At the end of a post from last month I said, “The philosophy of playing legos, contributed by a five year old, to be explored in another post.” That old post was about a death but more about life.
The legos come from a parent’s story: He had to tell his five year old about a death of a loved one, and there was no right time to do it. With his partner they decided to do it before a play date, just in case she would need to distract herself, forgetting that children have a built in healthy “time proportion to topic’s seriousness”. (This is true of any conversation when the child says very directly, “Ok. let’s talk about something else. THink of something totally different,” direct communication that she has had enough of it. Actually great teaching for adult relationships, knowing when to stop “talking” about a subject and just drop it, and if it’s serious, change to something fun. She was playing with a legos set and they told her that the person had died. For a moment, he said, her face was the saddest he had ever seen and his heart broke. It lasted about a second and then she said “let’s play legos.” and proceeded to continue with her legos, completely engaged in the new moment.
This is a great lesson for young and old about the balance between sadness and darkness in life and the beauty of play, flow and being in the moment, fully connected to the here and now. Children naturally are better at this than adults. We need to learn both important skills — to shift to the legos more fully and to feel our feelings more fully.
A long time ago, at a job long far away at the beginning of my journey as a therapist, I worked at a CDT for adults with chronic mental illness. I had a caseload of patients and one of the groups I had to do was called “Primary Group”. It was at the end of the day and involved all of the people on my caseload having it in their schedule to come to a room and have a group with me, their “primary therapist”, a group that was not very defined or specified. I probably had between 25 and 30 patients, and usually around 15 or so showed up; I could never predict who or how many would be there. I had a music player and music and the options of doing anything with them.
For some reason this group caused me a great deal of anxiety, even though I was quite experienced with running all kinds of groups that had nothing to do with art therapy, from “Smoking Cessation” to “Walking” to “Music Appreciation”, “MICA” etc. as well as many other talking or activity oriented groups. Anyway, I don’t remember what I did in my primary group at the beginning, but I remember being totally stumped by it. What to do with these people sitting around a table in a room besides play some music and figure out who wants to hear what. I thought I was supposed to come up with something, as they looked at me like people sitting in a restaurant waiting to hear what’s on the menu, but the waiter is not a stranger, it’s their therapist. Very stressful! Giant expectations (my own) of doing the “right thing”…
I talked to my supervisor a lot about this group, and I remember one thing she said that stuck with me and echoed something another supervisor said in much different kind of group I was in at another time in my life. “You are working too hard. Just show up. That’s all you need to do.” Huh? Ok. Worth a try. So I made an effort to throw everything in my head out the window, try to keep my mind open and myself grounded and just “showed up” to the group and did nothing. It worked. The group felt less uncomfortable and more enjoyable. I don’t remember doing anything much or what happened, but it made sense.
Now, thinking back on it, as a parent, I realize the wisdom of those words “Just show up. Don’t do anything. Stop working. Really just be PRESENT.” The number one thing children and adults say about their experiences growing up is that they were happy when their parent was there with them and really “present”, and they always missed their parent when they were at home and the parent was not in the home, as all kids are aware of when their parent is in the room but not really there. There have been many studies done with very upsetting film footage of parents with their kids, engaging with the child, and then what happens when they are told to ignore the child. In just one minute, your heart breaks watching it. (I was shown one of these at the Trauma Conference I attended recently, and the whole five minutes was torturous and traumatizing to watch… I really wanted to run out of the room.
This is the most important thing a parent can do. Being in the here and now with your child, playing with him/her, listening, responding, giving physical affection, doing legos. That is really all they want. Because it involves the true acts of love that matter: affirmation and validation of the child’s existence and separate Self, and of his/her feelings, physical affection, quality time, giving and receiving.
I had been thinking about this concept when I saw a great Facebook post from a mother that sums this up:
“Taking your kid to ice skating lessons on a beautiful day in Central Park sure does beat working!”
I am sure the child, whatever age he is, would say the same thing in his own words, that he wants his mommy or daddy to be there and to stop working as much as possible. Not that working is inherently bad or good, as long as parents spend real quality time with their kids; however, I have yet to see a child complain about their parent doing things with them instead of working at whatever job or project. I have seen six year olds at birthday parties where most of the parents stayed at the event, and the kid whose parent dropped her off is sitting in the corner, with a heartbroken face, not wanting to join in any of the other kids’ activities. When asked what’s wrong, this kid always says, “I want my daddy (or mommy) to come back.” They eventually manage to mellow out a little if the party is long enough, but watching the “reunion” is always so touching and every parent who was there sees the child run to their parent and get scooped up, feels a great feeling of relief. At one party, there were many therapists in the room and one of them said to me, “There is nothing we can do to help her except let her feel upset and wait.” It was true. Children want their parents to be there with them, even when they don’t want the parent to join in their play or activity. They want the security of knowing their parent or parents are there, engaged, witnessing or joining in when appropriate.
I have adult patients who say that now that s/he has become a parent, s/he doesn’t want to “miss” their child’s passage from baby to toddler to school age child. “My parents were never around, and when they were, they were always busy or preoccupied. I remember wanting them so much. When I take my daughter to the park, I am so happy to be there, there is no place on earth I would rather be, and nothing I would rather be doing.” That really summed it up; what is really important in life when you choose to have a family of your own, and why there are more daddies in playgrounds and at school pickups now than ever before, not to value one gendered parent over the other, but it seems like society is trying to strike a balance, and it has only just begun as these dads are a small percentage of all dads. These are people choosing to play legos with their children, not in an office without them. They are the unsung heroes of our busy success oriented society, the parents that want quality time with their kids but also quantity. They want to show up and be with their child, to come to the events at school, to take their child to a class and pick her up and spend the whole day with her, who always choose being with the child over doing something “grown up”, when possible.
A patient of mine quoted to me that she found a definition of love as five acts, just do these five things and you are really loving to the other person or animal; to paraphrase her, it was:
1. Affirmation/Validation (to me that means being with the child you have, not the child you want to have or who you wish you were or anything but this particular unique and wonderful being.) And validating all emotions, not separating them into positive and negative, ie. “It’s ok that you are angry right now.” How many therapists can agree that this one sentence can take years of work if the patient was not taught that their feelings and range of feelings and intensity of feelings were all ok.
2. Quality Time: of course, you cannot love anybody, dog, cat or human, if you don’t spend quality time with them — this is where the assignment is the same as what my supervisor said, to show up and engage in the here and now, to let go of judgments, preoccupations, worries, even your own troubles and anxieties, just show up and, as meditators say, “Do nothing”. “Be with”.
3. physical affection: this is of course true in any love relationship from parent/child to human/dog/or cat. Especially with furry animal companions, most of the love is conveyed through touch…It is pretty simple, but I have heard of many brilliant people who have failed at this simple act of love. “My parent didn’t ever hug me or show affection to my other parent in their marriage.” or “My parent hugged and touched me, but it wasn’t a warm loving kind of touch — I felt like my life was getting sucked out of me and I couldn’t breathe.” Holding hands with your child as s/he falls asleep, one of the best feelings there is…
4. Giving and Receiving: this can be in all kinds of contexts, real loving acts of giving and receiving. I posted about the Valentine’s cards. It was very special for me to give some of my patients Valentines’ cards I made in the session with them while they made their own card.
5. Acts of service: sort of similar to number 4, I would translate this not as volunteering at an animal shelter, although that is a wonderful thing to do, but simple things like picking up pizza for your family on your way home to work, or baking with a loved one or for a loved one. Taking someone home from the hospital or visiting someone in the hospital. Going to your child’s school dance/music performance or to their school project or bringing cupcakes in to your child’s class to celebrate his/her birthday with the class. Participating in the “cooking” lessons, when the teacher asks for parents to come in and cook something, or coming on school field trips…
That’s it. Love is really that simple. Be Here Now With the Other and Connect Fully. We all have the rest of our lives to try to do it, to keep working at it and improving, as it is not easy. The simplest things or truths of life never are. But they are worth the effort and constant process…