Witnessing the Power of Connection

Matt and I have, for years, embraced the parenting philosophy often known as trust-based relational intervention (TBRI) or, to use more commonplace terminology, parenting with connection. One of the tenets of this philosophy relates to the idea that corrective discipline should be designed to teach, not to punish. That part is easy enough to grasp (though sometimes difficult to practice!), but one element of the philosophy that has taken us longer to really understand – and to implement – has been the importance of the work of relationship-building outside of situations of conflict.

If we want our kids to respect us and be willing to work with us when the heat is on, we have to make the investments in our relationships with them ahead of time – not to mention that relationship investment is just a huge part of loving someone. In some ways, we’ve been doing that from day one. Wanting to have relationships with our children is one of the primary reasons we homeschool, and I obviously have a great deal of time with all of our kids during the day. But the fact is that we’re also very task-oriented during much of that time together. During school time we are, obviously, doing school. I take one child with me each week to go grocery shopping, and we do get some good time together while we’re out, but the focus is still on the task of grocery shopping. Honestly, with four kids, it’s hard to make time for pure, individual relational connection, but we’ve known for a while now that it’s important, and we’ve been trying to make time for it. I’ve been doing some one-on-one dates with kids, and I’ve tried to find other opportunities for individual connection (or connection with smaller groups of kids) throughout the day, and that has been so good. Sometimes it looks like asking a child to go choose a book to read together. Sometimes it looks like playing our Teddy Bear Memory game together. Sometimes it looks like letting a child choose something to make with me in the kitchen.

And it has brought me so much joy recently to see growing moments of connection between Matt and our kids and to witness the fruit of his growing pursuit of them. One night, as he and I discussed ways to cultivate empathy in and connect with our big kids, Matt proposed that we start reading through The Chronicles of Narnia with them, as he remembers reading those books as a touchstone of his childhood. As he reads, Madeleine CaiQun curls up next to him, and both girls are so excited for all four of us to be reading these great books together. They’re really into the stories, and they love that connecting time.

And the other day, one of our kiddos was having a difficult time after really working hard on some challenging math concepts. She was totally dysregulated, unable to play well with the other kids, and uninterested in engaging with me or working on her own in any suggestion I made. Matt asked her to come down to the studio and make some artwork with him. Half an hour later, she emerged, totally regulated, with artwork to distribute to everyone as gifts.

We are seeing more spontaneous affection, more willingness to work through periods of dysregulation – and more connection in general. Those moments of investing in relationships with our kiddos are so precious and so important!

A Sweet Valentine’s Day Project

I’m always looking for fun opportunities to connect with and encourage my kiddos. I’d read recently about a practice some parents have had of making a heart for each kiddo for each day of February and writing on each heart something that they love and appreciate about that child.

I love that idea – except that my kids would absolutely want to keep those hearts. But they are young and do a horrible job of storing and preserving mementos. Within weeks, if not days, I’d be walking down the hallway, stepping on crumpled up hearts saying things like, “Miranda Grace, I love your strength and intensity. They sometimes make life challenging for you, but they are going to serve you well in life, and I appreciate all the work you have put in over the last couple years in learning how to use them well” or, “Madeleine CaiQun, I love your ability to focus on what is important. You have a gift for seeing the big picture and reminding us all about what we should truly prioritize.” And I am in a stage of life in which de-cluttering is a priority. With 4 small children (and 2 sentimental adults), stuff just tends to multiply here, and I’m on a mission to counteract that as much as is possible.

And so I ordered us a collection of notebooks. There were enough for each of us, even Matt and me, to have one. I labelled them and wrote introductory notes on the first page of each about how we are a family – our love is not contingent, but we can still love and appreciate various characteristics of each other, and it’s good to recognize those and encourage each other with sharing about what we see. And then we got to work on filling them!

I have to laugh about the way in which we as a family completed this project. I had grand plans at the beginning – 30 pages per book, so I’d write something in each person’s book each night and also have each child write in 1-2 books per night, and Matt would write when he could, and we’d get it done. We started off pretty strong, the big girls and me doing a good number of entries on the first night. And then we fell off track and ended up needing to spend a lot of time the last couple days finishing up everything – and in fact I realized on February 13 that one child had not written in either of two siblings’ books, so I saved some pages for her to do on the 14th, but otherwise Matt and I stayed up and finished up all of the books late on the night of the 13th – except mine 😉 That’s the life of a mom! Matt will work with the kids to finish it up soon, but his and the kids are all done now. The big girls have been reading theirs, and I’m hoping that these will be encouraging touchstones for them in the years to come. Everyone needs to hear about ways they are loved and appreciated.

Even incomplete, my book is already such an encouragement to me. In fact, I was teary after just the first entry. Madeleine CaiQun was the first to write in my book, and this was what she wrote:

“Mommy, I love you because you love me. Love, MeiMei”

Ah!! My day was made. It continues to be made every time I look at that page. She knows I love her. She rests in that. And that is what, for her, defines our relationship. I’m so thankful.

It took some time. It took some effort. But my kiddos won’t be little forever, and I won’t have the chance to pour into them in the same way forever. I want to take advantage of any opportunities we have to build a sense of love and respect and appreciation within our family. For me, these moments of connection and encouragement are oh so worth it. I’m glad we added this project to our agenda for the month.

Book to be Released Next Week: Confessions of an Adoptive Parent

When I posted this photo on Instagram and Facebook, a number of my friends who are foster or adoptive parents (or preparing to be either of those!) commented that they were interested in what the book was all about.

I heard both Mike and Kristin Berry speak back in October at the Refresh Chicago 2017 Conference and was encouraged by their words and by the conference in general, so when they announced that this book was coming out this year, I was honored to be invited to be part of its launch team (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book and the pre-order bonus materials in exchange for my participation in the launch team.) 

The book has a very similar feel to the Refresh Conference – one of its primary aims is to make sure that foster and adoptive parents understand that they are not alone. Mike tells a number of stories from his own experience as a foster and adoptive parent (while still keeping many details of his children’s stories private), which help to communicate that no matter what a family is experiencing, their struggles are not unique. The Berry family has parented children who behaved in unsafe ways with other children, who became pregnant earlier than planned, who have had to be placed in residential treatment facilities for periods of time, whose experiences of trauma directly play into their behavior, and who are not always respectful, kind, mature individuals. No matter what struggle an adoptive or foster parent is walking through, this book will offer reassurance that they are not the only ones.

It’s also very readable – I carried it with me and read it all over the place 🙂

reading while waiting for Miranda’s swim meet to start!

Some of what I found most helpful from the book were the reminders to press on. Berry writes, “So now we have a choice. We can shake our fists at the heavens and say, ‘This wasn’t part of the deal,’ or we can choose to move forward, love our children through the trials, work to understand trauma, and live to the best of our ability in this new normal” (p. 76-77). Probably all of us parents have had moments of wondering whether this life was really what we signed up for, but I appreciated the encouragement to persevere through the hard times. Berry says, “I’ve found that when I stop dwelling on what I wish would have been, and accept what actually is, I find hope quicker” (p. 77).

Reminding us all that there is hope, no matter what, is another of the main points of this book. Part of that is practical encouragement – Berry tells multiple stories of kids and young adults who were making bad choices but whose paths eventually changed, and he offers the reminder that we are all in process, saying, “I didn’t come from a traumatic situation the way some of my kids did, but I still had to journey to where I am today. Twenty years ago I wasn’t able to do what I do today” (p. 187). And another part of this reminder that hope exists is spiritual. Berry writes, “That’s where I find hope – not in the wreckage of this journey, but in the fact that Jesus has willingly entered into our darkest moments and fights with us and for us in the middle of it” (p. 123). And he says, “You and I need to trust the God who created the universe and gave us life, confident that He holds our broken kids in His mighty hands” (p. 188).

Our children are younger, and we haven’t had all of the experiences that the Berry family has. However, we have had our own struggles as parents, and we do see the effects of trauma in our kids’ lives, and not everyone around us understands why we make the choices we do for our family. It’s encouraging to know that there are others out there who do understand this adoption parenting journey. And I appreciated the reminders to have hope and persevere in loving well, even in the midst of hard situations with our kiddos.

If you’re looking for some encouragement in these areas, I’d absolutely recommend the book! And if you pre-order in the next few days, there are some pretty extensive pre-order bonuses, which you can check out here!

Book Thoughts: Teaching from Rest

Those of you who follow me on Instagram will already be aware that the first book I chose to work toward my 2018 goal of reading more non-fiction is Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakable Peace by Sarah Mackenzie.

Every time a question comes up in the homeschool mom groups on Facebook asking for book recommendations for moms themselves, this book is suggested over and over again. I couldn’t figure out what could possibly make it that popular. Surely it couldn’t be that good, right? Wrong. It is that good.

Even the foreword of my copy is covered in hand-written notes!

Early in Part One of the book, the author shares a quote from C.S. Lewis:

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s “own,” or “real” life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one’s “real life” is a phantom of one’s own imagination.

She follows that with some practical application for homeschooling moms: “Surrender your idea of what the ideal homeschool day is supposed to look like and take on, with both hands, the day that is. Rest begins with acceptance, with surrender. Can we accept what He is sending today?”

Wow.

As a mom of 4 kids ages 7 and under, my day is full of “interruptions.” I never accomplish all that I write down on my “to do list.” Never.

And yet this is the life God has given me. I need to slow down and accept, moment by moment, that this child, the child in front of me right now, the one who is melting down because she didn’t get her way or the one who is celebrating the pee art dinosaurs he has just made on the couch (true story – see below), needs my attention and my affection and my loving teaching. And that is exactly what God would have me prioritize (as opposed to the next item on my list or, worse, the next post I could scroll to see on Facebook), and when I accept that, my attitude will be much more peaceful and in line with where God would have me focus my attention and energies.

pee art – “two dinosaurs”

I also appreciated the reminder of what I’m truly called to do. The author writes, “Most of my own frustration comes for forgetting what my real task is in the first place. He’s called me to be faithful, yet I’m determined to be successful.”

Yes. Obviously I need to have goals for my children – but especially as they grow older, I cannot force them to accomplish any given objective. In truth, my job is to be a faithful teacher. I need to pray. I need to meet each child exactly where he or she needs me to meet them. I need to teach, to present materials and ideas and concepts, and to encourage thoughtfulness. Each child will do something different, something unique and very much their own, with what I present to them, and my job cannot be to force those results, but to be faithful in what I teach.

I also so appreciated her writing about what curriculum is. She says, “Curriculum isn’t something we buy. It’s something we teach. Something we embody. Something we love. It is the form and content of our children’s learning experiences.” And a few pages later she writes, “Remember, how far we progress in a book does not matter nearly as much as what happens in the mind and heart of our student, and for that matter, in ourselves.”

I am so guilty of thinking that the curriculum I use in teaching my children lies solely in the materials I purchase. And then I become bound to those purchased materials, obligated to complete them in their entirety within a less-than-12-month time period. And that’s just not reality.

It is my job to educate my children. The materials I purchase are the tools at my disposal for pursuing that objective. If this year’s poetry selection in our purchased curriculum just isn’t doing anything for us, but I’ve heard about another book that is stellar, a substitution may be a great idea. If we take breaks from our purchased curriculum to study emotional self-regulation or visit a museum and learn about dinosaurs or listen to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches or to go to the fire station or to do a unit study on the Olympics and that enriches my children’s education, that’s just fine.

It is my job to nurture my own children, connect with them, prioritize my relationships with them. No one else’s homeschool will look exactly like ours, and that’s the way it should be. In working to serve God and my own family, I have freedom to teach what and how my kids need, in a way that works for our family.

I was encouraged by this book to grow myself, to be a person who slows down and reads and contemplates ideas. I want to live a life that I’d be happy to have my children imitate. I want to slow down, seek God for our family’s homeschooling journey, and really focus on relationships with each of my children. I want to take each moment as it comes, whatever it brings, and teach my kids throughout the day. I finish the book encouraged and refreshed in this long winter stretch of homeschooling, excited to live out these ideas of teaching from rest.

A Different Kind of School Day: How is My Engine Running?

I realize I have yet to do a blog post outlining what we’re doing in our homeschooling this school year, but we have been plugging along at it 🙂 Yesterday we did something different, though, for part of our school day. I’d had in the back of my mind for a long time – months – that I needed to do a craft with my big kids that I’d seen Karyn Purvis using in one of the TBRI DVDs we’ve watched.

I mentioned in my last post that, since my weekend away in Chicago at the Refresh Conference, we’ve been seeing a good amount of dysregulation here at our house. For those not familiar with the term, I thought that Paris Goodyear-Brown gave a good definition at the conference – she defined dysregulation as “an abnormality or impairment in one’s ability to adjust, organize, or control.”

Academics are important, yes, but I was reminded in a breakout session that Cindy Lee hosted at the conference that 2 of our main goals for our children should be: (1) for them to be able to be who God created them to be; and (2) for them to reach a place of secure attachment (being comfortable in their own skin, being able to give care, being able to receive care, and being able to negotiate their needs). It really needs to be of primary importance for me to help my kids work toward those goals (and of course, work we do in moving toward those goals will also help to provide a firm foundation for academic learning!). And so, yesterday, we devoted several hours to that.

All four of my kiddos and I made “How is my Engine Running?” meters.

  • Blue is for “too slow” – when I’m feeling lethargic, tired, or sad.
  • Green is for “just right” – I feel content and calm; my state of alertness is perfect for the activity I’m doing right now.
  • Yellow is for “speeding up” – when I feel agitated or restless.
  • Red is for “too fast” – I have very big feelings, my lid is totally flipped, and my actions may feel out of control and are probably inappropriate for the situation.

We used a railroad track to demonstrate what it looks like for a train engine to be in each of these states and as a catalyst for discussing what it looks like for us to be in these states.

Then we hung up our meters in the living room in a place in which they would be easily accessible to us throughout our days at home.

(We left a spot for Matt to hang his after he gets a chance to make one, too 🙂 ) 

All of the kids loved running over all afternoon and adjusting their meters. The littles (2 and 4) are still picking up on the idea, but the bigs (age 7) are all over it. They are noticing when their own meters are edging off of “green” and when their siblings’ are – and when mine is beginning to creep toward yellow, as well!

Paying attention to your own emotional state is such a huge part of being able to address it and eventually to self-regulate. I’m particularly interested in helping my kids notice when they are drifting into that “yellow” area – some of my kiddos can seem to go straight from green through the tiniest of tiny yellow slivers, directly to red, and that’s not ideal. Both they and I need to do a better job of noticing when they start to enter into yellow territory, and having these meters has helped us be more cognizant of that.

Karyn Purvis talked a lot about the process of child development and how babies, when they’re born, rely almost entirely on external regulation. They require assistance in meeting all of their basic needs – hunger, temperature control, cleanliness, etc. As children grow, they enter a phase of co-regulation, in which they begin to participate in the process of getting their needs met, but they still require assistance from others, generally parents. And as these children mature even more, they are increasingly able to self-regulate, to meet their own needs and calm themselves. If our kids are having trouble self-regulating, we can help them learn those skills by assisting them with co-regulating.

After we made our “How is my Engine Running” meters, we talked about some strategies for co-regulating and self-regulation. None of these are revolutionary, but they are all strategies that I need to do a better job of practicing when my kids are actually calm so that they are more willing and able to do them when they are dysregulated.

I’ve found that my children are highly resistant to taking a deep breath when they’re really upset. We all know it would help, but they’re so upset they won’t do it. Sometimes, if their lids aren’t completely flipped, if I just start breathing deeply, their bodies will follow, almost unconsciously – but that’s not an entirely frequent occurrence 🙂 But this week something serendipitous happened. Miranda asked if we could buy flowers at Aldi, and they weren’t very expensive, so I said that she could pick out a bouquet of roses. And now? Now when someone is having a hard time, I say, “Would you like to smell my flowers with me?” And the child invariably says yes! Deep breath in; deep breath out. “Smell another flower!” Deep breath in; deep breath out. And…calm.

We also read some of this book.

We talked about what mindfulness is (the book defines it in an accessible-for-kids way as “paying attention to everything right now or as it happens”). And we practiced some of its exercises. We practiced doing the Sharkfin. We practiced mindful breathing. We practiced mindful noticing our feelings. And we practiced doing a body scan.

(Some of us had a bit more of a handle on the recommended posture for the body scan than others!)

We’re working on building our capacities for paying attention to ourselves, our feelings, and our bodies. And we’re working on developing more strategies for helping ourselves get to that “just right” state in which we’d so often like to live.

It was a good day. I’m glad we took the time to make this initial investment of time in growing in these areas, and we’ll continue to nurture these skills as we move forward!

Note: For more information about the ideas behind the “How is my Engine Running?” concepts, feel free to check out this basic info from The Alert Program and/or this information from The Zones of Regulation