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.
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)
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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Through a series of small events recently, I have felt The Universe tapping me on the shoulder, asking me to raise a few questions about the ways we “help” our autistic and other special needs children. I’m in support of any intervention that benefits the child and that the child wants to receive. But I’ve realised it’s easy to think we are doing something in their best interests when, in fact, it may not be.
SPECIAL NEEDS, SPECIAL GIFTS
Being a person of faith, I am certain that each person’s mind and body is designed to best serve their soul’s purpose. I believe that we are individually shaped in a way that helps us to learn what we’re here to learn and to contribute what we’re here to contribute.
To someone whose child has a condition that causes them suffering of some sort, for me to say there is divine purpose to it may seem insensitive – I’m not the one watching my child struggle or dealing with the unrelenting challenges of caring for them. As a teacher, meeting the special needs in my class required hours of extra work and added a further layer of stress & exhaustion, so I get it to some extent.
But, through our struggles – the special needs students’, their families’, their classmates’ and my own – I could see that these children’s differences were more special gifts than they were special needs.
Firstly, many of them generated a lot of compassion and caring from their classmates who, on the whole, were quick to accommodate and assist them. In this way, there is no doubt that the special needs children facilitated an expansion of Love in the world, just by being themselves.
I noticed that many children with special needs had a special ability also. The dyslexic children I worked with were often very articulate or had vivid imaginations. Some of the children who struggled socially had extraordinary logic or mathematical computation skills. I recently heard Martha Beck, whose son has down syndrome, speak of his tremendous capacity for presence and empathy.
These children also offered a different way of viewing the world. This was particularly noticeable in the children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Their brains not filtering and processing their experiences in the same ways as most of ours do, they brought new perspective to things and noticed things I didn’t. If I were to line up all of my students, like a row of crystals or prisms hanging in the window of a new-age shop, the autistic children would be those that are a different shape to most. The reflections they create would stand out for their uniqueness but all the children would be reflecting the same source of light. If we take the time to look, we will see what they have to show us.
This week, I shared a BBC video on my Facebook page in which TV presenter Chris Packham talks about both how he has struggled with and benefited from his autistic characteristics. Given the opportunity to be cured, he says he would decline.
“We need to understand autistic people better, not try to change who they are”. – Chris Packham.
HELPING, NOT CHANGING OUR CHILDREN
In a conversation with a friend recently, she told me about some research she had heard of. Scans were taken of the brains of people with ASD. They then received some kind of therapy which changed their brains so that, in follow-up scans, their brains looked “normal” or closer to normal after treatment than they did initially. Some of these people had their ASD diagnosis removed as a result. I was intrigued that this was even possible and, at first thought, this seems like a great result. But I wondered wheather, in losing their autism, these people would also lose the gift of it and, maybe, a portal to their purpose? Did having “normal” brains make the autistic people feel better or did it make others feel better about them?
Perhaps The Universe will now adjust to find other ways to help these people live their purpose and, for a person able to give their consent to treatment I don’t object. But it made me think about the way we approach special needs in general. It’s great to accommodate people, teach and assist them to function more easily in our world. But there’s a line which can be crossed. The goal is not to make them fit into our world – spiritually, they already fit.
For all of our children, special needs or not, our ultimate goal is to empower them be their truest, most joyful selves. For any person, receiving the help we need feels good but, when we sense that we are being moulded & shaped to suit others, the message we get is that we are not good enough as we are and that we should change. Perhaps the placement of that line where supportive help becomes being changed is different for each person and we need to be sensitive to that.
For most of my teaching career, I had at least one child with ASD in my class. What I noticed was the range of experiences that these children had. Some were more happy, getting on as best as they could. Others were anxious and each day was a struggle. I noticed some pattern in what I observed. Those whose parents accepted their child as they were and put the time into accommodating and supporting their children were generally the happier ones. Those whose parents resisted their child’s condition, focussing more on making them as “normal as possible” were generally the ones who struggled more. The quality of our attitudes towards our special needs children impacts their experience, both energetically and behaviourally.
SUMMARY – EMPOWERING EVERYONE
For many years now, in educational and medical circles, the question of why there has been a steady increase in the incidence of certain special needs has been asked. As expected, there is more professional awareness & knowledge of these conditions, making diagnosis easier. For some, this is a good thing, resulting in children with special needs being identified and getting their needs met. Others argue that raised awareness has led to over-diagnosis (and, as a result, over-medication). Both of these perspectives may well have some truth to them.
But is it also because, at this time, our world needs more of what these children have to offer? Do we need these children’s different perspectives to help us expand the reach of Love in the world? If we understand our autistic and other special needs children more, I think we will learn things we need to know individually and for the positive development of humanity. It’s important to help make their journey through this world a little easier but we need to do so in ways that empower them to be who they are meant to be – for their happiness and for our own empowerment too.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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Thomas and I were at preschool Kindy Gym and the session had just started. I patted my pocket and realised I had left my phone in my bag, on the other side of the room. I wasn’t expecting any important calls or messages so decided to leave it there and give Thomas my full attention. We had a great time playing together and I enjoyed being present, not distracted by the pings & buzzes of my phone.
When I eventually did look at my phone, once Kindy Gym had finished, I saw a series of missed calls from my older son’s school and my husband. I looked at the times on the screen – they’d been trying to get hold of me for almost an hour. My heart started racing – what was up? I set Thomas up with his lunchbox and listened to the first message. It was the school principal himself calling, asking me to phone him back “urgently regarding Jake”. Feeling jittery, I tried calling the school – no answer. I tried calling my husband – no answer. There was nothing to do but keep making calls until I got through to someone.
Eventually I got hold of my husband. “Don’t worry, Jake’s fine” was the first thing he said. (Don’t those words always seem to imply that there is something to worry about?) He told me Jake had hurt his head and they were in my husband’s van, driving to the hospital. “His head!” I exclaimed in alarm, imagining copious blood, screaming pain and serious concussion. I didn’t ask for details, I just wanted to get to the hospital and see Jake as quickly as I could.
Thomas, bless him, was in a particularly co-operative mood. I hurriedly packed up his lunchbox and told him Jake had hurt himself so we needed to go to the hospital. You can imagine the onslaught of questions that prompted. I answered them patiently as we speed-walked to the car. As I drove, we said a prayer for Jake & all the people looking after him. I wondered what kind of state I would find him in but resolved to keep myself together, no matter what I found. I searched for a place of steadiness within and focussed on it.
When we got to the waiting room at the hospital, I saw Jake sitting on my husband’s knee, a bandage around his head, a miserable expression on his face and his complexion an unnerving shade of greyish yellow. I gave him a careful hug. “You got a big fright, didn’t you?” I said and he nodded sadly. “Are you ok, Dake?”, Thomas asked him.
Thomas was getting tired and we decided it was no use all of us being at the hospital. I’ve got the stronger stomach for blood and medical procedures so my husband transferred Jake to my knee (when did he get so big?) and took Thomas home. As we sat there in the waiting room, Jake’s colour started improving and he began chatting a little. He told me that he had been playing tag with his friends and had run into a wall, knocking his head. I looked at the red sign the staff had put on the counter to save themselves numerous enquires – it said the wait was “more than 2 hours”. “This is a child with a head injury, why are we still waiting?!” I wanted to shout.
Fortunately, a nurse appeared with an ice-block not too much later and asked us to follow her to an examination room. It turned out that the school staff had done such a great job caring for Jake’s injury that there was nothing more to be done except to put a clean bandage on top. I had been unsure how I was going to get Jake to co-operate if stitches were required and was very relieved he didn’t have to go through that too. We were soon sent home for a quiet afternoon.
That evening, as I was drying Jake after his bath, he told me that, when his head was bleeding at school, it had felt like water coming out of his head and he had been scared because he didn’t know if he’d be okay. I realised that he had genuinely believed he could die and I felt dreadful that I hadn’t been there for him in what must have been the most terrifying moment of his life so far.
Having had a significant blow to the head, I kept Jake home from school the following day. In the morning, we had to pop out to drop Thomas off at kindergarten. At kindy, the same one Jake had attended when he was younger, the teachers were pleased to see him again and fussed over him kindly. After we settled Thomas in, we went to a bookshop to get Jake the next book in a series he’s been reading – I figured he needed something to do if he couldn’t run around and jump on the sofas like usual. Once we found the book, he wanted to browse the shelves for a while and we pointed out interesting reads to each other. As we wandered back to the car, he said “I like having time just you and me”. He told me the same thing again later in the day. “I do too”, I said, “Hanging out with you is one of my favourite things to do”. Since he started school, we haven’t had much time for just the two of us and it was a reminder to make dates more often.
Before heading home to relax, I took Jake to a café for a fluffy. (For those of you not in New Zealand, a fluffy is a child’s drink of warm, frothy milk, made with an espresso machine, usually served with chocolate sprinkled on top and marshmallows on the side). As I watched him sip his drink, a chocolate moustache above his lip and the square of white bandage crooked on his head, my eyes filled with tears. I felt just how deeply I love him.
I understood in that moment that pain (physical and emotional) is inevitable in life and I won’t always be able to protect Jake from it. Not only is it impossible, it’s not my job to protect him from it all. It’s through pain that our children will learn things and discover their own strength. Sometimes the only thing I will be able to do is acknowledge Jake’s pain and sit with him through it. There will be times, too, when I won’t be there (like when he was injured & panicing at school) and I can only hope that, at those times, he knows I am coming to him as fast as I possibly can.
Our children’s pain often feels worse than our own, doesn’t it? As parents, we learn and discover strength through enduring their pain as much as we do our own. If we didn’t let it grow us, our children’s pain would break us (or so it feels) and we would be no use to them then. On this occassion, I learned that my place of steadiness within is always available to me and I was reminded to have more dates with Jake, “just us”. I wonder what Jake feels he has learned through the experience – I’ll ask him tonight.
Unfortunately, there is likely bigger pain to come for Jake – a variety of diappointments, perhaps a more serious injury, a broken teenaged heart… I can’t say I invite these times ahead but I won’t live in fear of them. Whenever I see the scar on Jake’s forehead, I will be reminded that he and I, both, can survive, the pain ahead and, even, allow it grow us.
Much love to you and your little souls,
PS – How do you find the strength to cope with your children’s pain? Comment below.
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Over the past month, I’ve been trying to reduce the amount of sugar in my family’s diet. I don’t think our sugar consumption has been massive compared with what most people regard as “normal” but, compared with World Health Organisation guidelines, it was. I’m not overhauling the way we eat entirely, just trying to increase our vegies and find healthy swaps for some of the foods we eat.
With my family’s health at stake, I have been doing a lot of research on healthy eating (listening to “experts” speak on YouTube video while preparing dinner). Apparently, almost none of the food supplied to us is good to eat, putting some kind of strain on our bodies that they aren’t designed for. There is someone to warn us of the health risks of almost everything we eat, including the polyunsaturated oils we’ve been told to use instead of saturated fats, inorganic plant & animal products, alternative sweeteners and, even, wholegrains. Most of the health concerns around these foods boil down to the fact that almost all of our food is interfered with in some way. I have concluded that just about everything I buy at the supermarket poses a health risk and, without the budget or time to source healthy alternatives, I don’t know what to feed my family anymore. And then there are the ethical and sustainability issues!
I have been feeling exasperated and, even, angry that I can’t trust our food sources. The quality of my family’s food feels largely out of my control unless I move the family to a farm and we grow all our food (organically) ourselves. This is not an option for me as I struggled so much with our small home veggie patch that I pulled it out and turned it into a play garden– I’m better at nurturing children than plants.
To complicate things even further, because our minds, bodies and spirits are so closely connected, the way we eat also feels like a spiritual issue to me.
WHAT MY CHILDREN EAT IS A SPIRITUAL ISSUE BECAUSE…
…it affects their spiritual connection. When our bodies are struggling to cope in some way with what we’ve eaten, our minds aren’t clear enough to be able to tune in to Spirit. To illustrate my point – imagine trying to meditate when your blood-sugars have plummeted and you need something to eat, when you’re feeling jittery from too much coffee or when your stomach feels sore because it’s struggling to digest something your body doesn’t like. At these times, we’re too preoccupied by our bodies’ needs to be able to tune into our spiritual needs. Our children’s natural spiritual connection can be compromised when their diets lack nutrition or their bodies are stressed.
…it impacts our environment and animals. We are closely connected with the environment and all other beings in a spiritual way. I know that the impacts of getting food to my table are far-reaching and often compromise the environment and animals. All these issues came up for me again recently when my son, Jake, and I were discussing how the meat we eat comes from animals. He was asking me a lot about the process of how an animal becomes his favourite macaroni-and-mince dish, concerned about the animal getting hurt. His final question was, “Do you think that’s right (to kill animals to eat)?” I replied that animals in the wild have to hunt and eat other animals in order to survive but that I’m really not sure if it’s ok for us to do the same. We’re sitting on this question… and many others.
…good health helps them to live full lives. I want to see my children have the energy and wellness to enjoy their lives, to contribute to others’ and to live their spiritual purpose. If the way they are eating compromises their health, they can’t do these things. Simple as that.
WHAT MY CHILDREN EAT IS NOT A SPIRITUAL ISSUE BECAUSE…
…there are only so many hours in a day. I don’t have time to grow, raise, harvest and butcher our food as well as cook it from scratch to make sure it is all perfectly healthy, sustainable and ethical. I don’t even have time to trapse from shop to shop to source ingredients which have a clear conscience. My weekly trip to the supermarket is already quite the label-reading mission – if I don’t take my boys with me, it can take 20 minutes just to get down the first aisle.
…healthy food often costs more. Most healthy foods are not mass-produced like the food I get at the supermarket is and are, therefore, more expensive. Economically, I understand the reasons for that and I sincerely want independent farmers etc to thrive – but my wallet does not.
…something is better than nothing, surely. Here, I refer to the general fussiness of children when it comes to their food. Did you know that young children are biologically wired to be sceptical of new foods and have strong sensory responses to food that often put them off, as well as a natural sweet-tooth? Food fussiness is a whole other post but my approach is to serve up a mixture of healthy foods and foods they will actually eat. I don’t want them to go to bed hungry, unable to sleep because they wouldn’t eat anything on their plate. To put some pasta with dinner gives us all a better sleep, despite it being deficient in nutrition and environmentally unsound.
A SOLUTION – 3 STEPS
I fret about my boys’ food for so many reasons. To add the spiritual implications to the mix adds to the load of concerns to wade through. Before I had children, I couldn’t have imagined that feeding them would be so difficult. But, I tout my blog as practical spiritual parenting so let’s be realistic about this. This is what I’m going to do to make it a little easier –
Decide which concerns are the most important. For some, it might be reducing sugar. For others, it might be eating ethically-sourced food. For many, it might be keeping the family afloat financially and stretching the grocery dollar as far as it goes. Trying to tick every box would make feeding our families an enormous stress and a full-time job.
Accept what we decide not to do. With acceptance, we don’t need to feel guilty about the less-than-ideal food choices we make for our children, knowing we have focussed on our priorities. Remembering that it isn’t possible to tick every box helps too.
Eat mindfully. In our family we begin meals by saying grace. Enjoying our food is another way of appreciating it and valuing all the labour and sacrifice involved in getting it to our plates.
IN SUMMARY – MY LAST SUGGESTION
Feeding our children can become a source of stress for many parents. There’s fussiness, meal-time battles and emotional eating behaviours to deal with. Having bigger issues like health, sustainability, ethics and spirituality to also take into consideration can feel like too much at times. My final piece of advice, based on my own efforts to reduce my family’s sugar intake, is this – once you’ve decided on your priorities, make small, incremental changes to keep things manageable and to keep your children on-board. For example, the first changes I made to reduce my family’s sugar intake was to switch afternoon tea to savoury foods – raw veggies, cheese, nuts and crackers instead of fruit and baking – and to reduce the amount of sugar in recipes. All the best!
Much love to you and your little souls,
PS – What are your priorities when it comes to feeding your kids? Comment below.
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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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As time goes by, the distinctions between mind, body and spirit blur for me. I can see how interlinked these aspects of ourselves are, how one affects the other. Looking at current trends in psychology, such as mindfulness, growth mindset and positive psychology, as practices, they are very similar to those people might use for spiritual connection. Couldn’t we equate mindfulness with spiritual meditation, for example?
So I have found myself asking, is spirituality just good psychology?
FIRSTLY, SPIRITUALITY IS GOOD PSYCHOLOGY
We can turn to research on the brain to see the impact of psychological and spiritual practices on its development. Both mindfulness and spiritual meditation change the brain in similar ways. To give an example, they both increase the cortical thickness of the hippocampus, thereby reducing the incidence and severity of depression. This is just one small example but it illustrates my point.
Whether we approach our practices from a spiritual or purely psychological perspective, this science appears to reduce them to simply exercises we do to convince our brains to be happier. Our emotions are, essentially, our brain’s response to our thinking, after all. Is there more to them than that?
SPIRITUALITY MAKES IT MORE BENEFICIAL
In the midst of my wonderings, I watched a YouTube video. In it, an educational and spiritual researcher said that bringing a spiritual aspect to many of the psychological practices used today magnifies their benefit for people. Her comment was made in passing and I would have been interested to hear her elaborate but it got me thinking about why it might make a difference.
Here’s my conclusion – spirituality brings meaning to the practices. Thinking to myself, “I am going to watch my breath mindfully” feels different to “I am going to quiet my mind to sense my connection with Life”. One limits our experience to a specific task and the other opens us up to the limitless. One feels functional. The other feels meaningful.
Some who are skeptical of spirituality may argue that people are just creating meaning that doesn’t really exist when they bring spirituality to their practices. But, once a person has experienced their own spirituality, its truth is undeniable. I have experienced greater peace, faith, oneness and intuition when my intentions are spiritual rather than just to perform mental exercises for stress relief. It brings an extra dimension to my practice and provides the real reason for doing it.
BRINGING SPIRITUAL PRACTICES TO OUR CHILDREN
We are doing a great service to our children if we teach them mental practices from a psychological point-of-view. If we do it from a spiritual point of view, we are offering them even more.
I would argue that, even when going in without spiritual intention, there is the possibility of experiencing something spiritual because our spirituality is a part of us whether we acknowledge it or not.
Let’s look at some current psychological practices, how a spiritual intention can be enhance them and some simple ways we could share them with our children.
Mindfulness & Spiritual Mindfulness
The term “mindfulness” is used both as a psychological and a spiritual term. For the purposes of this post, I am using “mindfulness” as a purely psychological practice and “spiritual mindfulness” to speak of it as a spiritual practice. Mindfulness is bringing our attention fully to the present moment and noticing & accepting what is, including our own thoughts & feelings. This is exactly what spiritual mindfulness is too. But to do it as a spiritual practice is to do it knowing that our thoughts, feelings and experiences are not who we are. When we are mindful with this intention, we may sense our oneness with Life. We may even hear something that Life has to say to us now that we have turned down the volume of our mind’s chatter. After a mindfulness meditation, we may feel relaxed and calm. After a spiritual mediation, we may also feel connected and able to separate ourselves (our identity, our worth, our happiness…) from our thoughts, feelings and experiences.
What a liberation to realize that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that. – Eckhart Tolle
Practising Spiritual Mindfulness with Our Children: Both psychological and spiritual mindfulness can be practiced as a formal meditation or as we go through our day. A very simple introduction for our children is to have them lie down with their hand/s on their heart or tummy. As their chest/tummy rises and falls with their breath, they can imagine ocean waves going up and down. This is mindfulness. Once they are settled into this, ask them to watch themselves doing this. They could do this by imagining that they are looking down on themselves from above, like a seagull flying over the ocean. This adds the spiritual component of awareness – being aware of themselves as separate from their body and thoughts.
Growth Mindset & Faith
Essentially, a growth mindset is based on the belief that our abilities and attributes can be developed through hard work (rather than the belief that they are fixed and we can’t do much about them). A growth mindset is one that, among other things, is resilient in the face of failure because it understands that there is learning to be found in failure – learning that can be used to inform the next creative move. A growth mindset can be applied to many situations, many environments and to life in general. The way I see it, faith enables us to develop a growth mindset further than we might otherwise. When we have faith, we trust that we are supported by the Universe. Therefore, we are more willing to take a risk when it feels like the right thing to do but not necessarily the most logical thing to do. I see my own mindset shifting from a more fixed mindset to a growth mindset as I develop more faith.
Practising Faith with Our Children: One way to help our children develop a growth mindset is in the way we talk about risk and ‘failures’. If we teach that risk is to be avoided, that failure is embarrassing or deems our efforts wasted and to give up when it doesn’t first work out, we teach them to fear their logically unsafe ideas – those that are more creative or intuitive, for example. We want to hear ourselves instead telling our children, “try it out”, “that didn’t work but now you have narrowed down the options” or “wow, I never would’ve thought of that!” We can’t make our children have faith but we can remind them that God always wants the best for them and is supporting them all the way. We may recognise moments when our children are feeling inspired and encourage them to follow those ideas, even saying, “I can see you’re inspired, you have an idea your heart really wants to follow”.
Positive Psychology & Inherent Worth
Positive psychology came about as a response to the problem-focused approach of traditional psychology. Its main idea is that psychology should be concerned just as much with building people’s strengths and thriving as it is with healing their problems. The numerous studies on happiness we hear about have sprung from the positive psychology movement. From my spiritual perspective, building a person’s strengths and maximising their thriving begins with their belief in their own worth. (My very first blog post was entitled A Child’s Worth.) If we understand that we are each inherently worthy, a deliberate expression of God, we don’t question our deserving of a fulfilling, happy life. We understand that we are intended to be fulfilled and happy. We start to feel obliged, even, to develop our God-given strengths and to live fully as the unique person that we are. It can’t be more positive than that!
Practising Worth with Our Children: As parents, it is our job to continuously reflect our children’s worth back to them. They need to see it in the way that we interact with them – our unconditional love, our appreciation of their strengths, our acceptance of their “weaknesses”, our efforts to really see them and to tailor our parenting to them. I think that honouring their joy is an aspect of this – joy is an essential element of thriving. Currently, Jake is into climbing. So we have built a simple treehouse at home, we look out for climbable trees when we’re out-and-about and we regularly go to playgrounds. By prioritising opportunities for him to climb, I am letting Jake know that I see and value who he is and that he is worthy of joy. (Not to be confused with tending to every whim.)
IN SUMMARY: SPIRITUALITY IS MORE THAN PSYCHOLOGY
From the outside, many of the practices of psychology and spirituality look the same. It is the intention behind them that makes them different. And it is the intention that can make them even more meaningful and powerful in our lives. Spirituality is good psychology but it is a whole lot more as well.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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Recently, my youngest, Thomas, had a tickly cough that had worsened over the week. By nap-time on Friday, he was barely able to sleep because the cough would disturb him every few minutes. The prospect of a whole night ahead spent listening to him cough was one I dreaded – for his sake and mine – so, we made a trip to the pharmacy. I knew they would be unable to give us “the good stuff” because Thomas is only two-years-old and those cough medicines can only be taken by older children. But I came away with every product and tip the assistant suggested, determined that Thomas and I both would get a decent night’s sleep.
The night started off well. Having readily swallowed a liquid fruit salad of remedies (one was even peach-flavoured) and with the head of his bed propped up by my husband’s cricket books, Thomas drifted off to sleep quickly. It wasn’t until 3am that the coughing began. I waited a while to see if it would pass on its own but it was insistent on keeping Thomas awake. So, I forced myself into alertness and went in to see him. I offered a drink and some herbal cough liquid and snuggled into bed with him for a few minutes. His cough seemed to calm down and Thomas was still so I kissed his cheek and went back to my own bed. Easier than I thought.
I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in bed with my boys for more than 10 minutes during the night. They are give-an-inch-take-a-mile characters, likely to insist on middle-of-the night cuddles the following night and the night after that if I give in once. I’ve always been happy to climb in for a bit to give comfort and help them settle down but I never settle in.
However, within five minutes of my leaving Thomas’ room, his cough was in full swing again. I had no more tricks up my sleeve. Then I realised that what had really calmed the cough initially was not the expensive concoctions I had bought from the pharmacy but my snuggling into bed with Thomas. So, I tip-toed down the hall and climbed back in with him. He put his arm around my neck and, within a few minutes, his breathing was even and I knew he was asleep. I drifted off too and, when I woke, I had been there over an hour. I slipped out of Thomas’ bed, tip-toed back down the hall and we both slept well for the rest of the night.
OK, not the most exciting story but I wanted to write about it because it’s such a clear example of the mind-body-spirit connection. I’ve been aware of the connection for many years but have never witnessed it in such a simple, immediate way. I lay in bed with Thomas, fully present and not resistant (I’d usually be thinking, “I just want to get back to my own bed” and “I’m making a rod for my back, he’ll expect me to do this tomorrow night”). The cuddle almost instantly soothed his cough. It reinforced for me the health benefits of spiritual connection (which I also touched on in Spirituality & Depression – What’s the Relationship?) If a loving cuddle can soothe a cough, imagine the impact of all the other things we are doing for our children’s spirituality on their well-being.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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“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!
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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