When I was a little girl, a guidance counselor once asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. My answer — “A good mother”.
A better goal might have been to be a “a good enough” mother. Not only is this a great bar to reach for, it is grounded in the reality that we will make mistakes and that learning never stops. I wish I had known just how much my children were going to teach me — about myself, about their uniqueness, and about human nature.
Like most of my friends, I went into motherhood striving for perfection. But parents are messy, babies are messier and life doesn’t go on pause during child-rearing years. This reality is precisely why I find Dr. Dan Siegel’s research so reassuring.
What a relief to know that there is no such thing as “perfect parenting”. It is a figment of our imaginations! Dr. Siegel tells us that the emphasis should be on “showing up”, being present for our children, making them feel seen and safe.
In The Power of Showing Up, Dr. Siegel explains how parental presence shapes who our kids become and how their brains get wired.
My book club friends and I had a good laugh about the truth of his findings. We could all relate to “old school” parenting styles that explained how we got “wired”. And why it’s taken us so long to unravel the resulting consequences.
We are so grateful for all that we are unlearning and relearning — about how a child’s brain develops, how emotions show up in our bodies and the importance of providing supportive resources for children to process their experiences and emotions. Even (and especially) if their emotions and experiences are much bigger than our own in any given moment.
As grandmothers, we are now showing up for our adult kids and our young grandchildren in much better ways. We often lament that we wish we had known then what we know now. We are having a lot of “aha” moments as we attend to our own personal development; especially when we share our childhood stories with each other.
This morning, I came across Nedra Tawwab’s post about motherhood and it touched my heart in a big way. Nedra is a beautiful soul, a noted expert in setting boundaries and a “lead-by-example” therapist.
Nedra’s insight that “parenting others is re-parenting yourself” resonated deeply with me. I do believe that we often treat our children with greater sensitivity around the very parts of ourselves that are most fragile. In that way, we are offering them protection and a safe place while also taking comfort in our awareness that this is what we’d hoped for — and what we needed when we were young.
As we become more attuned to the needs of our children, we begin to better understand ourselves and how events of our childhood impacted us. This introspection comes when we look at the world through our children’s eyes.
Self-awareness and self-compassion go hand in hand when we are “walking beside a younger version of ourselves” and reparenting ourselves to heal and grow from the insights.
It is an invaluable opportunity to discover more about ourselves and a launchpad for showing up for our children in healthier ways. Often this inner work makes our parenting job a lot less stressful. We can let go of our own fears or misconceptions which gives us more space and clarity for addressing what our child’s unique needs are.
This is an exciting time to be a parent – we know so much more now than we ever did about a child’s brain development, about their limitations for emotional regulation when they are young, and about healthy attachment styles.
Based on the latest brain and attachment research, The Power of Showing Up, shares stories, scripts, simple strategies, illustrations and tips for honoring the 4 S’s effectively in all kinds of situations – when our kids are struggling or when they are enjoying success; when we are consoling, disciplining or arguing with them; and even when we are apologizing for the times we don’t show up for them. Demonstrating that mistakes and missteps are repairable and that it’s never too late to mend broken trust this book is a powerful guide to cultivating your child’s healthy emotional landscape. –– Amazon Books
Now we know — the goal is not to be perfect — The goal is to be present, to offer a quality of presence that makes a child feel safe, seen, soothed and secure. That is the definition of an outstanding “good enough” parent.
Now that we know just how much our childhood experiences can impact us far into our adult lives, what are the big takeaways that can guide us in helping our little ones to avoid some of those emotional and behavioral pitfalls?
This has been on my heart a lot lately. I watch my young grandchildren, who range in ages from 4 – 8, and I delight in witnessing how their little personalities are developing. It’s not surprising that they remind me quite a bit of their parents at those ages. It makes me ponder what I might have done differently had I known about their early childhood brain development, emotional regulation development and the enneagram.
Admittedly I was pretty naive about parenthood at age 25. I relied on a paperback Dr. Spock baby and child care book and my budding maternal instincts. And yes, I had that list in my head of all the things I vowed I would never say or do to my children that came from my own childhood experiences.
I was often baffled how three kids raised in pretty much the same environment could all be so different. While I laughed about this with other young mothers, I’m pretty sure that few of us really adapted our parenting approaches to the unique personalities of each of our children.
This is where I am finding the enneagram to be such a useful tool. Maybe we can’t truly identify which of the 9 enneagram types a child might be. However, I do think that having an understanding of our own dominant enneagram type can be really helpful in finding better ways to relate and interact with children.
My two sons are now in their mid-40’s and my daughter is 34. We’ve each figured out our own enneagram types and frankly it has been eye-opening for me. I wish I had this insight when they were teenagers. I think it would have alleviated some of my frustration and it certainly would have been beneficial for my kids to understand their own natural hard-wiring.
My oldest son was always on the go as a child. He was the life of the party, sometimes impetuous and always full of big ideas. It was no real surprise to me that he’s an enneagram type 7 — The Enthusiast — fun loving, spontaneous and distractible. Teachers might have labeled him with attention deficit but I just thought he was smart, easily bored and needed an outlet for his artistic talents. I agreed to hold him back a year in school, but supplemented his education with art classes. His teen years were the most challenging for us when his impulsiveness would often clash with his responsibilities. If I had understood his personality better, I think we could have found resourceful ways to strike a balance. Today when he describes his own son’s antics, I wonder if he too might be a little Enthusiast in the making.
My middle son is an enneagram type 9, The Peacemaker. When he was younger, I’d get so frustrated because he appeared so indecisive. If I had known that he would rather harmonize than rock the boat by stating his personal choice for dinner or weekend activity, I could have navigated many conversations much better and empowered him to make meaningful decisions for himself. I often thought he was an introvert, but in hindsight, I think he preferred collecting information and reading a room before engaging — a consummate harmonizer and conflict avoider.
When my daughter was in elementary school, I often described her as my M & M that had been left in the warm sun. She had a very hard outer shell, but inside she was soft and mushy. She was strong-willed and not afraid to push back — and she had a sensitive, tender, loving heart and carefree spirit. She’s an enneagram type 8 — The Challenger. Turns out that my M & M description of her was spot on for a type 8. Her four year old son is so much like her we often comment on the mold not changing much. He can drive her crazy and melt her heart all in 30 seconds flat. Understanding how he is hard-wired diffuses a lot of frustration and points us toward ways to interact to help him feel heard and understood.
As for me, I am a certifiable Enneagram type 2 — The Helper. Over recent years, I have become acutely aware that I often “over-helped” and in doing so may have unintentionally disempowered my children. And because I was so sensitive to their feelings, I would often swoop in to soothe with ice cream, or inadvertently dismiss what they were feeling by telling them “not to feel that way”. What I should have been doing is fully acknowledging their true emotions and adjusting my parenting skills to meet their unique needs.
My middle son recently described his eight year old daughter to me with positive adjectives that I would have used to describe his feisty sister at that age. At the same time, my granddaughter’s mother often experiences the more challenging behaviors she possesses as well. This has me intrigued. I am wondering what enneagram type my eight year old granddaughter might be. Can we find some clues about how she’s hard-wired to help her navigate her emotions and circumstances in healthy ways? I’m also curious about the impact of the pandemic, virtual school and a major change in her familial life.
Like my own daughter at that age, my granddaughter is experiencing divorce. She is now in that challenging stage of dealing with co-parenting, two homes and merging into a new family with dad, his fiancee and her nine year old daughter.
It is only natural that my granddaughter will struggle with her emotions as she’s trying to fit into all the changes. Understanding how things land in her heart, and what she needs to feel safe and valued, will be key in helping her navigate it in healthy ways.
Kids often do not have the skills or language to articulate everything they are feeling, especially when it is a very confusing concoction. This requires some special parenting skills and a lot of patience. I’m beginning to understand more clearly the relevance of that relational scaffolding that Dr. Bruce Perry says is critical for children who are experiencing any kind of trauma and disruption. This is where other family members — and especially grandparents — can provide so much support and continuity for young children and their parents.
I can look back at my own divorce now and have a better understanding of how it impacted my children and especially my daughter who was only 8. When a parent forgets that their innocent children should not be paying the price for an unhealthy marriage or divorce, poor choices and actions can have long-lasting debilitating consequences. It was a compelling reason why I stressed the importance of healthy co-parenting when my son and daughter-in-law separated. I also recognized how extended family members can provide a safety net through divorce and transition. Not choosing sides, but choosing to be emotional glue and unbiased support, can ease a lot of the turbulence.
What if we had a parenting resource that would help us balance “nature and nurture”? I believe that the enneagram just might be the field guide we need.
The enneagram sheds light on the core fears for each of the nine types — and it is easy to spot the correlation to childhood experiences. Core fears include feeling unwanted, unloved, unworthy, disrespected, controlled, or a fear of chaos or of being wrong. These unaddressed fears become the root cause of problematic behavioral patterns that can follow us into adulthood.
The enneagram also helps us identify the core motivations for each type such as having integrity and being good; being admired and successful; being unique and special; having security and guidance; protecting yourself and your inner circle; being wanted and loved; being fully satisfied; and having inner stability and peace. When we are aware of the importance of these core motivations for each child, we can become more skillful at fostering and respecting those needs in healthy ways.
This brings me to another invaluable tool for parenting. Dr. Dan Siegel refers to it as “rupture and repair”. We often have this hope that we won’t mess up or that we will be nearly perfect parents. This isn’t reality — we are beautiful, complex, messy human beings. Disagreements, hurts and conflicts happen in all relationships. Repair is critical — and the sooner it happens, the better. Repair means making up for a momentary and impulsive loss of control. What if we reframe these moments of “rupture and repair” as meaningful experiences in raising kind, respectful and resilient children?
“Ruptures are opportunities to strengthen our relationships. If a rupture can be repaired, it demonstrates that the relationship is solid enough to withstand when things get bad, and even ugly.” (Psychologist Adam Rodrigues) Repair builds trust and resiliency.
Painful ruptures can be amplified for our children when they are caught in the cross-fire of divorce. Trust is the one crucial element that gets tested most fiercely for children of divorce.
I found Dr. Siegel’s and Tina Payne Bryson’s book, The Power of Showing Up” to be a phenomenal parenting resource, especially for divorced parents who have the added pressure of rebuilding trust and showing up in new ways for their children.
“We now know that the way to help a child develop optimally is to help create connections in her brain –her whole brain — that develops skills that lead to better relationships, better mental health, and more meaningful lives. You could call it brain sculpting – or brain nourishing – or brain building. Whatever phrase you prefer, the point is crucial, and thrilling; as a result of the words we use and the actions we take, children’s brains will actually change, and be built, as they undergo new experiences.” — Dr. Dan Siegel
What I am observing is that being present with our young children, giving them eye contact and fully engaging with them and their wide range of emotions is a key component for effective parenting and grandparenting. Often children simply need our full attention and a safe space to share their honest feelings. Too often, we are distracted by our devices, our own emotions or own agenda in the moment.
Dr. Seigel describes “showing up” as bringing your whole being— your attention and awareness–into the present moment when you interact with your child. When you show up with your whole being you are mentally and emotionally present for your child. It is this power of presence that enables you to create an empowered mind for your children — even when you mess up.
Admittedly this takes a lot of practice but the payoff is worth it. That’s the remarkable thing about kids — you will see a shift in their reactions and responses almost immediately. Over time, with consistency, you will see that your child is gaining some agency over his emotions and reactions. It’s that brain re-wiring taking place and it is exciting, just as Dr. Siegel has noted.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t put a little plug in for mindfulness and meditation right here. It’s really hard to shift gears, clear your mind and de-escalate your own emotions so that you can “show up” for your children. Yet it is not impossible. Awareness and practice will help you earn your “calm” badge especially for quality parenting. A bonus is that mindfulness and meditation are invaluable skills in our emotional regulation toolbox that we should be teaching our children, just like good manners.
I believe that each generation embarks on parenting with ideas on how to improve. It’s so encouraging to see young parents today who are knowledgeable about their own personal growth, coping skills and core values. In my heart, I am hopeful that our younger generations will grow and thrive in parenting environments that open them up to their full potential.
Rupture and Repair Article by Nick Bowditch (This article, written by a dad about his relationship with his young daughter is so relatable, honest and encouraging)
Just hung up from a long phone conversation with my middle son and am still trying to collect myself. Tears are streaming down my face and I can barely control the emotional tremors in my chest. I literally am laughing that hard!
My mid-40’s son was reflecting on his childhood when he was about the same age as his daughter who is 8. He recalls an endless series of canoeing, fishing, water-skiing, beach trips, hiking, aquariums, Smithsonian, group snow skiing trips not to mention crafts galore, birthday and pool parties and big family gatherings. He was in awe of my ability to have the foresight to plan and organize a childhood so rich with adventures and activities.
I could barely catch my breath to set him straight and for a moment I pondered if I even should.
I caved — I pulled the green curtain back and let him see that amazing, wizardly (and younger) mom was no more magical than he himself is.
The real magic is how he reflects on those memories and what he values most about his childhood.
You see, I was just like every other mom — past and present — juggling too many things and barely keeping up with most of it. There was rarely advance planning for our spontaneous Sunday outings to the Susquehanna River for fishing or water-skiing, or a hike and picnic in Pequea. If we woke up on the weekend and the sun was shining and dad was off work, we may have decided to ditch the mowing and laundry, strapped the canoe on the roof of the station wagon and headed for the Conestoga River. A quick trip to Turkey Hill for gas and snacks was necessitated of course.
Evidently my son was unaware of the hustle to find lifejackets, coolers and boat cushions in the garage that was always in need of organizing. I recall packing sandwiches in an empty bread wrapper because I was out of waxed paper or plastic baggies. I shut the door to the laundry room so I couldn’t see the piles of wash also needing my attention.
When we got home as the sun was setting, three kids were escorted upstairs for showers and clean clothes while I foraged in the kitchen for something resembling dinner. A load of wash was tossed in as I was enroute to the car to round up the cooler, the trash and the soggy beach towels. Dad was busy washing down the canoe or the boat and leaning the lifejackets and cushions by the garage to dry out.
My hunch is that my children sat around the dinner table delighting in the odd collection of food for dinner, laughing about the antics and adventures of the day, feeling that delightful kind of tired that washes over you from a day of sun, water and exploring. That is what sunk into their memory banks.
Meanwhile, I had a mind full of “to do” lists, the “should have” lists and the “how am I going to catch up” lists?
Today I found myself relieved and grateful that my son did not remember the mom that nearly fell asleep while reading bedtime stories, or the mom who frantically searched for gym clothes on Monday morning, or the mom who lost her patience trying to get three kids out the door to school and herself to work on time.
By the time my son and I finished our conversation today, he too was laughing. Not much has changed but I did have some wisdom to share with him. Seize the moments to be spontaneous and don’t wait for things to be “perfect or just right”. Make the time to sit with your child and talk about what they enjoyed the most on those outings and adventures — let that sink into your own memory banks together. Go easy on yourself as a parent — you are probably scoring higher than you can even imagine in your child’s eyes.