a boyfriend, peer pressure, or some sort of failure or setback.

This is the rich fertile soil of the home where kids can develop what I call internal resources to navigate their life trail; we can create a home environment that fosters the moccasin-building process by framing struggle positively. These internal resources that children can learn in the home include delayed gratification, problem solving, adaptability, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, internal motivation, and self-discipline. I should note that these internal resources are hardly recognizable in our on-demand, overinvolved, and electronically tethered parenting culture.

Valuing struggle is counterintuitive but important. As our Western society advances in science, technology, and medicine it may seem as though we are improving the human experience, but concurrently Westerners are becoming less adaptable to change, less resilient, and more vulnerable to mental health struggles. As a society we continue to run from discomfort, conflicts, and problems. We are always reaching out for something external to take away the pain—a pill, a video, an escape, a distraction, or a bed to fall into—rather than employing the age-old techniques of staying, persevering, and even maturing as result of discomfort or hardship. We have survived adversity for millennia; these abilities are in our genes, yet we don’t ask our children to use them.

Somewhere along the line, the perception of children has swung from sturdy to fragile, so delicate that they need constant protection and surveillance. Parents work hard to remove obstacles and mitigate struggles in their children’s lives so as not to upset their tenuous, emerging sense of selves. This books lays out a radically different paradigm: using negative experiences and struggles as the means to promote internal resource development and emotional maturation in young people. Rather than having their hurdles removed by their parents, children can master their own life obstacles. Our children may have a disability or may encounter loss, but they may also be able to minimize or even avoid the emotional upheaval and mental anguish (panic, depression, despair, insomnia, anger, anxiety) associated with these obstacles. When kids master one obstacle, they are more prepared for the next boulder along their path.

As Shantideva says, instead of controlling our environment, we can work with our minds, so we can be in any life situation and have the ability to stay present rather than look for an exit. Likewise, we can teach our children to stay present in their life challenges.

Subclinical Behaviors

I have found that many parents today would rather their child have a concrete diagnosis, such as an anxiety or learning disorder for which there might be a specialist or treatment, rather than an assessment that their child simply has poor internal resources and coping abilities. Some call this “medicalizing” children’s behaviors. Although this isn’t rational, it fits with the parental reflex of placing responsibility outside our children.

When a child receives a diagnosis, some parents even use these labels to further comfort and rescue their children. “Well, he has ADHD, so he needs to have me help him with his homework every night” or “She does not know how to manage her anger, so I just have to absorb it and adjust” or “Boredom triggers his anxiety, so I have to keep him on a schedule.” The parents’ efforts to “manage” their children shift into a higher gear. With or without a label or diagnosis, parents today tiptoe around their children’s moods and behaviors. Why are we so afraid of holding children accountable for inappropriate behavior?

Moreover, cultivating our children’s internal strengths is largely missing from our childrearing discourse. Words like bravery, resourcefulness, and adaptability are absent from current treatment and mental health vocabularies. Resiliency is more viewed as an inborn capacity that some lucky children have rather than something that can be fostered. Today we baby our children—we largely treat them as younger than their biological age.

Many kids who show up in therapists’ and learning specialists’ offices don’t fall into clear diagnoses. These children exhibit what are called “subclinical behaviors” that parents don’t know how to deal with. For example: kids giving up and acting helpless, kids with iron-willed stubbornness, sneaky and deceptive kids, irritable kids with anger outbursts, kids who shut down and stonewall their parents, savvy bright kids who work their parents in circles, skilled negotiators, and emotional exaggerators. Some kids cycle through a mixture of these behaviors.

There are of course children who have clear mental health diagnoses or learning disabilities, not just poor coping skills. In such cases, these types of subclinical behaviors are also frequently exhibited, mixed in with their disorders, impeding professionals and complicating the treatment process.

Many of the children who display these behaviors are stuck in problematic patterns of behavior that play out in the parent-child relationship. It should also be noted that all of these behaviors produce some desirable outcome for the child: a rule changing, a parent’s giving in, a removal of a chore, or simply the triggering of a parent’s emotional reaction, which can feel powerful to a child. At a minimum these behaviors certainly get their parent’s attention. With these subclinical behaviors, kids are gaining dominance in the home environment, rather than adapting internally and maturing—and they’ve become dependent on the leather being there to cushion them.

Why Moccasins?

Many young people today are lacking in internal resources, adaptability, and resilience. Kids panic when they experience discomfort and run straight to Mom or Dad, as if parents have the tools to fix everything. (It should be noted that many parents enjoy and endorse this process, labeling it as “closeness” in the parent-child relationship.) Parents think that it’s their responsibility to always make sure their child is happy. But when parents start out thinking they can solve all their children’s problems, inevitably they run into trouble—eventually the child will want the parents to fix something that is truly out of their domain. It’s best to let kids learn to problem-solve small struggles and discomforts in their life, ideally when they are young, before they experience their first social rejection or their first academic, athletic, or artistic defeat.

We are all oriented toward happiness, yet happiness is not the issue. We think that happiness is something that should be there all the time; if it is not, then something is wrong. In reality happiness comes and goes. We need to step away from the notion of constant happiness and move toward a concept of emotional heath.

Instead of focusing all of our attention and research on happiness, we need to learn how to just be with sadness, disappointment, worry, anger, embarrassment, struggle, failure, until these feelings subside. If we are comfortable enough with all emotions and can experience them without reactivity, chances are we will be emotionally healthy. This is why we need to let children get to know all their feelings.

Buddhism teaches that anicca, or impermanence, is a characteristic of all things. Ultimately, impermanence is our friend; it allows sadness, pain, and disappointment to fade into new emotional states. When we process emotions naturally, they are fluid. Impermanence keeps us present and on our toes—life is always shifting, changing, and new.

This book uses metaphors tried and tested on kids and parents, as well as gleaned from my years in wilderness therapy, from parent coaching, from my own experiences as a parent, and from my study of Buddhism. Kids relate to metaphors more easily than complicated feelings.

“Moccasins” is the metaphor I use for internal resources. Moccasins get us from point A to point B, whether we are walking in our house, through school, or up Mount Everest. They are the skill set to navigate our emotional terrain.

The internal resources I am describing in this book are the following:

▶ Delayed gratification: An ability to work toward something without an immediate reward.
▶ Problem solving: An ability to move from a given state toward a more desired goal.
▶ Adaptability: An ability to cope with an unexpected disturbance.
▶ Emotional regulation: An ability to shift into and out of different feeling states or behaviors.
▶ Distress tolerance: An ability to stay with discomfort.
▶ Internal motivation: An internal (as opposed to external) locus of control that drives behavior.
▶ Self-discipline: An ability to motivate oneself, regardless of emotional state.
▶ Acceptance of impermanence: An awareness that nothing lasts forever.

In The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva says, “We should guard our minds with the same care with which we would protect a broken or wounded arm while moving through an unruly crowd.” These internal resources are the tools that will guard our minds and emotional states; the unruly crowd is the vicissitudes of life. When we can tolerate distress, emotionally regulate ourselves, motivate ourselves without immediate gratification, adapt to disturbances, and recognize that change is constant, we will be able to maintain a more resilient, stable, and open mind. Buddhists have been working with the mind for millennia; it is now time to bring these concepts into modern parenting.

Without moccasins, kids are exposed to grave threats such as delayed maturity, mental health struggles, recklessness, impulsivity, and self-destructive behaviors—despite their parents’ hovering ways—because they do not know how to self-manage and adapt to the shifting landscape of life. We must instead encourage them to experience their own emotions, face their own obstacles, and build their internal resources. We can communicate to our children and instill in them that each of them has his or her own innate ability to problem-solve—it just needs to be honed and developed. If we want our kids to have inner strength, we have to help cultivate it. Our message can be “You’ve got this,” rather than “I’ll fix it.”

How Do Kids Make Their Moccasins?

With the current breakdown in societal supports such as religious institutions, community programs, and strong schools, kids aren’t navigating independently outside the home as they did in previous generations. At the same time, kids have more free rein inside the home—with both parents often working and usually without live-in relatives. Additionally, children have more access to the adult world through television, the internet, video games, and so on. Yet kids don’t have the skills to manage all this. The home has become a place of comfort, a place to check out, not a place to be accountable. However, the home is also the perfect environment for moccasin building.

How do we teach children to accept discomfort and uncertainty? How do we teach kids to feel their emotions and not run away from them—to know that struggle is a normal part of development? As parents, we need to work on accepting our own and try to normalize and contextualize rather than fix our children’s. We need to do so ourselves and also validate our children’s emotional experiences. How do we help cultivate their abilities to problem-solve, to stay with problems so they can manage their own rocks and boulders? We need to not panic when we face our own obstacles, and we need to value their problem-solving skills.

Adversity is part of the human experience, not something to attempt to remove at every turn. Discomfort can actually be a gift in disguise that helps us build inner strength. We can instill in our children that we are okay if they fall because we trust them to get up on their own—to repair and mend their moccasins.

How Can Parents Help?

Let’s face it; parents are already overinvolved. How can parents’ involvement and attention shift away from laying down the leather and toward moccasin building?

Rather than hovering over our little seedlings, constantly watching and monitoring their growth and development, trying to give them the perfect amount of sun, shade, and water—we can instead keep feeding the soil. The soil is the nurturing ground of the home. We can’t control the storms that are coming, we can’t control the genetics in the seeds, but we can cultivate rich, fertile soil. We can do this by role modeling healthy emotional management, validating feelings, valuing safe struggle, refraining from rescuing, setting proper boundaries and limits, teaching problem solving and accountability, giving natural and logical consequences, and accepting impermanence in life.

The Structure of This Book

The following chapters teach the moccasin-building process by using a variety of nature-based metaphors and stories that teach parents how to navigate the murky landscape of childrearing. Parenting techniques that help foster the internal resources I’ve listed above will be further elaborated in the coming chapters. Loving our kids is the easy part—dealing with their emotions and behaviors is not so easy. This book is divided into four parts. Part 1 is focused on emotions. Part 2 is focused on behaviors. Part 3 discusses obstacles that parents and children encounter. Part 4 describes a new closeness that parents and their children can forge—two trails, side by side. In each part there are three chapters: the first chapter is devoted to everyday parenting; the second chapter places more emphasis on children struggling with different emotional or behavioral patterns; the third chapter highlights specific skills to apply in your parenting today.

In many of these chapters I illustrate my points with examples of children and their parents. While these anecdotes are drawn from my experiences as a therapist, names, ages, genders, and various details of the stories have been changed, so the people in the stories should be viewed as fictional.

When we model how to sew and repair our moccasins, our children will learn how to make and mend their own. We can stay present with their feelings without fixing them. We can let them experience consequences, let them solve problems on their own. With moccasins, when our kids experience obstacles in life, they will be better able to navigate them. We need to give our children the freedom of having their own life, not one managed by us. We need to be brave and trust that life will hand them the lessons they need. We can then empower them to travel where they want and explore their own terrain, because we have faith that they will have the inner resources, emotional resilence, and guidance to get there.

 

How to cite this document:
© Krissy Pozatek, Brave Parenting (Wisdom Publications, 2014)

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