Is This the Last Time I’ll Hold My Son’s Hand? The Joy and Sorrow of Watching Children Grow

When it comes to my children, I fear the last time: the last time my daughter will ask me to play with her in the bath before she’s too embarrassed, the last time my son will hold my hand on the way to school or sit on my lap after dinner (before he literally crushes my ribs), and the last time any of them will agree to be seen with me in public, ever.

tree kids outside

But without the passing of time, each moment would not be as precious. That’s one of the great mysteries of life. We so much want the lifetime guarantee on everything from our kitchen counters to our kids. But it’s the fleeting impermanence of every moment that makes it special. We live life in a muddle of contrasts and expectations. A sunny, spring day feels so good in Minnesota after a cold winter. But the same temperature is frustrating on a beach in Florida after you paid a thousand dollars to get there.

Kids are the best teachers when it comes to embracing the fleeting moments, from fun to challenging, happy to sad.

It recently struck me that I could quantify how many opportunities I have left with my kids. For example, if I only get out to the ice rink to play hockey with my nine-year-old son two times in a winter, on average, then I may only have eighteen chances left in my life (assuming he’ll even want to play with his old man when he’s sixteen or seventeen). It’s a sobering thought. But it’s also a good motivation on those cold days when my son walks into the office with his hockey stick and a big smile, and my gut reaction is, not right now.

But quantifying everything can be downright scary, and emotionally dangerous. It encourages a clinging mentality, like that old friend who now spends all your time together telling those back-in-the-day-when-things-were-more-fun stories.

And speaking of clinging, for years my wife and I have joked about freezing our daughter. She’s our last of three, and she is sometimes just so sweet and cute and perfect (don’t tell her older brothers) that the thought of her even growing another day, let alone a few years is unbearable (Dear Lord, can she skip being a teenager?). We want to keep her this way, right now, this moment, forever.

Unfortunately, we’ve talked with doctors and cryogenic sleep experts, but can’t come up with any viable options. She keeps growing. We can’t stop it. And each new day, week, month is equally challenging and beautiful, and we say, again, that this is the day, let’s freeze her now. But we can’t. Time passes. And this could be the last time. But without this last time, how will I know what amazing firsts are yet to come?

My wife wrote an amazing song, which says this all much better. Our band, The Falderals, just finished recording the track, along with a very personal video. We’re excited to share it. It’s the first in a series of songs we’ve written for a forthcoming, kid-friendly folk album about the fears, pains, joys, and wonders of growing up. Check out “Baby’s Breath,” and let us know what you think. (If you’re an email subscriber, you may have to click here to see the video on youtube).

If you want “Baby’s Breath,” or any other of our tunes, for keeps, you can get it here!

Seven Winters Left: Children and Impermanence

It’s going to be a rough morning.

My heart is heavy because holiday break is over, and it’s freezing outside, and getting back into the routine of work and school is so hard, and I barely get up in time to blow my morning workout before I need to push my son out the door at seven to drive him to school–because he doesn’t get a school bus, because our district has frustrating rules–and he’s grumpy because I did not let him stay up to watch the Vikings beat the Packers, which he was so excited about (what kind of Dad am I?), and I feel bad about that, but he literally can’t operate without a good night of sleep, and now he can’t find his gloves and he’s still over-tired (was he secretly watching the game on his school issued iPad), so now I’m angry (it’s like the tenth pair of gloves he’s lost), and he’s dawdling again, not brushing his teeth like I asked, and I have two more kids to pick up in the carpool, and we get into one of our morning arguments because he wants to skip breakfast and watch the game highlights on Youtube, and I’m worried the car won’t start, and, of course, the drop-off line at his school is going to be insane, and I forgot the car is iced over, and now my chest is aching because I’m sad and angry and annoyed all at the same time.

Winter break was great. Why does this regular-life stuff suck so much?

With the little I know about myself and life, I pause and take a moment to reflect on the impermanence of it all. I breathe and notice the feelings inside me. As Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, I welcome the sadness and the anger and the annoyance, and I hold them like small children in my arms and in my heart. I offer these raw feelings my compassion, knowing they will not last, these feelings, too, will pass. New happinesses will arrive, new joys and new ups, and new lows and new frustrations, and this is the wonder of a wonderful life.

And then I remember a great thing I learned from the blog Wait But Why, about the passing of time, the smallness of our lives, impermanence, and I realize with shocking clarity that I only have seven left. Seven! My oldest son is eleven. He already has big college plans. This means that, though I hope to live a long time, I only have seven more winters left with this kid.

With only seven winters left, do I really care if he loses a few pairs of gloves, or a thousand? With only seven winters left, do I really care if we’re a few minutes late on a cold winter morning? With seven winters left, shouldn’t I enjoy the precious time we have in the traffic jam of his drop-off line, huddled in our parkas, reviewing the stats from last night’s game (which, as a non-sports dad with a sports son, I often roll my eyes at)? With only seven winters left with him, how much of that time do I want to spend forgiving, loving, letting-go, and showing compassion, versus complaining, yelling, lecturing, and demanding?

Now I feel really bad. I have the “bad dad” blues: that feeling you have when you review a previous situation–like yelling over a lost pair of gloves or sending a kid to bed when rival teams are tied–and you want to go back and kick yourself and say, hey, dude, you only have seven winters left with this kid. Don’t be an jerk.

Instead of dwelling, I remember the Buddhist concept of the second arrow. If you’re hit by an arrow, it hurts. But a second arrow in the same spot, hurts even more. The first arrow is life, our mistakes and other’s. The second arrow is our reaction, our criticism, our anger, and our self-judgement over the situation. Life will be hard, we will screw up, but we can add a lot of extra pain to a situation with our added reaction. All parents mess up. We can know and accept this without adding too many more arrows to a wound.

We are told not to dwell in the past or live in the future. But maybe, at least with our priceless children, by quantifying the short span of our time with them, we can hold each raw moment a little more carefully, a little more lovingly. If I only have seven winters left with my son, and perhaps only two potential chances to have a snowball fight each winter, I may only have fourteen chances left to have a snowball fight with my son. Really? Only fourteen snowball fights left!

Seven more winters. How many more forts will there be? How many more football matches in the front yard? How many more times to sled together down a hill?

A season is a blink of an eye. Seven winters left with my beautiful son, and I’m going to treasure them. 

So the morning goes better than I thought it would.

Though I don’t regret making him go to bed. Sometimes watching the highlights the next day, and being a little late to school, can be fun, too.

Happy New Year from Tall Trees Grow Deep.

The I Wanna Monster! A story to help kids understand the cycle of craving

We call her The I Wanna Monster. This monster looks just like my sweet, lovable daughter, except she’s growling with her arms crossed and her eyes glaring. Usually she’s screaming something that starts with, “I Wanna…”  I wanna treat. I wanna watch another show. I wanna play for five more minutes. I wanna pogo stick and a doll and a lollipop. I wanna go home. I wanna go out.

We all have this I wanna monster. Kids just let it show more. I can get equally worked up driving past a car dealership, inside an electronic’s store, or while wasting my lunch break on Zappos.

It’s important to recognize that this is a natural part of our consumer world, the vicious cycle of seeing and craving and then suddenly suffering because of it. It’s not going away. With new stuff everywhere, we are all going to have moments where we see something we want and this I Wanna Monster possesses us.

So my daughter and I made a short film. It was a fun project to help her understand the cycle of desire, craving and suffering we all go through, whether it involves a BMW or a piece of cake. You can watch it with your own kids as a fun way to talk about how the holidays can sometimes turn us all into monsters.

The takeaway is that by recognizing the cycle and the feelings that come with it, we can remove some of this monster’s power. It’s not going away, but it can be managed.

Now when my daughter starts revving up with desire, it doesn’t take much prodding to help her see that’s she’s trapped again in the cycle of craving.

Enjoy.

 

10 Insights from Two Months on the Road with Three Kids

My wife and I had the great experience of taking our friendly neighborhood folk band,  The Falderals, on the road this year to celebrate the release of our new album Witness. And we brought our three kids along for the ride. Altogether, we traveled four thousand miles from Minnesota through Wisconsin and Ohio, all the way to the East Coast and Washington DC, and then down to Texas and back up the middle. It was the trip of a lifetime. We camped, we couch surfed at friends and relatives (thanks guys!), we tested out a range of low-end hotel accommodations (that’s a whole story in itself), we hit big sights like the Indiana Dunes, The US Capital, Memphis, The Blue Ridge Mountains, Awesome Austin TX, many great museums, and many gems and new friends along the way. We even managed to play some gigs! Mostly, we spent time as a family and learned a lot about each other. It’s long overdue, but here are our biggest insights from the road, which, we realized, completely carry over into everyday life, including the busy holiday season:

1. Don’t Fill Your Suitcase (or your car (or your life)) too full. We tried to pack one minivan to fit five people for two months of camping, urban touring, and gigging. It was tough. Everyone got one bag. Amplifiers and guitars took up a lot of space. At some point, the kids had to contort their little bodies into odd shapes to fit in their seats (usually a temporary issue, like when we had to drag firewood back to a campsite). Bottom line, we over packed, as everyone always does, not only in their suitcases, but their cars, their homes, and their lives. To modify Charles Dickens’ famous quote about money: try to fit 19 cubic feet of stuff in 20 cubic feet of space, the result is success. Try to fit 21 cubic feet of stuff in 20 cubic feet of space, the result is misery. Less is truly always more. Always leave space in your life, in your car, in your bag for the great finds along the way. If you pack the weekend too full, you might miss out on that spontaneous and awesome flag football game. Leave space in your bag and your life for surprises you pick up along the way.

2. Don’t Fill Your Day: try to fit twenty-five hours of activity in a twenty-four hour day, result misery. Try to fit twenty three hours of activity (including 9 for sleeping, 1-2 for quiet time, a few sitting by a fire, an ice cream break) in a twenty-four hour day, result peace. It’s hard in a place like Washington D.C. to  not try to overextend yourself and therefore make everyone miserable. You can’t, and you don’t have to, do everything on a trip or in life. Which brings me to my favorite item:

3. Don’t Feel Obligated to Re-live Other People’s Vacations! This is my personal pet-peeve: I’m heading out on a trip or to a new part of town and someone pulls me aside and says, “when you get to [insert destination]  you’ve gotta go to [insert recommendation]. It was the best [insert meal, tour, museum] ever. You just gotta! I’m gonna be pissed if you don’t check it out.” Now I don’t mind a good recommendation. We relied heavily on recommendations while on the road. What bugs me is when an acquaintance tells me that I  gotta see something, and then checks later to make sure I did; and if I didn’t, they somehow feel I failed them. Just because you really enjoyed the Gettysburg Battlefield Museum on that trip with your fiance, doesn’t mean it’s right for my family. Of course, people have good intentions, but you can get bogged down in all the recommended venues and museums and restaurants and forget you’re on vacation to enjoy what you want.

4. Let Everyone Own Their Feelings: When you’re in a car for two months with family, there will be ups and downs. There’s plenty of ups and downs at breakfast on a normal Tuesday. What I really learned on this trip was to let my kids own and have their feelings and moods. I was elated as we entered the Blue Ridge Mountains. My kids, not so much. They were bored and tired. At first I wanted to knock some bliss into them by insisting that this was an amazingly awesome and special moment. I actually got angry that they weren’t appreciating it. They wanted ice cream, not mountains. Fine. I reminded myself often that my kids had a right to their feelings. They weren’t throwing tantrums (or rocks at me) they were just not as amazed by the US Capital tour as I wanted them to be. (Actually, I wasn’t either.) This is a good lesson for all of life. We all have moods. People have a right to them. With kids especially, I think it is valuable to let them notice their feelings, accept them, and remind them that they will change. My son tripped at some point outside the Washington Monument and announced he hated all of DC. So we let him hate DC for a few minutes.

5. Notice When You’re Working too Hard at Having Fun: This is all about mindfulness. There were days on the road where my wife and I went through supreme efforts to make sure our kids were having fun. And nobody was. That’s when we realized we needed some ice cream, wine, and a pool.

6. Get lots of Ice Cream! I got this idea from Leo at Zenhabits. He says to always stop for ice cream (and maybe some wine for the parents) part way through a day of traveling or touring. It’s usually around two or three, when everyone is starting to melt down a little.  Of course, it can get a little pricey to buy ice cream every day at a tourist trap (four bucks a cone times five people times 50 days = 1000 dollars of ice cream!). Our little family road-trip hack was to keep cones stashed in the car and pick up a pint when necessary at a gas station or convenience store. We rotated who got to pick the flavor. It was fun to share and compare.

7. Know when to travel and when to vacation: Traveling is all about new experiences and seeing our beautiful world. Vacationing, at least for me, is all about rejuvenation and fun. It’s important to know when to do which. If you’re constantly on the go to the next destination, clicking off all the must-see’s, you’ll forget to rejuvenate a little with a long walk in the woods, a day at the beach, a quiet night by the fire. We were at our best when we found a good balance between traveling and vacationing. I think life at home is much the same, striking the balance between activities that inspire and grow us (concerts, art museums, sports) and activities that repair us (yoga/meditation, hammocking, reading, hanging out).

8. Remember that the hardest moments sometimes make the best stories so try to stay calm and appreciate them in the moment.  Getting lost in Ohio only to finally show up at a flooded campsite in the middle of nowhere was not fun at the time, but I get to brag about it right now.  And we survived!

9. Never, ever think that you can drive for 13 hours across Texas in one day, even when the kids say they’ll be fine! Texas is big.

10. In a pinch, a dollar store can solve a lot of problems. Treats, cheap toys, chocolate milk, buns and hot dogs: something for everyone. Might solve all your last minute Holiday needs, too. 

Happy holidays! If you need a last minute gift idea, The Falderals new album Witness is now available on iTunes.

Kid’s Brains on Emotions and Some Mindful Exercises That Help

When strong emotions overtake young children, we often think they’ve lost their minds. Well, they have. Brain science indicates that when the Amygdala—the so called animal brain or downstairs brain—is activated by strong emotions, the rest of the brain, the parts that do things normal humans should do, is less accessible; or in children, not accessible at all. This happens to adults too, usually in bars after midnight. But this is especially true in kids because their upstairs or thinking brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is less developed. This means they cannot stop and think about what they are doing. They are pure doing. They hit, scream, and jump into fountains at the park, literally, without thinking about it–just like adults outside of bars after midnight.

MINDFULNESS OF EMOTIONS

Research has shown that basic awareness, simple mindfulness of emotions, can break this chain and calm the Amygdala. In other words, even simply labeling or naming our emotional state, mindfully noting, Oh, wow, there’s a bunch of anger or frustration or anxiety in me, calms the animal in us so we can use our brains again like sane humans. We’ve stepped just slightly above or over the emotion, at least enough to think.

The good news is that this can be practiced. It sounds silly at first. I mean, we all notice our emotions, right? Why do I need to practice noticing when I’m angry or anxious or happy? Don’t I just feel it in the moment? I don’t want to think about being angry. I’d like to not feel angry.

But it is not silly. In fact, negative emotions can be like tidal waves that blow us away, affecting our work, family, and friends long before they sink into our own awareness. Again, by noticing early on, wow, there’s a lot of anger in me right now, the emotion can often be dissipated, perhaps at least enough to not knock out our manager.

I’ve seen this dramatically in my own life. I’ve been especially attuned to my level of frustration and impatience with my children lately, which is a common emotional state that creeps into my life. And being in tune has helped a lot. When I feel these emotions pop up and hit my gut, which they often can do with three young kids, I don’t run from them. I notice them. I feel them in me. As Thich Nhat Hahn encourages, I welcome them and hold them. Hey, there’s impatience. Yeah, he always pops up when I’m trying to get the kids out the door. How ya doing impatience? You still can’t handle the way my son ties his shoes so slowly, huh? After noticing the emotion, I then go back to my business; but usually, this little bit awareness has helped the feeling dissipate slightly if not completely.

And it helps me control my reaction, which is where I get in trouble.

There are explicit mindfulness meditations for emotional awareness. Part of a daily sitting routing should be a few minutes of just noticing our body/mind emotional state. Even taking a few minutes, just before the work day, to note the overall state of your body/mind will build awareness. Wow, I feel a lot of tension today. Wow, here’s all this impatience. If you practice noticing your emotional states when your body and mind are quiet, you’ll get better at noticing feelings that pop up in stressful or difficult situations; and therefore, you’ll be better able to handle them or curb them before they blow you away. You’ll also notice your own happiness more, which is a good feeling, to be aware of feeling happy.

Take a moment to notice right now how you are really feeling. Anxious. Worried. Stressed. Happy. Name the feeling. Where does this feeling sit in your body? Breath into that space for a few seconds.

BUT WHAT ABOUT KIDS?

With kids, this is more difficult. In the moment, you can’t “reason” with kids who’ve blown their lid. Their reason part is not functioning. All you can really do is stay calm yourself and make sure everyone is safe. As I wrote about earlier, your solidity will transfer to them (eventually). If we blow up or start lecturing, we’re adding fuel. If we remain calm, compassionate, and present, we add water.

But we can do two things for kids. First, when we see our children and students over-taken by a strong emotion, we can help them notice it. Perhaps they really won’t be able to think about their feelings until after the episode or tantrum, but if there is a burst of anger or fear, we can use a calm time later to help them explore what it was like. How did it feel to get so angry at your brother? How did you know you were afraid on the roller coaster? Again, just by noticing how these emotions operate inside them, kids build a layer of awareness that will pay off in the long run.

A second way is to help kids prepare in advance for handling strong emotions. Sit with your kids during a quiet moment and talk about some common emotions. Pause with each emotion and have your child notice where the emotion sits in the body, if it can be felt. If it’s a really safe place, you can have them remember a time they were sad, angry, happy, scared, and notice where those emotions reside in their body. Treat it like a game, but know that this practice will help them in the future. Even kids with severe anger issues can eventually be trained, through practice, to notice the feelings arise early on and follow a plan for avoiding a full blown explosive. I’ve seen it work with some very difficult kids.

We’re not going to cure anyone, including ourselves, of getting angry or sad. But when you are in tune with yourself, you can have a plan in place to avoid common pitfalls.

Other things to remember when dealing with kids and emotions.

  • Talk to kids about how emotions pass. We are all a little bipolar, with strong ups and downs throughout the day. We tend to want to run from strong negative emotions. But by noticing how they feel, and watching them slowly fade into a new feeling, kids come to the great insight of all mystics: this too shall pass. Thich Nhat Hanh contributes the high suicide rate in young people to their misunderstanding that they are stuck with their sadness forever.
  • When a child is upset, allow them to feel their emotion. Be with them. Don’t try to talk them out of the feeling, even if you don’t agree with it. Help them sit with it as it shifts, changes, rises, and fades.
  • Encourage your kids to notice how small feelings come and go, especially craving. This is a fun thing to do while shopping, when kids start begging for treats. Have them notice where that desire is coming from. When does it feel strongest? How does it feel once they get what they want? Or don’t get what they want?  How long before it fades away?
  • Mindfulness is not always about fixing. Just by noticing we give ourselves space between our emotions and our reactions.

Bottom line: Take a few minutes a day to notice your emotions. This builds awareness. Come up with a simple plan for when problem emotions overtake you or your kids: I’m feeling that feeling I always get before I say something rash; my new plan, when this feeling starts to arise, I excuse myself from the conversation and step outside for a few minutes. Spend time helping kids do the same thing.

Read more about kids at strong emotions here and here.

A Good Question to Ask When Kids Misbehave (Kids and Strong Emotions Part II)

My son was losing it in the middle of the Super Target. He was whining for a new pair of shoes. When that wish was denied, he demanded a candy bar. And if that was not going to happen, he announced he was planning on watching TV for the rest of the day and I could not stop him. As I continued to say no, he started to growl like a threatened dog, tugging at the side of the shopping cart until it almost fell over. It was awful and embarrassing, and I was prepared to lock him under the stairwell when we got home (Harry Potter style), or, better yet, sell him to the first caravan of traveling gypsies I met in the parking lot. Then it struck me: he and I were actually feeling exactly the same. My son was not acting crazy. He was acting out how I felt! I just had enough of a developed brain to override my desire to tip the cart and weep.

Kids are not that different from us when it comes to emotions. As adults, we are just expected to control ours better. On this day in the store, I was tired and hungry, too. It had been a long day. This was our last errand. I wanted something and could not get it, too, and because of that I was already promising myself a long list of rewards to make up for the misery I’d been through (when I get home, I’m gonna eat cake, drink beer, and stream Flight of the Conchords online for three hours).

I wanted to growl at somebody just as much as he did. The only difference between us was that he lacked the adult skills (and brain development) necessary for containing his feelings. His less than complete brain circuitry meant that his self-control mechanism had shut down.

A wise education professor once told my class, “we all have emotional and behavior disorders…sometimes. The kids in your class just have them more often and can’t control them as well.” This idea that we are not so different is worth remembering the next time our children or students begin acting nuts. When they do, check in with yourself with this question: how much of their behavior is actually an (almost) appropriate response to this situation? A situation like:

  • They’ve been sitting in a car for six hours.
  • They’ve had testing all day and been given no recess.
  • They skipped a meal and got harassed in the halls.
  • They had to sit through a long, boring dinner at a relatives house and now they’re forced to go grocery shopping.

In many of these situations, we would want to throw a fit, too. There are days when I want to put a chair through a window at work, but I know it would cost me my job. There are days I want to knuckle-sandwich the sixteen year old punk in charge at the customer service counter, but I’ve worked enough in the correctional world to never want to go there. In any given situation, if we see inside ourselves similar emotions to those our children or students are acting out, we know that they need compassion, coping resources, a change of scenery–not punishment.

This is especially true in schools. It is hard to know what our students go through before they reach our doors. This demands compassion for the unknown traumas in their lives.

And with my own kids, it’s often so obvious that I’m dumbstruck. When I take a moment to step back from their behavior and check my own feelings, I often find I’m right in tune with them. I feel the same way they do. I’m tired, stressed, bored, hungry, and it’s only my adult sense of shame that keeps me from lying down in the middle of the candy aisles to kick and scream with them.

In fact, a lot of the time it is my fault! I’m the one who booked the flight with two lay-overs (never again), brought my kids to that late night, formal sit-down wedding (never again), decided we could drive all the way from Memphis to Austin in one day (never again).

Yes, as parents and teachers we need to handle bad behavior. There should be consequences. But before we unleash our wrath, it is always worth asking the question: How much of this behavior is actually a fairly appropriate response to this situation? Do I feel similar emotions, which I’m just containing a little better? This will help us be more compassionate in the moment. Maybe they’ll still kick and scream, and maybe all you can do is tell them you feel the same while modeling a more appropriate response.

And maybe that candy bar is just what the kid needs.

_______________________________

This is a three part series on emotions and kids. Next week I’ll go into what happens in kids’ brains when they lose it and how a few mindful exercises can help them better learn to handle strong feelings. Subscribe if you don’t want to miss it. Last week I wrote about the practice of solidity, which can really help in these situations where kids are losing it (and we are about to lose it). Here’s a short video I made of the solidity meditation I use before my own work with kids at the detention center. It helps me remain a solid presence in a chaotic environment…some of the time.