WHOLEHEARTED PARENTING

 


CHAPTER 7


WHOLEHEARTED
PARENTING:

DARING TO BE THE ADULTS
WE WANT OUR CHILDREN TO BE

Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting. In terms of teaching our children to dare greatly in the “never enough” culture, the question isn’t so much “Are you parenting the right way?” as it is: “Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?”

 

PARENTING IN A CULTURE OF NEVER ENOUGH

Most of us would love a color-coded parenting handbook that answers all of our unanswerable questions, comes with guarantees, and minimizes our vulnerability. We want to know that if we follow certain rules or adhere to the method espoused by a certain parenting expert, our children will sleep through the night, be happy, make friends, achieve professional success, and stay safe. The uncertainty of parenting can bring up feelings in us that range from frustration to terror.


Our need for certainty in an endeavor as uncertain as raising children makes explicit “how-to-parent” strategies both seductive and dangerous. I say “dangerous” because certainty often breeds absolutes, intolerance, and judgment. That’s why parents are so critical of one another—we latch on to a method or approach and very quickly our way becomes the way. When we obsess over our parenting choices to the extent that most of us do, and then see someone else making different choices, we often perceive that difference as direct criticism of how we are parenting.


Ironically, parenting is a shame and judgment minefield precisely because most of us are wading through uncertainty and self-doubt when it comes to raising our children. After all, we rarely engage in self-righteous judgment when we feel confident about our decisions: I’m not going to practically knock myself unconscious with a shaming eye roll about your nonorganic milk if I feel good about what I’m feeding my children. But if doubt lurks beneath my choices, that self-righteous critic will spring to life in not-so-subtle parenting moments that happen because my underlying fear of not being the perfect parent is driving my need to confirm that, at the very least, I’m better than you.


Somewhere buried deep inside our hopes and fears for our children is the terrifying truth that there is no such thing as perfect parenting and there are no guarantees. From debates about attachment parenting and how much better they parent in Europe to disparagement of “tiger moms” and helicopter parents, the heated discussions that occupy much of the national parenting conversation conveniently distract us from this important and difficult truth: Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.


I’m not a parenting expert. In fact, I’m not sure that I even believe in the idea of “parenting experts.” I’m an engaged, imperfect parent and a passionate researcher. As I mentioned in the introduction, I’m an experienced mapmaker and a stumbling traveler. Like many of you, parenting is by far my boldest and most daring adventure.


From the very beginning of my research on shame, I’ve always collected data on parenting and paid close attention to how research participants talked about being parented and about parenting. The reason is simple: Our stories of worthiness—of being enough—begin in our first families. The narrative certainly doesn’t end there, but what we learn about ourselves and how we learn to engage with the world as children sets a course that either will require us to spend a significant part of our life fighting to reclaim our self-worth or will give us hope, courage, and resilience for our journey.


There’s no question that our behavior, thinking, and emotions are both hardwired within us and influenced by our environment. I wouldn’t hazard a guess on the percentages, and I’m convinced that we’ll never have a precise nature/nurture breakdown. I have no doubt, however, that when it comes to our sense of love, belonging, and worthiness, we are most radically shaped by our families of origin—what we hear, what we are told, and perhaps most importantly, how we observe our parents engaging with the world.


As parents, we may have less control than we think over temperament and personality, and less control than we want over the scarcity culture. But we do have powerful parenting opportunities in other areas: how we help our children understand, leverage, and appreciate their hardwiring, and how we teach them resilience in the face of relentless “never enough” cultural messages. In terms of teaching our children to dare greatly in the “never enough” culture, the question isn’t so much “Are you parenting the right way?” as it is: “Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?”


As Joseph Chilton Pearce writes, “What we areteaches the child more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.” Even though the vulnerability of parenting is terrifying at times, we can’t afford to armor ourselves against it or push it away—it is our richest, most fertile ground for teaching and cultivating connection, meaning, and love.


Vulnerability lies at the center of the family story. It defines our moments of greatest joy, fear, sorrow, shame, disappointment, love, belonging, gratitude, creativity, and everyday wonder. Whether we’re holding our children or standing beside them or chasing them down or talking through their locked door, vulnerability is what shapes who we are and who our children are.


By pushing away vulnerability, we turn parenting into a competition that’s about knowing, proving, executing, and measuring rather than being. If we put aside the question of “Who’s better?” and put down the yardsticks of school admissions, grades, sports, trophies, and accomplishments, I think the vast majority of us will agree that what we want for our children is what we want for ourselves—we want to raise children who live and love with their whole hearts.


If Wholeheartedness is the goal, then above all else we should strive to raise children who:

 
  • Engage with the world from a place of worthiness
  • Embrace their vulnerabilities and imperfections
  • Feel a deep sense of love and compassion for themselves and others
  • Value hard work, perseverance, and respect
  • Carry a sense of authenticity and belonging with them, rather than searching for it in external places
  • Have the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and creative
  • Don’t fear feeling ashamed or unlovable if they are different or if they are struggling
  • Move through our rapidly changing world with courage and a resilient spirit

For parents this means we are called upon to:

 
  • Acknowledge that we can’t give our children what we don’t have and so we must let them share in our journey to grow, change, and learn
  • Recognize our own armor and model for our children how to take it off, be vulnerable, show up, and let ourselves be seen and known
  • Honor our children by continuing on our own journeys toward Wholeheartedness
  • Parent from a place of “enough” rather than scarcity
  • Mind the gap and practice the values we want to teach
  • Dare greatly, possibly more than we’ve ever dared before

In other words, if we want our children to love and accept who they are, our job is to love and accept who we are. We can’t use fear, shame, blame, and judgment in our own lives if we want to raise courageous children. Compassion and connection—the very things that give purpose and meaning to our lives—can only be learned if they are experienced. And our families are our first opportunities to experience these things.


In this chapter, I want to share what I’ve learned about worthiness, shame resilience, and vulnerability specifically from my parenting research. This work has profoundly transformed the way that Steve and I think and feel about parenting. It has dramatically changed our priorities, our marriage, and our day-to-day behaviors. Because Steve is a pediatrician, we spend lots of time discussing parenting research and various parenting models. My goal here is not to teach you how to parent, but to share what might be a new lens through which to view the great dare of raising Wholehearted children.

UNDERSTANDING AND COMBATING SHAME

It’s a terrible myth to believe that once we have children, our journey ends and theirs begins. For many of us, the most interesting and productive times in our lives come after we have children. For the majority of us, the greatest challenges and struggles also come in midlife and later. Wholehearted parenting is not having it all figured out and passing it down—it’s learning and exploring together. And trust me, there are times when my children are way ahead of me on the journey, either waiting for me or reaching back to pull me along.


As I mentioned in the introduction, if you roughly divide the men and women I’ve interviewed into two groups—those who feel a deep sense of love and belonging, and those who struggle for it—only one variable separates the groups: Those who feel lovable, who love, and who experience belonging simply believe they are worthy of love and belonging. I often say that Wholeheartedness is like the North Star: We never really arrive, but we certainly know if we’re headed in the right direction. Raising children who believe in their worthiness requires us to model that journey and that struggle.


The important thing to know about worthiness is that it doesn’t have prerequisites. Most of us, on the other hand, have a long list of worthiness prerequisites—qualifiers that we’ve inherited, learned, and unknowingly picked up along the way. Most of these prerequisites fall in the categories of accomplishments, acquisitions, and external acceptance. It’s the if/when problem (“I’ll be worthy when…” or “I’ll be worthy if…”). They may not be written down, and we may not even be aware of the prerequisites, but we all have a list that says, “I’ll be worthy…”

 
  • When I lose this weight
  • If I get accepted into this school
  • If my wife’s not cheating
  • If we don’t get divorced
  • If I get promoted
  • When I get pregnant
  • When he asks me out
  • When we buy a house in this neighborhood
  • If no one finds out

Shame loves prerequisites. Our if/when worthiness list easily doubles as the gremlins’ to-do list. Don’t let her forget that her mom thinks she should lose that baby weight. Remind him that his new boss only respects guys with MBAs. Poke her if she forgets that all of her friends made partner last year.


As parents, we help our children develop shame resilience and worthiness by staying very mindful about the prerequisites that we’re knowingly or unknowingly handing down to them. Are we sending them overt or covert messages about what makes them more and less lovable? Or are we focusing on behaviors that need to change and making it clear that their essential worthiness is not on the table? I often tell parents that some of the most destructive covert messages that we send our children stem from the feminine and masculine norms that we discussed in Chapter 3. Are we overtly or covertly telling our daughters that thin, nice, and modest are prerequisites for worthiness? Are we teaching our girls to respect boys as tender and loving beings? Are we sending messages to our sons that we expect them to be emotionally stoic, to put money and status first, and to be aggressive? Are we teaching our sons to respect women and girls as smart and capable people, not objects?


Perfectionism is another fount of prerequisites. In a dozen years of studying worthiness, I’m convinced that perfectionism is actually contagious. If we struggle with being, living, and looking absolutely perfect, we might as well line our children up and slip those little perfection straitjackets right over their heads. Just as a reminder from Chapter 4, perfectionism is not teaching them how to strive for excellence or be their best selves. Perfectionism is teaching them to value what other people think over what they think or how they feel. It’s teaching them to perform, please, and prove. Unfortunately, I have many examples from my own life.


For instance, when Ellen got her first tardy at school, she immediately broke down crying. She was so upset about breaking the rules and upsetting her teacher or the principal that she just fell apart. We kept telling her that it wasn’t a big deal and that everyone is late sometimes until she felt better. That evening we celebrated surviving our first tardy with a little “tardy party” after dinner. She finally agreed that it wasn’t a big deal and that other people probably didn’t judge her for being human.


Fast-forward four days to Sunday morning. We’re running late for church and I’m in tears. “Why can’t we ever get out of here on time! We’re going to be late!” Ellen looked up at me and earnestly asked, “Dad and Charlie will be here in one minute. Are we missing something important?” Without hesitating, I said, “No! I just hate walking in late and sneaking down the aisle. It’s the 9 o’clock service, not the 9:05 service.” She looked confused for a second, then grinned as she said, “It’s not a big deal. Everyone’s late sometimes. Remember? I’ll throw a tardy party for you when we get home.”


Sometimes prerequisites and perfectionism are handed down in very subtle ways. One of the very best pieces of parenting advice that I ever received was from the writer Toni Morrison. It was May of 2000 and Ellen was just shy of her first birthday. Ms. Morrison was on Oprah talking about her book The Bluest Eye. Oprah said, “Toni says a beautiful thing about the messages that we get about who we are when a child first walks into a room,” and she asked Ms. Morrison to talk about it.


Ms. Morrison explained that it’s interesting to watch what happens when a child walks into a room. She asked, “Does your face light up?” She explained, “When my children used to walk in the room when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up.…You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. What’s wrong now?” Her advice was simple, but paradigm-shifting for me. She said, “Let your face speak what’s in your heart. When they walk in the room my face says I’m glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see?”


I literally think about that advice every day—it’s become a practice. When Ellen comes bounding down the stairs dressed for school, I don’t want my first comment to be “Pull your hair back” or “Those shoes don’t match your dress.” I want my face to convey how happy I am to see her—to be with her. When Charlie comes in the back door and he’s sweaty and dirty from catching lizards, I want to flash a smile before I say, “Don’t touch anything until you wash your hands.” So often we think that we earn parenting points by being critical, put out, and exasperated. Those first looks can be prerequisites or worthiness-builders. I don’t want to criticize when my kids walk in the room, I want to light up!


In addition to keeping a mindful eye on prerequisites and perfectionism, we can help our children keep and cultivate their sense of worthiness in another way, one that relates back to what we learned about the differences between shame and guilt. Research indicates that parenting is a primary predictor of how prone our children will be to shame or guilt. In other words, we have a lot of influence over how our kids think about themselves and their struggles. Knowing as we do that shame is positively correlated with addiction, depression, aggression, violence, eating disorders, and suicide, and that guilt is inversely correlated with these outcomes, we naturally would want to raise children who use more guilt self-talk than shame.


This means we need to separate our children from their behaviors. As it turns out, there’s a significant difference between you are bad and you did something bad. And, no, it’s not just semantics. Shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can do and be better. When we shame and label our children, we take away their opportunity to grow and try on new behaviors. If a child tells a lie, she can change that behavior. If she is a liar—where’s the potential for change in that?


Cultivating more guilt self-talk and less shame self-talk requires rethinking how we discipline and talk to our children. But it also means explaining these concepts to our kids. Children are very receptive to talking about shame if we’re willing to do it. By the time they’re four and five, we can explain to them the difference between guilt and shame, and how much we love them even when they make bad choices.


When Ellen was in kindergarten, her teacher called me at home one afternoon and said, “I totally get what you do now.”


When I asked her why, she said that earlier in the week, she had looked over at Ellen, who was in the “Glitter Center” and said, “Ellen! You’re a mess.” Apparently, Ellen got a very serious look on her face and said, “I may be making a mess, but I’m not a mess.” (That’s the day I became “that parent.”)


Charlie also gets the distinction between shame and guilt. When I found our dog pulling food out of the trash can, I scolded her by saying, “Bad girl!” Charlie came sliding around the corner, shouting, “Daisy is a good girl who made a bad choice! We love her! We just don’t love her choices!”


When I tried to explain the difference by saying, “Daisy is a dog, Charlie,” his response was, “Oh, I see. Daisy is a good dog who made a bad choice.”


Shame is so painful for children because it is inextricably linked to the fear of being unlovable. For young children who are still dependent on their parents for survival—for food, shelter, and safety—feeling unlovable is a threat to survival. It’s trauma. I’m convinced that the reason most of us revert back to feeling childlike and small when we’re in shame is because our brain stores our early shame experiences as trauma, and when it’s triggered we return to that place. We don’t have the neurobiological research yet to confirm this, but I’ve coded hundreds of interviews that follow this same pattern:


“I don’t know what happened. My boss called me an idiot in front of my team and I couldn’t respond. All of a sudden I’m back in Mrs. Porter’s second-grade class and I’m speechless. I can’t come back with one decent response.”

Or

“My son struck out for the second time and I couldn’t see straight. I always said I’d never do what my dad did to me, but there I was screaming at him in front of his teammates. I’m not even sure how it happened.”


In Chapter 3 we learned that the brain processes social rejection or shame the same exact way it processes physical pain. I suspect we’ll eventually have the data to support my hypothesis about children storing shame as trauma, but in the meantime I can say without hesitation that childhood experiences of shame change who we are, how we think about ourselves, and our sense of self-worth.


We can work hard not to use shame as a parenting tool, but our children are still going to encounter shame in the outside world. The good news is that when children understand the distinction between shame and guilt, and when they know that we’re interested and open to talking about these feelings and experiences, they are much more likely to talk to us about the shaming experiences they may encounter with teachers, coaches, clergy, babysitters, grandparents, and other adults who have influence in their lives. This is critically important because it gives us the opportunity to “crop” shame the way we do photographs.


I often use a scrapbook as a metaphor to talk about the impact shame has on children. As parents, once we learn about shame, we will more than likely realize that, yes, we’ve shamed our children. It happens. Even to shame researchers. Given the severity of the outcomes around shame, we’ll also begin to worry that the shaming moments that happen outside our home will define our children, despite our best efforts in the family. And those experiences will happen—name calling, put-downs, and teasing are rampant in our culture of cruelty. The good news, however, is that we have a lot of influence over how much power those experiences have in our children’s lives.


Most of us can remember shaming events from childhood that felt defining. But more than likely we remember them because we didn’t process those experiences with parents who were open to talking about shame and committed to helping us cultivate shame resilience. I don’t blame my parents for that any more than I judge my grandmother letting me stand next to her in the front seat while she was driving. They didn’t have access to the information we have today.


Knowing what I do now, I think about shame and worthiness in this way: “It’s the album, not the picture.” If you imagine opening up a photo album, and many of the pages are full of eight-by-ten photos of shaming events, you’ll close that album and walk away thinking, Shame defines that story. If, on the other hand, you open that album and see a few small photos of shame experiences, but each one is surrounded by pictures of worthiness, hope, struggle, resilience, courage, failure, success, and vulnerability, the shame experiences are only a part of a larger story. They don’t define the album.


Again, we can’t shameproof our children. Our task instead is teaching and modeling shame resilience, and that starts with conversations about what shame is and how it shows up in our lives. The adults I interviewed who were raised by parents who used shame as a primary parenting tool had much more difficulty believing in their worthiness than the participants who experienced shame occasionally and were able to talk about it with their parents.


If you have grown children and are wondering if it’s too late to teach shame resilience or to change the album, the answer is no. It’s not too late. The power of owning our stories, even the difficult ones, is that we get to write the ending. Several years ago, I received a letter from a woman who wrote:

Your work changed my life in a very strange way. My mom saw you speak at a church in Amarillo. Afterwards, she wrote me a long letter that said, “I had no idea there was a difference between shame and guilt. I think I shamed you your entire life. I meant to use guilt. I never thought you weren’t good enough. I did not like your choices. But I shamed you. I can’t take that back, but I need you to know that you’re the best thing that ever happened to me and I’m so proud to be your mother.” I couldn’t believe it. My mom is seventy-five and I’m fifty-five. It healed so much. And it changed everything, including the way I parent my own kids.

In addition to helping our children understand shame, and use guilt self-talk rather than shame self-talk, we have to be very careful about shame leakage. Even if we don’t shame our children, shame still shows up in our lives in ways that can have a powerful affect on our family. Basically, we can’t raise children who are more shame resilient than we are. I can encourage Ellen to love her body, but what really matters are the observations she makes about my relationship with my own body. Damn it. I can soothe Charlie’s concerns that he might run the wrong direction around the bases by telling him that he doesn’t have to fully understand the ins and outs of baseball before his first T-ball game, but does he observe me and Steve trying new things, making mistakes, and failing without becoming self-critical? Damn it. Again.


Lastly, normalizing is one of the most powerful shame-resilience tools that we can offer our children. Like I explained in the last chapter, normalizing means helping our children know they’re not alone and that we’ve experienced many of the same struggles. This applies to social situations, changes in their bodies, shaming experiences, feeling left out, and wanting to be brave but feeling afraid. There’s something sacred that happens between a parent and a child when the parent says, “Me too!” or shares a personal story that relates to their child’s struggle.

MINDING THE GAP: SUPPORTING OUR CHILDREN MEANS SUPPORTING EACH OTHER

I believe it’s important at this point to pause to recognize the shaming nature of parenting “values” debates. When you listen to conversations, or read books and blogs, about controversial and/or divisive issues in parenting, like how and where women labor, circumcision, vaccinations, co-sleeping, feeding, etc., what you hear is shame and what you see is hurt. Deep hurt. You see people—mostly mothers—engaging in the exact same behaviors that I earlier defined as shaming: name calling, put-downs, and bullying.


Here’s what I’ve come to believe about these behaviors: You can’t claim to care about the welfare of children if you’re shaming other parents for the choices they’re making. Those are mutually exclusive behaviors and they create a huge values gap. Yes, most of us (myself included) have strong opinions on every one of those topics, but if we really care about the broader welfare of children, our job is to make choices that are aligned with our values and support other parents who are doing the same. Our job is also to tend to our own worthiness. When we feel good about the choices we’re making and when we’re engaging with the world from a place of worthiness rather than scarcity, we feel no need to judge and attack.


It’s easy to put up a straw man in this argument and say, “So we’re just supposed to ignore parents who are abusing their children?” Fact: That someone is making different choices from us doesn’t in itself constitute abuse. If there’s real abuse happening, by all means, call the police. If not, we shouldn’t call it abuse. As a social worker who spent a year interning at Child Protective Services, I have little tolerance for debates that casually use the terms abuse or neglect to scare or belittle parents who are simply doing things that we judge as wrong, different, or bad.


In fact, I’ve sworn off the good-bad parenting dichotomy simply because on any given day you could file me under both good parent and bad parent, depending on your perspective and how things are going for me. I just don’t see what value this judgmental frame adds to our lives or to the larger parenting conversation. In fact, it’s a shame storm waiting to happen. To me the question of parenting values is about engagement. Are we paying attention? Thinking through our choices? Open to learning and being wrong? Curious and willing to ask questions?


What I’ve learned from my work is that there are a million ways out in the world to be a wonderful, engaged parent, and some of them are going to bump up against what I personally think about parenting. For example, Steve and I are very strict about what we let the kids watch on TV—especially when it comes to violence. We think about it, talk about it, and make the best decisions we can. On the other hand, we’ve got friends who let their children watch movies and shows that we don’t allow Ellen or Charlie watch. But you know what? They also think about it, talk about it, and make the best decisions they can. They just came to a different conclusion than we did, and I respect that.


We recently found ourselves on the other side of this issue when some good friends expressed surprise that we let Ellen read The Hunger Games. Again, those parents were also engaged in the question, and the conversation we had showed mutual respect and empathy. Minding the gap can be particularly challenging when honoring difference is one of our aspirational values. I think the key is remembering that when other parents make different choices than we’re making, it’s not necessarily criticism. Daring greatly means finding our own path and respecting what that search looks like for other folks.

MINDING THE GAP AND BELONGING

Worthiness is about love and belonging, and one of the best ways to show our children that our love for them is unconditional is to make sure they know they belong in our families. I know that sounds strange, but it’s a very powerful and at times heart-wrenching issue for children. On page 145, I defined belonging as the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. In fact, fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.


When I asked a large group of eighth graders to break into small teams and come up with the differences between fitting in and belonging, their answers floored me:

 
  • Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere where you really want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.
  • Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.
  • I get to be me if I belong. I have to be like you to fit in.

They nailed the definitions. It doesn’t matter where in the country I ask this question, or what type of school I’m visiting, middle and high school students understand how this works.


They also talk openly about the heartache of not feeling a sense of belonging at home. That first time I asked the eighth graders to come up with the definitions, one student wrote, “Not belonging at school is really hard. But it’s nothing compared to what it feels like when you don’t belong at home.” When I asked the students what that meant, they used these examples:

 
  • Not living up to your parents’ expectations
  • Not being as cool or popular as your parents want you to be
  • Not being as smart as your parents
  • Not being good at the same things your parents were good at
  • Your parents being embarrassed because you don’t have enough friends or you’re not an athlete or a cheerleader
  • Your parents not liking who you are and what you like to do
  • When your parents don’t pay attention to your life

If we want to cultivate worthiness in our children, we need to make sure they know that they belong and that their belonging is unconditional. What makes that such a challenge is that most of us struggle to feel a sense of belonging—to know that we’re a part of something, not despite our vulnerabilities, but because of them. We can’t give our children what we don’t have, which means we have to work to cultivate a sense of belonging alongside our children. Here’s an example of how we can grow together and how our children are capable of great empathy. (There’s nothing that inspires that deep sense of belonging like shared empathy!)


When Ellen was in fourth grade, she came home from school one day and burst into tears as soon as we shut the front door, then ran up to her room. I immediately followed, then knelt down in front of her and asked her what was wrong. Through her sniffles she said, “I’m so tired of being the other! I’m sick of it!”


I didn’t understand, so I asked her to explain what she meant by “the other.”


“We play soccer every day at recess. Two popular kids are the captains and they pick the teams. The first captain says, ‘I’ll take Suzie, John, Pete, Robin, and Jake.’ The second captain says, ‘I’ll take Andrew, Steve, Katie, and Sue, and we can split the others.’ Every single day I’m one of the others. I never get to be named.”


My heart sank. She was sitting on the edge of her bed with her head in her hands. I was so concerned when I followed her into her room that I hadn’t even flipped on the light. I couldn’t stand the vulnerability of seeing her sitting in the dark crying, so I walked over to the light switch. It was divine intervention—the act of starting to turn on the lights to alleviate my discomfort made me think of my favorite quote about darkness and compassion from Pema Chรถdrรถn, who writes: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”


I left the light switch alone and walked back to sit with Ellen in the literal and emotional dark. I put my arm around her shoulder and said, “I know what it’s like to be the other.”


She wiped her nose on the back of her hand and said, “No, you don’t. You’re really popular.”


I explained that I really do know what it feels like. I told her, “When I feel like the other, I get angry and hurt, and I mostly feel small and lonely. I don’t need to be popular, but I want people to recognize me and treat me like I matter. Like I belong.”


She couldn’t believe it. “You do know! That’s exactly how I feel!”


We snuggled on her bed, and she told me about her recess experiences, and I told her about some of my experiences in school when otherness is both powerful and painful.


About two weeks later, we were both at home when the mail arrived. I ran to the door with great anticipation. I was scheduled to speak at a star-studded event, and I was dying to see the publicity poster. It seems weird now, but I was so excited at the idea of seeing my photo next to the pictures of the movie stars. I sat down on the couch with the poster, I unrolled it, and I started scanning like a madwoman. Just as I was doing this, Ellen walked in and said, “Cool! Is that your poster? Let me see!”


As she walked over to the couch, she could tell my mood had changed from anticipation to disappointment. “What’s wrong, Mom?”


I patted the couch and she sat down next to me. I held the poster open, and she traced the pictures with her finger. “I don’t see you. Where are you?”


I pointed to a line on the poster under the celebrity photos that said, “And others.”


Ellen leaned back against the sofa cushions, put her head on my shoulder, and said, “Oh, Mom, I think you’re the others. I’m sorry.”


I didn’t reply right away. I was feeling small both because there was no picture and for caring that there was no picture. Ellen leaned forward, looked at me, and said, “I know what that feels like. When I’m the other, I feel hurt and small and lonely. We all want to matter and belong.”


It turned out to be one of the best moments of my life. We may not always have a sense of belonging on the recess playground or at a big, fancy conference, but in that moment we knew that we belonged where it mattered the most—at home. Parenting perfection is not the goal. In fact, the best gifts—the best teaching moments—happen in those imperfect moments when we allow children to help us mind the gap.


Here’s a powerful story about cultivating shame resilience and minding the gap from Susan, a woman I interviewed a couple of years ago. Susan was busy talking to a group of mothers at her kids’ school while her kids were standing close by waiting for her to take them home. The mothers were discussing who would host the “Welcome Kinder Kids” party for the new students. They all hated the thought of doing it, but the one woman who volunteered to throw the party had “a filthy house.” After talking about this woman and her house for a few minutes, they agreed that letting her host the party would reflect poorly on them and the PTO.


When they finished their discussion, Susan loaded up the kids (a daughter in kinder, and two sons—one in first grade and another in third grade) and started home. Susan’s first-grade son randomly called out from the backseat, “I think you’re a great mom.” Susan smiled and said, “Well, thank you.” A few minutes after they walked in the house, the same child came up to her with big tears in his eyes. He looked at Susan and said, “Do you feel bad about yourself? Are you okay?”


Susan said she was completely taken by surprise. She knelt down and said, “No. Why? What’s wrong?”


Her son replied, “You always say that when people get together and talk bad about someone just because they are different, it means they might feel bad about themselves. You said that when we feel good about who we are, we don’t say mean things about other people.”


Susan immediately recognized the warm wash of shame. She knew that her son had overheard the conversation at the school.


This is the moment. The Wholehearted parenting moment. Can we tolerate the vulnerability long enough to be with it for a minute? Or do we need to discharge the shame and discomfort by redirecting our child or blaming them for “crossing a line?” Can we take this opportunity to acknowledge how wonderfully he’s practicing empathy? Can we make mistakes and make amends? If we want our kids to own and be honest about their experiences, can we own ours?


Susan looked at her son and said, “Thank you so much for checking on me and asking me how I feel. I feel okay, but I think I made a mistake. I need a little time to think about all of this. You’re right about one thing—I was saying hurtful things.”


After Susan pulled herself together, she sat down with her son and they talked. They discussed how easy it is to get caught up in a group situation where everyone is talking about someone. Susan was honest and admitted that she sometimes struggles with “what people think.” She said her son leaned into her and whispered, “Me too.” They promised to keep talking to each other about their experiences.


Engagement means investing time and energy. It means sitting down with our children and understanding their worlds, their interests, and their stories. Engaged parents can be found on both sides of all of the controversial parenting debates. They come from different values, traditions, and cultures. What they share in common is practicing the values. What they seem to share is a philosophy of “I’m not perfect and I’m not always right, but I’m here, open, paying attention, loving you, and fully engaged.”


There is no question that engagement requires sacrifice, but that’s what we signed up for when we decided to become parents. Most of us have so many competing demands on our time that it’s easy to think, I can’t sacrifice three hours to sit down and review my son’s Facebook page or sit with my daughter while she explains every detail of the fourth-grade science fair scandal. I struggle with that too. But Jimmy Grace, a priest from our Episcopal church, recently gave a sermon about the nature of sacrifice and it totally shifted how I think about parenting. He explained that in its original Latin form, sacrifice means to make sacred or to make holy. I wholeheartedly believe that when we are fully engaged in parenting, regardless of how imperfect, vulnerable, and messy it is, we are creating something sacred.

THE COURAGE TO BE VULNERABLE

Before writing this section, I spread my data all over my dining room table and asked myself this question: What do parents experience as the most vulnerable and bravest thing that they do in their efforts to raise Wholehearted children? I thought it would take days to figure it out, but as I looked over the field notes, the answer was obvious: letting their children struggle and experience adversity.


As I travel across the country there seems to be growing concern on the part of parents and teachers that children are not learning how to handle adversity or disappointment because we’re always rescuing and protecting them. What’s interesting is that more often than not, I hear this concern from the same parents who are chronically intervening, rescuing, and protecting. It’s not that our children can’t stand the vulnerability of handling their own situations, it’s that we can’t stand the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, even when we know it’s the right thing to do.


I used to struggle with letting go and allowing my children to find their own way, but something that I learned in the research dramatically changed my perspective and I no longer see rescuing and intervening as unhelpful, I now think about it as dangerous. Don’t get me wrong—I still struggle and I still step in when I shouldn’t, but I now think twice before I let my discomfort dictate my behaviors. Here’s why: Hope is a function of struggle. If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle. And let me tell you, next to love and belonging, I’m not sure I want anything more for my kids than a deep sense of hopefulness.


Experience with adversity, tenacity, and grit emerged in my research as an important quality of Wholeheartedness. I was so grateful to see it because it was one of the few qualities of Wholeheartedness that I had at the time (remember in the introduction—I was two for ten). When I went into the literature to search for a concept that had all of these elements, I found C. R. Snyder’s research on hope. I was shocked. First, I thought hope was a warm, fuzzy emotion—the feeling of possibility. Second, I was looking for something that I had thought of as being scrappy and nicknamed “Plan B”—these folks could turn to Plan B when Plan A fell apart.


As it turns out, I was wrong about hope and right about scrappy and Plan B. According to Snyder, who dedicated his career to studying this topic, hope isn’t an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process. Emotions play a supporting role, but hope is really a thought process made up of what Snyder calls a trilogy of goals, pathways, and agency. In very simple terms, hope happens when:

 
  • We have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go).
  • We are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative routes (I know how to get there, I’m persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again).
  • We believe in ourselves (I can do this!).

So, hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities. Hope is Plan B.


And, here’s the part that inspired me to deal with my own vulnerability so I could step back and let my children learn how to figure some things out on their own: Hope is learned! According to Snyder, children most often learn hope from their parents. To learn hopefulness, children need relationships that are characterized by boundaries, consistency, and support. Children with high levels of hopefulness have experience with adversity. They’ve been given the opportunity to struggle and in doing that they learn how to believe in themselves.


Raising children who are hopeful and who have the courage to be vulnerable means stepping back and letting them experience disappointment, deal with conflict, learn how to assert themselves, and have the opportunity to fail. If we’re always following our children into the arena, hushing the critics, and assuring their victory, they’ll never learn that they have the ability to dare greatly on their own.


One of my best lessons on this comes from an experience that I had with Ellen. It began when I was still ten cars away from her in the swim team pickup line. It was getting dark, so I could only make out her silhouette, but that was enough: I could tell something was wrong by the way she was standing. She flung herself into the front seat, and before I could ask her about practice, she was in tears.


“What happened? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”


She stared out the window, drew a deep breath as she wiped her tears on the sleeve of her hoodie, and said, “I have to swim the 100 breaststroke at the meet on Saturday.”


I knew this was a really bad thing in her world, so I tried not to seem relieved—which I was because, in a crazy-but-normal-for-me fashion, I was already thinking something really horrible had happened.


“You don’t understand. I can’t swim breaststroke. I’m terrible. You don’t get it. I begged him not to put me in that event.”


I was getting ready to respond with something empathetic and encouraging as I pulled into the driveway, but just then she looked me right in the eyes, put her hand on top of my hand, and said, “Please, Mom. Please help me. I’m still going to be swimming when the other girls are getting out of the pool and the next heat is getting on the blocks. I’m really that slow.”


I couldn’t swallow. I couldn’t think clearly. All of a sudden, I’m ten years old and I’m on the blocks getting ready to swim for the Memorial Northwest Marlins. My dad is the starter, and he’s giving me the win-or-die look. I’m in the lane closest to the wall—the slow lane. It’s going to be a disaster. Moments earlier, as I was sitting on the ready bench contemplating making a run for my banana-seat bike leaning against the fence by the diving boards, I overheard the coach say, “Let’s just swim her up an age group. I’m not sure she can finish the race, but it will be interesting.”


“Mom? Mom?? Mom!!! Are you listening to me? Will you help me? Will you talk to the coach and see if he’ll put me in another race?”


The vulnerability felt unbearable and I wanted to scream, “Yes! You don’t have to swim any event that you don’t want to swim. EVER!” But I didn’t. Calm was one of my new Wholehearted practices, so I took a deep breath, counted to five, and said, “Let me talk to your dad.”


After the kids went to bed, Steve and I spent an hour debating the issue and finally agreed that she would have to take it up with her coach. If he wanted her to swim that race, she needed to swim it. As right as the decision felt, I hated every minute of it, and I tried everything from picking a fight with Steve to blaming the coach to venting my fear and discharging the vulnerability.


Ellen was upset when we told her this, and even more upset when she came home from practice and told us that her coach thought it was important for her to get an official time for the event. She folded her arms on the table, put her head down, and cried. At one point she lifted up her head and said, “I could just scratch the event. A lot of people miss their heats.” A part of me thought, Perfect! But then she said, “I won’t win. I’m not even good enough to get second or third place. Everyone is going to be watching.”


This was the opportunity to move the levers—to redefine what’s important to her. To make our family culture more influential than the swim meet, her friends, and the ultra-competitive sports culture that is rampant in our community. I looked at her and said, “You can scratch that event. I’d probably consider that option too. But what if your goal for that race isn’t to win or even to get out of the water at the same time as the other girls? What if your goal is to show up and get wet?”


She looked at me as if I was crazy. “Just show up and get in the water?”


I explained that I had spent many years never trying anything that I wasn’t already good at doing, and how those choices almost made me forget what it feels like to be brave. I said, “Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.”


Steve and I made sure that we weren’t with her when her heat was called. When it was time for the girls to get on the blocks, I wasn’t sure if she’d be there, but she was. We stood at the end of her lane and held our breath. She looked right at us, nodded her head, and snapped her goggles into place.


She was the last one out of the pool. The other swimmers had already left the deck, and there were girls standing on the blocks ready for the next heat. Steve and I screamed and cheered the entire time. When she got out of the pool, she walked over to her coach, who gave her a hug, then showed her something about her kick. When she finally made her way to us, she was smiling and a little tearful. She looked at her dad and me and said, “That was pretty bad, but I did it. I showed up and I got wet. I was brave.”


I wrote the following parenting manifesto because I need it. Steve and I need it. Putting down the measuring stick in a culture that uses acquisitions and accomplishments to assess worth is not easy. I use the manifesto as a touchstone, a prayer, and a meditation when I’m wrestling with vulnerability or when I’ve got that “never enough” fear. It reminds me of the finding that changed and probably saved my life: Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.

 

The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto
Above all else, I want you to know that you are loved and lovable.
You will learn this from my words and actions—the lessons on love are in how I treat you and how I treat myself.
I want you to engage with the world from a place of worthiness.
You will learn that you are worthy of love, belonging, and joy every time you see me practice self-compassion and embrace my own imperfections.
We will practice courage in our family by showing up, letting ourselves be seen, and honoring vulnerability. We will share our stories of struggle and strength. There will always be room in our home for both.
We will teach you compassion by practicing compassion with ourselves first; then with each other. We will set and respect boundaries; we will honor hard work, hope, and perseverance. Rest and play will be family values, as well as family practices.
You will learn accountability and respect by watching me make mistakes and make amends, and by watching how I ask for what I need and talk about how I feel.
I want you to know joy, so together we will practice gratitude.
I want you to feel joy, so together we will learn how to be vulnerable.
When uncertainty and scarcity visit, you will be able to draw from the spirit that is a part of our everyday life.
Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.
We will laugh and sing and dance and create. We will always have permission to be ourselves with each other. No matter what, you will always belong here.
As you begin your Wholehearted journey, the greatest gift that I can give to you is to live and love with my whole heart and to dare greatly.
I will not teach or love or show you anything perfectly, but I will let you see me, and I will always hold sacred the gift of seeing you. Truly, deeply, seeing you.



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