I recently finished a book that I highly recommend – Positive Parenting: Ending the Power Struggles and Reconnecting from the Heart, by Rebecca Eanes. It was another signpost on my journey to parent mindfully, and reminded me again that the parenting journey is not static. There are always new angles for introspection and practice.
This month, my journey has been about deepening in my own self-work around how I want to parent. If kids ‘follow their leader,’ as Rebecca suggests, what is my role when things are spiraling into chaos in my home? How can I cultivate more peace and steady rhythms in our daily family life? How can I facilitate true problem-solving when conflict arises between my boys? How can I create a strong family culture rooted in a sense of shared values?
Here are 5 ways to practice positive parenting, drawn from lessons gleaned from Rebecca’s book.
First, discipline yourself. Rebecca writes that “We must be who we want our children to be.” Of course our example matters, so starting with myself and my own responses and reactions makes sense. When a challenging situation arises (and I happen to have many right now), rather than defaulting to ‘disciplining’ my children first, I’m working on taking time to calm myself before I do anything else. Rebecca suggests repeating affirming mantras to oneself when conflict or difficult behaviors emerge. “I have a choice in this space,” or “I am calm and capable of handling this.” In this way we can stretch out the space between actions and our reactions, and take more time to respond skillfully.
Take time to identify triggers. She also reminded me to take time to identify my triggers – and practice creating space between actions and my reactions. This was an enlightening exercise and helped me to realize why my patience runs thin at times. I was being triggered many times throughout the day and it was building up. For example, my triggers include when my children aren’t taking care of our things, when they begin to fight physically, or when they ask me to do something for them in a demanding way. When my kids talk to me in a certain way, it triggers my feeling under-appreciated and taken for granted. There were deeper layers going on that I could now be aware of. I could take some time to notice my own triggers and the feelings behind them – and then choose to respond to the moment at hand in a way not burdened by my own deeper storylines.
Work to build problem-solving skills. In any conflict, make the priority building problem-solving skills. Again, rather than defaulting to ‘disciplining’ my children, I can choose to loop back around to what happened after we’ve all calmed down and focus on what was learned and what can be done differently next time. We can ask, “How are you going to fix this?” “What caused this?” or “What can you do next time?” In this way we can seek solutions when mistakes are made rather than focus on negativity, guilt or blame. Rebecca also suggests having a ‘peace table’ where family members can go to talk out issues and practice listening to one another.
Practice positive thinking. One of the great ‘aha’ moments for me in reading this book was around how I need to practice positive thinking myself first in order to practice ‘positive parenting.’ This may seem obvious to some of you reading, but for me I realized there was a lot more I could do to practice positivity in my daily personal life. For example I can pay attention to any negative recurring thought patterns about myself, my life or my children and work to reframe those. I can choose to do a daily gratitude practice, taking time to note what I’m grateful for in each of my children. I can leave love notes in lunch boxes and do a daily appreciation ritual during family dinner. This all adds up to create a more positive family culture – and leaves me feeling happier, too!
Create an intentional family culture. Perhaps my favorite takeaway from the book is the practice of creating an intentional family culture, complete with a family mission statement and list of values. Just like a strategic plan I might draft at work, Rebecca suggests sitting down with the whole family over several ‘meetings’ in order to draft a family plan around how we will live out our values, beliefs, and goals. She suggests creating something together, integrating art, each family member signing it and then hanging it in a place where it is visible to all. On the day we went to get our Christmas tree I took my first crack at convening a family meeting. Rebecca suggests asking these questions: “What kind of family do we want to be? What values will we uphold? What kind of atmosphere do we want in our home? What kind of relationships do we want? What traditions do we want to uphold?” While the moments of focus and engagement varied, we did make our way through the suggested questions. Our first draft is now displayed on the fridge.
As Rebecca says, “One final piece of advice. When you lay your head on your pillow at night, ask yourself this one simple question: Did my people go to sleep tonight feeling loved and valued?” As I continue to walk this parenting journey in the spirit of positivity, I’ll take this one question with me and let it be the benchmark of each day.
With Thanksgiving and the holidays afoot, I find myself considering how to make time and space for more of what really matters. This time of year invites me to go inwards, to create more space for reflection, and to find time to connect more deeply. Its a time for creating or continuing traditions – and for celebrations rooted in what really matters: sharing, gratitude, creativity and joy.
One tradition that I look forward to each November is the annual Lantern Walk hosted by my children’s schools. The aim is to cultivate a space for quietness, to take pause, and also to honor the dark and colder nights of the season. We are all invited to remember the light within us, even in darkening times. The kids made their lanterns at school and learned songs to sing. Everyone was reminded that the event is meant to honor the spirit of contemplation and stillness. Cell phones off. Social personality and chatter aside. Together, during a quiet walk with lanterns in hand, we celebrate the dark, cool night, we sing a few quiet tunes, and we take note of the twinkling stars.
The event reminds me of the importance of finding stillness and moments of pause during what can be a busy season. It reminds me to shake up my family routine and get outside, even in the dark evening when I’d usually be moving us towards sleep. It reminds me to create time and space for what matters to me – even if my children might not receive it how I imagine they might. I can support the conditions for these things to arise, and then be ready too to let go into any chaos that might emerge. (Because, well, it usually does!)
This year’s lantern walk held it all. There were the quiet moments holding a hand, and there was giggling and the usual running around in circles orchestrated by my sons and their cousin. There was getting lost from one another and dropped coats and hats. There were candles blown out and tears. But it didn’t matter. We were there together in the spirit of co-creating something special and meaningful. There were moments of magic and appreciation. There was the absolute joy of my youngest son seeing the stars and exclaiming in sheer amazement: “Mom! It is real space up there!” And above all else, I was just thankful for exactly what was – remembering that essential ingredient that guides me to what matters every time: Gratitude! No matter what – just, gratitude.
Over the past months and years, I’ve often found myself in over my head as a parent. One of my boys has been recently struggling with separation anxiety – and learning how to respond and offer support has been an ongoing, often stressful journey. I’ve often felt like I’ve been wading through dark spaces, at a loss as to what to do with the big feelings being expressed. At the bottom, navigating transitions has been difficult. And – no matter what is unfolding, I believe my son is trying to tell me about his broader experience, even if I can’t yet entirely understand.
So what to do? After months of limping along and struggling, I decided to reach out for help. Since the spring, I’ve been having ongoing coaching sessions with a professional counselor who focuses on a psychodynamic approach, with an emphasis on development, attachment and neurobiology. I’ve also been exploring my own strategies – trying new things and seeing what works. Here are a few take-aways from this process.
When the going gets rough, model your own ways of coping. One of the things I often found myself doing in rough moments with all of my children was to offer verbal advice. And yet, there are times when words alone don’t help. All the chatter and suggestions and reassurances were seeming to get us nowhere. Instead, I began to describe my own feelings and experiences and share what helps me during difficult moments. What if I could intentionally model staying with my own hard feelings and give voice to what I do to stay grounded and resourced when facing challenges? “I feel anxious right now too. Goodbyes are so hard. Sometimes it helps if I move my body. Want to march with me?”
My coach reminded me that during difficult moments, our systems are often trying to find balance. When we are in balance, we are regulated and our emotions aren’t bigger than ourselves. When we aren’t in balance, we might be hyperactive or we might shut down or ‘collapse.’ We can serve our children by showing how we face difficulties from a place of regulation. “I’m feeling anxious. I’m going to shake my hands or rub my legs. Want to join me?” We can share our own challenges and how we work with them. I wanted to model staying with hard things. I began to do more describing of my own experiences and what helps. “I’m starting to feel sad and worried too about saying goodbye. It helps me when I feel my feet on the ground and take a deep breath.”
Bring it back to the body. Bringing awareness in each moment to what is going on in our bodies is not only grounding and resourcing, but also can help to cultivate a greater sense of balance. It also helps to decrease any mental anxiety or churning. During the hard moments, I began to pay more attention to what was going on in my own body, while also getting curious about what was going on for my children. Getting to know what the body is feeling is a skill and takes practice. I began to model paying attention to my own experience in this way, and also ask questions that bring that awareness to my kids. “This moment is feeling really hard. I feel it in my chest. And, my stomach is starting to hurt. I wonder what you feel right now in your body?” Checking in with myself can also help my kids check in with themselves. I began to name my own experiences more, inviting them to join me in noticing and paying closer attention to what was going on in their own bodies.
Just breathe together. One of the main reminders from talking with my coach was around the importance of just breathing together. She would often say, “Use fewer words. Do more holding and breathing.” Just breathing together and having more physical interaction helped me to slow down and connect more. “Let’s take a few minutes to just breathe together,” I would say. These moments of breathing together didn’t always assuage the underlying difficulties, but it did offer up important moments to pause and connect, and bring us back to the simplicity of feeling our bodies and taking a deep breath together. Even for a moment, it provided a brief respite – and a reminder of how a deep breath is always available as a way to calm down.
Make concrete observations. I wanted to find ways to say “I hear you. I see you. It is hard, and you can do this.” So I started paying closer attention to the tangible things happening in any moment, and began naming those things. “I see you walking in circles right now. Are you getting nervous about school?” I wanted my kids to know I was paying close attention to them. Beyond listening to them when they were trying to communicate something verbally, I could also let them know I was really seeing them too. It helped me to connect more to what was going on in the present moment – and to also bring awareness to the concrete things that were happening. It was also a way to bring me out of my complex mental churnings about what was going on – and trying to assign stories to those things. Instead I could stay more focused on each present moment and what was arising. I could use observation statements to let my kids know “I’m with you. I’m paying attention. I see you.”
Express empathy. Connect heart to heart. My coach calls this “joining and affirming.” I can say, “you’re really hurting. That’s hard.” Or, “Wow, this feels big.” At first I was trying to connect during difficult moments by saying “I love you no matter what…I’m right here…” Then I realized that expressing empathy and connecting heart to heart is so much more than expressing only our love and appreciation. When a fellow adult comes to me with a trouble, I never respond simply by saying “But I love you!” No. I listen. I mirror back what I see and hear. All of the sudden it seemed ridiculous that I was trying to patch up the moments of anxiety with my kids by saying “I love you.” Perhaps I wanted a simple fix. Perhaps I didn’t know what else to say. I wished that love would be enough to assuage the hard spaces.
Those words of love are of course important – but more so in moments of smoothness. During moments of separation anxiety, confusion, anger or frustration, expressing empathy is better shown when I name what I see and try to join and affirm. I began to try to see the struggles wanting to shine through. “You feel scared. You feel stupid. That must feel icky.” I could say, “I hear you. I want you to know though that I don’t see you that way.”
At the heart of all of my efforts to meet my children during their difficult moments was a simple reminder. I must take the time to really listen deeply. I can revisit the tough moments to debrief and connect. I can learn from my own mistakes and fumbles (which have been many during this particular season of parenting!). In this way, we connect and reflect. We learn and grow, together. Resilience is slowly cultivated. Over time, we come to accept more gracefully that things happen that aren’t comfortable – and, we find ways to get through them. As Naomi Wolf says, “Obstacles, of course, are developmentally necessary. They teach kids strategy, patience, critical thinking, reslience and resourcefulness.” We could now at least face our obstacles together with a deep breath.
I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light, and pursued my
voyage through the wildernesses of worlds leaving my track on many a star and planet.
It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself, and that training is the most intricate which leads to the utter simplicity of a tune.
The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end…
-The Journey Home, Rabindranath Tagore
As a mother, I’ve had many a moment where I’ve felt like a scuba diver needing to come up to the surface. Some months I don’t even realize I’ve been submerged, swimming through my days which turn into months and then years. Writing helps me to resurface and reflect – and when I do, I’m always amazed at what can go underground (or under water), forgotten for a time.
This blog post is a perfect example. Last year, I’d come across Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, The Journey Home, and it struck me deeply. I’d wanted to take time to write about it, and to reflect on my life journey and how the path of motherhood has fit in. What was I learning? How have I grown and changed? I loved how the poem reminded me to consider my journey through life in a spiritual context. How was I leaving my track, especially with my family and my children? How was I (or wasn’t I) “coming into my own?”
With my oldest son turning 8 years old this summer, it was a perfect time to reflect on how one phase of parenting (and childhood) was closing while another was opening. I’ve been taking time to celebrate the phase of having young kids. (This period of life will pass all too fast!) I’ve also been considering lessons learned and mistakes made. I’ve lamented the moments of complaining or overly focusing on challenges. Did I soak in the sweet moments of cuddles enough? Have I appreciated the times when we’ve simply held hands? Did I yell too many times? Did I do all the things I’d dreamed of doing during these precious early years?
In some ways, the 8th birthday made me panic. It surfaced my regrets. It also ushered in a new sense of resolve. One window was closing, even while another was opening. The relationship was shifting into a new era. I better embrace it NOW.
The 8th birthday has also invited me to consider where I’m at in my path as a householder and mother. My identity has fully settled into something I could never have imagined when I was pregnant with my first son. Many months and years have indeed felt like ‘knocking at alien doors’ – the sleepless nights, the unsettledness of shifting body and personal identity, the new worries, the unchartered responsibilities. It has been a strange wandering at times – often treading new waters that have forced me out of my comfort zone and spread me thinner than the flattest of pancakes.
It has been all too easy to lose sight of my initial intentions and sense of purpose around parenting. I remember when I embarked on the path of motherhood, I’d sat across my husband over dinner at a Thai restaurant, telling him that I wanted to “induct a meaningful human experience.” I’d wanted to walk the path of Big Love. It all sounded – and felt – so idealistic then. It was before big messes and frayed nervous systems. It was before the chaos.
The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.
Tagore’s poem serves up a slice of the sublime. What is the innermost shrine at the end? How is my journey circling in those most revered places, even when I’m too submerged in my own orbits of familial chaos to remember? The lessons that want to shine through with the 8th birthday are waiting for me. They are like little gifts on an altar. I only see them when I take the scuba mask off and look towards the light dancing on water at the surface. They indeed are like reminders to me on my own journey – signposts that are meant to bring me home to myself again and again.
The word shrine comes from the Old English scrin, referring to a ‘cabinet, chest or reliquary.’ I imagine in my own life a place where I store my most treasured items. This place serves as a reminder of what I most want to remember. It is here where I can tuck away the deepest lessons for safekeeping. For me, the shrine holds a reminder to remember to dip into my own inner life – taking the time to digest my experience. Introspection staves off uncentered, ungrounded energy. If I roll along with the currents of my life without taking this time for myself, I lose my center of gravity and my sense of balance.
The shrine holds a reminder to also not get lost amidst all the responsibilities and all the competing demands for my time and attention. It holds a reminder to make room for the meaningful in my life.
The shrine holds a reminder to slow down in my family life even more than I already do. It reminds me about appreciation for what is, exactly. It reminds me about the deep and vast power of love, and my calling to abide in love with my children, even when I’m at my wit’s end.
Finally, the shrine holds a reminder to not hold back one bit, and to move forward whole-heartedly. What do I want to be giving to my children? What do I want to be embodying? How do I want to spend my time? How I live my days is how I live my life. Is it stacking up with my deepest intentions? How am I coming into my own as a mother as I enter my 8th year? Where am I falling short? Once again, the motherhood journey invites me to travel a steep – and beautiful – path…
Earlier this year I posted on Principles of Contemplative Parenting – and my reflections inspired by them. Thanks to Alaya Preschool for outlining some of these suggested points. Here I share a few more, accompanied by my experiences. After a challenging spell with my boys, these served my life like guideposts, reminding me that even when I feel lost or confused, there is always an intentional perspective that I can bring to any situation or moment.
Mind matters most: how we come to a situation has the greatest effect on how the situation turns out. For me, it isn’t just my mental state – but my overall state: whole body, nervous system, heart and soul. A few weeks ago I took my first weekend away from my kids with a few girlfriends. We soaked it hot springs, ate delicious food and hiked in the gorgeous Glenwood Canyon here in Colorado. Upon coming home, I felt truly restored. It wasn’t just that I was relaxed or refreshed; it was that I actually could feel again the essence of who I am most deeply. I was tuned in with myself in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. And when I rejoined my children, I could feel my own state clearly and distinctly as separate from theirs.
This might seem like an obvious need and capacity to some of you reading – but for me, I’d lost something in these past months of parenting. I’d become so spread outwards that I’d lost my capacity to subtly note when my boys’ states were overly and negatively influencing mine. So when my middle son was feeling anxious about the impending start of school and beginning to act out as a result, I too was feeling anxious and getting high strung and ungrounded. When my sons were needing to wrestle and run and jump and join with each other in conflict, I was getting swept right in to that elevated energy. I was losing my sense of balance and ease. I was literally being pulled all over the place and in the process not feeling deeply into myself. The result has been that I’ve not been able to manage difficult family moments with as much patience or skillfulness.
It took a weekend away to realize what had been happening. When I came home and greeted family situations grounded, rested and really feeling my own body and experience, I could respond more in alignment with how I most want (with compassion, kindness, patience and openness). Alternately, if I haven’t been taking time to tune into my own state and attend to my deepest sense of well-being throughout the day, then I’m scattered and unable to tend mindfully to big emotions arising or the sometimes crazy moments of chaos and conflict.
So yes – how we come to a situation has the greatest effect on how a situation turns out. The lesson here for me is to take the time needed to tune in, slow down, and notice how I’m doing (at the deep levels) before I respond to difficult and complex moments. Then, I can set the intention per how I most want to respond and let that guide me.
Keep it light, fun and no big deal, unless it is a big deal. Even then, make sure love comes through (even if it has to be the tough variety). My challenge of late is to choose what is a big deal and what isn’t. Some days it feels like I could be battling all day long setting boundaries and redirecting actions. So where do I really step in and draw big lines? Again, as I mention above, if I’m not careful I can be swept into a million nutty directions with three boys and their friends doing all sorts of things bordering on unsafe or unkind. So I make a practice of choosing my battles. Trying to catch bees with a kitchen towel? Okay. Not the best choice but I’m going to let that one go. Plowing through the neighbor’s flowers during a pretend mountain biking excursion? No way. Let’s make apology cards and buy them a bouquet to leave on their doorstep. Donning helmets and pretending to be bulls fighting via intense headbutts in a pen? Not my favorite pasttime but go for it. Taking a plastic race track, turning it into a whip, and smacking your brother full force across the legs? Oh no. Here comes the big reaction.
We all need boundaries. And yes, keeping it light and fun is the ideal. But there are moments when strong words and bigger energy is also needed. Remembering to let love shine through even in those moments is key – even if it means looping back around after the fact to connect. “We all make mistakes. But there are things we can do to be more careful…”
Children never want us to be unhappy, but they certainly do sometimes get stuck in wanting us to do the things we do when we get mad. Right now, one of my sons seems to relish in pushing my buttons. Ultimately, he needs to push me hard enough so that I give him the containment that he needs in order to release his big feelings. In his confusion, he’ll do anything to get a reaction from me. He will work every angle until he can acheive an emotional release.
The other night just before bedtime, he pulled apart one of my houseplants. He threw his brother’s lego sets. He proceeded to run around the house – engaging me in a push-me, pull-me cat and mouse chase. Nothing I said satisfied him until he finally got to the place of crying while I was holding him. But before he got to this place, he was certainly stuck in wanting to meet me in a place of reactivity and chaos. The doorway to his relaxing, connection and release was somehow rooted in wanting me to do the things I do when I get mad: one of which is hold him tightly.
I’m still working on how to free up this pattern. There are so many layers at work – so many needs and emotions – and also perhaps pure mischief, too. I try to switch up my responses, remembering my ability to be fresh and new with how I’m responding.
“We’re going to try something new” is always an option when you are in a rut with your child. Sometimes I forget that I can indeed try something new. As I’ve written about before – this principle reminds me of the Buddhist notion of “Beginner’s Mind.” I love this definition excerpted from Nithyananda Mission: “By definition, having a beginner’s mind means having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and freedom from preconceptions when approaching anything. Beginner’s mind is actually the space where the mind does not know what to do. It is that delicious state when you are sure of nothing, yet completely fearless, totally available to the moment.” Yes! “We’re going to try something new.” Such a simple invitation – and reminder of the possibilities available when stuck.
Authentic presence in itself is a complete path of parenting, containing all the wisdom, power and love we will ever need. I love this one. If I’m tuned in with how I’m doing and what I need, then I can bring more authenticity to my parenting journey and my relationships with my children. Sometimes I find myself pushing too hard to get things done, or agreeing to go on excursions that don’t serve my need for quiet introversion. I find myself at the bike park or under the blazing sun with neighborhood kids swirling around me on scooters. I love these moments, of course. But I also find that often I’m churning along, not standing up for some of my deeper needs.
It helps when I can speak clearly about where I’m at. It also helps when I can loop back around and share my experience honestly with my kids. “I was frustrated when…” “When you do that, I feel…” It never lands when I’m in a reactive moment – but it does land when I’m settled again and can be authentic about whatever has transpired and what the impacts were. It requires a bit of extra introspection and taking the time to process how we all engage in a moment together. Remembering to be authentic and honest softens many edges and helps me to relax.
Love is the answer. It doesn’t always feel quiet and sweet, but it always feels true. I love the truth here. “It doesn’t always feel quiet and sweet, but it always feels true.” Parenting has taught me that love can look a million ways, and it doesn’t always look how I’d imagined. Love can however become a larger container that we all live in, together. Love can offer the cushion of safety that surrounds us, even when we’re not feeling it directly during a difficult moment.
For me, it helps to create space to really notice my children – to really look deeply at them and hold them in an intentional light. Coming back to love, over and over again, is truly the answer. Even when I mess up and grapple with feelings of failure, overwhelm and exasperation, I remember to come back to my experience of love. From there, I find all the insight I need.
As the Alaya teachers and staff share so aptly, “Parenting is a much greater challenge that most people admit (even to themselves). The potential of parenting, in helping us grow, be happy and relax into compassion, is also more profound that we sometimes can see. Parenting is a quick and steep path indeed!”
Parenting isn’t easy business. There are weeks when I cruise along and life is smooth. There are other weeks when I’m drowning in the stress of it all. I wonder at times, is it only me? Why does this feel so difficult? Am I ill-equipped to raise three boys?
It was during one of the hard moments when I wrote the poem below. I was at my wit’s end. It was a moment of doubting my capacity to do what needs doing. None of my strategies were working. My boys were each grappling with different end of school year transitions and the accompanying unease. Daily life was full. The sibling rivalries were kicking. Separation anxiety was rearing its head. Mother’s patience was waning. Every day seemed to usher in a new fight and new difficult moments. Meanwhile, the summer heat had arrived and school was out. Energies were high and my boys’ motion was ceaseless. I found myself daily contemplating the difficult grit of raising boys. And so, this poem was born.
It’s a window into one dimension of my experience raising boys ages 3,5 and 7. Of course they are kind and sensitive and full of sweetness. They are full of imagination and energy. They defy any attempt at categorizing or containing. They also confound me daily with their intense energies and a need to bump physically against their surroundings (and one another). They wrestle. They take a baseball bat to my roses one minute (!?!?) and carefully save a spider the next. They tend the garden the next moment and then make a game of throwing pinecones or rocks at each other’s heads. One moment they are contemplatively sculpting creations out of play dough and the next they are dismantling said creations, stomping on them and throwing chunks up in the air.
On and on this goes. It’s a seamless and fast dance to keep up. When do I pick my battles with them? How do I hold together the structure needed to foster safety and clear boundaries? How do I let them run a bit free and wild while also ensuring they are decent and kind? On some days, I’m interfering all day long. “Don’t do this! Don’t do that! No! Stop!” I keep thinking: there must be a different way. But what is it?
The journey of parenting keeps me on my toes. When one thing isn’t working, its indeed time for another.
Purveyors of sharks.
You trample on life’s delicate,
You spin chaos,
You unfurl conflict.
Wielding everything as a weapon,
Your ocean of energy defies all attempt of containment.
This is the difficult grit of raising boys:
I want you to be free and wild,
But I also need you to be decent and kind.
I want you to live into the best of being a fierce protector,
defender of what is right.
I want you to use and feel your full body, while also understanding limits essential for a life of well-being and peace.
When I’m at a loss as your mother, I want the arms big enough to embrace it all.
In moments of chaos we head to the hills.
Under the sky is the space needed for all of us to breathe.
There is no problem here.
Its only that the world too often enjoys boxes and walls and so much structure –
with little boy souls needing curling and hurling and bending and unfurling,
a mirror to nature’s perfect playground where wild energies can truly run free.
“Everything is ceremony in the wild garden of childhood.” ~Pablo Neruda
The end of the school year ushers with it a flurry of ceremonial markers. May Day flower crowns are made and traditional dances are twirled around the May Pole. Its not only the opportunity to welcome spring’s lovely new flowers, but also an opportunity to participate in a yearly tradition with very old roots.
My mother-in-law joins me to watch the dances and she marvels that my oldest son’s elementary school takes the time for such festivities. She recently moved here from the East Coast – and after a lifelong career in education, she bemoans that too many schools are losing the arts, the festivals and the music. “I remember doing these dances when I was in school,” she says. But now? “Its all about the standards and the testing.” For a brief moment, we nod at how great it feels to be together as a school community, celebrating the seasons and sharing music and tradition. This, too, is important.
My middle son, Braeden, prepares to finish preschool and his class also takes time for ceremony. Not only is there a ‘graduation,’ but there is also preparation for the transition out of preschool. His class has been together for three years with the same teachers. Just a few weeks before graduation, 23 preschoolers and three teachers embark on what has been an annual tradition for over 25 years. They go on a “hero’s journey” together – which includes a field trip into the mountains where they walk a labyrinth and do practices to connect to the elements: earth, air, fire and water. They paint, sing, dance, and do simple rituals together.
Leading up to the graduation ceremony, the preschoolers watch a chrysallis turn into a butterfly in their classroom. Its a slow process and involves a lot of patient watching. During these same weeks, they practice acting out a story. Each child begins in a cocoon, curled up in a ball. The teacher talks them through their rebirth into something new and magnificent – a butterfly! They practice acting out this story again and again – and for the graduation ceremony they share it with everyone. They, too, are now getting ready to fly…
I witness all of these moments and milestones and I wonder: what do we lose when ceremony is set aside? These traditions bring meaning and deepen an experience of community. Even at a young age, children can relate to ceremony. They can understand the gravity of a transition. Ceremonies can connect us to the seasons and the passage of time. They can carve out space for even a brief acknowledgement of change. Perhaps ceremonies and traditions can serve as benchmarks of stability and structure in what can often seem like an endless flow of ‘busyness.’
For me I know this to be true. I often wish I could slow down time. My children are growing up so fast and I know that all of these small milestones will coalesce into memories. What will stand out? Of course there will be memories from the daily rhythms. But there will also be these signposts. The ceremonies with my children remind me to soak in each moment, to take time to pause, and to talk through transitions. They remind me to take note of beginnings and endings. They also remind me that each season and period of time has its gifts and challenges. And then we can honor, celebrate, learn – and turn the page into the next chapter.
A few years ago, Rowan got a betta fish for his birthday. We had him for just under three years – and he did indeed become part of our family. “Fishy” swam in a three gallon bowl on our dining room table and would often look right at the boys when they sat down for a meal. Over the years we added bamboo to his habitat, then rocks, then driftwood. Each time we changed his water or added a new feature, he’d let us know he liked it by blowing bubbles at the surface.
The kids helped to feed Fishy and enjoyed following his movements. I knew that we were lucky to have had our fish for as long as we did – and as Fishy’s third birthday approached, I began to talk to the boys about a betta fish’s lifespan. We noted how he moved more slowly. We tried feeding him extra special fish food just in case he was nearing his end.
When we came home one April evening to find that Fishy was no longer in the land of the living, my two older sons were devastated. They immediately burst into tears and cried for what felt like a full hour. My oldest kept saying “maybe he is sleeping! Won’t he come back?” My middle son was concerned with what would happen now. Will he float to the top? Where will we put him? And also, is it okay to feel sad because Fishy had died? My youngest (age three) was the most matter of fact. With his head tilted to the side he would say, “Fishy died. He’s going back to the earth. Just like great grandma LaRue.” Each had their own response and way of processing Fishy’s death.
I had to think on the fly. I knew it was an important moment. Why hadn’t I thought more about what I would say? It was bedtime and my husband wished I had waited until morning to reveal Fishy’s fate. My two older boys were pacing around, crying and largely unconsolable. I sat on the couch and invited them to sit with me. Yes, bedtime was upon us but we needed a moment of coming together and processing both our feelings and what had just changed.
It was time to be real about life and death. It was time to lay it out bare about what would happen to Fishy’s body now, and how we could best support Fishy’s transition. We talked about how we could still send love and wish him well on his journey to another world. We talked about the mystery of death – and how we don’t know what it is like or where his spirit may be now. We talk about having done our best to be kind to Fishy during his short life. Didn’t those three years of Fishy’s life go by fast? And what can this moment teach us about our own lives going forward? There is no time to waste being kind and appreciating the things around us.
The next day I made sure that each brother was present for Fishy’s burial. We clipped a few flowers from a lilac bush and plucked a few dandelions. I explained that it is nice to offer something beautiful to honor Fishy’s life. We dug a hole and found special rocks to decorate his resting place. Rowan, who took Fishy’s death the hardest, took his time writing a note for Fishy’s ‘tombstone.’ I encouraged him to sit with Fishy’s resting place and feel whatever he was feeling. There was a space for silence.
What struck me most was how easy it would have been to have glossed over Fishy’s death. Life gets busy and I’m too often overwhelmed. And – wasn’t it only just a pet fish? Taking the time needed to do honor to the moment took effort. And yet, the boys had so many questions. They wanted to be intimate with the burial process. They each wanted to scoop Fishy from his bowl and place him in the earth. For days after they kept asking if Fishy’s body had returned to the earth. Was he still there? Was he just bones now?
I was reminded of my grandmother LaRue’s memorial service not too long ago. The great-grandchildren were the ones who immediately stepped up when the Funeral Home staff had asked if anyone wanted to place dirt on Grandma’s urn. They’d just placed her in the earth – and it was the one moment when the boys were entirely focused and present. The rest of the service had been for talking, reflecting, sharing. We’d been in the more ethereal realm of words and memories. But now – this was something tangible the boys could understand. And they were ready to participate.
Rowan and his cousin Lundin shoveled the dirt needed to fill Grandma’s slice of the earth. For me, it was the gritty part. For them, I sensed that they could grab onto this. It made sense. They knew what was happening. They were helping Grandma return to the earth. During the memorial service Rowan had been running around collecting seeds. Now, he wanted to toss them in with Grandma. He intuitively understood the cycle of life.
What if we don’t give children enough space to fully participate in the process of death and dying? What if we exclude them too often from our rituals and rites? These moments honoring both my grandmother and our pet fish reminded me that children are not only profoundly curious about death – but they are also deeply capable of understanding. And, it helps if we can give them something tangible to grab on to and participate in. For me, I needed to create the space for not only processing our feelings and questions – but also for expressing reverence and love.
Somehow, I wanted to make death our friend. I wanted to be intimate with it. I wanted to weave it into the fabric of life as being totally natural and cyclical – while also allowing the space for it to be sad and mysterious. As Rainer Maria Rilke once said, “Death is our friend, precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love…”