compassion

To the well meaning man at the library…

Dear Sir,

Thank you for taking the time to stop me to address your concern for young children using computers.  You took the time to engage with our family even though your sentiment wasn’t clear when you were lurking around the children’s computers glancing at my children then around the library while I was trying to select books for them.  When you asked me if those were my children, I tried to ignore the disdain in your voice.  When you said, “computers, ugh,” I tried to remain compassionate, despite my inner lurch to defend this few minutes they sat in front of screens as their only computer time in the last several weeks.  When you followed up with a comment about how they looked like zombies with their headphones on staring at the machine, I couldn’t help but agree in spite of the uncomfortable feeling in my stomach indicating the pushing of an edge.  When you offered to show my children a ‘trick,’ I tried to remain open to possibility as I entertained the offer enough to ask my children if they would like to see it.

When asked, my children came away from their computers with no hesitation to witness your trick, I was a proud mama.  I hope that you noticed. As my three children sat to watch your ‘trick’ without judgement, I hope you noticed.  When they had the same look of concentration about them that they had in front of the monitors because they were transfixed on something new, interesting and engaging,  I hope you noticed.  They smiled and thanked you when you finished,  I hope you noticed.  We left with a giant bag of books, I hope you noticed.  But even if you didn’t, I did.

I know I have wonderful children who do not need to be plugged into technology to be entertained.  They enjoyed your juggling act, despite the dropping of several balls.  They accepted your intrusion into their very limited computer time with grace.  They accepted you for who you were and what you had to offer.  So did I.

I hope that one day you will be able to grow compassion for people who allow their children to use a computer.  Ultimately, we have the same hopes for the future of our children.  I didn’t feel I needed to defend my life choices to you in that time and space.  Perhaps because I know that I am doing right by my children.  Thank you for reaching out and engaging with us on a human level.  This is what I assume was your desired intent.  In this instance it worked.  Thank you for that, it is a rare day when that happens.  I appreciate that you took the time to become involved with our experience at the library that day.  Might I make a suggestion for the future?  Perhaps a thoughtful question posed to a stranger rather than a judgmental statement relayed in a guttural fashion could improve your chances of connection with others.

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Top 10 Permaculture Parenting Tips

When I think about what it means to me to be a ‘Permaculture Parent’ I feel that it really is defined by my approach to life.  Looking for ways to live more in line with the Permaculture principles is a way of approaching life.  When I change, those around me change.  When I learn, those around me learn.  Permaculture is a design process by which you observe nature and try to learn as much as possible about natural systems.  I see my family as a natural system.  I, as part of the system influence all other parts of the system.  When I change, the system changes because part of it is new, and it must adapt.

Permaculture is more than a design system for me.  It is a way of thinking about and approaching the world.  We consider as much as possible in our lives how to live by nature’s patterns.  I am constantly self-reflective in order to observe and interact with my own behaviour patterns.  The beauty (and most difficult part) of having children is that they allow your dark side to surface so easily.  Despite the deep love and reverence I have for my children, the day to day living with three little beings that all need help from me pushes me into my edges of human capacity.  Of course it is in these edges that the most growth will occur.  In these moments of being stretched, the tiny cracks in my psyche expand and allow for patterns from my past to emerge.  There is often no time to ‘catch myself’ before reacting.  But these unsavoury moments become fodder for where to turn my attention next.  I try to view each challenge as a guild project, one that needs careful attention in order to discover a way to make the many different levels of the situation work together to support each other rather than out-compete.

When I read other people’s articles about parenting, I love succinct lists of practical changes I can make, things I can do right away!  The difficulty with Permaculture, and parenting, is that neither one offers clear cut answers.  The approach is just that…a set of guidelines by which to structure your actions.  They both take thought, engagement, careful observation and response.  But in the interest of providing something useful that helps to bring focus to a sea of grey areas, I have put together this list of 10 ways I try to be a better Permaculture Parent:

  1. Slow down the pace of life, remove the excess, simplify: physically, emotionally and mentally.  We constantly ask ourselves if things are ‘necessary,’ because if they’re not, the outcome also isn’t worth it.  In the spaces we create, creativity blossoms.  We try to disengage with the ‘overculture’ of consumerism, technology, fear, control, apathy, etc., as much as possible, carefully considering where to place our engagement.  We try to be present and mindful to the situation at hand, knowing that everything else will wait.
  2. Respond rather than react – I try to take a deep breath to reconnect with the Earth before responding to any given situation, there are very few situations that cannot withstand a 10 second delay in response.  This is also modelling a great skill for my children to learn that will serve them.  Taking pause allows me to observe before interacting, by this I mean mainly observing my own inner landscape!
  3. Get outside.  Spend loads of unstructured time in nature.  It’s hard to recognize ourselves as part of nature if we are separating ourselves from it.
  4. Accept feedback in all its forms.  As difficult as it is to take a critical look at my role in my children’s behaviour (especially those rough times), usually the root cause of the turbulence is that I’ve inadvertently created a climate of ‘control.’  If I can find a way to release my ‘old paradigm’ approach to controlling my children and look for creative and less obvious solutions to work cooperatively, I can usually turn things around in a hurry.  The trust required for this took  several months to build.  I had to learn to trust that there was another way that would work, and my children needed to trust that I could change my way of engaging with them indefinitely.  It takes radical trust to allow our children to receive their own feedback and respond to it, but when I am able to step back and observe (with the help of sportscasting or non-judgmentally verbalizing the events of a conflict), it is amazing what solutions the children reach for their own problems – ones that wouldn’t have been obvious or fair in the eyes of an adult.  In treating problems between my children this way, we are also allowing them to learn fundamental Permaculture skills.   Aside from behavioural conflicts, we try to communicate clearly, about everything.  If my children ask a question, I try to give as complete an answer as possible while still being age appropriate.  Our children want feedback about their world and experiences too!
  5. Enjoy time together as a family as much as possible – I have learned to find joy and gratitude in tiny spaces to combat the illusion of drudgery…most of the time.
  6. Practice and teach extreme empathy.  “The Golden Rule” is prevalent in our home.  Not just applied to others in our home, but to all beings, plants, and Mother Nature herself.  My hope is to help my children know and feel the impact they are having on everything around them, since everything in this living system called Earth, is connected.  I hope to help them understand that they are only in control of their own actions, but that their participation in the system will ripple out in positive and/or negative ways.  When my children are upset, the first thing I do is empathize with them, despite my gut reaction to apply logic or quell their emotional response.
  7. We find small solutions to big problems.  I have started to focus on one small thing at a time to try and make change happen and sustain.  For example, I wanted to have a moment of gratitude before sharing our meals, so we started saying a family blessing.  It has taken a while for it to become routine, but now the children remind us if we forget.  We were also having difficulty with tidy up time (a time rife with the temptation to control!).  I started having a tidy up time every day before dinner.  Once dinner was ready to serve, we’d tidy until the house was clean, then eat.  It has also become a pattern we’ve been able to stick to.  I’ve taken to tackling one thing at a time, until it’s established.  Related to this, I have made many mistakes along the way.  When something doesn’t work, or fails to flourish, I try another approach to the same problem.  Being willing to take chances and make (many) mistakes in the process of trial and error is part of the learning process.
  8. We carefully consider the foundation of our children’s days.  Their basic needs are an essential way for my children to catch and store energy.  In our house, sleep is treated as sacred.  We try to work our activities around sleep routines so that my children have enough rest to participate fully in life and with their best selves.  We also make food a priority by consuming nourishing sustenance.  My children help with planting, tending, harvesting, preserving, and preparing food where possible.  We engage with food on as many levels as possible. If you consider other mammals, they spend most of their time eating, drinking and sleeping.  We should also afford these things as much value as possible.
  9. Set clear limits, and allow things to run a bit wild within the defined boundaries.  Our top concern when setting boundaries is safety.  Apart from that, we have certain things which are not tolerated in our home: violence, disrespect of people or destruction of property.  These are hard and fast.  We debate about the best ways to ensure these expectations are met, and have tried many things!  Luckily, since there are few of them, and we always follow through with some method of dealing with the problem, we don’t have to address this issue too often.  Where possible we try to use relevant meaningful consequences.  For example, if you colour on the desk, you clean it up with guidance.  If you upset someone, find some way to make it right (apologise, give the toy back, do something to make the person feel better).  If you throw your food, you clean it up and you can can choose to eat what was thrown or be finished eating (make no waste!).  Our philosophy is similar to that of good design principles.  If we put the time in up front, at the messy design stage of planning, the long term yields will be much higher.  All that being said, we do give time outs for physical violence, as we feel strongly that this is not acceptable in our home and sometimes a timeout is warranted for the safety of all involved.  Most of the behavioural guidance we offer our children comes in the form of asking questions to provoke extreme empathy or by having them predict what might happen if they carry through with an action (for example what might happen if we ran across the street without looking?).  As far as what is and is not acceptable in our home, it is family choice based on our own comfort levels.  We set many smaller limits, but these are situational.  A great tip I follow from Janet Lansbury is that if something is making you feel uncomfortable, set a clear limit and if you have lost your temper, you waited too long to set that limit.  After I set limits, I refer back to the question ‘is it necessary,’ since sometimes these limits are not genuinely serving a need, but come from the overculture, and require a more scrutinous look at a later time.  I am often trying to push my edge as to what ways I can continue to offer my children more freedom.  In the moment where I am dealing with the child, I will set the limit, because it can always be changed, with a new clearly defined boundary in the future.
  10. Awaken curiosity.  There is so much humans don’t understand.  Invite surprise.  Discover together.  Learn together.  Grow together.  Accept growth as a messy process that doesn’t always look pretty.

Having Patience in Desperate Times

I often get so impatient with the amount of time it takes to change.  I often feel the need to have things already ‘just so.’  Our culture strives for and cultivates illusions of perfection; something people can never attain.  What this elusive striving leaves me with is a sense that I’m not already doing great things!  A feeling that there is something better out there, which inevitably takes me away from the present moment and the beauty that exists right here, right now.

Conversely, the striving from improvement (rather than perfection) allows me to grow.  Like a plant transfixed on reaching the sun, growth through and around obstacles happens when I set goals for myself.  I have so often watched myself parent my children in ways I don’t want to, ways I know aren’t helpful.  Shouting and doling out punishments are not solutions.  Another example would be how I hate using plastic, yet still make purchases at the local grocery store that are wrapped in it.  I have not put the effort into finding a complete alternative.  We will not compromise on buying organic in our home, and as a result, I often end up coming home with vegetables and fruits packaged in plastic.  In addition we have a need to find a dairy that doesn’t use plastic containers (cheese and yogurt are staples around here!)

Awakening to new ideas and having the gumption to follow my inner voice is what is helping me to make progress.  But how do I maintain integrity?  It sure stings to watch myself repeat patterns that I no longer subscribe to, as I feel they belong to a paradigm I’m shifting away from.  But this interaction is part of the process.  I still belong to the culture that established the paradigm and the people around me still function within it…including myself.   Similar to how I’m able to view myself as part of nature, I must also recognize that I am part of the culture at large, and even though I push back against it, many aspects of my life still subscribe to it.  This is not inherently a bad thing, because descending toward a less oil dependent future definitely takes time.  It’s such a blessing to have a staircase to use!  What I must remember to so make sure I respect myself on the journey down.

What I have noticed is that getting down on myself for my inability to make the change will not actually help the change happen.  In fact it often becomes a hindrance, because I’m not supporting myself through the change.  What I actually need to do for myself in times of inner conflict is to trust.  To be gentle with where I am knowing that I am moving in the right direction.  I take a deep breath and observe.  If I can tune into myself in that small window of feeling, perhaps I will find an answer.  How does it make me feel when I treat my child in a disrespectful way or come home with bags of plastic wrapped food?  What alternative solutions do I have? Although the second question rarely offers up any stellar solution to a usually large and consistent problem, asking it acknowledges that I’m open to alternatives.  If I stop asking the question, an answer will never come.  I am waiting for an opening to appear.  In my searching, I also often stumble upon small shifts that I can make toward a larger change.  Many smaller shifts in consciousness combine to make a large one so any shift in the right direction is a good one.

Here I am reminded of a story I read not too long ago of a man lost on a mountain climbing trip after falling down a crevasse.  His climbing partner thought he had died in the fall and descended the mountain to save himself from the bitter cold.  The injured man, still alive but unable to walk, was determined to make it to safety.  Rather than consider the entire journey, he began to set small goals for himself.  Things like, I will make it to that rock in the next three hours.  With incremental goal setting, he was able to see his successes and ultimately save himself.  I only hope for the same courage to save myself.  There will always be another goal to point my attention toward in search of change.  What there won’t be is another chance to live the process…that thing we call life.

Meet in Action

We are often defined by what it is that we do.  Now that my role is a stay-at-home homeschooling mom, I don’t think that really defines me.  Come to think of it, I’ve always had a problem with being asked what my job is.  What I do is so much greater than my ‘job.’  Here is a another area where it is easier to categorize, classify, sort, delineate and define someone by something external from themselves.  Some people do work they do not care for, so should their job still be judged as a reflection of themselves?  Then I think about all the people I have taught with over the years and how much variance I’ve seen in personality, aptitude and approach to the very same role.  So why do we try to define someone by what they do?

In pondering how we come together with other people, I started to think about how it is that we come to know each other.  In a way, all we can do is infer, gathering data through clues over a span of time.  The longer the ‘study’ the clearer the results.  What people say, how they act, tone of voice, body language, and what they do…all action.  It is at the point of action that we have a chance to express ourselves and where we have the opportunity to try and understand another.  Sometimes our actions are misinterpreted and our intent does not come across.  But then I think of all the times that I can get a sense of someone or a situation before spending much time with it.  I feel this connection reflects my mammalian instinct and skill that I rarely call upon.  I use these instincts along with my logical mind to piece together my version of reality.  This is a skill I’m trying to hone since I would love to be able to trust my instincts more.  Through many means we are taught not to trust our inner voice within our culture.  Ironically, it is my instinctual understanding of the world that has more likelihood of providing a truer picture of reality.

So, if action is the portal where our separate realities can collide, then it makes me consider how important my actions are.  How am I meeting the world with what I do, and is it in line with how I want to be perceived?  I cannot change how my actions are perceived, but I can change what it is that I’m doing.  In an effort to maintain integrity, I try to think very carefully about how it is that I interact.  How do I spend my time?  How do I spend my money?  How do I make my money?  How do I treat those around me?  How do I treat myself?  And ultimately, how do my actions reflect my inner experience, or do they miss the mark?  Being honest with myself is the only way I can present any level of honesty to the world.

Offensively Defensive

I started using the phrase ‘offensively defensive’  to describe some of my interactions with other people.  I’m describing the times where I feel like I may be under scrutiny for not living up to societal expectations.  I have fallen into the trap of trying to be defensive of my choices and the state of my life by ‘heading comments off at the pass’ if you will, so that I can make an excuse for something before someone has a chance to pass judgement.  Playing offense with defensive tactics.  In reality I’m being offensive to myself because of my defensiveness.  All this strategy does is opens a conversation that never needed to happen in the first place.  It is so rare for people to actually be disturbed enough by something I’m doing to make a comment.  Being unnecessarily explanatory for inadequacies also makes me appear insecure about what it is that I’m defending.  Looking in on myself, I see a disconnect in how I’m presenting myself to the world.  I carefully wind my way through life, checking my integrity at every pass.  So why am I coming to my own defense before it is called for?  If I were as confident as I think I am in my choices, then there should be no need to defend them.

I have so many examples of times where I use this strategy.  The easiest to spot are when people come over.  I feel the need to excuse the state of my house.  Rather than just letting it be what it is (cluttered because I spend time with my children and writing and reading instead of tidying).  I make excuses for the dishes near the sink or the mountain of clean but yet to be folded laundry.  Rather than allowing the energy to remain clear, it draws attention and my own negative energies to these misgivings, and measures them up as such by my own admission. Other examples include our food choices.  Rather than just stating facts (I don’t eat…) I feel the need to justify everything.  Unless a reason is asked for, people don’t really care.  And it’s not like I explain myself well in these situations, I usually give a partial answer, the one I think people want to hear.  Rather than clarifying things, it’s more like voluntarily putting myself into a fight or flight situation, one which only makes the issue more convoluted!

So…why do I do this to myself?

Because I feel there is some sort of standard that I should be living up to – but there is none, because we are not machines, we are not all alike, and we all have our own priorities.  Because I feel that I am being judged unfairly – but I cannot know that since I am only anticipating and projecting judgments, ones conjured in my own mind and thus a reflection of myself.  Because I feel like I should be better at something than I am – which I don’t need to be, I am what I am, I am enough.

So then, what instead?  I’d like to stop offending myself now.  Could I accept that people may judge my home, me, my children?  Could I accept that their judgement is not mine?  Could I exercise some self-compassion?  Could I choose to be happy?  Grateful for how I do spend my time?  Lose the fear?  Love?  Love it all?  I choose that.  And if I can’t be that yet, I’ll fake it until I can.

Parenting from the Heart

It is so easy to feel like there is an expert somewhere out there that has the solution to all of my parenting woes.  The list is long and ever changing.  But when I stop to actually assess the possibility of this, I am stricken with how impossible finding this is!  There is no strategy I could use to ‘fix’ the problems that come along with raising children.  At the root of this mental catch is that children do not need to be fixed at all!

Much to my dismay, advice can never get me to my destination.  It is rather like a road map that I can follow to lead me down different paths on my way, oftentimes they are paths I had not considered previously.  I am the one who has to do the travelling.  I am the one who has to get lost and dirty along the way.  And isn’t this half the fun of this journey called life?  And in reality, there is never a final destination.  Just many, many, many stops along the way.  The stops on my parenting journey look something like this: get breakfast, get shoes and coats on to go outside, eat snack, make a deposit in the potty rather than your pants, eat lunch, nap time routines, dinner, navigating sibling disputes, manners, bedtime routines, meeting or missing social norms, and so on.  Some of the stops are lovely and warm, and others messy.  Others require a lot of intellect and others yet require perseverance not required of me in my other roles in life.  There are endless possibilities for redirection and changing course. None of the more ‘right’ than another, despite my conviction that there must be some sort of ‘perfect’ way to approach parenthood so that everyone comes out relatively unscathed.

Humans have become so good at categorizing things into compartments.  Defining things in terms of black and white.  It has taken me some time to recognize my parenting journey as yet another area of my life to apply a greyscale.  While it might be nice to package my ‘parenting philosophy’ into some sort of pretend finality, my approach never stops evolving because my children never do.  Despite our culture asserting the subtext that people can be mechanized and ‘programmed’ to perform this way or that, treating my children in this fashion will never achieve my desired outcome, which is to grow a real human.   I want to grow a person…an individual.  I want my children to able to rely on those around them, trusting in the people not the ‘experts’ or their ‘techniques.’  Nature doesn’t follow a manual.

My disillusions of parenting often include visions of raising a perfect, well behaved, socially adjusted, brilliant child.  But if I am to more aptly consider the situation, my discomfort often stems from wanting these qualities for myself.  Parenting is unlike anything else in life.  I stare into the tiny beautiful faces that I created, and see all the facets of myself (both beautiful and ugly) and the potential for achieving my desired self – welcome ego.  All too often I push my own agenda on my children – most of the time unconsciously!  The idea of this breaks my heart.  I am working to untangle my own unrealistic expectations bestowed upon me by culture at large.  It is hard work, but worth it for even a chance at changing the course of my children’s lives.

I want our lives to be lived with love, around love, because of love.  When it comes to parenting dilemmas, it is when I can clear away all of my preconceptions and listen to my heart that I know what I need to do.  My children will grow in spite of me.  Much like a plant will find the sun regardless of obstacles.  But rather than being an obstacle, I would prefer to be a container.  I want to hold the space for their growth.  I don’t need some ‘expert advice’ to proceed.  I just need enough self-compassion to keep re-visioning the journey and trust what my heart is telling me to do.

Unfixing Fixing

It is my tendency to want to fix things.  Broken things.  But also things which cannot be broken, like uncomfortable situations, heavy emotions and people.  My two year old tests me on this issue multiple times a day.  He is a sensitive soul, feeling everything to its deepest possible level.  I have the deepest admirations for his courage to feel it so deeply then move on.   I am trying to learn from him.  But in order to learn, I need to accept it as a viable way of being.

I often find myself trying to make him feel better in some way.  I used to say things like ‘you’re alright,’ which is anything but reassuring.  I have been growing my ability to distance myself from his emotional whirlwind, so that I can be present with him rather than his emotional state.  I need to be able to fully listen, empathize with his feelings, and just be there to support him through the process.  When I try to step in and minimize his reaction or impose solutions to my perception of his ‘problems,’ I am sending the message that I am not valuing him, his emotional state, or his own resources.  When I put it this way, I can make a strong connection to the contrast between conventional gardening and forest gardening – stop fighting what is already there, what wants to be there, and work with it instead.

Rob and I have come to the conclusion that our disagreements usually happen when we aren’t showing up for each other.  Most often we get bristled when we feel the other hasn’t heard what we are saying.  Compassion and empathy needs to come first.  Full listening.  Once we feel we’ve been heard, it’s much easier to have our ideas challenged from a place of security and safety in our relationship.  When I’m constantly cutting Rob off mid-thought to try and interject my own ideas or solutions, I am doing the same thing I do to my two year old.  Rob is well spoken and very willing to venture into conversations of self-awareness, offering me insight into how my behaviour impacts those around me.  I also know that when I have a problem, I don’t want advice unless I ask for it.  I just want to be met with empathy and compassion.

I have been following the work of Janet Lansbury for a while now.  She is an educator for an early childhood development strategy known as RIE (Resources in Infant Education) that was developed by Magda Gerber.  The main idea of the philosophy is to make this connection between the world of adults and children; treating small children as human beings with capacity and capability.  Limit setting happens in similar ways as it would with friends or adult family members.  The work of RIE reflects the permaculture principles so frequently that I find myself nodding when I read posts on Janet’s Blog.  I love her resources, because sometimes it is just so hard to shake myself out of the habitual role of being a teacher.  I am also finding connections abound when I think through RIE as an approach to being with people, not just infants.  We all have an inner child that needs nurturing.

When I am trying to fix a problem for my children, I am only taking away their opportunity to learn how to fix it themselves.  I have shifted problem solving to them, offering suggestions when asked for, or when there is a stalemate.  I have come to know that there is no need for me to be their teacher; people don’t learn skills by being told what to do.  Our home has shifted focus, now centring on communication.  There are still fights (hitting, snatching, and the like), but now the kids are learning through each one.  They are having to navigate the reactions of the other person involved and have to respond to that information by coming up with solutions that work for both parties.  Similarly, when I try to minimize an emotional reaction, I am failing to recognize it as a vehicle for learning. When I fail to nurture my child with presence through an emotional reaction then I’m making it about me.

In an effort to unfix the urge to fix, my new mantra has become, “I don’t need to fix this/it/him/her/me