Nuggets of Wisdom — Lessons Learned from Children

One of my most rewarding facets of the personal growth journey is learning how we can best support our children. So many of us go into parenthood with the list of things we will do differently than our parents, but only from the perspective of how their actions and behaviors felt to us as a child. Dig a little deeper into what was going on with our parents to cause them to behave as they did and add a healthy dose of what society deemed acceptable at that time — and you will come away with a better understanding of how invaluable doing personal growth and healing work can be for generations of families.

I’m a huge fan of the dynamic work of Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. Dan Seigel. Both these distinguished researchers offer us insights into how a child’s brain develops, the effects of trauma and neglect in the first few months of life, and the importance of relationship scaffolding for children and their caregivers. As Maya Angelou so wisely tells us “When we know better, we do better.” Understanding that a young child does not have the top down emotional and intellectual capacity to self regulate gives us a whole new insight into our expectations of a child’s behavior and what is possible in reality. The onus goes directly back to us as adults to utilize our own self-regulation, effective distraction and empathy to respond to a child in emotional distress. Imagine how the power struggle shifts, and possibly even evaporates, with this knowledge. Recognizing that some of the fidgeting can be a child’s organic way of self-soothing and calming would stop us in our tracks before we tell them one more time to stop.

When I was a young mother, I relied on Dr. Spock for parenting advice. Today I would encourage parents to read the books that Dr. Perry and Dr. Siegel have written. A companion tool for parents is the enneagram. Even if you don’t want to go to deep with the enneagram personally, a quick review of the core motivations and fears for each of the nine types provides a primer to many of the reasons we choose to armor up, dial back and bully our way through life. A little knowledge can go a long way in preventing your own child from needing to make these adjustments to feel safe, loved and to feel like they fit in.

Too often, we are so caught up in our “to do” list, personal agendas or lack of awareness, that we dismiss our child’s feelings. We don’t really mean to do this of course, but it happens. With the best of intentions, we might say “Oh honey, you shouldn’t feel that way. Look at all these things you’ve got going for you.” Wrong. Trust me, they feel exactly as they feel. And those old familiar words intended to bring comfort only bring shame and guilt to a young person already struggling with big emotions.

Get curious when you child is displaying big emotions. You can probably sense the hurricane-like storm that is swirling around in them. Sitting down together – calmly – and inviting your child to open up about their honest feelings is incredibly powerful. Responding with words like “that must be really hard” or “that must feel so painful” is so empathic and respectful. You don’t have to solve the problem or soothe the discomfort away. Just being present, listening to learn and understand, offering compassion and a hug are incredible gifts to receive when emotions are strong (whether you are a young child, a teenager or an adult). Rather than inserting our will, leaning in and holding space for young people who simply do not possess the capacity to understand, yet alone process, their emotions is a better path for parent and child.

There is no doubt that we live in a world where there are many demands on our time and attention. Technology has managed to eat up snippets of our day that accumulate into hours without us even recognizing it.

Take a look around when you are out to lunch, in a coffee shop, at the local park or grocery store. Adults everywhere are staring at their screens instead of each other, and this includes their rambunctious, adventurous toddlers.

It’s easy to see how we can miss the little “bids for connection” that children make all day — with their moms and dads, grandparents, teachers and caregivers. We may not be able to catch every one of those bids but my guess is that there is big room for improvement. Challenge yourself to pay attention to the excited little voices calling to you repeatedly, the tug on your pant leg, or the crashing of toys being dumped in the middle of the floor. It only takes a few seconds to answer that bid for connection, and the reward is huge — for both adult and child. Eye contact, a smile, an encouraging word, a hug or tap on the head are all meaningful responses to these tiny bids for connection that our children seek every single day. If we can jump to respond to the ding of a text or email, we can re-program ourselves to do the same for those who look up to us.

True confession — I came up with this one big question when my sons were teenagers. I’m not sure how it came to be, except that I do remember pondering how to make the lessons stick. Having them be part of the conversation about consequences, accountability and responsibility seemed worth a try. When my sons would balk thought-provoking question and beg for a grounding or daunting chore, I knew that I was on to something.

Now my daughter has been using this question consistently for her young children, ages 4 and 6. The other day I was delighted to discover that this poignant question is entering the third generation. My six year old granddaughter, Charlotte, was knee deep in a silent assessment of the results of a choice she had just made. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her mom patiently watching for her next move. She turned to her mom and said boldly “Well, that was a learning experience!” Then she sighed and added, “I don’t care for learning experiences.”

My daughter looked at me and winked, both of us hiding smiles that tugged at the corners of our mouth. That’s when my daughter knelt down and made eye contact with her sweet girl and reminded her that learning experiences help us make better choices the next time. “I get it, mom”, Charlotte responded.

The reason I have come to like this question as an invaluable parenting tool, is that it not only gives a child information to draw on in the future, it plants the seeds of agency. It also opens up lots of meaningful conversation about trial and error, using good judgment, asking for help, being resourceful. My daughter is not waiting til her kids are teenagers to employ this skill, she is using it now when her children are young — when it sticks like velcro.

The other morning, Charlotte was sitting in the kitchen with her young brother as he was assembling legos. It was clear that he was struggling a bit with his design by the sounds he was making. Charlotte turned to him and sweetly asked, “How can I help you?”

I was in the laundry room and chuckled with delight to myself. She sounds just like me. I confess I loved it.

Skillfully learning how to approach others when it appears they might need help was a hard lesson for me and one that I truly only got after a few years of personal growth work. Thank you to the enneagram and Brene Brown for helping me discover that we can help too much, steamroller people, and even take away growth opportunities when we insert ourselves too much. Who taught me this lesson in the most remarkable way? None other than spunky, strong willed Charlotte. When she hit that age of “I can do it myself”, I got many chances to practice skillful approaches. Charlotte wanted –and deserved — the chance to do things for herself. Whether it was learning to ride a bike, bake cupcakes, or follow instructions for a science project, she wanted autonomy and agency. I remember telling her “I respect you Charlotte and I promise not to help.” She beamed.

What we are all learning together is that when you ask before just inserting yourself, it is a show of self-restraint and respect. Asking “how can I help you” opens up the space for someone to speak their truth — “I don’t want help. I don’t need help, I’m just frustrated. Could you hold this end for me? That would be great.”

I used to help too much. I have done this since I was a child. Always believing I needed to keep the peace, pick up the pieces, resolve the issue. These childhood patterns can lead to enabling and co-dependency in adulthood. It can also be dismissive to others, making them feel incapable or instilling a sense of neediness.

Brene Brown offers this great question for our adult relationships – “What does support look like to you right now?” Wow — isn’t that an awesome, clarifying and supportive question to ask your friend, your partner or your colleague. Rather than assuming we know what they might need or want, invite them to share honestly with you. The other caveat to this question is that it invites someone to ask us for the help they legitimately need or want – without having to feel guilty or ashamed of asking for help.

I’m including this “reframing” of what we often call triggers, because of a touching note I received from a follower recently. Her 11 year old son struggles with PTSD and she read this “reframing” to him because it felt relatable and comforting. My heart melted as I read her note to me. This is how we can help our children heal, by being aware of the hurts and traumas they have experienced and conscious of how they might show up from time to time. Our children are deeply impacted by divorce, by the loss of loved ones, by the pandemic and virtual school, by incidents at school…..the list goes on. How we show up for them when they have bad dreams or bad days, is crucial. We don’t have to be perfect, we simply have to care enough to put ourselves in their smaller shoes.

Sending love and encouragement out to all parents, grandparents,caregivers, teachers, mentors and coaches who lead with their hearts and their ears….showing our precious children that they matter.

Recommended Resources:

My prior blog posts:

Profoundly Helping The Next Generation

Older and Wiser Parenthood

Empathy- Essential and Endangered

Go to YouTube and search for conversations with Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. Dan Siegel to listen and learn from two of the best resources on childhood development and how we as adults can make an incredible difference to the quality of their future lives by showing up in meaningful, helpful, responsive and respectful ways.

Empathy – Essential and Endangered

One of the big discoveries on my personal growth journey has been that the more I get to really know myself, the more I have expanded my awareness of others. I often find myself wondering what others have experienced in their lives that impacts how they show up for themselves and their relationships. My deep dive into the enneagram has given me a greater perspective into the diversity of core needs we all have and the many ways we go about getting those needs met. Replacing frustrations or judgments about others with curiosity and an intention to truly understand them has enriched my relationships and fostered a deeper compassion for others.

Recently I’ve been reading Dr. Bruce Perry’s book, Born for Love, which he published in 2010. He was sounding the alarm for the “empathy poverty” that has become pervasive in our society. He and Maia Szalavitz co-authered the book, sharing detailed stories of children and adolescents whose childhood experiences impacted their quality of life, and contributed to dysfunctional emotional and mental health issues. Over and over in each of these insightful and heartwrenching stories, we learn the incredible value of empathy as the foundational glue for healthy, happy and meaningful relationships.

What struck me was that our collective empathy poverty has only gotten much worse over the last decade. What gives me hope is the growing number of people recognizing a need for change — in their own lives and also in the lives of others. The global pandemic, political divisiveness, racial and gender inequalities, climate changes– they’ve all served as wake up calls. This book — Born for Love — should be a primer for anyone who wants to expand their knowledge on the root causes of so many of the issues facing humanity today.

Transgenerational patterns keep us tethered to the past and often resistant to embracing necessary changes. Lack of knowledge about infant brain development, especially in the first few months, prevent us from educating new parents about the importance of a calm, loving and nurturing environment. Programs, education and tools are needed for infants and their families who are in high risk situations for abuse and neglect to protect and ensure healthy brain development. This is vital to developing resilience and healthy emotional and behavioral regulation in the future.

We chastise young children for misbehaving without the base knowledge of their inability to do so because their cortex isn’t fully developed – and won’t be til their late 20’s. We expect kids to sit still and pay attention without an awareness that the tapping of their foot or the juggling of their pencil is a stress regulator — and a parachute to keep their little brains engaged and open to learning. We send juveniles to jail and wonder why they don’t learn their lesson. No time is spent on understanding their personal life history, providing them with stability and relational support for meaningful rehabilitation. Instead, we often put them with hardened criminals where they learn to double down on already problematic behaviors.

We have the power to change long-standing systematic and transgenerational problems. But first we must understand the root causes and then develop programs and tools to break the cycle. Each and everyone of us can contribute to this process. Empathy is the driver for long overdue changes.

Empathy underlies virtually everything that makes society work—like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity. Failure to empathize is a key part of most social problems—crime, violence, war, racism, child abuse, and inequity, to name just a few.” 
― Bruce D. Perry, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential–and Endangered

As I mentioned earlier, my self discovery and personal reflection work has made me keenly aware of how my own past experiences pre-disposed me to behave in certain ways when I was feeling misunderstood, disrespected or ignored. This self awareness work actually opened up a deeper compassion in me. In mindfulness practices, this is often referred to as “other” centered. While I’d like to believe that I was usually an empathic person by nature, there is no doubt that facing my own childhood experiences had a transformational influence on how I viewed others. Instead of focusing on their behaviors, patterns and projections, I found myself wanting to know what happened to them. What was the root cause that eroded trust, self-worth, self-confidence and resilience?

In some cases, I had a good working knowledge of the hardships, adversities or abandonment that had happened to people I love. My blind spots were just how these difficulties played out in their own behavioral patterns and armor to protect themselves from having a repeat experience. This is where the enneagram became such an invaluable resource. It was a big aha moment for me to realize that often it was fear or insecurity driving another’s anger, blaming or denial. It shifted everything about how I wanted to respond.

And how I wanted to respond was with patience, attentive listening, non-judgment and calmness.

My own “improved” self-awareness enabled me to see that others were simply operating on autopilot too — and using old behaviors to survive, navigate or soothe. My compassion for what they were truly feeling began to grow. My empathy deepened, knowing what it feels like to often make things worse by throwing up a smoke screen rather than getting to the heart of the matter.

This change in “responding differently” to others diffused all that emotional investment that often happens in relationships and especially in conflict. We are prone to take things too personally. If we just take a moment to pause and center ourselves, we can turn our full attention to the the other person and really listen. Being calm, giving eye contact, and holding space are incredible tools for letting someone know that we are paying attention and we care. When we are able to refrain from getting caught up in all that super-charged energy, waiting to pounce with a defensive response, the dynamic shifts. There is room for empathy to join in. Empathy can bring clarity to a situation.

I think we have all had the experience of passing judgment on someone and then quickly observing details that paint an entirely different picture than our initial reaction. We feel embarrassed for jumping to a snarky conclusion and we feel a warm wash of empathy come over us as we take in the new information, and change our perspective.

This is the power of empathy — it opens us up to receive new information, and invites us to change our minds. In fact, if we want to proactively cultivate empathy, we need to stretch out of our comfort zones, examine our biases, and move beyond our own worldview. Trade judgment for curiosity — ask good, meaningful open-ended questions and keep asking to gain even more clarity and perspective. Have difficult, respectful conversations. Read books – both fiction and non-fiction will expand creativity and spark greater curiosity. (I do hope I have inspired you to read Born For Love. )

We get opportunities each and every day to practice cultivating empathy. The more we do it, the easier it becomes. We can all contribute to helping empathy get off the “endangered” list. We are born for love and connection. Our children are counting on us and what we do today will shape their tomorrows.

“Will increasing empathy solve all the world’s problems? Of course not. But few of them can be solved without it.”  — Born for Love by Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz


Please take the less than 3 minutes to listen to Dr. Perry succinctly summarize the importance of undoing our relational and empathy impoverishment. Dr. Bruce Perry – Born for Love: Why empathy is essential and endangered:

Check out this recent Typology Podcast with Former Governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam. His insights dovetail with the content of this blog post in a meaningful way.

This week, Former Governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam returns to the show. This time we talk about his new book, The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square, turning his attention inward to matters of the soul since his term ended, and what he’s learning about himself as an Enneagram 3. Bill Haslam is the former two-term mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee, and former two-term governor of Tennessee, reelected in 2014 with the largest victory margin of any gubernatorial election in Tennessee history. During his tenure, Tennessee became the fastest improving state in the country in K-12 education and the first state to provide free community college or technical school for all of its citizens, in addition to adding 475,000 net new jobs. Haslam serves on the boards of Teach for America and Young Life. In the fall of 2019, Haslam became a visiting professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He and his wife of thirty-eight years, Crissy, have three children and nine grandchildren.

GREATER GOOD SCIENCE CENTER For a More Empathetic World, People Have to Choose Empathy

Roots of Empathy Organization – Building Caring, Peaceful and Civil Societies.

Roots of Empathy develops empathy in children today so that they can build the world that they deserve. This organization has reached over one million children globally with school based programs, and they have research to prove impact. Roots of Empathy reduces aggression, increases sharing, caring and inclusion and promotes resilience, well-being and positive mental health.