In my Type A quest to be the perfect parent, I often find myself at parenting seminars. In one room, in a condensed amount of time, you have access to a number of experts, any one of which might hold “the secret.” I’m usually the person in the back of the room, waiting patiently, hoping they don’t look at me when they ask, “Any questions?” I know that if an expert and I make eye contact, my parenting house of cards will tumble and, I may just burst into tears and scream, “You haven’t described my kids! Help me! HELP MEEEEE! But I mentally will my panic-stricken face to neutrality and silently plead with the other participants to ask the unknown question that will unlock the secret for me. What I’ve come across so far has sounded great in theory but the practical application hasn’t translated to my kids. So I forge on, searching for experts, trying them on like an outfit, hoping to find a method that fits my two challenging boys.
When I heard the title of the Academic Challenge in Schools (ACOS) seminar, “Discovering the Gift in Your Child,” I heard music in my head. This was surely the one that would lead me down the path to great parenting. Meeting up with my friends, we arrived at the event where I would have gladly paid triple the fifteen dollar admission fee to anyone who could share a secret of this magnitude. There was an air of anticipation amongst the group of parents in the room, all eager to meet the experts. I watched as the parents swarmed tables lined with books, hoping to find answers before the symposium even began. The intensity level was extremely high. I felt relieved. I was definitely with my people.
Our first breakout session was with Larry Davis, the lead Gifted Coordinator of a K-8 program in the North Kitsap School District, an expert who was going to provide us with solutions to “Understand the Social & Emotional dynamics of your child; take home strategies for dealing with anxiety & stress – no more melt-downs or blow-ups!” He introduced us to a method called Heart Math detailing a very simple approach to helping a child get out of the meltdown by focusing on breathing and positive thoughts.
The Heart Math philosophy utilizes scientific studies that show the importance of mastering socioemotional skills at an early age for improved behaviour at home, school and play. It also measures the physiological state that underlies optimal learning. Powerful! I quickly wrote down the website to review in-depth later. What stuck with me the most was his hands-on solution to a meltdown, to reach the child and bring them to a state of “coherence” or being in the zone, which the Institute of Heart Math says is achievable at any age. You have to encourage their heart to breathe because sensory overload = anxiety = inconvenient behaviour. We were all writing that equation down frantically. This is what I had come for! I had tears in my eyes as I packed up from the first session; the day was off to such a fabulous start.
Next we were introduced to Laura Tucker, a science specialist and parenting expert that had an interesting experiment with a substance called Ooblek (simply 1.5 cups of cornstarch and 1 cup of water) where she tasked each group to discover some interesting properties of the substance. We were given no further information until the end of the experiment. As she explained later, it’s important to provide kids with the activity before the content, allowing them to create a file cabinet in their brain; constructing their own knowledge before hearing about it. The activity encouraged open-ended thinking and she emphasized that struggle creates neurological pathways. My scientific son would love this, I thought, and my youngest would love the tactile nature of the experiment. It was a great idea, I thought, as I surveyed the tables of parents, all calm and fully submersed in the discovery of Ooblek. I would have written it down if my hands weren’t covered with goo.
The last expert was Nathan Levy, an educator and author from New Jersey, who walked us through his Stories with Holes series and challenged us to come up with the answers to his cryptic stories. The exercise required listening and stretching the brain. He constantly checked us for understanding; what he described as the key to good parenting and good teaching. “Tell me what I just told you,” he’d ask us and encouraged us to do the same with our children. Being actively involved in their listening is a key to success, along with working hard and persevering. A good point he had was that if bright kids never learn these keys to success, the minute they encounter a challenge in life they quit. And, they won’t learn to their maximum if they are never uncomfortable. Taking away their struggle enables them. Catch them being good. Be unreasonable about reasonable things. I was writing as fast as I could. One of the last things I took away from his talk was to have your child write lists. Lists about anything. Their focus is then on the list and they don’t even know they’re writing. Down it went onto my pad of paper.
Back home, rejuvenated, I reviewed my notes and tried to prepare myself mentally for the first practical application of my precious tidbits. Maybe this was the time the information would actually work. The morning’s symposium would unlock the key to my parenting challenges and all would be right with my world. I was ready. Bring on the meltdown.
Of course it didn’t take long. It was over something inconsequential, as meltdowns usually are. I crouched down in front of my son and tapped into all I had learned that morning. I went straight to the Heart Math technique and told my son he had to “breathe through his heart.” The meltdown got worse. Before long I was screaming, “BREATHE THROUGH YOUR HEART! YOUR HEART NEEDS TO BREAAAATHHHE!” I sounded like I was at an accident scene, not trying to help my son through a tough moment. Walking away in failure, my son still in full meltdown, I thought, “Well, it sounds good in theory, but the practical application is the problem.” This time I caught myself in mid-excuse. Because of my heightened state of clarity and exposure to the experts, I realized in that moment that it wasn’t the advice not fitting my kids; it was most likely “user error.” I wasn’t executing their advice correctly.
That being said, the meltdown passed and the day continued and finally it was time for bed. I took my youngest up while my eldest was harping on me about doing something with him. Walking up the stairs I decided it was the perfect time to employ another expert tactic. I yelled out, “Make a list!” “About what?” he asked. “About me,” I answered. “Make a list of five things that describe me.”
I hesitated at the top of the stairs, wondering if I should go back and clarify my instructions. It would have been good if I added the word “nice” as my son is nothing if not blunt. Five “nice” things to describe me. My brain pushed down on the fast forward button and raced through snippets of my bad parenting moments. As I looked down from the loft he was furiously writing away, creating the list about me. It was an instant example of expert parenting advice from Nathan Levy in action. I was impressed. But I sure dreaded seeing that list.
Reluctantly I returned to the living room where my son was deep in thought. He approached me with his piece of paper but seemed disappointed. “What’s wrong buddy?” I asked, hoping he hadn’t been able to think of anything, which might be a better outcome than what I envisioned. “I could only think of three things,” he said as he presented me with his list, and I nervously imagined I would soon be reading the words ‘Raving lunatic stress-case.’ Anxiously awaiting the big reveal, I found it a bit hard to breathe. As I said, my son is extremely blunt.
In a day of searching for the answer to perfect parenting, I realized in that moment that, despite my many imperfections, they love me anyway. “Are you okay, Mum?” my son asked as I sat there quietly. “I’m okay, buddy. I’m just breathing through my heart.”