“What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say” has long since been a favourite quote of mine, credited to Emerson. Lately, in dealing with young children, it has taken on a deeper meaning but I’m also now reconsidering the way I communicate in a much broader sense.
Have you ever noticed how reliant we are on verbal communication?
“You have a way with words” said a mentor of mine, “a real gift, but it is also your biggest challenge”.
It gave me pause, she had made me rethink the way in which I communicate with the children, but as I’ve digested those words I’ve started to observe how pervasive this issue is for us as a society. On the face of it we are incredibly dependent upon – and distracted by - words.
Yet, as we know from the study and discussion about body language in recent decades, we are subconsciously picking up on a lot more than words. Many of us have become adept at reading body language more consciously and, certainly in situations like job interviews, most attempt to control what their body is revealing.
It is interesting that it’s only from about the age of 14 that we start to really develop our ability to digest things verbally, yet it so totally takes over from then on that we lose sight of our most primal and universal form of communication. So much so we often talk and yell endlessly at kids in complete ignorance that they are simply not able to digest what they are being 'told'.
When we arrive on the planet, we spend the early years learning predominantly through our experiences. For example, when you step on a sharp stone, it talks to you, you learn something about sharp stones (they are hard, they hurt, they are best avoided etc).
Every second of every minute of every day your body is talking to your brain, it’s helpful for our children if we can talk less, that way they ‘hear’ more. I think the same applies to adults, the words are just a distraction, and we are often fooled by them, too busy to take due note of what our own body or anyone else’s is actually telling us.
I have to admit the times when I am mostly aware of body talk is when either I, or someone around me is agitated or angry. Having young children, that can happen frequently (both ways). The natural response is for people to withdraw.
Punishment is the withdrawal of love
My own experience of boundaries being enforced as a child and into adulthood has been based on punishment, common to most and still pervasive in our society. This is an act of retaliation, entrenched in varying scales of negative emotion (from mildly irritated to outright fury) and all involve the withdrawal of love.
You cannot punish someone out of love, so if your mind tells you punishment is a necessary and appropriate response, you have to withdraw your love in order to enforce it. Equally, as a response, our children withdraw, hearing not the verbal words used, but the way in which they are delivered and enforced. It’s part of how we begin to lose sight of who we really are, fearing that ‘the real us’ is not safe to show itself in the world.
The big ‘ah ha’ moment for me has been the kids’ bedtime, the time of day guaranteed to tip even the most patient of parents over the edge. There was a point about a year ago when I thought about setting myself a challenge to not let a single word pass my lips for 3 days.
Aware that, in the heat of the moment, words come tumbling out like a crazy runaway train. Even as I become consciously aware of the whine or rant, that train has gathered momentum and isn’t easily brought under control. It’s far easier to derail it and zip up. Not such a bad idea after all.
My instinct was to stay with my kids as they fell asleep. This stemmed from a fear I had had of being on my own (resulting from a rife imagination combined with a creak here and a strange sound there), which I only conquered in my thirties. As the kids are growing, it’s resulted in most evenings being a complete write off. Then my mentor points out that we are born from a dark womb, we come into the world trusting the dark, and it represented safety and comfort for us. Mm, further pause.
My constant presence, while stemming from my parental instinct to protect (an instinct I now recognise as born of fear, thus not an instinct of higher good), is body talk for “yes, you are right, you are not safe without me here”. When considered in this way, I realised it was the opposite of what I want to teach them, that they are safe.
Yet how? This is the part I’d tussled with. I have been brought up in a punitive society, one that continues to show itself that way even when governments of countries engage with each other, tit for tat “we must show them”, “there must be retribution” responses.
It’s not the way I wish to live, and certainly not the body talk I want my kids to enduringly recall. My natural instinct is for harmony, to remain tuned into the love that flows and connects us all. Suggestions of shutting them in a room when they are fearful and I am frustrated (because they aren’t settling down to sleep when they are clearly tired) didn’t resonate at all.
Not wishing to threaten my children, you could guarantee that was exactly what would end up happening each evening (I’d threaten to walk out if they didn’t settle), yet my body (despite the odd impatient move towards the door) would remain out of love.
You can be loving and enforce your boundaries
So the crux of my ‘ah ha’ was the realization that I could be kind and loving, and teach them how to feel safe, using body talk in a positive way. That begins with me being attuned to the patient teacher within, who has a plan, rather than the frazzled parent who just wants them to fall asleep so I can get out of there.
Then, instead of lying on the bed beside them, I started with sitting on the chair next to the beds, then I moved away from the beds towards the door, where I now sit and do my meditation.
Just that one move has been huge for the kids, no longer in arms reach of mum, although with initial protests, has taught them how to settle themselves to sleep, and they do that a lot quicker than with me lying next to them.
Inevitably my younger daughter springs out of bed a couple of times, but (aware of my body talk) I just gently pick her up – silently – and place her back in bed. Eventually she realises it’s a fruitless exercise, producing no reaction and quickly settles towards sleep.
As we progress I will eventually leave the room, at first for a quick visit to the loo and return, then longer visits until they are more and more comfortable with falling asleep on their own. In hindsight, this training could have begun once I was no longer feeding them through the night, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
So I am learning that, most often, words are unnecessary; ignoring the irony of course of the number of words it has taken me to express all of this to you! The realization that our body talk is far more powerful than anything we say, and consciously harnessing it from a point of love, is key to more peaceful and powerful communication.
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