Is it me?? Is our world is tilting toward the brink, or are we merely witnessing normal global growing pains?
Oh how I wish the premise of my book Parenting for Peace had become obsolete in the four years since its publication, but alas, it could not be more relevant:
If we really want change, we need to raise a generation “built for peace” – hardwired at brain level with the capacities needed to foster empathic interdependence and innovative solutions in our challenged world.
At this point in human history, I guess I would dare to ask, “Why be a parent if not to try and bring a peacemaker on earth?” It might be peace through embroidery or engineering or being a CEO. Ultimately, our consciously enacted wish for our children becomes that they unfold as individuals with the heart to embrace and exemplify peacefulness, the psyche to experience joy and intimacy, the mind to innovate solutions to social and ecological challenges, and the will to enact such innovations.
That kind of human is never a genetically predetermined given, but the result of dynamic interactions between genetics and environment – with parents being the most influential environmental variable.
Yikes, that is pretty daunting, right?!
In 25 years of being a parent, a student of human development, a human in constant development, an impassioned researcher of the human sciences, and a parent counselor engaged with the challenges and triumphs of real moms and dads, I have gathered a superabundance of excellent information. But I’ve also come to recognize that one of the greatest gifts in this era of information overload is to arrive at the other side of a gazillion helpful facts to essential “nuggets” that are simplified without being simplistic.
In the spirit of meaningful mom-ness, I offer you the seven solid-gold nuggets that beat at the heart of my book. They are informed by research in an array of fields ranging from neuroscience to theology, prenatal psychology to quantum physics.
While these 7 Principles of Parenting for Peace “accordion out” to include more basics than I have room to include here, these are the foundational principles for effective, healthy and joyful parenting.
Presence: This is the ability to be completely here, right now in the moment, fully engaged with all of you – your thoughts, feelings and attention. Connected. One of the greatest needs of the child is a regular dose of your undistracted presence. Try “Nothing Else” time: Sit on the floor, amidst the blocks, the books, the dolls… and be available to your child.
This is when you allow yourself to be taught by your child: curiosity, playfulness, spontaneity. If you can carve out 20 minutes, 15 minutes, even 10 minutes of this quality of presence in a day, it’s like a magic vitamin to the relationship mix – not just nourishing, but also buffering and protective against other disrupting elements of daily life. And it fosters the true self-esteem that flourishes with your child’s experience that she is worth your time, your attention, your presence.
Awareness: This includes the “book learning” part of the job – all the stuff you need to know to be effective as a parent. Essential parental awareness includes everything from “micro” details such as knowing when the last time your child ate some protein or essential fatty acids (brain food is essential for the ability to “keep it together”)… had some water… or got some sleep… to the kinds of “big picture” awareness like where your child is in the scheme of unfolding brain development, and the capacities unique to that stage. This includes knowing, for example, that a young child’s primary modes of learning are through sensing (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching — indeed, lots of touching!) and doing. This understanding helps parents with a basic “discipline” issue: for a child to touch something is similar to an adult thinking about that same thing.
Another essential aspect of awareness for parents is a connected sense of our own childhood, and what parenting awakens within us in terms of our history and our story. We all travel with an entourage: us at each age we ever were! When a mother holds a baby in her arms, the baby she once was is also there, with all of the feelings she had then. Ditto the toddler, the preschooler, the kindergartner, the teen… you get the idea. This is often the biggest challenge in parenting!
Rhythm: This is a parent’s best friend. Rhythm is one of the greatest needs of the young child, but also a fundamental human principle, often forgotten in our supercharged, 24/7 world. Young children thrive on and crave rhythmicity to their days, their weeks, even the seasons: “This is when we eat, this is when we nap, this is when we have play time… Tuesdays we go to the park, Wednesdays we go to the Farmer’s Market, Sunday we visit Grandma, and summer is beach time!”
Seems monotonous to us as adults, because we’re essentially different creatures inside our skulls. The limbic or “feeling brain” structures developing in the early years are critical to the formation of all later brain-based capacities. Rhythm’s external consistency and predictability allow the growing child to gradually internalize regulation & stability – which we now know is the foundation for all human success, including intelligence, relationships, and joy.
Example: Rudolf Steiner said that the young child is really an eye, taking in everything, registering everything, without analysis! And they imitate everything. They don’t so much hear your words, but pick up and emulate everything else.
So the question must always be, “Am I worthy of my child’s unquestioning imitation?” If you complain about chores – even just in the way you make the gesture of doing the chore – it will be emulated (perhaps not right away, but years from now). So, for example, take care that the books you read to your little one also interest you; if I read to my child forcing myself to do it, I shouldn’t be surprised by his avoidance of reading! Also, careful about taking pleasure in matter-of-factly criticizing friends, acquaintances, politicians. By contrast, children learn important lessons from our striving to elevate our inner selves. Children take our cues about everything, and become our most exquisite mirrors. Be (or strive toward) the noble qualities you dream of for your child!
Nurturance: This is the practical demonstration of love, the giving of ourselves to the other: how we cuddle them, feed them, smile at them. Everything is an opportunity for nurturance of your children, from how you choose their toys and books, their clothing, the colors for their rooms, what to feed them, even the attitude you hold while preparing their meals! Beauty, reverence, a sense of awe—these are all important ways of nurturing the young child.
And, how we discipline, keeping in mind that humans of all ages are always either in “growth or protection” mode, and that harsh reprimands – including the popular exile of “Time Out” – elicit defense/protection mode physically and psychologically, which is counterproductive on all mind/body levels. This doesn’t mean we never say “no” or set limits, but that we repair the ruptured relationship after a break happens.
Trust: It’s the most potent anti-anxiety secret, and perhaps the most subversive act on this list. Everything in our consumerist culture teaches us that we’re not quite enough, but something we can purchase will make up for our lack – like the myriad “educational” techno-gizmos marketed at anxiously devoted parents. Together with the other six principles, trust is an antidote for this anxiety. When I have a new rose that is just budding in my garden, do I tinker with the petals, or do anything with that flower to “optimize” it? No, I enrich and fertilize the soil that the rose is growing in, and I trust in the process of Life unfolding. I also trust that the rosebush can weather storms without me over-sheltering it!
Simplicity: It is the portal to joy, and joy lies at the very foundation of health, well-being and peace. Definitely with a child younger than 6 or 7, but also with older kids, the more we can simplify life, the more peace we will have in the home and woven into the fabric of the child’s developing brain; it becomes a feedback loop.
The child’s deepest need is to be seen and known. Simplifying daily life helps that to happen more: “When we overbook, we overlook.” Research has found that just simplifying dramatically reduces symptoms of clinically diagnosed ADHD! Cultivating a sense of wonder and imagination helps guarantee simplicity, because then everything becomes something amazing: wind through the trees is fairies dancing… a piece of wood becomes an alligator or a doll… a spoon becomes a great flag or a king’s scepter. Then we don’t need to constantly purchase things. And a child – or parent – who can imagine is on a path toward unlimited horizons.
Marcy Axness, PhD, is an early development specialist, parent coach, and author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers. An authority on adoption, prenatal development and Waldorf education, Dr. Axness is a popular international speaker and has a private practice counseling parents-in-progress. She considers as her most important credential being mother to Ian and Eve, both in their twenties. Marcy is offering Meaningful Mom readers a free copy of her “7-Step Guide: Helping Your Child Release Stuck Behaviors eBooklet, a unique bodymind tool for parents to use with children of all ages.