Are You Talking About My Child?!

Kindergarten teacher reading to children in library

Have you ever gone to a parent-teacher conference and thought the teacher had you mixed up with some other parent?

Are you talking about Tommy Wilson, you ask? “Yes I am,” the teacher replies, “He’s very helpful in class, always finishes tasks early and then goes around helping others. He’s a go-getter, a real delight to have in the classroom.”  How can it be that the Tommy Wilson who’s a go-getter in the classroom is the same child that can’t start, let alone finish, tasks at home?

Anthony Wolf, in his book The Secret of Parenting (2002), explains the conundrum this way, “It’s an example of a phenomenon that is true of all children, all adults, everybody.  Each of us has two separate and distinct modes of operating–in essence two separate selves.”

He goes on to describe these two separate selves–one is an at-home self he calls the “baby self” and the other exists mainly in the world outside the home, called the “mature self.” If you think about it, you’ll realize that you operate in these two modes throughout your day, switching between them as the situation requires.

After a stressful day at work holding it all together in a professional, mature, responsible way, you walk through the door at home, and collapse on the couch. You don’t want to talk, you don’t want to listen, you just want some time to yourself. This is your baby self crying out to be fed. The baby self feeds itself by indulging, relaxing, unwinding, and soaking up the good stuff.  As we grow and age, the mature self gradually takes over more of our day-to-day functioning, but the baby self is still there too and like any living part of us, needs to be fed once in a while.

The problem is (and it’s a good problem) if we have created a safe sanctuary for our children at home, then our child’s baby self wants to hang out there and be fed. The baby self can be sweet and cuddly, but the baby self gets stressed when it has to do something it doesn’t want to do. Taking out the trash or setting the table while in the middle of lounging, watching TV or playing a game is major stress to the baby self. And when stressed, the baby self gets cranky and defiant.

It’s helpful, as parents, to see the “good side” of the baby self.  It is only in the baby self mode that our children receive deep nurturing.  It’s when they get replenished and fill their cups so that they can venture out into the world again to be their mature selves.  Wolf says, “With children, this deep nurturing feeds the core of the personality and it is upon this deep nurturing that all else is built. It is the base that allows them to grow and mature and ultimately go out and deal with the world.”

I can vividly recall a conversation I had with my older son when he was in third grade. He was having meltdown after meltdown at home and yet his teachers raved about his model behavior at school. Exasperated I asked, “How can you keep it together so well at school and then act like this when you get home?”  With tears in his eyes, he screamed, “I have to be good all day at school!  I can’t do it all day at home too!”  And thankfully…I got it!  I said, “I am so grateful you hold it together at school. I’m going to cut you some slack at home, buddy.”  And I did. I lowered my expectations of perfect behavior at home and started allowing his baby self some space to be nourished.

Our young children need this replenishing . And it’s a “fact of human psychology that the mere physical presence of a parent brings out the baby self in a child.” When a child feels safe and comfortable, the baby self comes out.  So that’s why Tommy Wilson can stay attentive and mature at school and then completely fall apart at home.  At school, he is a guest on good behavior and that kind of behavior can only be sustained for so long.

♥♥♥ LOVE IN ACTION ♥♥♥ 

The next time your child falls apart at home or wants to lounge around and feed the baby self, be aware that he is receiving deep nurturing that will allow him to go back into the ring with his mature self.  As his mature self grows it will gradually take over more of the day-to-day functioning. But the baby self never fully goes away.  Find a way to honor and feed it so that your child gets the deep nurturing that he needs.

 

a hurt is a hurt is a hurt

Scene from Kramer vs. Kramer

Scene from Kramer vs. Kramer

Nothing brings us running faster to our child’s side than when they get hurt.  Not just a little scratch on the knee kind of hurt, but a howling writhing pain. Especially if there is blood. There’s something in our primitive brain that kicks in, gets the adrenaline going, and gets us moving toward our child to offer support.

Remember the scene in the movie Kramer vs. Kramer where Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ted Kramer, sprints across town in a panic clutching his injured son? (Of course you don’t, that was before your time…but rent it sometime…it’s worth a watch). If you are a parent, there’s no way you can watch that scene and not have your heart in your throat because this is one of our deepest fears….that something will happen to our child.

But what happens when our child experiences a different kind of hurt?  An emotional hurt?  Where, instead of blood, there are lots of tears, or screaming, or angry outbursts.  Most of us aren’t so quick to move toward our child to soothe these kinds of hurts.  Instead we move in the opposite direction, or send our child away, to “get it under control.”

Why do we move toward physical pain….and move away from emotional pain?  It’s a question worth pondering, don’t you think?

Consider the research of psychologists Geoff MacDonald and Mark Leary who have found that the brain regions involved in experiencing physical pain are the same areas involved in experiencing emotional pain. (In their research the emotional pain is in the form of social rejection.) This means that the same area of your child’s brain that lights up with activity when he takes a spill on his bike also lights up when he gets in a heated fight with his sister.

There’s a theory that as we evolved into more emotional social beings, evolution “borrowed” the physical pain neural circuitry already present to also detect and send emotional distress signals to the brain.  Why create a whole new neural system when one’s already in place, right?

So if the same brain region fires whether the pain is physical or emotional, perhaps we should reconsider our attitude toward the emotional kind of pain. Our child’s brain doesn’t seem to know the difference between the two. To the brain, a hurt is a hurt is a hurt.  Maybe it’s too much to send our child into isolation to deal with intense emotions…just like we wouldn’t send him to his room to deal with a broken arm. Maybe we should attempt to soothe emotional pain with the same gusto we attempt to soothe physical pain.

♥♥♥LOVE IN ACTION♥♥♥

The next time your child has a meltdown, try this. Remain calm yourself. Then move toward your child and be the container for those big emotions. Soothe the emotional hurt with empathy and understanding