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Asking For A Friend: Torn Between Tough Love and Letting Them Be

Written by Abigail Sommerfeld

Photography by Photography by Nicki Sebastian

Welcome to Asking for a Friend, a column where we track down answers to your most burning (and sometimes awkward) questions. To answer this week’s query, we called on family life coach Abigail Sommerfeld, who, in addition to working with individual clients, leads the REAL Parenting workshop series in her hometown of San Francisco.

Q: My kids and I are in the power struggle phase, and I am torn about when and how to respect my child’s feelings/personhood/body and when it’s time to just pick them up and strap them in their carseat. There are moments when I feel like I have to make them do or eat something, even if they hate it, because it’s just the right thing to do or because the food is good for them. But I feel caught between the more forceful parenting style I was raised with and the modern, freedom-centric parenting style highlighted in culture today. When I do the latter I feel like I’m encouraging an entitled tyrant, and when I’m doing the former I feel like I’m just perpetuating what my parents did to me (that made me feel unseen and powerless). Help!

A: Oh, friend. You are not alone. As parents, we so often convince ourselves that we have only two choices: Authoritative or permissive. Reactive or responsive. Good cop or bad cop. Withstand the blow or duck and sidestep it. Encourage an entitled tyrant or perpetuate pain from the past. In our more challenging parenting moments especially, we tend to walk right into the trap of thinking we have to choose between two equally unattractive choices. It’s so hard!

What we may not realize in these tough parenting moments is that it’s actually this absolutist and binary thinking that causes the bulk of our angst. Often more painful than the frustration you feel with your child in those tense moments is the story you tell about yourself as a result of feeling the frustration in the first place. Let me explain. Psychologist, author, and meditation teacher Tara Brach calls this “second arrowing.” In Buddhist teachings, there are two arrows. The first is the experience itself: fear, anger, jealousy, impatience with your tantruming kiddo, for example. On the heels of having the experience itself, we flog ourselves for our feelings and subsequent reaction to said tantruming kiddo. That’s the second arrow. The Buddha says: “The first arrow hurts, why do we shoot the second arrow into us, ourselves? We cannot always control the first arrow; however, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.” Brach explains, “The first arrow arises from causes and conditions beyond our control. But when we learn to release the judgement and self-blame that we experience in response to the first arrow, the second arrow becomes completely avoidable.” First arrow: The struggle to get them into the car seat or to eat something they hate, the impatience with them, the uncertainty of how to react, the fear of what hangs in the balance. The second arrow: the story that you only have two choices, the story that whatever you choose, you’re either encouraging an entitled tyrant or perpetuating a model of parenting that leaves your children feeling unseen and powerless. Sheesh. That fucking second arrow. You can’t win! In the midst of those tough parenting moments we have, it often feels more like the moment is having us.

My brilliant partner, Darcy Campbell, has dedicated her entire professional life to helping educators, schools, and parents to remove fear and fantasy from their practices and instead raise and teach children with respect and dignity. “Fear and fantasy” is where many of us go as parents, especially in those sweaty, gritty, frustrating moments. We call them POTs, or Points of Tension. They trigger us and send us hurtling toward archetypal parenting models of which we are neither proud nor aligned with philosophically. When we react, respond, or parent from a place of fear and/or fantasy, we scramble the message both for ourselves and for our children about what really matters to us: our values, our goals, who we are and who they are. Points of tension: First arrow. Fear and fantasy: Second arrow.

Darcy explains that the only antidote to fear and fantasy is the facts. Fear and fantasy are the stories, the worst case scenarios, the assumptions, the shame, the knee-jerk reaction. Here are the facts: Who is your child? Who are you? What is actually going on? What do you care about? What do you want? In order to parent from our values, we first have to bring compassion and understanding to ourselves in that first arrow. We have to recognize that we are human and what happens to us in those points of tension is a natural part of our conditioning. In other words, start by giving yourself a break. You are human! Of course, any self-aware parent these days may immediately wonder, “Wait! If I give myself a break, then I’m not holding myself accountable, and if I don’t hold myself accountable, then I will inevitably encourage an entitled tyrant or make the same mistakes my parents did!” Get off the mental merry-go-round. I know there is no birth of consciousness without pain and everything, but must we beat ourselves up quite this much? No! You’ll find yourself deep in the fear and fantasy vortex. Impaled with second arrows.

In our “Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk” workshop, Darcy and I give parents the tools to do their own personal communication audit so that they can make their values visible in their interactions, choices, and even environment.

One tool is what Darcy calls “reality checks.” They help you get more clear and concise and help you reach your goals without becoming the monster or the pushover.

Give the expectation, the behavior you want to happen. “You are getting in your car seat super fast like a hummingbird, so fast that we will have time to sing more songs.” Those ones that you want me to play on an endless loop, you think to yourself.

Should your child miraculously do what you say because you made it fun and you gave a picture of what was to happen next as a result, then you engage wholeheartedly with joy in your voice. Should your child not follow your lovely clear guidance, you do not engage, sing, talk, or play for a bit and you say, “that took so long, I do not have time to sing, talk, play right now. I am busy driving. We can try again tomorrow.” This is what we call active disengagement. The only reward and the only consequence is time and engagement. Your child will learn that when they do what you say, they are rewarded with a smiling happy parent and when they do not, they get very little. It’s important that you not warn your child as to what could happen if they don’t do what you say—this is a threat (one of Darcy’s “dirty dozen” parenting pitfalls). Children read threats as a challenge and will meet you head to head, just to see if you are being reliable.

State the behavior you want.
Follow through.
Disengage if it doesn’t go as planned, engage if it does.
Try again tomorrow.

Darcy suggests that if you have difficulty after 3 times of this approach, try a planning meeting (best for children over 3.5). This “meeting” takes place when the offensive behavior is not happening. It starts like this: “You know how we keep having trouble getting in the car quickly in the mornings? Well it makes us both cranky, so let’s come up with a plan together for how to have a great time.” Then you come up with your first contribution, “I am going to hug you first and smile. What about you?” The plan should be no more than 3 steps and then you get to test it the next day. Insert anything else for getting in the car. This strategy works, primarily because you and your child are now on the same team.

When you get clear about what actually matters to you—from car seat battles to force feeding—you can show up reliably and consistently for your children. It’s a beautifully simple yet often excruciatingly painful endeavor. You are not alone. You are already choosing to dwell in the uncertainty you are encountering. By having compassion for yourself and acknowledging and respecting your own feelings and personhood and by getting clear (and clearing out the noise, fear, fantasy, and second arrows) about what you want and who you are, you’re well on your way to doing that for your children.

You’ve got this, mama. Onward and upward.

Have a question for our experts? Email us at [email protected]. We’ll publish all queries anonymously because we know—you’re totally asking for a friend.

Write a Comment

  1. Meredith says...

    Oh wow. This is so incredibly helpful. It is SO tempting to get sucked in during these moments and reading this made me realize how much I use that second arrow. Now I just need to print and laminate this so I can remember…Thank you!!

  2. Jen says...

    I love this. It’s so simple and makes it easy for me to distinguish when to step in and ‘force’ (guide) him to doing the right thing, and when to let him try. One try, and then I step in and guide the behavior I want. We actually did this tonight at dinner when he didn’t want to sit in his seat. We did a “I’m going to help you down from the table now and we can try again in 2 minutes” routine about 3 times. Dinner times are still painful, but I feel that we’re making some progress!

  3. Mary Anker says...

    This advice goes for grandparents too. It was hard not to follow my inclination to be the spoiling grandma and instead, support my children as they parent. It is working for me and my four grandsons pretty well. They still want to come with me wherever I go and spend the night as well, so… and oh, do we sing and dance.

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