By Viki de Lieme
We passed three kindergarten facilities on our way to school, and this morning there were noisy construction sounds coming from one of them. Ilay, my six-year-old, who was never a fan of loud noises, said he hated the drilling.
"I don't like the noise, either," I said to him. "Can you see why they are drilling?"
He stopped, looked inside, and said, "Looks like they are fixing something and replacing some stuff."
I then asked him what this meant for the kids in that kindergarten, and he replied that the kids would have a nicer kindergarten. And I then asked, "Do you still hate the noise?"
He said, "No."
The Automatic Reaction
Looking at the world, we see what our eyes show us, and what we take from it is what our brain already knows. Ilay heard the noise and his brain said, "I don't like noise!" and that's what he took from the situation, but that's pretty narrow and limited, isn't it?
One of our most prominent roles as parents is to teach our children to think, examine, analyze, and eventually, live beyond the automatic reaction. To do that, we need to expose them to the components of their experience.
The Three Layers of Experience
No matter which experience we choose to look at, we can always break it into three layers: external, internal, and systemic. Teaching our children to do the same is KEY to compassion, analytical thinking, care, and a plethora of other traits.
Let's take this morning, for example. External is what actually happened (drilling at the facility). Internal is how Ilay's brain reacted to the happening (I don't like noise!). Finally, systemic is the bigger picture, which allows us to influence and adapt the internal.
Parents Living Beyond the Automatic Reaction
To instill skills and values in our children, we must first embody them. From my experience as a parent and parent educator, I know firsthand how hard it is to part from the automatic reaction. But while indeed hard, this is the first step to a life of compassion and calm.
When we break things down into their components and bravely see the bigger picture, our feelings change. When our feelings change, so do reactions.
Say your child melts down at the store (external). Your internal screams, "Why does this have to happen every single time?" Feelings of anger, impatience, frustration, and confusion arise, and your reaction follows. But if you added the systemic and said to yourself, "He's crying for his lost autonomy," for example, you'd feel compassion and empathy towards your little one, and your reaction would follow.
Children Living Beyond the Automatic Reaction
Teaching children the three layers of experience allows us to bring peace into every situation because anger, frustration, and other unpleasant feelings disappear miraculously when our eyes are open to the systemic layer.
Say your younger child snatches the older one's toy, and the older one automatically gets upset. If we stick to the automated, a fight will follow. But what if we help the older one break it down?
Mom: What happened? (external)
Child: He took my toy!
Mom: And what does it mean to you? (internal)
Child: He always does it!
Mom: Why do you think he did it? (systemic)
Child: Because he wants to play.
The feelings generated by "he always does it" are those of resentment and anger, while those generated by "he wants to play" are those of connection and understanding.
Goodbye Automatic Reactions
One of the activities we often practice during dinner is taking guesses. We analyze each other's behavior and guess WHY they did what they did. Not only does this teach kids how to analyze behaviors and open their hearts to those around them, but it also opens an incredible door into your child's soul.
Sometimes, taking the wrong guess serves you because your little one will immediately give you the answer that's right for them.
The Giraffe and the Tiger
A few weeks ago, when Jon returned from a work trip abroad, he brought back two plushies - a giraffe and a tiger, both super sweet. Ilay immediately chose the tiger and handed the giraffe to Lia. They were both happy at first. A few days later, Ilay started developing a desire for the giraffe. He tried to convince Lia to switch, and she wouldn't. He got upset, closed the door behind him, and cried for a long time.
After a while, Lia went to him and gave him the giraffe. "Present," she said. Then again, for a short little bit, they were both happy. But sure enough, at bedtime, Lia wanted the giraffe. At two years old, the word "present" is not as eternal as it is at six. Ilay got upset, again, this time with Lia.
"What happened"? I asked, aiming for the external.
"Lia took the giraffe back!"
"You're feeling sad because the giraffe is not yours?" I continued, trying to guess the internal.
"No, because she lied to me!"
Equipped with this knowledge, I could then use the systemic to influence the internal.
"You know you'd never take back something you gifted, and you're upset that Lia did. I get it. Why do you think she did it in the first place"?
"Because I was crying, and she wanted to make me happy," he said, looking at Lia again but this time with a soft gaze.
"Yea, I think so, too. And do you think that she understands the word "present" as you do?"
"No," he said and cuddled his tiger.
It's about the Need, Not the Want
Ilay didn't eventually get what he wanted, but he fell asleep with a better understanding of himself and a deeper understanding of Lia. He could appreciate what she did for him in a moment of distress, and he understood why she took it back. And understanding is what one needs to open the door to empathy.