Adapted from Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, Sentient Publications, 2012
by Marcy Axness, PhD
In every phenomenon the beginning remains always the most notable moment.
-- Thomas Carlyle
So if I only had fifteen minutes with a parent or "pre-parent," what would I tell them?
First I'd want to give them the big picture about what we're seeking to do when we parent for peace: much of this is about what parents can do to foster their child's robustly healthy brain, particularly the structure and function of the intricate network of the social brain. When children wire up with circuitry for such capacities as self-regulation, empathy, intelligence, trust and imagination, this brings more enjoyment into parenting and into family life. It also results in one more peacemaker equipped to creatively and confidently innovate solutions in our challenged world, and take pleasure in doing it!
And I'd point out the rather paradoxical point that it’s less about doing than not-doing -- learning how to get out of the way of Nature’s rather perfect plan for the kind of evolutionary leap we are designed to make. We are designed to become more intelligent, more joyous, more peaceful. It is a promise of our biology!
The guiding biological law at work through all this is one I learned from the visionary Bruce Lipton: At every level and at every stage of life, we are either in growth mode or in protection mode. This is true of the cell, of the community of cells that is a person, or a community of people that is a family, an organization, a neighborhood, a nation or a race. The fundamental question always being asked, at the level of every cell, tissue, organ and beyond is, Do circumstances in my environment warrant devoting my energies toward optimal growth, or do I need to protect and defend myself?
If you only remember one take-away, make it this, which can be used as a tool for making pretty much any parenting choice -- or any life choice for ourselves: Ask the question,
Will this action / communication foster growth mode or protection mode in my child (and myself)?
Next I'd share what I call my "big bang" tools. (Nothing violent, just inspired by fitness trainers; big bang exercises work many muscles at once – efficient!) These tools work to address the "growth or protection" choices that are always being made by your child's cells and psyche: they all foster a sense of security and the most vibrant possible growth posture.
Big Bang Parenting Tool #1 – Presence
This is also #1 of the seven principles on which my book Parenting for Peace is based: that ability to be fully engaged “right here, right now” with your body, your thoughts, your feelings. There are many ways to cultivate the ability for presence, including meditation, yoga, contemplative prayer, and mindfulness practice. In my opinion this shouldn't be an either-or-or list, but an and-and-and list.
Besides developing presence, mindfulness practice is one of the most fruitful ways to amp up a sense of joy and connectedness in your life, and you don't have to sit still or become a pretzel to do it! Simply set your intention on noticing and engaging more fully some of the numerous things we normally take for granted in daily life. The small act of eating a piece of fruit can take on a whole new dimension when we turn our attention to what is embodied in that apple -- seasons of nurturance by rains, sun, and those who cared for its tree -- and to the amazing fact that the flesh of that fruit will be transmuted into us in the coming hours and days.
To begin a meditation practice, you don't have to go out and find a master or even a group; simple guidelines are available everywhere (including my book), and even just five minutes a day, done on a reasonably regular basis, reduces stress, invites health, and cultivates the ability to direct your own mental focus – all of which makes for a bankable investment in the success and enjoyment of your parenting and your child's wellbeing.
Research reveals the stunning (and sometime daunting) fact that our children's healthiest development emanates from the health of our own inner and outer lives. And presence practice will help you answer yes to an essential question: Do I as a parent have mastery over something as fundamental as the movement of my own thoughts? Your child wordlessly perceives your level of self-possession, and when the answer is Yes, this in turn fosters a respect for you that is deep, implicit, and rarely wavers. Many common discipline issues therefore never even materialize.
Big Bang Parenting Tool #2 – Awareness of Your Child, At Brain Level
Since the sensory-motor areas of a child's brain are most active up until around age seven, the young child relates to the world primarily through her senses and her body. Her primary modes of perception, therefore, are through sensing (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching—indeed, lots of touching!) and doing, through the most active mode of learning, which is imitation. Understanding this basic fact about their child should help parents with two important issues:
- knowing that for a child to touch something, or to do with her body, is similar to an adult thinking about that same thing.
- recognizing that activities which engage these two aspects—sensing and doing—are the richest, healthiest, and most effective learning environments for the young child.
The predominant brain wave activity of the young child is at the delta and theta rate, like that of a sleeping or barely waking adult. This is a highly suggestible state, which is one reason Waldorf kindergarten teachers are so extraordinarily mindful of their words, actions, and the atmosphere they create for the students: they know everything will be taken in deeply and (maybe not today or tomorrow, but one day when you least expect it) imitated.
An important function of the predictable routine and dependable authority figure highlighted in Parenting for Peace is that they provide a secure form that allows children to live in this “dream consciousness” -- to unselfconsciously and wholeheartedly participate in the day’s experiences without worrying about what comes next or what they need to be ready for. But these days it seems that even very young kids are savvy and alert, because there’s so much intellectualizing in the household.
Big Bang Parenting Tool #3 – A Clothespin… To Put on Your Lips!
When I work with parents in my private practice I often ask them to cut back on their chatter with their toddler by at least 50% so they avoid TTD (Talk it To Death) syndrome, which is reaching epidemic proportions. When we offer the young child a stream of choices, involve her in important family decisions, and constantly over-explain things, we wake her from that dreamy childhood space that she is entitled to at this age. When we demand that the young child think in more of an adult fashion -- with too many questions, too much consultation, negotiation, justification -- it actually annoys the child, at a deeply unconscious level. Of course she doesn’t realize why, but she starts acting controlling (“difficult”), she’s cranky and she’s… not peaceful.
Two things are going on: 1) all this mental activity is a fundamental stressor to the child whose brain is geared mainly for doing, not thinking; and 2) she isn’t feeling quite secure (and is therefore thrown into protection posture, and her brain development is curtailed). She wants you to know, without consulting her, what’s happening next, what color shirt she should wear, what she's having on top of her cereal this morning. That lets her relax back into optimal growth mode, because her world is safely in order. In fact, sometimes these words said in a calm, loving, authoritative way can work surprising magic with a child who’s being bossy or controlling: “Relax, you’re not in charge.”
Big Bang Parenting Tool #4 – A Mirror
As mentioned above, imitation is the young child's primary mode of learning. Our children look to us as models on every level; even their social-emotional brain circuitry wires up to emulate ours over the course of the hundreds of attuned face-to-face attachment interactions over the years! (This is another good reason for meditation and mindfulness: it means they'll download an even healthier version of this neural functioning from you!)
So look in the mirror and ask yourself, Am I worthy of my child's unquestioning imitation? Daunting, yes. But it's best to realize early on that whether or not you can answer "Yes" to this question, what you see in the mirror is what you will see in your child. And, most likely in your child as an adult. So for example, if you complain about chores -- even just in the way you make the gesture of doing the chore -- it will eventually be emulated. And take care that the books you read to your little one also interest you; if you are forcing yourself to read to your child (again, as a chore), you risk his imitation in the form of resisting the desire to read!
This reflection in our children of our own inner lives begins in the womb, when a baby’s organs and tissues develop in direct response to “grow or protect” lessons they receive about the world -- lessons that come from Mom’s diet, her behavior and her state of mind. Since Nature's job is to create organisms as well-suited as possible to their environment, the unceasing question asked by the baby in the womb – which is answered chemically and energetically via the mother’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors – is, Mommy, what kind of world am I coming into?
If they understand that this basic question – along with its nine months’ worth of answers -- drives fundamental aspects of their baby’s brain development, parents for peace can begin to comprehend how important it is for the pregnant mother to feel safe and supported, to feel loved, to feel joy... at least most of the time… so their baby can arrive ready to love and learn, not struggle and resist!
I’m not suggesting you become a blandly response-free Stepford Mom -- either before or after birth -- but rather a mother who is reorienting herself toward a posture of holding a protective, buffering space of appreciation within which her child is unconstrained by inhibiting forces, free to blossom as robustly as possible and grow to his or her fullest potential. A mother who regards the world with care toward how it would look through brand new eyes…how it would sound through brand new ears…how it would feel to a brand new being whose mandate is to prepare itself to match the promise of the world she portrays.
A member of Mothering magazine’s online expert panel, Marcy Axness is a leading authority in the fields of early child development, adoption, prenatal and perinatal psychology and the neurobiology of attachment. She is a popular international speaker, has a private practice coaching parents-in-progress, and provides training for professionals about the latest science of human thriving. She feels that one of her most important credentials is being mother to Ian and Eve, both flourishing Waldorf grads in their 20s. She invites you to join her at www.ParentingForPeace.com.
Dr. Axness is offering Bamboo readers a free download of a unique, effective mind/body/spirit tool for parents to use in addressing behavior and/or developmental concerns in children of all ages. Click here to claim your free gift.