Monday, November 18, 2013

life guides

I have a highly technical method for keeping track of what we're doing with our days: I scribble notes on a piece of paper taped up inside my cupboard, under headings like "science, writing, math, music/art", etc.  A friend looked at it the other day and, noticing that I include a category for "life skills", wondered how I decided what to include on the list.  For instance, the house-building help? Where does that go?  Conveniently, I have an "other" category for the misfits, but yes, I try to include everything.  It's more for my own sense of an overview of what direction the energy is going in this family, but at the end of the year, it's helpful in reconstructing how we "school" for our end-of-year review.

This got me thinking about how on a regular basis the real work of the day is inner work. What category does that go into? In my mind I refer to this area as "emotional intelligence", though I remember being totally overwhelmed by this idea when, as a new mom, I heard Daniel Goleman talk on the subject.  He talked about emotional intelligence as the ability to "identify, assess and control" one's emotions. How could I be charged with raising an emotionally intelligent child when I was still working on that myself? And this on top of making sure they ate a balanced diet and learned how to dress themselves?

I so often feel like Dan and I are developing our own emotional intelligence right along with our kids. If only I had known that's what I should have been working on in my twenties, instead of...wait, what was I doing in my twenties? Let's just say I wasn't consciously working on my emotional IQ  (or "EQ" as it is commonly known).

Luckily for me, we are friends with people who are committed to living life through this lens, and are happy to share their skills.

When our friend Jen became a mom, she discovered an amazing gift she has of talking to kids about conflict. I wish she could bottle it and sell it for me to carry in a flask and take a huge glug of when I'm needing to be articulate and calm, loving and detatched enough to be firm and clear in guiding my kids through a mess.  We know and trust each other enough that in a sticky moment with Ani, where her embarrassment is high and her patience for the process of talking about conflict is low, Jen can step in without stepping on my toes and guide her through it in a way that is respectful, articulate, and loving. This has happened a couple of times, when the conflict directly involved Jen or her kids, and I have been able to just be near and watch how she gently gets Ani to look at her - talking about her body language and why it helps to be able to see the person you're talking to - and how she gets her to talk about what she's feeling. Uncomfortable, embarrassed, frustrated, misunderstood.  They brainstorm other ways the situation might have gone, what else could have been said, gather ideas for the "next time".

I am in awe of this gift.  She admits it's easier with someone else's kids, when you're not feeling the embarrassment or frustration yourself.  I watched her in action last week after a conflict at her house, and after a session with Jen -  sitting outside on a log, petting the dogs at their feet - Ani feels put back together, not shamed or punished, and will express to me at some point later in the day, "Jen is a really nice woman. I like her."

There is no spot for this kind of work and growth on the chart in my cupboard, but there probably should be.  This is more important to me than whether or not my kid can read or identify Thailand on a map.  

Fast forward a couple of days, and Ani and I are on a hike with our friend, Noah.  Noah led this hike, and we were all feeling jazzed about the fresh air, the mossy rocks, the wind blowing through the trees. Ani exclaimed at one point, "I feel so fresh and energized!"

Then we hit the first pile of big rocks.  Noah scrambled up right away, describing the different paths and angles, the levels of difficulty for each, his ideas for how one might approach them.  Ani walked slowly around the bottom and finally made an attempt at Noah's "level one" ascent.  Unconvinced that her boots would have enough traction for a foothold, and totally convinced that she didn't want to fall into the wet leaves or down the rather steep hill, she gave up easily and contented herself with a round-about approach to getting to the top of the rock.

Noah offered some ideas and a lot of encouragement, but wasn't discouraged at Ani's lack of confidence or interest.  On we went.

Happy, happy kids.  We talked about galls, puffballs, and how the pawpaw leaves had become so soft after falling from the trees that one could probably use a stack of them for toilet paper, if one needed to (Ani's idea, not mine).

We found whooly aphids and played trolls under a bridge.

Then we got to the climax of the hike, the swing.  It's a long grapevine dangling temptingly from the trees, and after I tried it to make sure it wouldn't come down, Noah took to swinging long and far on the "rope".  

Ani wasn't feeling terribly adventurous, and even though the first try was successful - feet off the ground, no tumbles - she was feeling disappointed in the swing and she is never subtle or quiet about her feelings: I was feeling so happy and then it flew away when I tried the rope swing! She started being down on the whole hike, saying the swing was stupid, and loudly disparaging Noah's idea to bring us to this spot.  Oof.  

Noah worked through it with her - he really wanted her to enjoy herself as much as he was, and wasn't inclined to take her comments personally: I feel like there is nothing I or anyone else could say that would help you right now, I think you have to find it inside you. If you're feeling sad about it, that's ok, but then you have to let it go so you can move on. I had to work up to doing this, I was scared at first too.

I know kids work through this stuff all the time - if they're lucky and the struggle doesn't turn into taunts and frustration - but watching them navigate their feelings and negotiate the process was incredible. They talked about it some more, and Noah was able to accept that Ani wasn't going to love it as much as he did this time around (he is holding out hope for next time), and Ani was able to find her happy and let Noah enjoy his time on the swing.

I wish I could articulate how big my gratitude was this weekend to have Jen and Noah encouraging this inner work in my child.  It supports and propels me forward in my own relationship with her, and maybe if you are also a parent of a young child, you will understand just how hugely helpful that is.

On the way back down the path, we detoured to explore a cave, slipping and sliding down past ferns and hepatica leaves, a place where we needed hands and feet, and the occasional sappling or rock out-cropping to steady ourselves. Full-body climbing and maximum fun. A little peril, a lot of relief; that kind of scramble.  As we came out of that, Noah asked if we might have enough time to stop at the big rocks again.  I said sure, and he asked Ani, Do you want to try the rock again? I think you've found your rock-climbing spirit!" 

And so she had.

I tried to tell Noah's parents - who are good friends of ours and were my introduction to non-violent communication and co-counseling - how it felt to watch all of this unfold.  I could see where their years of talking, listening, negotiating, loving, and coaching had paid off, and I was so grateful that it was paying off with my kid!  I'm grateful for his friendship to Ani for lots of reasons - they are similar in so many ways - but I was hit with Oh wow.  He is one of my kid's guides through this stuff.  She is surrounded by people who are lovingly working on all of this with her.  

It can feel like lonely business, trying to raise emotionally intelligent children, but as has happened so many times in my life, the universe is generously providing help along the way.


Tokarz said...

oh man, If I were Noah's mama I would be feeling so proud of my boy.
Sounds like an amazing hike. I feel like I could use a hike with Noah right about now.

Molly said...

I am proud and inspired! Thank you Debbie, for the gratitude and the stories. You are a master documentary photographer, storyteller and mama.

merry said...

And you have a gift of surrounding yourself with kind, loving people who you can share talents of life and living with. How blessed you all are!