You may be wondering why I titled my series “Change, change, change”. Everything comes to me with a song and this one was the melody to Aretha Franklin’s Chains of Fools. It just occurred to me that she’s singing “Chain, chain, chains” and that my series title made no sense to anyone but me.
In my previous post, I wrote that children can withstand a lot of life-altering change without trauma when the fundamentals of attachment are well in place. But, you ask, what do you do if you are not starting from a place of perfect attachment? Last weekend, I reposted two old posts about spanking and in the ensuing discussion on Facebook, many mentioned that a swat on the bottom, applied in an otherwise loving relationship, was of no consequence. Love and attachment are not the same. We can love our children fiercely while leaving attachment gaps the size of Eurasia in our relationship. Love is what motivates neglectful parents to pull all the stops when their children are the object of a removal hearing. Love is why abusers apologize and beg their victims to stay. Love is imperfect and subjective. Most of us wretched sinners would be well advised to approach questions of attachment with a droplet of humility and assume that we are currently messing-up our children in all sorts of harmful and harmless ways, just like our parents did before us.
Listen, none of us get into this parenting thing hoping to mess people up but many of us will. Forewarned is forearmed, that’s all I’m saying. When our families are facing life-altering changes, can we take concrete steps to guard our children’s little hearts and make it as easy as possible for them?
In my previous post, I mentioned Gordon Neufeld’s “Hold On to Your Kids”, which should be mandatory reading for every parent. In fact, they should make parents read it before discharging them from labour and delivery. Like a car seat check for children’s hearts. But Neufeld is talking in broad lines: don’t hit your kids, don’t shame them and remember that children need a large quantity of quality time to attach properly. For practical input, I turned to Kim John Payne and his book “Simplicity Parenting. ”
Kim John Payne is an educator who studied the cumulative effect of small stressors on cognitive disorders and mental illness in children. His studies revealed that when parents were able to reduce the bombardment of stimuli on their troubled children’s brains, cognitive disorders such as ADHD, ODD and OCD became manageable to the point of becoming a quirk rather than a dysfunction. He identified 4 paths to simplifying our children’s lives. When I started reflecting on what our family did to ease our children through moves, new siblings and general life adjustments, I realized that our approach lined-up with Kim John Payne’s paths to simplicity.
1. Predictability and routines. Children thrive on predictability, it’s one of the pillars of attachment. A child’s life is built on answering two recurring questions: Am I safe? and Can I trust? When these questions are answered positively, children are freed to be creative, innovative, attached and secure. Based on their temperaments, some children require more predictability than others. As parents, we must accept the hand we’re dealt and avoid dealing in “should’s.” When our lives are in upheaval, when our families enter periods of instability, we cannot always maintain routines but we can always be predictable. The instability and upheaval can be predictable. Even when routines are difficult to maintain, small routines around meal times, bedtime, and points of transition can be upheld and go a long way in grounding our children in what they know, even in the middle of the unknown.
2. Declutter toys and books. When I wrote about Kim John Payne in 2o12, he mentioned that the average North American child had 150 toys, in which a 3,000-piece Lego set counted as one toy. An over-abundance of toys and books and our inability to declutter reveals more about our state of mind as parents and resistance to change than our children’s. When we explore why we need to provide so much for our children, we often have to address deep-seated fears and insecurities. When our children watch us — and eventually help us — declutter toys and books with a focus on quality, they learn that our identity as a family doesn’t come from what we own but from who we are. It flexes the change muscle in small ways every day so that we are trained when big changes come our way.
3. Media. Our family went through a screen detox almost a year ago and we still limit our children’s exposure to screened entertainment. Overuse of screened entertainment and media rewires our brains, stunts our creativity and shortens our attention span. It may not be immediately obvious how over-exposure to media can affect our children’s ability to weather changes with equanimity but bear with me. When we cut our children off screens last winter, we realized how much mental energy they used thinking about their video games or TV shows, even when they were not watching them. Media of all stripes — especially media directed at children — is designed to be addictive, to grab us and make us come back for more. As parents, we appreciate the calming effect of screens but this stupefying effect comes at a cost when our children come to need screens as a coping mechanism, as a tool of emotional self-regulation. To face challenges and to adapt, our children need mental agility. Over-exposure to media ribs them of that agility.
4. Protecting their innocence and sense of wonder. Sometimes change is imposed on us by circumstances and sometimes we need to make changes that are difficult to comprehend for children. We need to use extreme caution in sharing details they are too young to understand. It doesn’t mean that we lie to our children but we need to use judgment when exposing them to the motivations and possible consequences of a change. To be able to embrace change positively, our children need to believe that the world is a beautiful place. Children are naturally able to see beauty and goodness in every circumstance and we must protect their sense of wonder as long as we can. If we do that, they will show us the beauty in the mess and help us see the world through their eyes.