January 18, 2010

children need love the most when they least deserve it

the first time i saw that quote i liked it.

i was in fourth grade and it was taped up in a school counselor's office, though it might have actually said, "children need a hug when they least deserve one." while it might imply that love needs to be earned, it really hit home for me. by the time i was in fourth grade hugs were a rare treat, offered by my mother maybe once a year.

the quote has stuck with me since and has offered gentle support during some of the tougher moments on my journey through motherhood.

long before i was aware of parenting styles and their related methods of discipline and before i soaked in information on early childhood development in various psychology classes, waldorf educational philosophy appealed to me. i was just twenty-one and bean was nearing school-age but i did not research as much as i could have. i read bits and pieces of information, here and there. i knew that the only waldorf school in our area was 60 miles away, and even with the logistics of getting him there and back aside, i could not have afford the tuition. i printed a few things from the oak meadow website and i ordered a few books from ebay. resources were rather scarce and i wasn't motivated to search harder or become more involved.

i thought that waldorf education was simply a curriculum to choose from among many, not realizing the philosophy was more a way of life. to be honest, i was first drawn more to montessori ideals but they felt too rigid and when i realized that the demands of my job would make it nearly impossibly to homeschool, i enrolled bean in public school and researched no further.

it wasn't until i was pregnant again, five years later, that my interest in waldorf education was renewed. i felt ready to meet the challenges of living a waldorf-lifestyle head-on. except that i severely lacked rhythm and structure and as far as discipline was concerned i still had a long way to go.

by the time pea was two years old, i thought i had a handle on conscious, peaceful parenting, i was letting respect for and attachment to this little person be my gentle guide. i can't say exactly what it was that happened next but between various stressors in my adult life, pea turning three, and a painful pregnancy due to severe PSD, i let things slip and suddenly i was reverting to old patterns and behaviors wherein i was not being very gentle or patient all of the time.

i could see the immediate effect in my child. the one my mother likes to point out was "very attached" to me was suddenly unruly, less cooperative, and more independent. i knew some of this was normal behavior for his age but i could see where some of pea's behaviors were mimicking his older brother's and i knew i was the common denominator. i started to read scream-free parenting on the recommendation of an online friend. it wasn't necessarily a personal recommendation but she was suggesting it as a must-read for anyone that grew up in a home where dysfunctional communication or yelling was commonplace. i learned that what the author considered "screaming" didn't necessarily have to mean that one was actually yelling or raising their voice at all. it was a real eye-opener and i suggested that my mother read the book because she is still raising children and they could benefit from a calmer, more peaceful mother, as well.

i have to be honest here again. i didn't finish the book. i didn't even implement more than half of what i read, though the first few examples had a huge impact on me. i had another baby and other things took precedence. it's been almost ten months since sprout was born and getting back on track is once again my first priority. i started reading the discipline book by dr. sears as a refresher course in what i already knew. it has helped tremendously to reaffirm my belief in attachment parenting but i have yet to meet my own (real or perceived) standards in terms of waldorf philosophy and practice.

i believe it is a challenge for me because i wasn't shown how to be loving, gentle, kind or patient. those are not the strong suits of either of my parents. i don't blame them and i may repeat this sentiment often (i even wrote a poem about it once). as trite as it sounds, i know that they did they best they could with what they had available to them. however, i do admit that it is difficult not to think that the rhythm, order, and reverence shown in waldorf schools and homeschools comes easier to those that are much more patient and easy-going, either by nature or as shown through nurturing.

the good news is: there are now a vast majority of both attachment parenting and waldorf resources currently available. i know how to seek them out and apply them. this has been on my mind lately as my mother and i still don't see eye to eye on several aspects of disciplining children, what is appropriate to expect of them, and how to handle challenging toddler behavior.

i have adopted an approach that is less harsh and requires more of me - i have to take responsibility for my emotions and maintain control over myself, i have to exact more patience and persistence, i have to hold myself to a higher degree of accountability in order to be consistent and thorough, and in order for my child to learn through gentle guidance, i have to repeat myself. often.

one of the most interesting things, and why i keep relating this to my mother, is that when i was younger she was actively trying to "undo" all of the negative and harmful forms of discipline her mother had bestowed upon her. she once shared the poem "children learn what they live" with my grandmother and if my memory serves me, my grandmother even displayed it in her home for some time. though it seemed to leave little lasting impression on either of them.

one version of the poem begins:

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to be shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn what envy is.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
(click here for the entire condensed version)

when i read just the beginning, i want to blame my mother for everything i ever did wrong in my life. i want to be angry with her for hurting me so much. but i know none of that is conducive to living a productive or happy life and the only thing i can do is be a better mother myself.

tonight i was flipping through the latest issue of parents (which i don't normally do) and i found myself reading the discipline feature by jody mace. the article titled "new tools for DIY discipline" offered new insights into old ways of dealing with young ones. the last tip was about replacing firmness with empathy. mace explains that a firm, direct approach is perfectly acceptable, at times, such as when a child is blatantly ignoring or disobeying. however, she cautions against being firm when a child is sad, for instance. even if a parent doesn't understand or believe the issue to be worthy of such emotion, children can sometimes feel sincere sadness over the tiniest of things.

i had to explain this to blessed papa, just the other night, when our sensitive little pea was crying at the dinner table. papa was serving us mini-sundaes for dessert and asked us to choose which ones we wanted. i had to leave the table for a moment and when i returned pea was wiping tears from his cheek. he was upset because papa didn't wait for me to return or select a sundae before he chose one for himself and started digging in. i let pea know this was okay, while papa was trying hard not to roll his eyes. i understood that our child was only expressing a very sincere emotion and felt that he was entitled to his sadness and concern even if it was over something that didn't matter at all to me. when we are insensitive to a child under such circumstances it can be perceived as both ridicule and shame and the child eventually becomes less likely to share his or her feelings with others and sometimes goes so far as to repress uncomfortable emotions so he or she does not even recognize them.

mace suggests that firmness is replaced with empathy and she explains that it is as important to children as it is to adults to feel heard and understood. a little bit of empathy can go a long way, not only in terms of how it makes our children feel more secure and empowered but also in the sense that it teaches them important lessons in how to relate to others in healthy and productive ways.

with this topic weighing heavily on my mind, i came across this bit on discipline in a waldorf school:

...the discipline is neither rigid in the traditional sense nor free in a permissive way. the objective [is] an easy, peaceful atmosphere in which all can breathe freely. this arises quite naturally when there is the right human understanding amongst pupils and between teacher and pupil: a mutual caring concern and regard. correction, if required, is carefully considered regarding the nature of the behavior and the dignity of the individual.
(the full article can be found here)

i could have not said that better and it easily applies to the home setting, whether waldorf education is a part of that setting or not. the key to a mutual caring concern and regard is to be a caring adult, as children learn what they live, mimic what they witness. i feel that being too harsh is akin to being hostile and that, in turn, creates a child always ready to fight. a child who will be hostile right back and so the cycle continues. i fully understand the cycles of dysfunction (and even abuse) and how damaged children often grow into damaged adults who damage their children and so on and so forth. when we are aware and acknowledge the problem we make a concerted effort to exact a powerful change upon our circumstances.

committed to growing as a person and as a mother, i learn as much from my children as i can and i know that the only useful method of teaching is by example, by being the change i wish to see. i understand that it is a process and that sometimes it may feel that i am taking two steps forward and three steps back but i continue to seek out and put to use the tools that that may not have been provided to me so that my children do not find the road to adulthood and parenthood so difficult.

that road begins with childhood.

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