monkey see, monkey do

this article is rather sobering given the amount of time most kids spend playing video games and watching TV. here's an excerpt:

When we watch another person move, our observations of their movement activates in our own brain the same areas that are involved when we make that movement. This innate tendency for imitation was first observed in macaque monkeys where "mirror neurons" in the monkey's prefrontal cortex respond both when the monkey grasps a peanut and when it watches another monkey grasp it. Mirror neurons are also active in our brains.

If you observe my hand reaching for a cup of tea the motor cortex in your brain will become slightly active in the same areas you would use if you reached for the cup of tea yourself. Further, if you observe my lips as I savor the tea, the area of your brain corresponding to lip movements will fire as well. Of course that doesn't mean you can taste my tea but it does mean that I am directly affecting your brain as you watch me drinking it. And the process is reciprocal. If you pour yourself a cup of tea, a similar pattern occurs in my brain. In both situations the artificial distinction between you and me breaks down; we form a unit influencing each other's actions: I alter your brain as a result of your observations of me, and vice versa.

On the bright side, we can stack the deck for healthy behaviors by letting our children watch us doing them. The power of example penetrates into the brain at a cellular level.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

we all need somebody to lean on

This afternoon on my walk I passed our local elementary school while the kids were being dismissed for the day. As I approached I could hear the wailing of one tiny little girl, who was sobbing and clunking her feet in big snow boots a few paces behind what appeared to be her mom and dad. She looked like she was maybe three or four years old -- but kids come in all shapes and sizes, so she was probably a kindergartener.

I passed the parents first. I made eye contact and smiled, scanning their faces discreetly to see how they were reacting to the situation. They seemed pretty neutral, even a bit detached.

Next I walked by the little girl; her face bright red, tears streaming down her cheeks, dragging her tiny legs along like each one weighed a ton, begging to be carried but forcing herself to keep moving so she didn't fall too far behind.

I could see her inner conflict written all over her face. She was spent from her long day, but she was terrified that her parents would get too far ahead, so she overruled her body's desperate cries for rest and kept moving out of fear. Every bone in my body wanted to scoop that little cherub up in my arms and comfort her.

But of course, I couldn't! That would have been creepy.

So instead I kept on walking, and spent the rest of the way home wondering why even the kindest people can be so cold and unresponsive to our children at times. Not that these particular folks were truly cold or unresponsive -- I have no way of knowing what was going on in their heads or in the situation, and if I have learned only one thing in life it's that more often than not things are not as they appear. But I always enjoy a good opportunity for contemplation, so I came up with two main reasons.

First, many parents have been misinformed about their children's true motives. We've been brainwashed to shut down our normal compassion. Well-meaning admonishments suggest that our children are just manipulating us, and that we will spoil them if we 'give in.'

Some parenting 'experts' teach that it is not only necessary, but actually constructive to treat children in ways that we would never treat other adults. Gosh, I even see people out on walks who are carrying their dogs sometimes! But we are told that we will spoil our children if we carry them after they are old enough to walk.

I'm not sure what's behind this insidious advice, but I became a parenting consultant in order to help reverse this trend. In my parenting workshops, consultations, and articles, I talk about how all behavior is communication, and children are simply using immature strategies for getting their basic needs met. I help parents teach their children more effective and socially acceptable strategies which foster connection (ie asking instead of grabbing.)

Most of us would never remain friends with an adult who treated us the way we've been told to treat our children. If you called a friend while you were in tears, seeking compassion and reassurance, and she told you she would only listen when you stopped whining and crying, would you call her again?

If your legs grew tired while shopping at the mall and you wanted to sit down for a moment to recharge, would your friend keep walking and threaten that you better keep up with her or you will get lost in the crowd? If she did, would you invite her to the mall again anytime soon?

Imagine asking your husband if he would help you bring the groceries in from the car, and he tells you to be a big girl and do it yourself. How warm and snuggly would you feel toward him after that? Why do we think our kids would feel any differently about this treatment than we would?

So one reason I think parents may shut their hearts down is that we fear that treating our children with basic human compassion will screw them up in some way. So in order to do what is "best for them," we have to overrule our natural compassion and hide behind a cold, detached mask.

I think maybe the other reason that parents sometimes become indifferent to a child's suffering is that it triggers feelings in us that we don't know how to manage. In effect, our child's distress can send us right back into any stored-up leftover distress in ourselves. So we wall off our hearts as a coping mechanism, to make sure that backlog of painful emotion doesn't overwhelm us.

It seems to me that adults and children have the same core needs. We all crave acknowledgement, acceptance, and appreciation. Most of us need to express our emotions so they don't get stored up inside and become toxic. It helps us feel closer to each other when we can express our feelings to a loving listener.

Many of us don't need other people to give us solutions to our problems so much as we need lovingly attentive companionship while we work things out ourselves. I don't know about you, but I always feel better after a cleansing cry, even if the situation that triggered it remains unchanged. Sometimes a good cry IS the solution.

Maybe one way to address this second reason that we lose compassion for our children is through cultivating supportive and nurturing friendships with other parents. We all need somewhere safe to unload our emotions. We need to be able to turn to another adult when we are triggered, one who will not judge us, who loves us, and won't try to fix our feelings or hurry us out of them.

No one can be there for others ALL the time, so we need more than one friend like this. And often, our spouses cannot play this role, because they are physically and emotionally invested in us "keeping it together."

So if we want to be more compassionate parents, we need to create those kind of friendships in our lives. We need havens. Safe listeners. Friends who have no agenda other than keeping us company while the ick comes out. Friends who trust the process of release, and will not think less of us in our uglier moments. Companions who can ride the storm out with us, and know we will feel better afterwards even if nothing has changed.

And if we want to contribute to a more compassionate future, we can BE that kind of friend. We can smile gently at the parent whose child is screaming at the store and silently offer a 'been there' kind of acceptance. We can offer tissues, hugs, and kind murmurs when our friends have emotional breakdowns. Although it may not seem like much, it's actually one of the most powerfully supportive actions we can take.

And we can turn to our friends when we find ourselves closing off to our children, and ask them to be there with us while we express whatever feelings have been activated within us. There's nothing like a good cry to clear the emotional gunk out of our system so we can feel our hearts again.

Oh, and we can also do this for our children! Be a compassionate listener and stay close while they cry to release the gunk that is obscuring their natural happiness and good will. Lately I've been thinking of tears as solvents, because I suspect they actually wash away bad feelings. But I'll write more on that another day ...

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

thoughts on authoritarian parenting

For some reason I've been very intrigued by the case of the sweatlodge deaths in Arizona, and have been following it closely. So I was not surprised to hear that James Arthur Ray was arrested the other day. This whole incident has really got me thinkin', and triggered a spirited discussion with some friends about child-rearing.

I tend toward letting kids learn from experience as much as possible, assuming they won't get themselves killed in the process (I wouldn't let a toddler learn about traffic by getting hit by a car!)

Rather than a limit-setting, discipline-oriented authority figure, I see my parenting role as more of a provider of information and an asker of questions that will help my children tune into their own common sense and intuition when making decisions.

For example, instead of saying, "No, you may not stay out until 12:30 to go to that party. Your curfew is 11 and you will be grounded if you are home late," I'd be more likely to say, "I hear that you want to stay out late that night. I'm concerned about the things that often go on at parties and on the roads after midnight. But if we can come up with some ways to make sure you are safe and sound, I think it would be okay to extend your curfew for this special occasion. What kind of ideas do you have? I might feel reassured of your safety if you would text me every half hour or so after 11, and I could come and pick you up instead of getting a ride home from your friends. What do you think?"

I want my kids to develop a trustworthy internal sense of Yes, that seems like it would be okay to try, and Nuh-uh, that feels like it's not worth the risk -- there's got to be a better way.

If I am constantly telling them how to act, what to decide, or to obey me because I said so, their internal decision making skills aren't getting much of a workout. If I demand that they comply with what I say, or punish them until they do, they may just take the batteries out of their internal smoke detectors, because they know I won't let them act on the alarms going off inside them. And later in life, when the stakes are much higher, they may continue to look to others to be told what to do.

Although no one will ever know the truth of what happened in that sweat lodge and why, perhaps this incident could serve as a warning about the danger of teaching our kids to respect external authority more than their own inner guidance. Blind obedience, in certain contexts, can kill.

If we demand that our children obey us on a regular basis without giving them any explanation for why we want something done a certain way, aren't we doing their thinking for them? Aren't we basically saying, Don't think for yourself, Don't question what I said, I know better than you what is best for you?

Is that the message we really want to send?

Don't we want their discernment muscles pretty well exercised by the time they are old enough to be sitting in a sweltering tent on the brink of death while being told by another external authority figure that they cannot leave until the next time he opens the door?

Don't we want them thinking for themselves, protecting themselves from harm, and listening to the inner guidance that says Get the heck outta here right now?

Now granted, it seems to me that part of the problem was that folks handed their internal authority over to this guy. From what I can discern, it seems that he did not hand it right back, as some spiritual teachers do. But it makes sense that followers will seek out leaders, and vice versa. No doubt this situation was much more complicated than we'll ever understand.

Nevertheless, I think as parents (and teachers, too) we have a marvelous opportunity to lay the groundwork so that the kids we love can be the ones who crawled out the bottom of the tent even though their esteemed leader told them not to, and survived.

Let's not be the ones who tell our kids to Sit down and shut up. Let's be the ones saying, Well, let's give this some thought. Does it make good sense? Is it safe? Is any part of you telling you that it's unwise or too risky? What's the worst that could happen if you do this?

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit