Today I’m reprinting a blog post I wrote over a year ago, on my Truth Love Beauty blog. It resonates with me right now, which is comforting. The truth has a way of standing the test of time. It also reminds me of a topic I have not talked about on this blog – the observations and lessons I learned from teaching violin to more than 30 toddlers in the Silicon Valley for five and a half years. These descriptions bring me back to a time that was filled with joys and challenges, and ultimately catalyzed a whole new way of being and learning for me.
Here it is:
Does all the woo-woo, positive psychology, self-help talk make you feel a little queasy or, at best, skeptical? Does an email with the subject line, “You can do it!”, make you want to “Report spam” faster than you can hit “Delete”?
When I worked with parents and their children in a coaching/teaching environment, I learned that there are many ways we adults try to encourage our kids. We all have a default style of communication that is a product of the various influences in our lives – our own parents, our many teachers, our older siblings, our bosses, our mentors, or even a conglomeration of all the ways we DON’T want to be like any of those people. What I’ve learned about effective coaching I first saw by watching children who were actually allowed to learn. It’s simple: all a kid wants is to know what it feels like to try, and to know that they’ll be OK if they fail. If you give them those two things, they’ll try over and over again with great enthusiasm, and pretty soon (or maybe a lot later) they will succeed.
The second half of this – letting them know they are OK even if they fail while trying – is tricky. I saw so many adults sit beside their child and just watch, hands folded across their chest, while their child tried, making no attempt to help, and remaining motionless in response to anything the child did. Sure, they were “there”, but I would sometimes wonder if they were actually in the same room as we were. I’ve also seen the other end of the spectrum, where a parent would literally lunge forward and want to take over, rather than allow their child to try something that they might not “get” on the first attempt. They preferred not to witness a failure than to allow the child to try.
I never figured out a way to coach parents to see their own tendencies in these situations. First of all, I was too busy trying to do my job coaching, witnessing, and encouraging the child. Second of all, I was frozen in astonishment at some of the parents’ behavior, not knowing how to address these things in the time allotted, or in front of the child.
These are, of course, excuses. The truth is I did not know how to hold the space for adults to really open up to what was going on. In some ways, it takes more skill and more patience to get an adult to open up than it does for a child. Despite a great deal of one-on-one time and attention for each student-parent dyad, I did not create a structure that allowed me to address holistically all the influences that are at play in a child’s learning. I had annual “review” meetings with parents, but these were perceived as “performance” reviews for the parents, where they would wait expectantly to receive some sign of approval or validation from me. Only rarely did anyone feel safe enough during these meetings to actually share their fears, their inadequacies, or their deepest questions about the purpose of their enrollment. It was mostly a veiled love fest, a hopeful yet sometimes tentative confirmation of everyone’s desire to continue with the relationship as it was. There were always a few cases where I wanted to discuss some of my real concerns about the appropriateness of continuing as the teacher for a particular child. Somehow, it never felt safe for me to voice my truth in these meetings. I would agonize over these for many days and sleepless nights leading up to the meetings, and would search for the right words, which rarely came to me at the right time. Why was it that I had never created that kind of relationship in which the truth could be told without blame or judgment? Why did I not have those skills?
By the time I started waking up to these truths, and learning how to hold this kind of space, I also saw that it was beyond the scope of my work to heal entire families, especially under the auspices of producing a children’s violin performing group. Some might say that I gave up. Maybe. But what I know now is that nothing changes until you accept things as they are. And, healing happens one person at a time, starting with myself.
My discovery of the healing capacity of the mind and the body came not from my medical school education ten years ago, but from a more recent search for my own inner peace and joy, which was catalyzed by my physical body sending me signals of debilitating pain. Something was not working in my lifestyle, and I could have chosen to ignore it and power through, or remain curious enough to explore it. I chose the latter. It opened me to a path of mental clarity and inquiry that I know will continue as long as there are thoughts running through my head. I did not take pills. I did not see a doctor or therapist. I slowed down. I rested. I created space in my life to ask the questions I was genuinely curious about. I tried new things. Simultaneously I recommitted to my yoga practice that had been abandoned during the same period of time that my body developed its pain. The combination of mind and body training, which focuses on gentle, consistent work on flexibility, balance, and strength, is what awakens me every day to the calm energy of joy I have within me. I love this kind of training because it is training for life. Not just “modern” life, or American life, or life as a woman, but being fully alive as a human being on this earth.
Now just because I’ve gone through this amazing shift doesn’t mean I’m going to wave a flag at my clients and say, “You can do it!” and expect everyone to leap into their own states of bliss. I saw the many ways that parents say this to their kids.
The same words – “You can do it!” – might come out of one parent’s mouth, with a crisp, angular tone of voice suggesting something like, “You BETTER be able to do it, or I’ll look like an idiot for spending all this money on lessons and believing you could do this!”
Or another parent’s “You can do it!” might be said without much conviction and with more pleading, meaning something like, “I know you don’t want to do this, but would you PLEASE do it for me?? Just this once?? I’ll buy you anything you want after this if you just do it for me….please???”
Yet another parent’s “You can do it!”, voiced with some disbelief and shock, might be taken to mean, “Don’t make me look bad, because I know I spent all week sitting there practicing with you every day, and you could do it at home! Now DO it!”
The meaning behind the words changes when it is said from a place of genuine love and compassion, without attachment to outcomes. “You can do it” can also mean something like, “I am not you. But I’ve been exactly where you are, not knowing whether or not I can, not being able to see how I will ever get there, feeling the fear of pain, of humiliation, of not being enough. And having faced all of that and moved through it, I know you can do it. I’m saying it not as a command, not as a way to alleviate my own stress, not to make this all about you, so that I can transfer the blame if it doesn’t work out. I’m saying it so that you hear my belief in your spirit, in your ability to find it in yourself to do whatever it is you need to do, to take whatever time you need to, and to be wherever you are right now. I’ll be right here to witness you – to celebrate with you, and to catch you when you fall – as you learn to trust yourself.”
Said from a calm core of peace, love, and patience, there is no greater elixir when we are feeling afraid.
[Originally published on my Truth Love Beauty blog here.]