From: The FOLIO, Vol. 14, nr.1, Spring 1995

FOCUSING ON PARENTING

by Bala Jaison, Ph.D.

This paper was never written with the intention of its being a great academic achievement, although much of its content is academic to me. While I have been strongly influenced, in one way or another, by the authors cited in the reference section, the truth is that it feels (on the inside) like the real references for the thoughts below are my direct experiences (otherwise called: thinking on your feet) which continually influence my parenting philosophy, and keep me mentally limber.

I actually never had any intention of writing a paper at all, in part for lack of time, and in part because I only have one child, and although I deal with children constantly, I fully appreciate that one child does not an expert make! (or an authoress on the subject either, for that matter.)

So my reasons for writing at all at this juncture, come from the ongoing insistence of my Focusing colleagues, who frequently ask me how my (now) seven year old daughter is doing - a question to which I always enjoy expounding upon at same length! Inevitably they say: "You really should write up a piece on this."

I think I finally got hooked at the '93 International (and it has taken me this long to produce anything) when Reva Bernstein, one of my advocates in this endeavor, pointed out that my experience, however limited, is still real, valuable, and might be of use to other parents attempting to raise children in a Focusing way, i.e. with more awareness, sensitivity, and consciousness.

So I submit the following with a certain amount of humility and a sincere lack of pretence - and I hope that it sparks same flashes of insight, and consequent wisdom and joy.

To begin: In my limited experience, it seems to me unnecessary to teach young children Focusing, since they are already natural Focusers. They live in process, are naturally in the here & now, and do not have a sense of chronological time, as we do - perhaps, an explanation (for frustrated parents) as to why, at the end of the day when you ask your child: "How was school?" or "camp?" or "gymnastics?" what you get is: "Fine". You inquire: "Well, what did you do?" and they say "We played" or, better yet, "Nothing!"

What you are referring to is such a past moment in the here and now, that it has no relevance to the child at all. Notice however, that when they come bursting in at 3:30p.m. with a story from 9:00 a.m. that morning, they are telling it in the here and now, just as we do when we process the past in a Focusing session: we get in touch with how it is in us, right now.

The lesson here is this: Be with children in their present. My experience, is that this is easier said than done, since our ‘here and now's’ are often more planned and less spontaneous, and contingent on busy schedules and managing our time. What I find helpful is to imagine that I have a special channel called, her here & now (my visual is a red heart button) which is often different than my here & now (a circle with me in the centre of it.) Sometimes, I have to stop, breathe, re-adjust, and change channels. Then I can hear and listen.

LISTEN!

This would seem so obvious to any Focusing person, but it is harder to do with someone you live with full time, than with a client who is paying you for the service. As parents, most of us feel responsible to do more than just listen. We teach, impart bits of wisdom, lay out the rules and responsibilities, instill values and offer guidance, etc. The real work - it seems to me - is in finding a right balance between: taking charge and letting go of control; being clear and firm, and being receptive and allowing; doing the work of good parenting, and pulling back and doing nothing; listening and reflecting, and saying how it is for you.

Some tips on the above

1. Let the Focusing Attitude be the umbrella for all interactions with children (and adults too!): Respect, acceptance, non-judgment, right speech, non-blame, "I" statements rather than "you" statements.

2. Stay in context rather than content: Bring the issue at hand to a meta level: What can we learn from this? What was the child thinking/feeling/experiencing when the situation took place? Listen and reflect. Just as in a Focusing session, what it is really about is rarely what it looks like it's about, and the essence is rarely in content, but rather in context, the bigger, the more...

3. Create a safe space: How often I have heard my child Say' "If I tell you, will you promise not to get mad." Can you make such a promise? What I have learned I can comfortably say is: “I can't promise not to have any feelings, but I can promise not to be punishing, and to try to understand what it's like for you.

How will you get your child to tell you as much as possible? Is there a way to have your own feelings about a situation without ascribing blame and shame. Yes, I think so, but like a Focusing session, it takes time. We never rush a Focusing session. It takes as long as it takes. It is essential to have planned time to process, to listen, to just be with a child. This too, takes as long as it takes. (Our processing ranges from 60 seconds to 60 minutes.)

4. Apologize: Create a safe space for yourself in which to be wrong, to have goofed, to be able to own and articulate it to your child. I once apologized to my daughter because I didn't like the way I had handled an interaction. After all my explanations about why and where I was coming from, she gently rested her hand on my shoulder and exclaimed: "That's OK Mom, you'll do better next time!"

5. Listening is a two way street: We put a great deal of emphasis on listening to our children; part of the deal is that they learn to listen to us, as well (as in hear, rather than obey). When you say something that is important to you, have your child reflect it back.

My kid has gotten very clever at this one. She says back exactly what I said, but with an ‘attitude’, and I don't mean the Focusing one either! At those moments, it takes (sometimes) every resource I have to remember to: Breathe, back up, and anchor into my Adult Self (quietly protecting the part that feels some hurt, but this is not the time). My anchor words are something like: “Get grounded! This is not your Focusing time.” Only then am I able to stay with her and reflect back her attitude, which is inevitably connected to something that is not the content that we have been addressing. As in Focusing with a guide or partner, what you hear back is often not what is meant. Teaching a child good listening skills is identical to teaching an adult good listening skills. It requires reflecting congruently what another person is saying, and understanding the meaning behind the words. If allowed to, kids will do this naturally.

6. Every Day is Different: No two days are the same, just as no two Focusing sessions are the same. What we want is to have a grab-bag of tools, skills, tricks-of-the (parenting)-trade, and expect that some of them will work some of the time, and the rest we make up as we go along!

I will always remember a client who came to me wanting to be a better parent. Nothing so unusual about that, except that she already had 4 children ranging from 5 months to 8 years! I was flabbergasted. I asked her how she had managed up to now and she said "By the seat of my pants!….that's about it…" I said, "So you make it up as you go along!" She thought about it for a minute and said: “That’s all there is to it?” I said, “That’s it!” She had been thinking that there might be some special formula. It turned out that affirmation and reassurance was what was really needed.)

My two guiding rules for myself are:

There is a vast difference between consistency and predictability. Being consistent creates safety, order, and stability. Being consistently predictable creates boredom, sameness, and stuckness. Do something different.

Old Chinese Proverb: If you, don't do something different, you'll keep heading the direction that you are going.

7. Ground-rules: Interactions, especially with people we live with every day, need some ground-rules to help us clarify:

I am often amazed to notice that some parents have all sorts of limits, rules and regulations for their children, but very few clearly defined limits and boundaries for themselves.

How often have you seen utterly exasperated parents saying things like: "I've reached my limit!" or "I'm at the end of my rope!" What is the meta-message here? That one is functioning from the very borders or edges of one' s limits? In my ‘survival scheme’, being centered involves (in large part) living out of the centre of one's limits, not on the edges of them. Case in point:

My daughter got into the habit of "forgetting" to feed her fish. Because I tend to personify absolutely anything that is alive - no doubt the fallout from the blitz of cartoons where trees sing, flowers dance, and animal families get dressed up to go to "the City" - I tend to get ‘antsy' (so to speak!) at the thought of any animal not being nurtured, fed, or walked (which literally makes me cross my legs!) Even a dry plant makes me upset as I image these horrible gasps for W -A- T - E-R.

So I have all that going on when she tells me she “forgot” to feed the fish. Also going on, is my irritation that my child doesn't have the compassion, empathy and caring, to feed these poor, helpless, sweet little fish….ughhhh…..(it's really not all that difficult to lose control - in fact it's damned easy at times!)

Hence, I got in the habit of saying "How would you feel if I forgot to feed you?" to which she'd respond with utter horror: “Mommy, don't say that!”

And I wouldn't for awhile…until over time I'd “forget” and say it again. One day she said (with so much firmness that I knew I'd overstepped her boundaries): “I want you to promise that you will never ever say that again - ever - do you promise?

I jolted into my listening-mode...something important to be learned here…. (Note: I totally took care of and protected my own frustrated parts until later.) I listened. I heard. I found out that she was far less concerned about the fish than I. I gently probed - with an Attitude - the Focusing one! The real issue came out: She wanted turtles!

She was afraid to tell me because she knew (and she was right) that I'd defend the fish, and tell her that if she couldn't take care of fish, she couldn't take care of turtles, either. So she thought if she could just sort of….“forget” about them every now and then….well….she just might assist (with a little alacrity) their entry into fish heaven! (I think this is called passive/aggressive!)

Not surprisingly, she felt much better about getting the truth out, and even began feeding the fish on a more regular basis. I would be remiss here, if I did not own up to my part in the story. Because I realized that the fish meant more to me than they did to her, I decided to ‘feel wonderful’ when I had the ‘opportunity’ (i.e. she'd forget) to feed and ‘interact’ with them...(how much can you interact with a fish…??) more accurately, use the fish-feeding time as sort of meditation: stare into the tank and watch their wonderfully fluid movements...while letting my mind just drift off into my own internal world...some time to think...not such a terrible punishment after all!

Some Suggestions:

Understand this word and its meaning in the deepest sense. Make the meta view the roof over everything: actions, thoughts, interactions, etc. If you get stuck in life, go sit on the metaphorical roof: look out, see it again from a higher and wider position.

We are all growing and evolving. We do a real disservice to our children if we create the impression that only they are growing, and somehow we have ‘arrived’. In spiritual work we are taught that we are all students and all teachers all of the time. Children are wonderful teachers and they should be acknowledged as such, e.g. "I learned something wonderful from you today!" One of the great joys of parenting is when you exclaim in wonderment: "That's wonderful. Where did you learn that?" And they say, bursting with pride: "Don't you remember, I learned that from you!"

The following are some guidelines I use in my Parenting Classes:

  1. Don't teach them what they should believe: Teach them what you believe. Then, teach them not to believe even you - until they have thought it through, or had a direct felt experience.
  2. Teach them how to think, not what to think. Then they can live out of their own felt truths.
  3. Teach them the value of silence, of quiet time, and being alone. Teach them the difference between ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’, and how their own company can be the best of all.
  4. Teach them how to listen to their own bodies, and to value and honor what their bodies are telling them. With young children make fun examples of what it sounds like when the head is talking and when the body is talking, e.g. And your head says, “Mmmmm, I want all the chocolate in the box”, but the body is saying, "I think I'm full now". Let them give you examples.
  5. Affirm regularly: I believe in you, I trust you, I trust that you can sort this out, find a solution. I know you can handle this.
  6. Show them how to problem solve. Show them how you go about problem solving. How do you come up with plans and strategies? How do you combine checking with your felt-sense, as well as good, clear, reasoning? Learning how to problem solve can begin as soon as they can comprehend: “Gee, I wonder how we should do this….got any ideas?” They often have some wonderful ones that you never would have dreamed of! Affirm them: “That was clever! –good job!!
  7. Live in wonderment! When our daughter was about four years old, we bought her first box of Lego’s. We all gathered on the living room floor, emptied everything out of the box, showed her how the Lego’s worked, (my husband built a model bridge as an example), then we just waited…. So what did she do? She played for hours with the box! She kept re-arranging the wrapping, putting the Lego’s back in the box, then taking them out again. My first (passing) thought, was that maybe something was ‘wrong’ with her – that wasn’t what you were ‘supposed’ to do. My second (not-so-passing) thought was how ‘stilted’ I’d become – needing to do things the ‘right’ way. What an eye opener!

Discipline/Boundaries:

  1. Tell them what you need, want, expect, then recruit them to help figure out the best way to implement it, in a way that that they can live with – that they find manageable then, follow through:
    - let it be their process
    - respect that they have their own unique rhythms & styles
    - value their ability to sort, reason, and find their own way within reasonable limits
    - make learning fun, interesting, a challenge - not a chore
  2. Negotiate as much as possible from the time they can start understanding. Examples:
    With small children:
    NOT: Do you want to wear pajamas?
    RATHER: Do you want to wear the red ones or the green ones?
    With older children:
    NOT: Do you want to clean up your room?
    RATHER: When do you feel is the best time for you to clean your room? (Before school
    after school, after dinner, etc.)

    If it isn't done, what do they think should happen? (Consequence)
  3. Tell the truth: If you are tired, don't try to convince them that they should go to bed. Make
    "I" statements: "I'm tired and need to go ‘off duty’ at 8:30 p.m. If you’d like a story (or help with homework, etc.), I think it will need to be before that time…."
  4. If you can't do it the way they want, make "I" statements, give an explanation, and negotiate something else: "I really understand that you want us to spend some time on your project. This is not a good time for me. What are some other times that would be good for you?"
  5. Get in the habit of making "You statements" positive ones:
    - You 're a great kid
    - You 're so much fun to be with
    - You have a wonderful mind
    - You’re so funny…you always make me laugh!
  6. With older kids: Use the same boundaries you would with anyone else in your life:
    If an adult said: "I hate you", it is unlikely that you would say, "You have a big mouth
    and I'm going to wash it out with soap!
    " More likely you would stop and say one of two things (reflective or subjective). Either:
    - “Wow, you're really angry” or
    - “It hurts me when you talk like that. I don't like it”.
  7. Teach them about boundaries by sharing your own. Talk about why the boundaries are different with different people, about appropriateness and inappropriateness, why yes is OK with some people, and no is better with others. Help them find their own felt examples.
  8. Make talking/listening time separate and apart from the babble of daily details about plans, classes, extra-curricular activities – just as a Focusing session is different from a chat. Listen, support, guide, and gently, be there, and teach them how to listen and support you.
  9. Sort out for yourself the difference between caring, concern, and control. The older they are, the more able they are to devise their own reasonable rules that work for everyone in the family.
    Watching your child ‘goof’, and have to take responsibility and pay the consequences, is one of the most agonizing jobs of parenting. We want to fix-it, we don’t want them to hurt. Our care and concern is so very normal – and the outgrowth of a loving heart. However, when caring and concern move into control and over-management, we disempower our children, and rob them of the opportunity to learn competence.
  10. Let dignity, respect, right speech, and right attitude guide the relationship. If you would ask a friend to help you clean up the dinner dishes, why would you tell a child to do the same thing? And if you asked a friend to do something for you that they had previously agreed to, and they said they couldn't right now, you would hardly shriek at them: "Why not you lazy so-and-so!" You might rather ask: "When might it be possible or convenient?", respecting their space.

In closing, I believe that it is a fallacy and an illusion that parenting is natural, any more than learning how to live in a long term relationship is natural. They are both an art and skill, and take a great deal of work, effort, thought, and negotiation – and - the time and energy spent in the process is well worth it!

Inspirational References:

Bandle, R. & Grinder, J. (1982). Reframing. Utah: Real People Press.

Briggs, Corkille, D. (1975). Your child's self esteem. New York: Doubleday & Co.
Co1oroso, B. (1994). Kids are worth it: Giving your child the gift of inner discipline. Toronto, Sommerville House.

De Shazer, S. (1991). Putting difference to work. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Dreikers, R (1987). Children the challenge. New York: Plume Books.
Farber, A. & Mazlish, E. (1980). How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk. New York: Avon Books.

Gendlin, E. T. (1981). Focusing. New York: Bantam Books.

Gordon, T. (1970). Parent effectiveness training. New York: Van Rees Press.

Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton.