Not drowning, waving

bucketsTina Bryson, a colleague interested in mindfulness, the brain and parenting writes:

“When your child says ‘I can’t make this Lego snap on’ with their teeth clenched, hands in fists, in an intense and loud tone of voice, and brows furrowed, it clearly communicates frustration and probably (ital. mine) a plea for help. If the same words are said in a deflated quiet tone of voice, head hanging, it clearly communicates discouragement and perhaps even the message of “I can’t do anything.”

Read her useful post on cultivating awareness of right-brain, non-verbal communication (, but I wanted to take up the topic of when to intervene (and how), and when to hold back and let a child figure things out for herself—“helping” by accurately understanding, reflecting and facilitating learning.

A child in the grip of “I can’t do this #@%& thing!” is a teachable moment.  Not only listening, but watching your child’s face to more accurately gauge their feelings keys into their right (facial and motor) as well as left (verbal expression) brain, making for more dimensional and depthful understanding.  So, when your kid hits the Lego wall, reflect that you are there, and you are noticing.  If they are not looking at your face, then facial empathy from you won’t do the trick of conveying empathy.  Perhaps a gentle hand on the arm or shoulder can non-verbally express empathy and support that will “land” and be recognized by them. 

Part of what we are striving to teach is that they are not alone in their struggle; through experiencing us as “with them,” our children may mentally internalize the image of a helpful presence which they can carry with them to school and on through life… and even onto parenting their own children (an image some of us must cobble together out of whole cloth and therapy). 

Moments of Lego-building frustration tolerance represent a transitional stage that can operate the way attachment does, where a teddy bear may help a child internalize comfort and then later they can let go of the bear, but keep the feeling of security.  Imbuing a sense of relationship through thick and thin is more important than getting a Lego built; yet building a Lego can be a symbolic representation of success and mastery, setting the stage for future accomplishments (see previous post on jealousy, envy and ambition).

A key point to remember here is that we want our children to learn that they can master things, and that it’s okay to ask for help.  A corollary of this is that growth and learning are based on confronting what we cannot do and/or do not know (i.e. frustration tolerance without shame about our misperceived or imagined inadequacy).  For this reason, we must guard against our impulse to snatch away the Lego and just do it for our child.  This dynamic is highly charged and problematic.  For one, it tells the child that they cannot do things and must depend on parents; for another, it may teach the child not to express themselves, as they will lose the opportunity to figure things out for themselves; additionally, it may instill shame as a child sees themselves as weak or stupid (i.e. because they can’t get the Lego right), and as destined to be in this role in the future.

In counterpoint, it might be kind to talk about who designed the Lego, and how old someone really needs to be to have the strength, dexterity and cognitive development to put this or that Lego together.  Perhaps we can notice that they have it right, but it just takes a little more power to make it fit.  Maybe we ask if they would like to borrow our fingers and, by pushing together with us, find enough power to snap it together. 

It is important to acknowledge that ideal parenting is realistic, and studying a Lego instruction manual, having a teachable moment with our kid and then finding time to make dinner, clean up and also make a living can get rather vexing.  The point here is to pay attention to right-hemisphere/non-verbal communications, but also to lead with empathy and understanding rather than immediate intervention. 

Think about how this all plays out over time; you do things for your kid because you don’t have time to truly “educate” them (meaning “to help draw forth” their knowledge and abilities) and then they later chronically resist, and need “help” with, their homework, chores, etc.  A Lego (properly handled) in time saves nine.

One additional note—this Lego example is not only a teachable moment for a child, it is a potentially educational moment for a parent.  Closely observe what is in the way for your child when they struggle: is it physical strength, fine motor dexterity, spatial reasoning or do they have the wrong part in their hand in the first place?  Some kids struggle with learning differences, and if you notice a pattern, you can ask their teacher or school counselor if they notice this too… and if some sort of support might be needed to help facilitate growth and learning.  For example, a child with poor handwriting or spelling may hesitate to express their great ideas, and thus fail to be recognized for gifts that might otherwise be noticed and reinforced.  We don’t want to thwart the next Dostoyevsky because of penmanship. 

So, let’s dedicate today to sitting on our hands and listening, looking and appreciating what our children are feeling and experiencing—aiming to accurately understand as a way of helping them learn and grow.  And, of course, let’s do this in honor of ALL our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce


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One Response to “Not drowning, waving”

  1. Hampers Says:

    Your blog is interesting. It was nice going through your blog. Keep it up the good work.

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