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Is “Keeping Up” Keeping Our Children Down?

 

It’s nearly 3pm and, at schools around the country, parents stand outside classrooms in small groups, chatting as they wait for their children to come out of class.  I am one of the waiting parents and I have noticed that there’s topic of conversation that comes up repeatedly – our children’s after school schedules.  We list off swimming lessons, rugby practices, art classes, play dates… and commiserate over how busy our children are and the effort it is to ferry them around as well as getting dinner on the table and making sure homework gets done.  Many, parents and children alike, seem to spend their afternoons rushing around and, by the end of the week, are ragged.

Once the kids come out from class, I watch a number of them drag their feet as they dawdle behind their parent, who is making a beeline for the car and urging them to “hurry up, we need to get to ballet”.  The kids can’t keep up literally or spiritually.  The reality of going to ballet every Thursday afternoon isn’t as exciting as it had seemed when they were begging Mum to sign them up, especially after having soccer on Monday, piano lessons on Tuesday and a playdate with Rebecca on Wednesday.

Why do we put our kids (and ourselves) through this?  Here are some of the things I hear parents saying –

“He wants to do all these activities”.
“It’s good for her to learn new skills”.
“The afternoons are so long when the kids don’t have something to do”.

Are any of these really good reasons for exhausting ourselves and our kids?

I think the variety of after school activities available to our children is great but I also think our children need us to pace them, like a pacer might for a marathon runner.  It’s like when they order the enormous piece of chocolate cake at the cafe but only manage to eat half of it – they couldn’t judge in advance how much they could eat.  If we set up a lifestyle of constant doing and achieving for our kids, they will come to believe that they must always be “productive” in some way.  They will go into adulthood overstretching themselves and not really enjoying any of what they do because they’re too tired trying to keep up with the lifestyle and expectations that have been created for them.

Overscheduling is symptomatic of our attitudes and isn’t the only pressure that we, as a society, are putting our kids under.  There are many other ways that our children experience the expectation to keep doing, to achieve and to keep up too –  anxiety from their parents & teachers to do well at school, complex dynamics within their peer group to negotiate, time spent on devices playing addictive games & subject to the impossible standards of social media, bedrooms overcrowded with more toys & gadgets than they can use…  All these things have a place when well managed but, they also all take a child away from him or her self.  A day crowded with activities, expectations and material things doesn’t allow our children time to know who they truly are.

Because, it is knowing who we are without our schedules, our achievements, our things and, even, our relationships, that is our source of peace. 

I watched a very candid, thought-provoking documentary on Netflix this week called Not Alone in which a young woman who had lost her best friend to suicide as a teen interviewed other teens who had experienced depression and suicidal thoughts.  At the end of the documentary, the teens spoke about what they were doing to find peace and move forward.  They all mentioned things that were essentially about knowing and being their true selves – talk therapy, meditation and doing activities they deeply enjoyed, for example.  These things had been missing from their lives previously.

One thing I noticed about the teens who spoke so openly in Not Alone was that they had been tuning in to the wrong things for their sense of self.  Things that, in the end, sent them spiraling downwards – the expectations of their parents & teachers, trying to fit in with their peers, careless comments & dishonestly perfect images on social media feeds… It seemed that, if they had had a greater sense of themselves, they may have had more perspective and possibly avoided getting sucked into the black hole of comparison. It was in trying to “keep up” in some way that most of them had found themselves spiraling downwards.

 

WHAT WE CAN DO TO MANAGE THE PRESSURE ON OUR CHILDREN

I often hear reports that anxiety, depression and self-harm among teenagers is rising and showing up at an earlier age, even in children who are still single-digit by age.  This weighs heavily on my heart – we used to think of teenagers as vibrant, optimistic, carefree young people but, instead, they are crumbling because society has created for them a lifestyle that feels impossible to keep up with.  We’re all responsible.  I’m sure there are things we parents can do while our children are young to nurture a perspective and a lifestyle that supports a sense of self strong enough to withstand some of the inevitable pressure.  Here are some of the things I try to do for  my boys with that end in mind –

  • Pace their activities – I leave time in our schedule for doing nothing in particular.  My boys savour a day at home in the weekend – playing, pottering, doing whatever they feel like in the moment.  Every child will have a different appetite for stimulation & activity and we need to be tuned in enough to find the right balance for them.
  • Encourage them to do things simply for the fun of it, without evaluating or measuring their achievement.
  • Introduce them to meditative & mindful activities Here’s a post I wrote about how I’m doing that.
  • Have conversations that help them to know and express themselves eg. to explore and share what they really think and feel about things so that they can make good decisions for themselves, based on what they think, not what others think.
  • Provide an example – show my boys an example of how to live a well-paced life, in which I put my sense of who I am at the centre of my life rather than other people’s expectations.  (This is the most difficult one for me)

 

CONCLUSION

The message that our children have to be working all the time (to achieve a goal, improve a skill, appear positively to others and generally keep up) is setting them up not for the happiness we expect but a sense of constantly having to prove themselves.  Of, course, we are intending to give our children a “good start in life” but we’re often coming from a place of fear (eg. fear of our kids not fitting in or fear of them not being successful in life).  It’s fear which we end up passing on to them.

Reaching for goals needs to be tempered with stepping back to get perspective and to rest.  Being overscheduled during the primary years is a step onto the treadmill of always doing and never being.  Being themselves.  I’d rather my boys were happily themselves than unhappily keeping up.

 

Much love to you and your little souls,

 

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Sleeping is a Spiritual Practice

One night last weekend, I had to get up to Thomas (3-years-old) so many times I lost count.  I just couldn’t figure out what he needed and he didn’t seem to know either.  When I heard him call out again at 3:34am, it was almost physically impossible for me to open my eyes, which only wanted to sleep.  Once I’d managed to rouse myself, I decided I was going to cover all possibilities to secure Thomas and I both at least a couple of hours of unbroken sleep before it was time to get up.  So, I fetched him a drink and a snack, added another blanket to his bed, gave him another cuddle and even measured out a dose of paracetamol thinking “this is so unlike him, he must be sick”.  It worked for him but all that activity had woken me up and I took another hour to get back to sleep.  The next day, I was hopeless.

I cried over a disagreement between my husband and I – we weren’t even arguing, we just had different points of view.  I couldn’t muster up any energy or enthusiasm to play with my boys.  My patience was paper-thin and I became that shouty parent I wrote about in my post “WHY AM I SHOUTING AT MY CHILDREN?!” All my respectful parenting strategies went out the window and I resorted to the path of least resistance to get my boys’ co-operation – bribery.  My brain felt mushy and my body felt like a heavy bag of bones.  My inner resources had leaked away along with my sleep.

 

A BRIEF LESSON ON THE PURPOSE OF SLEEP

We often think of sleep as largely a physical need but it is a lot more than that.  Sleep is for the renewal of all parts of ourselves – body, mind and spirit.  When sleeping, our bodies don’t have to move beyond their survival functions and natural rhythms.  When sleeping, our minds don’t have to perform conscious actions.  When we’re awake, the physical needs of our bodies and noise of our thoughts can interfere with our connection to Spirit because they are more obvious and hard to ignore.  But, when we are asleep, they are quieter so our souls can more easily connect with and receive spiritual energy and, therefore, be regenerated too. 

This is why “sleeping on” a problem can be so helpful.  Through sleeping, our soul gets a chance to be heard and offer its intuitive solution.  We are often also more creative after sleep.  I write these blog posts first thing in the morning because that’s when ideas and words come most easily to me.  It is also why there is a healing quality to sleep.  When I was depressed, I would take to my bed.  Not just to escape from the world but because the break from having to function gave my spirit some refreshment.

“The process of truly becoming yourself takes a lot of energy and this energy can be replenished during naps”. – SARK, Change Your Life Without Getting Out of Bed

 

GETTING ENOUGH SLEEP FOR ALL THE FAMILY

Generally, I fall apart if I don’t get at least 7 hours of good sleep.  As a result, I have always been very protective of my boys’ sleep, not wanting them to suffer from lack of it.  As babies, it was straight to bed as soon as I saw their tired signs (once I figured out which of all my baby’s peculiar little movements were actually “tired signs”).  I wasn’t willing to go out for a day and make do with letting them doze in their capsule or buggy because it compromised the quality of their sleep.  I have always tried to prioritise and optimise their day naps and night sleeps because it’s so essential to their well-being.  (And mine – every parent knows the suffering an overtired child can inflict!)  Experiencing true sleep deprivation for the first time as a parent, I also realised I need to prioritise my own sleep.

Fortunately, my long night of getting up with Thomas was during the weekend and my husband was home.  So, in the afternoon, when I could barely haul myself out of my chair, I plodded up the stairs to my bed and I had a nap.  In her book, Change Your Life Without Getting Out of Bed, SARK includes permission slips to take naps.  I was so grateful when I first saw these.  I always feel guilty about deserting my family for nap-land but I do it when I need to because it is essential.  When I got up after an hour of dozing that afternoon, I made a lemon pudding for desert and played Lego with Jake.  I was restored.

I doubt there is a parent out there who can’t relate to that overwhelmed, can’t-function feeling of sleep deprivation, at least from the newborn days.  But, if your exhaustion doesn’t come so much from lack of sleep as it does from being busy and over-committed, I implore you, too, to sleep-in or take a nap when you need it.  Sometimes we wear our busyness like badges of honour – we must be important if people are relying on us to do all these things – but we’re miserable and we make those around us miserable too when we’re under-slept.

 

IN SUMMARY – A PRESCRIPTION OF SLEEP-INS & AFTERNOON NAPS

The title of this post may have seemed tongue-in-cheek at first but it’s not.  When we’re tired, any energy we have (physical, mental and spiritual) is used up on simply surviving and there is none left to be our best selves.  We want to be patient and kind and wise and all those sorts of things as parents – and just as people – but these can be near-on impossible when we’re sleep deprived.  Our bodies, minds and spirits are all beautifully connected and they all need plenty of sleep.

Let’s teach our children to take care of themselves by having sleep-ins and naps through example.  We could even nap with our children on Saturday afternoons.

 

Much love to you and your little souls,

 

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Spirituality & Depression – What’s the Relationship?

MY STORY

“What’s the relationship between spirituality and depression?”  This is a question that I have had swirling around inside for a number of years.  When I look back on my own experience of depression, more than anything, I think of it as at time of spiritual crisis.  I didn’t have faith in myself.  I didn’t have faith in the world.  Without faith, I didn’t have the strength to manage the challenges in my life or the hope of better days. Everything felt black.

It was a slow, gradual journey back to health.  My circumstances changed and I found myself drawn toward spiritual content (books, tv, magazines…) which altered my way of thinking and being in the world.  My faith has grown and my fear has reduced.  Now, I am well – thriving, actually.

I am even grateful for the contrast between the period I was depressed and my life now.  It reminds me not to take my joy for granted.  It highlights what works for me and what doesn’t.  As I write this, I realise that I no longer even worry about getting depressed again in the future.  I had presumed that would be a concern of mine for the rest of my life, but it’s not there now!

 

THE SCIENCE

This blog post has been brewing for a while.  My hypothesis that active spirituality could be a significant factor in protecting a person against depression made sense to me, based on my own experience, but I had no evidence.  When writing about the darkest times of a person’s life, I didn’t want to simply be “playing with ideas”.  Then, this past week, through a series of synchronistic events, I got my hands on a copy of “The Spiritual Child”, by Lisa Miller, PhD (Picador, 2015).  In it, Lisa shares the research on children’s spirituality in easy-to-read, often poetic, language.  On the back cover of the book it says that children who have a “positive, active relationship to spirituality are…60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers”.  When I read that, I felt I was being given the go-ahead to write this post.

I love the word “thriving” – that’s exactly what I want for my boys (for everyone).  Lisa seems to love the word too.  I’m less than a quarter of the way through the book but she has said this many times and in various ways:

The only thing that science has shown to reliably predict fulfillment, success and thriving: a child’s spiritual development. – The Spiritual Child, Lisa Miller, p24.

To give you a piece of the evidence sited in her book: brain scans of those whose lives are led by spirituality show a number of distinct features.  One is the thickening of sections of the right brain where, in depressed people, it would be thinner.  If spirituality and depression have opposite effects on some areas of the brain, it suggests that it’s much harder for them to co-exist.

I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of the science but I’m wondering if there are specific aspects of spiritual thinking that particularly aid the prevention of depression.  I’ve often heard, for example, that the brain can’t be in a state of appreciation and fear at the same time because of the way the brain operates.  A person in a depressed state can alternate between grateful and fearful thinking many times in a day but it would presumably be the proportion spent in each that determines their overall experience?

 

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR OUR CHILDREN

Given the genetic component of depression, I was nervous about having children burdened with a higher likelihood of experiencing it.   Fortunately, I made the choice to go ahead and my beautiful boys have played a big part in the deepening of my own spirituality and sense of thriving.  I don’t often worry about whether or not they will experience depression in the future.  By attending to their spirituality, I am comforted that I am doing what I can to support their mental health.

I am showing them how to connect with Love and how to put it into action.   From a scientific perspective, I am strengthening the loving functions of their brains, building the neural pathways of loving thought. What is spirituality if not Loving (ourselves, others, the world)?  What is depression if not fear (in a multitude of forms)?

I think that building my boys’ Love begins with offering them a loving world view.  After all, it is our beliefs that shape our thoughts and, therefore, our emotions & actions.  To show you what I mean, I’ll contrast a fearful world view with a loving world view –

These are a few examples of the fearful beliefs I had when I was depressed:

  • I don’t trust the world to be kind or for things to work out well for me (so I have to work super-hard to control everything and make life work myself).
  • I can’t do all that is expected of me.  I’m not good enough.  I’m not worthy of happiness and other good things
  • Everyone else is better than me.  Things come more easily to other people.

These are some of the loving beliefs I have now and wish to pass onto my boys:

  • I have faith in myself and in the universe.  The universe is working for me, in my best interests.  I have everything I need.
  • I belong here.  I have value.  I am worthy of happiness and other good things.  (See my post – “A Child’s Worth”).
  • Everyone is equal and has equal access to support from God.

If we compare the fearful and loving beliefs, we can see that they encourage entirely different ways of being. Depression is a complicated condition with so many contributing factors, but I think that, through showing them a spiritually-led life, I can steer my boys’ thought, biological/neural and lifestyle patterns so that they will have a head start in a joy-filled life and an understanding they can draw on if they ever do find themselves on the downward spiral.

 

IN SUMMARY: SPIRITUALITY, DEPRESSION & THRIVING

Just to be clear – I am not staying that actively spiritual people cannot have depression or that a person is not “spiritual enough” if they do experience it.  I know it is a very complex condition with multiple aspects to it.  In both of my boys’ early days, I experienced sustained anxiety which I attribute to insufficient sleep, biological (hormonal) factors and the stress I felt from the demands of a newborn.  I was worried at times that I was on my way to depression again (fortunately, not).

I’m also not saying we “should” grow our children’s spiritual strength in order to reduce the likelihood of them experiencing depression.  I wanted to share my scientific findings because they have confirmed what I felt I already knew – that the spiritual life I’m building for myself and modelling for Jake & Thomas is an advantage when it comes to reducing their chances of experiencing depression and increasing their chances of thriving.

 

 

Much love to you and your little souls,

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