I remember when I was pregnant with my first child; it was for me an all encompassing event. I was filled with wonder and questions and sensations. In short I looked at my entire world through the lens of my pregnancy. And lo and behold, I suddenly noticed that there were pregnant women everywhere. No, it wasn’t that there was a population explosion in 1995 in central London. My focus on pregnancy meant that I NOTICED pregnant women. We tend to see what we are thinking about. The same thing happens to me when I am thinking about buying a new car. All of a sudden I see many of the type I am considering. This is the way attention works - we see what we are looking to see.
I recently had this lesson shown to me in another way. During the summer holidays I try to walk on the beach every day. Years ago I began a tradition of collecting jingle shells with my girls. Jingle shells are magical, their many shades of yellow and orange glittering in the sand like jewels. They were irresistible to my daughters and we all became a bit obsessed with finding the most beautiful ones. We even named one particular beach we could only reach by boat, Jingle Shell Beach, because it was there we found plentiful bounty that made our selection decisions very difficult. Fast forward to 10 summers later and we have far too many jingle shells in our house. They fill the hurricane lanterns and adorn picture frames and sit in bowls collecting dust. Suffice it to say that I have stopped collecting jingle shells and the girls are too busy most days to find the time to walk on the beach. Yet it’s a difficult habit to break, that of walking and searching for treasure in the sand. This summer after a beach barbecue that involved skipping stones, I inadvertently replaced my search for jingle shells with searching for skipping stones. I hadn’t really thought about what I would do with them the first time I brought a handful of them home with me. I guess I thought I might bring a pailful of skipping stones with us the next time we had a cookout. ( I know, that sounds a bit over the top even to me!) At any rate now that I’ve begun I can’t help myself - when I walk on the beach, I look for skipping stones. One morning I noticed something interesting which is that when I am looking for skipping stones I cannot see the jingle shells. It isn’t that there aren’t any jingle shells, it’s just that when I am focussed on skipping stones that is all I can see. That’s when I recognised a truth that exists for most parents. When we are looking for ways toimprove/perfect our child, we are focussing on what they are doing wrong. We are thus blinded to all that they are doing right.
It is difficult to focus on two things at the same time especially when they are diametrically opposed to each other. It is no wonder then that I hear from many parents that their children don’t have enough confidence. This may be because in our attempts to raise the fantastic child, we are frequently calling to our child’s attention what they could be doing better. Over and over again. Yes, you may tell your child you love them but if the rest of the day you are giving them corrections for their behaviour they are going to be full of that negative feedback. In essence when we correct our children, we are telling them they aren’t good enough as they are.
It is true that part of our job as a parent is to teach our child many things but we can go overboard in our zest for this part of the parenting job spec. Overparenting can lead to many long term problems to do with competence and confidence. The child psychologist Madeline Levine writes about how “hanging back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting (see article here.) It is fear that keeps most parents from allowing their child to fail. It is very difficult to stay calm in the face of media onslaughts about 1) the dangers in the world, 2) the impossible task of being admitted to top universities and 3) the amazing accomplishments of other people's children. These things taken together can lead a parent to feel pressure to keep their attention focussed on all their child is not yet doing perfectly, over schedule their children to develop uber skills to ensure competitiveness and to do their children’s work for them so that they reach the academic benchmarks deemed necessary for the most competitive universities. The problem is that when we do any of these things we run the risk of keeping our children from having the experiences that will allow them to develop the necessary skills to be truly successful in the world.
It seems to me that we need to give our children some room to grow into their true selves without constant attempts to teach them or correct their behaviour. Things that can help in this regard are:
1. Make sure your child has some unscheduled time every week.
2. Find 10 positive things to mention to your child each day. Something like, “I love it that you are so excited about your football team”. Or, “thanks for clearing the table. That makes my life easier.” Or “I’m impressed that you are handling your workload on your own.” There are many things that your child is doing right. You just may not be noticing them. Notice them and mention them. When you do, your child will be developing a positive image of themselves as resourceful, kind and responsible.
3. Spend family time together hanging out. Insisting on time together with no other goal is the best way we say to each other “You’re important to me.”
A central concept of mindfulness, is that when we control our attention we notice things that otherwise go unnoticed. I have worked with mindfulness practices over the years and know that when I am preoccupied with thoughts in my mind I am not paying attention to what is in front of me. So too with parenting. If you are preoccupied with worry or fear and seeking to control and correct you won’t be noticing the good that is already there.
Focus your attention on both your child’s achievements and good qualities. Notice the parts of her character that make her uniquely who she is and celebrate those by letting them flourish.
There are times when it is necessary to correct your child’s behaviour, just make sure it isn’t all the time or you will find your child doesn’t have a very positive image of herself.
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