Last night my eldest daughter "accidentally" checked my youngest daughter's grades and found out that -- according to the online progress report -- she hadn't turned in half her work since school started.
"!!!!" said my husband and I.
After everyone had calmed down, we investigated and found out that technical difficulties were the main cause of this. She didn't just blow off school for three weeks. I am now inserting myself back into the school schedule, helping my girl slow down, tune in, and prioritize.
So I thought today's blog would be about that. Let me look you in the eye while I say it:
What I recognized in this mini crisis with my kiddo is that she was anxious both about and because of doing school at home. My job is not to take over her assignments or micromanage her, but help her find a way to reduce anxiety and self-soothe so she can focus. I need to do this for myself every day as well.
The parenting model I most align with comes from Attachment Theory, which shows that that children come into this word needing to connect with a parent in order to regulate their nervous system and find comfort. Straight from the womb they seek eye contact, and then breast contact. To infants, eyes and nipples look very similar (don't bring this up to my teenager daughters because it makes them go squirmy). This is God's design -- helping them find the two things they need most to survive, because a mother who looks in her child's eyes will be more attuned to their child's needs. I love these photos of me and my daughters because they shows that at least twice I was getting the eye contact thing right.
By providing comfort for babies and young toddlers, parents and caregivers actually help the children's brain form neuropathways to comfort. In their book How We Love, Milan and Kay Yerkovitch explain it this way: “Over time parents provide repeated experiences of moving from stress and tension to being calm and composed…This child learns to bounce back after feeling sad, scared, or agitated. Once the highway has been around a while, the child learns to self-soothe.”
In addition to learning to self-soothe on a cellular level, this teaches kids a spiritual lesson: relationships should be your prime source of comfort -- not isolation, drugs, busyness, fantasies, TV, sugar, or shopping. They learn that connecting with God and people is their best and safest bet.
Frankly, this parenting method is a pain. It takes a lot of time and patience. Because to teach a child that people are comforting, you have to name and validate their emotion, rather than trying to coach or cheer-lead them out of that emotion.
But this slow, focused method is super rewarding, because of it's long term results: less anxious kids with whom you can have a long-lasting bond. It's short-term rewarding too. When you get into the habit of making eye contact with your people, you feel the soothing benefits of eye contact and attunement coming back your way. I find my teenage daughters still coming to me for physical comfort and eye contact (easier, now that they are both as tall as me), and I feel a deep sense of satisfaction that they want to connect with me. And an even deeper satisfaction when someone catches it "on tape" as below.
1. Slow down. Do a stress-relieving activity that helps you be present once a day. Tend your garden. Take a walk. Made a really good sandwich and eat it slowly. Listen to music. Scrolling social media or reading the news on your phone is a lousy brain break. Do better for yourself. 2. Tune into yourself. You can't be present to others when you aren't present to yourself. Take 3 minutes a day to hold still and check in with your body and your mind. If you discover upon check-in that you are cranky, tired, hungry or angry, deal with that emotion, and even warn those around you. It's an exercise in authenticity and vulnerability to say: "Hey hubby, it's not about you. I'm feeling stressed. I'll get back to you soon." 3. Give yourself attunement transitions. If you're in the middle of a writing an email, reading a recipe, or watching a show, and a spouse, child or friend makes a bid for your attention, it's okay to make them wait a few minutes. Finish your thought, put down your phone or the spoon, press pause on the remote, and then lock eyes. My girls have learned the hard way that if they don't give me time to transition when I'm writing, they will have to tell the first half of their story all over because I wasn't really listening yet. 4. Prioritize. Set relational connection over tasks when you can. But even more so, set mental health and connection above achievement. Set grace over perfectionism. The grade panic last night truly caused panic -- my sweet daughter's heart was racing. Our kids are navigating a school year that has all the difficulties and almost none of the benefits. It was more important that I let her try and fail, and then gave grace and empowerment when she struggled, than that she had not had any failure in the first place. For a while, we'll sit down every morning and go over the days work until she gets the hang of it. And I'll keep in mind that learning to trust me for support and trust her own ability to overcome and do hard things is much more important than any grade she'll get at the end of the semester. A final thought. Today I remember the lost victims and first responders in the terrorist attacks of 9-11. I think about what those families wouldn't give for a chance to look their loved ones in the eye again. Let the uncertainty and brevity of this life remind us to be grateful for our precious ones, set them at the top of our priority list.