I’ve once again found myself engaged in a practical conversation about parenting on facebook that has yielded not only practical advice, but also a small spiritual insight. I’m fortunate to be part of a facebook group dedicated to exploring and discussing the practicalities of RIE parenting, and the intentional and reflective spirit of that community has led to a useful collision of other people’s ideas floating around in my brain: in this case, practical parenting advice, an intriguing psychological concept I heard about on Invisibilia, and my aspiration to become a Bodhisattva warrior, or a fierce warrior of compassion.
It all started with a thoughtful question a mother had about how to help her child through tasks she’s resisting without resorting to carrying her. The practical parenting strategy came, as it so often does for me, from Janet Lansbury and her blog Elevating Childcare. She describes a concept she calls “confident momentum,” which is a mindset parents can adopt to help their children move through their resistance to everyday tasks:
Confident momentum means coming in (not on) strong, the way athletes do as they wind up for a pitch, or swing a bat, racket or golf club. We’re prepared for the likelihood of resistance and will meet it with positive action.
This concept is useful when you’re helping your young child through transitions such as leaving the house, getting dressed, or brushing teeth–times when the child is likely to refuse, to stall, or to otherwise draw out these necessary tasks ad infinitum. My oldest, age 3.5 years, is really quite good at this. She can make getting in the car feel next to impossible sometimes: I never knew there were so many ways to effectively drag your feet! But it turns out you can just throw your body on the floor, meander and stall, or otherwise refuse to move along and it will very effectively slow things down. I just want to go out the dang door before my youngest falls asleep in the house instead of in his stroller, and here, yet again, is my oldest child seemingly trying to make my life impossible by crumpling onto the floor and refusing to cooperate–with going to the park! Just 5 minutes ago she was desperately excited to go play with her friend and now she’s refusing to put on her shoes.
As any parent knows, this is incredibly frustrating. When I try to pick her up or otherwise hurry her along, she often kicks and screams or digs in her heels even more. Often, she successfully dodges me or otherwise escapes from moving towards the door. Now what? I go collect her YET AGAIN? Even more frustrating! In our house, it’s made going out the door a defeating, drawn-out process, even if I do eventually manage to somehow get both kids strapped into their carseats and all the necessary diapers and snacks into a bag and into the car. I don’t know about you, but when I’m frustrated and carrying a surprisingly strong child kicking, screaming, yelling, spitting, and hitting out the door and to the car, I don’t feel particularly zen-like on the inside. I don’t naturally respond to getting hit and yelled at with calm patience and confident kindness. I don’t instinctively strap her into her carseat with consummate gentleness. And yet, this might be what’s needed to get out the door without feeling like I’ve won the battle while losing the war.
This is where I had my small personal insight–the practice of intentionally engaging in noncomplementary behavior could be really useful. It’s a really fascinating idea, and one with which many of us are familiar through the incredible lives of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi, both of whom met aggression and hostility with peaceful resilience and nonviolence on a large scale. I first came across the term while listening to an episode of Invisibilia called “Flip the Script”:
the basic idea is that people naturally mirror each other. So when someone is hostile to you, you are typically hostile back. Warmth begets warmth. And breaking this pattern – say, being really warm to somebody after they’ve been incredibly hostile to you – that is noncomplementary behavior. And according to Hopwood, it’s incredibly hard to do.
(In case you’re wondering, Hopwood is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University who studies how people interact with one another).
I know this is something I’m intimately familiar with–when someone snaps at me, I often snap back. And when my daughter screams “don’t talk!!” at me and crumples to the floor in a heap because I asked her to put on her shoes so we can head out the door, I often feel irritated. But what if I didn’t respond to her with a sigh of frustration (or worse)? What if I could flip the script, so to speak? What if instead of reacting in kind, meeting her hostility with my own, I took the responsibility for my own emotions, and didn’t mirror her overwhelm and aggression? If, instead of letting irritation creep into my voice and roughness creep into my movements, I could “prepare for the likelihood of resistance,” and” meet it with positive action”?
Either way, we’re heading out the door, but I could choose to be calm, confident, and gentle while we do. I know my immediate experience of the situation would be more pleasant. But what about her? I also know from random experience that my own peace and calm would eventually spread to my children as well; after all, “warmth begets warmth.”
It’s really simple as an idea, but so challenging to do. It takes practice. But what a glorious practice it is! Meeting aggression and anger with peace and calm is wildly powerful–this others have shown us throughout history. It takes great inner strength to maintain our equanimity in the face of hostility, which is why we rightfully admire the civil rights protestors who remained calm while being spat on and worse. I’m not going to pretend I’m good at it, or that I’m dealing with something as vast and unjust as systemic racism (though they, too, had to practice). But when I’m lucky, I can make going to the park with an angry preschooler into an opportunity to practice becoming a warrior of peace.