The main mission is to deliver discipline with real softness in my soul, and being Jonah’s mama has been a total crucible these days.
Being a parent is a huge privilege, and I’m learning that a true mutual respect is what we’re here as parents to create—a deep respect that is built, over time, within us and between us.
That kind of respect will heal nations and cancers and hearts and souls. Respect comes with this kind of discipline—structure for our kids that is simultaneously clear, stabilizing (rather than de-stabilizing), and gentle, both for parent and child.
This morning, Jonah and I decided I’d drive his sitter “N” and him from my home uptown down to Daddy’s home downtown before I began work, and we were psyched for a little sunshine singing adventure. Sitter came; time to get ready; I was holding his sneaker open, and he was hemming and hawing. So after years of watching my body cringe, contract, contort, close, and vibrate with total rage in these moments that necessitated haste when he wasn’t listening, I stated clearly that if he couldn’t help me get us out the door, he and N would be taking the train and could leave whenever he wished.
Stalling continued (singing, some dancing, just wanting attention, which I understand), so I stated clearly that he was now taking the train, but that I love him so much, and it’s all completely fine, and I meant it. I felt softer and less connected to the time, the rush, the stress of making this plan happen. And now he knows that what I say IS what I will do (which hasn’t previously been the case), and I will do it all with love. I actually said that to him, that part about me following through. He got it, and I could tell it actually was a relief to him. He left with hugs and kisses and mama-bear booger cleaning and so much love, and his sitter N and I know that it’s actually way more fun for them to take the train and get their swerve on in the city.
So this is big MAGIC. I’ve wanted to really hold this kind of softness in my body, and holding it (at times) feels so good.
Prior to this, I wasn’t designing how I was disciplining my child, and his need for a clear, soft boundary was mounting. I couldn’t trust myself to respond in a stable way to any perceived experience of being “crossed,” “wronged,” or “ignored,” and I elevated a lot of situations by blaming him, often with rage. It’s embarrassing and unnecessary, and I see the whole pattern.
My coach Lauren calls it the proverbial “quarter going into the laundry machine, cycle starting, no stopping it” to describe my inability to stop my outbursts once they began.
And anytime I talk about this now that I can pinpoint it, people nod about our shared experience.
How can we get out of the baseline tension we feel? I was always just waiting to be crossed or wronged, defied. A softening has to happen (constantly) that can sense the “quarter” before it goes in. This softening doesn’t involve making anyone wrong or me right; it’s only about listening and loving.
And feeling badly when I mess it up again isn’t an option. Feeling badly is the perfect diversion from just getting calmer and softer, which is a process of seeing it all, coping with it all, and shifting it all. Feeling badly just keeps our unsavory behavior in place, generation to generation. I had no idea I could design a softening within myself; I was perfectly resigned to the thunder, and then if I “felt badly” afterward, that made me feel like a morally sound human and made the whole thing sort of okay.
Designing a Path: 2 Steps
If you recognize your own rage here, immediately apologize and make positive physical contact. Whenever we’ve raged at anyone—child, partner, anyone—the first thing is to apologize authentically. Our kids really will blame and shame themselves for causing our rage. We can prevent that cellular breakdown and design our behavior (more specifics below). But physical contact as soon as possible really is helpful in remapping the neurons in a child’s brain that shrink back when screamed at—it’s a scientifically proven phenomenon that being screamed at adversely affects certain neural connections.
So I started telling on myself and apologizing, to my then three year old, for my yelling. Of course I’d explain, factually, how his behavior results in certain outcomes but no scathing volume, no drama in my eyes. Each time it happens, we talk about it and heal palpably, just from talking about it. I can talk to him openly and just give love. It’s been incredible to watch us get in better communication and even parenthetically celebrate ourselves when we’ve made it through a chaotic moment to the high five, without the usual escalation. The more we say it out loud, the more we can accomplish on this road of deep respect.
2. Grow Self-Respect through Promises and Accountability
I had to actually see all the incidents and iterations of this anger, over months of watching myself, while slowly building a sense of humor around my reactivity. Self-study is only fun when we’re willing to laugh at ourselves with actual love. To get there, I had to grow my own self-respect, and to do that, I had to put an end to my rage with a promise. Handel coaching has shown me that I can indeed design how this anger does or doesn’t appear in any circumstance through making my own personal laws.
Over the past three years, Jonah knew I wasn’t proud of my anger; he’s known I want it gone altogether, and we’ve always been in it together. One of my promises a couple of years ago was to sing a song about how I “wish I was a less angry mama” to the nearest adult stranger, in front of him. You can Google it pretty easily. Now he’s gotten better at knowing when to listen, even when he feels super energized, and I’ve begun talking. Yelling is no longer possible.
As both a coach and a client of Handel Group, I learn about my tendencies and see how truly the same we all are.
To be accountable for my behavior—to my partner, my son, my parents, my colleagues, my friends—has created the trust in me that’s allowed me to get softer and start to deliver discipline with deep respect.
This reading in The Parents’ Tao Te Ching says it all:
When your children behave,
give them respect and kindness.
When your children misbehave,
give them respect and kindness.
When they are hateful,
When they betray your trust,
Believe this difficult truth:
Showing respect in the face of disrespect,
love in the face of hate,
trust is the face of betrayal,
and serenity in the face of turmoil,
will teach your children more
than all the moral lectures
by all the preachers
since the dawn of time.
That respect is something I’d needed to generate within myself before I could try to offer it to anyone else. Along with coaching, there’s always been my practice of yoga and meditation. I’ve created times to connect with myself—early in the morning and/or before bed—so I can feel safe at home within myself. That helps me catch myself when I’m about to disrespect myself or someone else and to be less critical of myself when I do. Here’s to respect, soft discipline, and all the love we can be.
I will be teaching a four-week group telecourse starting April 10 (10:30-11:30 a.m. EDT, but calls are recorded and can be listened to later) that explores who you are as a parent and who you’d ideally like to be. Join me in the daily practice of living our ideals.
Mama, founder and co-owner of VIRAYOGA, and co-author of Art of Attention, Elena has taught yoga for over sixteen years. After graduating from Cornell University in 1992 with a degree in design, she worked as a textile and apparel designer for six years and has studied with master yoga teachers for over ten years. Through her teaching, influenced by several traditions including alignment-based Hatha and Kundalini yoga, Elena offers yoga as a way to approach our world with realistic reverence and gratitude. Her classes are a masterful, candid blend of artful alignment and attention cues for your body, mind, and heart.