A lot of parents start Brain Highways with a sigh of relief and this sobering comment, “This program gives me hope.” That statement always makes me sad because I think: How did those parents lose hope in the first place?
It’s a question worth pondering because I don’t believe there’s a single child in this world who wants their parents to feel hopeless about them.
So where does it begin?
I think much hopelessness is triggered by bold, “absolute” statements that some doctors, teachers, and therapists (i.e. people in authority) say to parents about their kids. The problem is . . .such statements don’t allow for the possibility that others—those with different perceptions and experiences—may differ greatly from what that person has just said.
For example, consider the difference between saying, “I don’t know how to help your child learn to speak” and, “Your child will never speak—and you need to accept that.”
Not only does the latter statement slam all doors of hope, but it’s accompanied by a strong subconscious message. Namely, if parents cling to “false” hope, then they must be in denial. With the denial card on the table, the authority figure’s position is reinforced, suggesting he can “see” the situation much more clearly than the one in denial.
But since no one can predict the future for certain, I always wonder why it isn’t equally probable that the person in authority is the one in denial. Yet that’s not where such conversations usually go.
Instead, “absolute” comments often end up only reinforcing our own doubts. After all, we tried many approaches that did not yield desired results. We’re feeling helpless and vulnerable and have probably already wondered if we are at the end of the road, that there is nothing else we can do.
Most of all, we’re tired, so tired of searching for ways to improve the current situation that it seems unbearable to get our hopes up, once again.
So, it’s somewhere around this time, it just seems easier . . . to let go of all hope.
I truly understand how that can happen. But I can’t accept it.
That’s because what started out as the most sincere desire to help the child has now inadvertently shifted to protecting parents from further disappointment. That means that somewhere along the line, the child is no longer the first consideration. That means the child, by default, now becomes the recipient of all that hopelessness that hangs in the air, in unspoken messages, and in the way everyone looks at him.
And that just can’t be right.
Well, how do we turn that around? We can post and remember this truth every day: “As long as we’re breathing, there are options. As long as there are options, we have hope.”
If we need an additional boost, we can also post this saying right below it: “The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.”
I’ve had the honor of knowing lots of families whose experiences underscore that sentiment. I’m also thinking it’s the kind of spirit every child wants to see in the eyes of everyone they know.
Is the criterion for perfect parents . . . how parents’ kids turn out?
Hmm . . . we all know of amazing people who contributed greatly to this world, yet they suffered horrifying childhood experiences. And we also know of parents whose kids turned to drugs or traveled down other wayward paths despite growing up in a loving home. So those two realities kinda make it difficult to point to kids as proof as to who is and is not a great parent.
And yet, there’s no end to critics who judge parents based on how their kids are acting at any given moment. If such folks envision their criticism helpful, they’re mistaken. I’ve only seen those messages make parents doubt their own parenting potential, while perpetuating the myth that perfect parents even exist.
Well, they don’t. Maybe there are perfect parents among aliens, but not here on Earth. On this planet, parenting is a life-long course, where we are continually learning.
But what if we lose sight of that truth? Then our kids pay the price.
For example, how can kids feel safe and secure if moms and dads rank themselves anything less than a 10 (on a 1-10 parenting scale)? Would that be like boarding a plane and discovering our pilot ranks his aeronautical skills less than a 10? Would we suddenly feel anxious? Would we hope the co-pilot (or somebody) quickly steps in?
That’s why we really have to believe we’re a solid 10-rating when it comes to parenting. Anything less triggers our kids’ subconscious in a way that then throws them (and everyone else) off balance.
How does that happen? Well, if we don’t believe we’re 100% capable to lead, then why would our kids feel 100% confident to follow?
In such case, it’s no surprise that some kids try to take the reins. However, that often looks like defiance, like the child wants to control everything. But that control is not about wanting to lead. Rather, it generates from a feeling of insecurity that no one else is truly in charge.
So, first we have to relinquish the quest for “the perfect parent” since that seems to go hand-in-hand with parent rankings lower than a 10.
Then, in its place, we can ask ourselves two questions: How can we guide our kids in the most effective way? What can we do to establish a trusting bond between our kids and ourselves?
Here are some answers:
1. We’re open to new ideas (e.g. we don’t think “our” way is the only way to do something).
2. We view “mistakes”—both ours and our kids—as merely opportunities to learn.
3. We don’t hesitate to apologize to our kids if we wished we had responded differently.
4. We ensure our own “negative stories” (i.e. what others imprinted on us) are not passed down to our kids.
5. We help our kids discover their innate gifts and find ways for them to share those with others.
6. We approach situations with curiosity, rather than with judgment
7. We model and encourage our kids to explore options, rather than revert to fight or flight behavior.
8. We accept more than we expect.
9. We believe everything is possible (why not?) and pass that kind of optimism to our kids.
10. We take time out of each day to be truly present with our kids.
But most of all, we remember the above is not a linear process. That’s why we also forgive ourselves whenever we don’t portray ourselves as we may have wished. That, too, is a powerful message to pass onto our kids.
And guess what? If we give up the idea of perfect parents, then (by default), we also give up the idea of perfect kids.
Now, what kid wouldn’t want to grow up in that kind of environment?
Is our reaction to our kid’s next year’s teacher based on personal experience, or is it coming from what we’ve heard on the soccer field, walking around the neighborhood, or playing cards at Bunko?
If it’s the latter, how many of those parents actually had first-hand experience with our child’s assigned teacher?
For example, one of my daughter’s absolutely best elementary school teachers was believed to be (by the neighborhood gauge) so dreadful that many parents considered changing schools rather than have their child enrolled in that class. In contrast, my child’s worst year was with a prior “teacher of the year” who was the neighborhood favorite. Go figure.
But my point: It’s only your child’s experience with the teacher that matters. So, why not keep an open mind for now?
Some schools post class lists a few days prior to the start of school, while others send home a letter with just the teacher’s name and room number.
Of the two scenarios, the latter creates the most angst since parents (and kids) immediately get on the phone to see who else is in the same class. But what’s the message here? The school year is going to be terrible if our child’s best friend is in another classroom? Thought the classroom was . . . a place to learn. And what about making new friends?
People don’t move into a neighborhood per criteria that ensures the right number of kids for each class at each grade level. So, sometimes administrators have to create combination classes (two grade levels in one classroom). That means some kids have to be in those classrooms, including . . . maybe ours. Before we start dwelling on problems a combo class might present, why not wait to learn how the teacher plans to meet different grade level expectations?
The Portable Classroom
Sure, portables may be not as cozy and attractive as the main buildings, but what’s the alternative? Would we rather the school ban portables and bus our kids to another school?
The First Morning
Is our send-off showing we’re confident the day will go well, or is it long and laced with a subconscious message that reflects our own doubts and worries?
The truth is . . . none of us know how the first day of school will go. So if worrying made a positive difference in the outcome, then I’d say . . . worry away! But it doesn’t. In fact, the more anxiety we have over our child’s first day, the more likely whatever we’re “putting out there” may even happen.
So why hold on to any first-day-of-school anxiety? Why not just look forward to the possibility of a new, wonderful school year?
I get asked a lot, “What can I do to make my spouse more supportive?
I suspect the question stems from a hope that I have clever ways of prompting spouses to change . . . in order to act the way the person (who’s asking) thinks is best.
However, my response to that question is always the same: Nothing.
Huh? There’s nothing we can do to get more spousal support?
That’s right. Do nothing. Quit pushing.
Why? Well, think about the laws of physics. The more we push against something resistant, the more it pushes back. My guess is that those asking that question have already tried every persuasive argument—and still, there’s no change.
So then, what happens when we quit pushing? We no longer get resistance. That’s already a notable improvement over having no support and resistance.
In doing the above, we also consider the possibility there may be more than one effective way to approach a problem, that our way is not necessarily the only, right way. Humbling to consider, but true.
Now, can we ask our spouse a few questions that loosely fall under maybe igniting some support? Yes. But we ask these questions just once—and we don’t have pre-set answers, whereupon we become irritated if we don’t get the response we want.
Examples of such questions are:
Are you interested in reading any of the material (on a topic we want our spouse to be more supportive)?
Are you okay if I read aloud to you a few interesting paragraphs (on a topic we want our spouse to be more supportive)? Note: the latter sometimes presents itself as an opportunity while riding in a car together.
Would you be willing to (fill in the blank) while I am working with our child on (fill in the blank)? Here, we’re not asking for direct support. Rather, we’re inquiring whether our spouse may be willing to help in another way (that we both perceive as necessary). For example, maybe our spouse goes to the store to pick up a few things for dinner while we’re working with our child.
But won’t kids get confused if both parents aren’t supporting (whatever)? No. It only becomes a problem if one parent feels the need to undermine the other parents’ efforts by making negative comments in front of the child. In such case, that parent is now doing the pushing, the assumption that his or her way of thinking is “correct.”
So I support a truce from both parents, where everyone stops pushing.
Last, time (not more attempts to persuade different thinking) will ultimately tell its own story. If we’ve chosen to help our kids in a way that results in significant, positive changes, that says it all.
There are no parenting genes. Anyone can become the kind of parent they aspire to be. It all has to do with how our brain is wired.
In short, if we want better connections with our kids, we can have that by creating new and better connections in our own brain. So where do we begin?
Learn about Myelin
Myelin is live tissue that slowly wraps around neurons (in a way that’s similar to insulation). With each layer of myelin, we create a bit more bandwidth and precision to a neural circuit.
But myelin never “knows” what it’s wrapping. Simply, circuits that fire get insulated.
So we can create new parenting circuits (by changing how we think and what we do), and myelin will wrap fibers around them. Voila! And that’s true whether we’re American or Chinese or Mexican—or from any country in the world.
That’s why I’ve come to think of myelin as parents’ new best friend. We all have an innate way to rewire how we interact with our kids.
Ignite our Brain
For the longest time, everyone thought it was impossible for humans to run a mile in less than four minutes. But then Roger Bannister broke that barrier. Just a few weeks later, John Landy did the same. Within three years, no fewer than 17 runners had broken the four-minute mile.
The explanation? These runners’ brains were now ignited to believe that they, too, could do this.
As parents, we can also ignite our brain by believing, “I can do this—I can change my neural pathways.”
Getting Started: The First Four Steps
The first four steps focus on believing in our potential, becoming aware of thoughts that interfere with effective parenting, and challenging prior mindsets.
Step 1. We believe that we can rewire our brain to parent in new and different ways.
While outside sources may have previously criticized our kids and us (even though those critics never actually demonstrated how to bring about change, either), they were wrong. We can wire our brain so that we wow and awe people with our parenting finesse.
Step 2. We identify which of our thoughts and actions have created undesirable networks.
Some examples of unproductive thinking entrenched in our brain may be:
We believe the child has something fundamentally “wrong” with him—that cannot change, no matter what.
We think the child is making a conscious decision to to act in a way that we perceive negatively.
We point to someone else as the cause of the undesired behavior.
We think the child’s behavior should change without us doing anything differently.
We believe the child needs rescuing and is incapable of learning to act independently.
We attach a past and future “narrative” to what others only view as a simple action in the present.
Step 3. We’re aware that our subconscious affects our child’s actions and brain wiring.
Our unconscious mind can process 11 million bits of information per second, while the conscious mind processes a mere 40. That means we send lots of primal cues—subconscious messages—to our kids. So how does that affect our daily interactions?
Was our subconscious message more powerful than whatever we consciously said or did?
Does our child try to take control because he senses there is no consistent leader in the home?
Do primal cues tell our child that she’s not like other family members so she acts in ways that reinforce that belief?
Does our child break the toy because we already “knew” he would before we even handed it to him?
We also have to consider how our own subconscious may actually want our child to act negatively. Perhaps, we need a distraction so that we don’t have to deal with whatever is buried in our subconscious. Maybe, we need to be needed. In such cases, the child is only responding to whatever message we’re sending.
Step 4. We rattle prior mindsets and convictions, head-on, until they’re gone.
If we don’t change our mindset, then (by default) those negative circuits are going to keep lighting up in our brain. And we’ll keep wrapping myelin around pathways that only lead to dark alleys.
So, if we’re having trouble shaking old ways of thinking, we say aloud what we believe to be fact. Then we ask ourselves this question: How is that way of thinking working for me (i.e. Has it brought about positive changes)? If our answer ranges anywhere from “not so good” to “horrible”—then, maybe it’s time to chuck that circuit. After all, what do we have to lose?
(Parenting with a New Brain: Part 2 appears in the next post.)
Creating New Parenting Pathways: The Second Four Steps
After addressing the first four steps (Part 1’s post), the second four steps focus on ignoring prior circuits, building new ones, and celebrating the process.
Step 1. We implement the second part of “Use it or lose it” when referring to the brain.
Since we actually want to lose negative networks, we no longer allow ourselves to think or do whatever created them in the first place. In other words, we shut down myelin production for those circuits. Today.
Step 2. We build new circuits that reflect a different way of thinking and then wrap lots of myelin around those neural networks.
We say new thoughts to ourselves, to our child, and to lots of other people—knowing that every time we do so, we’re wrapping more myelin around those circuits and disregarding old ones.
Some examples of such statements are:
Step 3. We adopt a new, 3-part plan of action for interacting with our child.
Without the pause, we’re likely to go right down some prior, well-established circuit that we now want to avoid.
We do something different.
That way, we’re laying down a new circuit
We’re curious about what just transpired.
Rather than having a knee-jerk reaction (e.g. See? Nothing works with this kid!) or judging ourselves (I’m not good at remembering which technique to use), we now merely reflect with curiosity as to why our new response did or did not work.
This nonjudgmental way of thinking then makes our brain feel safe to explore situations and form new insights. Parenting simply becomes an opportunity to learn—both about ourselves and our kids.
Step 4. We recognize signs of new wiring and celebrate.
Some examples of how we (not our kids) have changed are:
Instead of believing our child bears the responsibility to change, we now begin sentences that focus on what we (as the parents) can do differently.
Instead of thinking there’s a right or wrong way to respond to our kids, we look at situations as feedback and opportunities to learn something new.
Instead of judging our kids, we now look at all behavior (including our own) with curiosity.
Instead of becoming upset or resigned when our child does an undesired behavior, we adopt a demeanor similar to a paramedic (i.e. calm, assertive).
Instead of dwelling on the past or having angst over the future, we no longer attach personal narratives to whatever is happening in the present.
Instead of solving problems for our kids, we allow them to experience some struggle (but not so much that the brain shuts down), knowing that operating on the edges of our ability actually produces more myelin than when we aren’t challenged.
Instead of focusing on what our kids still cannot do, we applaud their willingness to explore, re-think, and give something a whirl.
There is no getting around it: Our own brain wiring is directly linked to our child’s behavior. If we want our child to change (somehow), we need to first look at how we can change.
However, since myelin wrapping can be slow, we also need to remember to be kind and patient with ourselves during this process.
In fact, just thinking about creating new parenting circuits . . . is a terrific start.