I found Shelafi Tsabary’s The Awakened Family to be an enjoyable read, which gave me several insights into myself as a parent and as a person. I highlighted more notes in this book than any other book I have read.
Dr. Tsabary’s Main Argument: Becoming Conscious of Your Own Emotions as a Parent
Dr. Tsabary’s main argument is that parent’s need to take ownership of how they react to their children by getting more in touch with what they are feeling when they are triggered by their children’s annoying behavior. She describes angry, unconscious responses as being “reactive” and is a person’s “Ego,” which is not their authentic self. Much of this Ego comes from a childhood full of judgment in which a child didn’t live up to their parent’s hopes and expectations, as being not good enough at school, or too shy, or not athletic, or a host of things. The biggest source of this Ego however is the worry that children won’t perform in ways we think are right and proper. Dr. Tsabary argues that parents need to realize their own emotional turmoil causes their children to act out.
In an awakened family, parents are aware that every relationship in their family exists to help each person grow. Parents view their children as mirrors through which they are able to see how they themselves need to mature and develop. Instead of fixing what they see as faults in their children, these parents seek to work on themselves, raising their own levels of maturity and presence. The focus is always on the parent’s awareness rather than the child’s behavior. This is the core insight of the book.
Saying “Not Today” to Mom Guilt (and other derailing emotions)
After reading Dr. Tsabary’s main insight, I had several situations where I realized my own emotions were causing me to react poorly to my children. One example: A fight erupted between my two older children. I went to yell at my son. Then I stopped and identified my feeling. It was this, “In a formal preschool, children probably would not fight like this. The teachers would have it under control. I am failing as a mother because this fight is breaking out.” Of course, this is not true. I have visited preschools and fights still break out. But that is what was going on in my head. I said, “Not today,” to my feeling of self doubt, and I was able to handle the situation like a pro from that point on.
I find getting in touch with my emotions helps especially when dealing with other people’s children. It’s one thing to look at my own children’s annoying behavior and respond with patience and love. It’s another thing to deal with another person’s child. I just constantly say to myself, “I’m irritated. Why am I irritated? Is this situation insurmountable? Can I figure out a peaceful resolution?” And these questions always help.
Many of us feel as if we have no option other than to react when our children’s behaviors enflame us. Our instinct is to lash out. If someone irritates us, we don’t think twice but simply react. “Hey, what’s wrong with you? Can you stop what you are doing?” It doesn’t occur to us to say, “Why am I getting so agitated right now? Can I communicate my needs in a respectful manner knowing that the other is not coming from a place of evil intention? Can I remove myself from this situation if it feels unbearable?”
Trust That Success is Likely
The most beneficial insight I got out of this book is to trust that my children probably do want to cooperate with me, and that, if I give a situation the little bit of time and calm it deserves, most situations will resolve happily. The emotion of all mom emotions to say “Not Anymore” to: The fear of failure. Replace it with the assurance of likely success.
I have endless examples, but here is one. We had a dessert out at dinner. My daughter, 2, already had some on her plate and was begging for more. I could have easily gotten into a power struggle about the dessert, operating on the false assumption that she just wanted endless dessert. (“No!” “You have some already!” “Look!” “The answer is No!”) I calmly waited for the situation to reveal itself. As it turns out, there was the slightest bit of green frosting that she wanted. Once I realized that, I was happy to give her that little bit of frosting. She did not, in fact, want to eat the entire cake.
Another more small example: When it was time for bedtime, I sometimes used to hurriedly shut a book and whisk my kid to bed, worried they would keep wanting books. Actually, when I just state calmly that this is the last book, operating on the assumption that success is likely, my children very often simply cooperate. This one principle has disinfected so many power struggles, including some of the little tiny ones that no book could ever exhaustively cover.
Dr. Tsabary asks us why we are so threatened by our children’s self-interest. It’s a good question. I have found in almost no situation does a child just want to dawdle and take up our time just to take up our time. What they want is usually very small, and it really is a matter of the parent misunderstanding what the child wants, often assuming the worst.
Trusting that success is likely gives me more stamina as I deal with problems with my children. It buys me more time as I struggle through intense situations. As far as giving me patience and in-the-moment wisdom, it has been more effective than anything I’ve tried so far, including timeouts for mom, deep breathing, or stating my emotions strongly. It gives me an inner peace when something erupts. I don’t jump to the worry that they will not cooperate. I am so much more effective when I approach them from this place of assured calm.
I also have an even deeper confidence that, as adults, it is probable that my children will succeed. I had to ask myself some questions to get to this place: Would I be OK if my children did not choose a STEM degree? Would I be OK if they didn’t become a leading research scientist or engineer studying at MIT? Would I be OK if they “just” wanted to become an electrician? The answer is actually yes to all of these, but working through some different scenarios helped me identify what is most important of all. It is this: To trust that all humans have it in them to build, produce, think, and solve problems; that it is just a matter of helping them match their interests to an in-demand skill set; and whatever the path, they will likely rise as far as their talents and willingness to think takes them.
As parents, it’s vital for us to understand that as long as our children are in touch with their deepest self, with its boundless resources, they will motivate themselves beyond anything we could ever imagine.
A More Fluid and Less Mechanical Approach in Connecting to My Children
Most other parenting books focus on the skill sets you need as a parent to deal with children: Routine charts, I statements, Eating Problems, Teaching Conflict Resolution, Validating Emotions … really, this list goes on. All of this is important, and I take it upon myself to integrate the mass amount of information about these “tools in the tool kit” to know the context in which they apply. However, alone, they can engender a mechanical approach. The authors of the book Liberated Parents, Liberated Children, which is dedicated almost entirely to a child’s emotions, describes how they often became too text book as they communicated with their children–and their children called them out on it.
I have found since reading Dr. Tsabary’s that my connection with my children is more authentic, genuine, and fluid. She emphasizes the parent’s emotions. The work she says you do is on your own emotions. She helps to remove any irritation, guilt, anxiety, etc., that you may have as a parent. I find when I look at my children, it is from a much more calm place. I can genuinely enjoy these moments of connection more.
More Effective Boundary Setting, due to a More Centered, Calm Confidence
So many authors of parenting write about how it is vital to set limits, to be firm, that children “need” boundaries, to say “No!”, and on. It is a hum that it’s necessary to be mean almost for meanness’ sake. I have written pretty prolifically that I am opposed to this. I can’t and won’t do it. None of this is for the child’s sake. Boundaries are for the parent’s sake–and that’s totally valid. I resent being told I have to be anything but loving for fear that it will affect my child’s character development negatively.
What Dr. Tsabary writes about resolved this completely for me. She writes that children respond to our calm voice–and, boy, do they. I have found that when I have a better handle on my emotions, and when I operate from a place of assured calm, my children respond to me and cooperate with me in a way that has been jaw dropping. I can ask more of them in the way of respecting my or their other sibling’s boundaries so much more effectively. It does not come from a place of “getting tougher,” it comes from a place of being genuinely more in control, calm, authentically connected, and all around confident. No amount of shrieking at me that I am too lenient with my children, rants about “Kids today” or “Parents these days”–statements that I have come to think of as people’s reactive “Ego” which desires control that Dr. Tsabary describes–could have accomplished this.
It is hard to describe how something going on inside my head has an impact on how my children react, but here is my attempt at an example. I had gotten some Christmas window stickers for my children. My son decided one of the sheets was his. This was fine, because there were 2 other sheets. His sister, he decided could have 1 of them. She is 2 and had no problem with this set up. He then decided the last one was his, which caused a fight. I got in touch with what emotion I was feeling before I responded. It was this, “I am just tired of this. I shouldn’t have to cajole him to share this sheet of stickers. It is perfectly fine that he shares this set of stickers with his sister.” I said “Yes” to my emotion in this instance. I was comfortable with what I thought and my next course of action came almost effortlessly. I said to my son, in what was naturally a calm but firm tone of voice, “You laid claim to the first set of stickers. She had the other. This next one is going to be for sharing.” He relented easily.
I find if you are not in touch with your emotions, your emotions are more likely to control you and the emotional message behind your words still comes out. You will speak with irritation, sarcasm, or anger. Children do not respond to this. When you identify the in-moment emotion, you can ask yourself, “Is this the message I want to send?” “Is this the emotion I want to control me?”
Some say it is ideal to be “kind but firm.” I have attained this ideal, but I find it is more, “from kindness comes firmness.” And I found this work on emotions was necessary to attain it.
The Gift of Giving Your Child Acceptance of Their Authentic Self
I really benefitted by Dr. Tsabary’s comments about how most of us weren’t accepted as children and it causes us to need to fill the void, with overeating, drugs, socializing “mindlessly.” I like especially how she says it’s Ok to just be silent sometimes, something which deserves its own blog post.
She describes how many life skills are crushed when we aren’t accepted.
Such as confrontational skills:
Had we been allowed to speak our truth in its “as is” fashion as children, we would be able to connect to our authentic voice via a direct channel, instead of needing to resort to manipulation, control, and all sorts of emotional turmoil. Speaking one’s truth should be the easiest thing in the world, but because it was so threatening to our caregivers, we now find it the hardest thing to do. Returning to authentic expression with our children is one of the most beautiful gifts we can bestow on them, since it opens the gateway for them to be straightforward.
Or how it affects our relationships:
If the need to feel lovable wasn’t met in our early years, the void we experience can crush our ability to trust others, let alone cherish them. This is why it’s so important to help our children feel both loved and lovable each and every day by raising them consciously. We can start by fully accepting our children, just as they are, right now. As we do so, their original, authentic self blossoms, leaving no void within to cause all the problems so many of them experience.
Seeing your kid for who they are, not who you wish them to be:
“Since children develop a solid sense of self when who they are intrinsically is seen and affirmed, it’s vital that we connect with each child not as a clone of ourselves or a fantasy we harbor of who they need to be, but as an individual who is unique. Thus it’s through our appreciating gaze, our authentic presence with them, and our attention to them—but not indulgence—that they grow up with a strong sense of self.”
Interacting with Other Adults
Dr. Tsabary argues to get in touch with what you are actually feeling when you do anything. I have started to do that when I interact with other adults. For instance, I sometimes post on social media memes or articles to directly challenge some people who treated me in a certain way in the past, which hurt me. What does posting something to the generic social media accomplish? Not much. And it might make other, completely innocent people feel bad or threatened, because my post was venomous.
Or I might ask, “Am I saying something to someone to communicate or connect or some other reason?” Some other reasons might be to brag or subtly influence. By simply asking this question of myself, bringing the emotion into conscious consideration, I naturally make better decisions.
Here are some further quotes that penetrated me when I read them. I am posting them here for exposure and your consideration.
Western cultures encourage us to vent, express, and talk about everything that bothers us. Our addiction to discussing things is more a sign of our internal discomfort than genuine reaching out to create authentic partnership. Born out of a sense of lack, it often comes from a need to be validated, approved of, and understood.
To have expectations of life, let alone of other people such as our children, is to set ourselves up for failure and resentment. The nature of life is that it doesn’t bring us what we expect a lot of the time, and people—with all of their whimsy, fickleness, and confusion—certainly don’t. Yet unless we become solidly grounded in our own center, we will continue to expect things of people and be disappointed.
As we aren’t operating out of our head and therefore attached to our mental movies, we are able to respond to life’s ebb and flow from a state of groundedness and openness. Uninterested in getting anyone to follow our ways, we learn to flow with others instead of attacking them. We seek to join with their energy when appropriate, or we move away quite naturally should the moment demand. Either way, we remain agenda-free, eager to enjoy the newness of each unknown moment.
People’s Defense Mechanisms
Dr. Tsabary argues that the degree to which a parent’s value system differs from who their child actually is determines how much emotional turmoil that child will have. Now, when I see someone who is so clearly trying to be someone they are not, I think to myself: That gap between who they are and who their parents wanted them to be must have been huge. When there is this gap, in way too many cases, parents use insults and judgment to try to fix the “problem.” It’s an awful feeling of not being accepted–that there is something wrong with you. This is what causes a person to not be comfortable in their own skin, and to make up in their mind that they are something that they are not.
Many of the expectations we have of our children are unspoken. Despite what we don’t put into words, children intuitively sense when we wish them to be other than they are—sense that we want them to fulfill our fantasies of who they will grow up to be and what they will accomplish. Yes, some children rise to this challenge and are successful. But for every child who does, there are a host of others who buckle under the pressure.
If you are having any trouble at all with anger towards your children, Dr. Tsabary’s book is the one to pick up. By bringing my emotions into more conscious awareness, I have an even deeper centered and calm approach with my children, which I have found has had a jaw dropping effect on how my children respond to me.
When I first read this book, I was like, “I already know all of this stuff.” I do already accept my children as they are; I don’t try to mold them; I believe in their potential; I do reflect back to them what is best in them. However, the key insight from this book is that of bringing your emotions into conscious awareness and it has been beneficial to me, as described in the points above.
Children thrive when they are accepted and encouraged, whereas criticism and punishment cause them to wilt inwardly and ultimately make even more mistakes instead of developing good self-management skills.