Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Meditating with MaryAnn

**This post is also posted on our new site, where I/we will spend much of our writing time in coming months. But don't fret...we will still share occasional SmithMoments updates here...some may duplicate Present Parenting (like this one) while others will be more specific to topics like education, holidays, vacations, braggin' about the kids, etc.

To be IN on updates over at Present Parenting, be sure to visit our Facebook page and "Like" it...because whenever we create a new post there or answer a question, we'll share a link on FB to make it easier to find.

Thanks for staying on to the regularly scheduled programming:

This is MaryAnn's favorite spot to sit while her mother bustles around from fridge to cupboard to silverware drawer to counter to table answering a ga-zillion requests for relief of hunger pains all at once.

Recently, when my head was spinning as fast as the fruit blending into a smoothie nearby, I paused long enough to watch how peaceful and pure MaryAnn's mind seemed. I observed MaryAnn's extended ability to focus on the effects of water filling, dripping, rolling, smearing, and soaking. Her facial expressions showed thoughts freely flowing from one observation to the next...all as if her routine discoveries were a brand new experience...unmarred by previous judgments or conclusions.


 I found myself deeply admiring her patience, her curiosity, her attention span, and her open, peaceful mind.

So...I made a conscious effort to mimic her mind for a few moments. Watching the water flow over her fingertips had a refreshing effect on me, too. (true store) My staring didn't disturb her. In fact, she was delighted to share her wavelength with  me.

As I returned to my next task of pouring the completed smoothie out into 8 colorful cups scattered across the counter top, I made some future plans...I said to myself [paraphrased], "I'm going to dedicate as least a few of the mundane minutes during my daily kitchen duty time to set aside my scattered thoughts and observe and focus the way MaryAnn does as she sits at the sink's edge."

As I try to soak in the source of the non-stop dialogue, deafening decibel levels, stomping feet, smeared food, spilled gaze will ultimately rest on my children...and I'll have no choice but to remember that my true purpose for busying myself with food preparation in the first place is to nurture all those bodies...and fill them up with some goodness.

Perhaps as I seek to actually understand their constant energy that they unleash around me while I work in such a staple room in this house, my meditation efforts will give my blood pressure a chance to remain more stable (I hope).
Thanks to MaryAnn, already helped at least once.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Brent's Bloggin'!

Come one, come all!!

Yesterday was an exciting day...a dream-come-true type of day...

From our early months in marriage (almost 14 years ago), Brent and I discovered that while we had many similarities (like penny-pinching, basketball, and religious beliefs) we also had several not-so-similar hobbies:
  • I talk a lot (especially about brain stuff); Brent listens...and tries to stay awake
  • I'm a sllooowww shopper; Brent's an in-n-out type of guy
  • Brent will jump up and fix anything; I stand and stare blankly
  • Brent would die to do something adventurous like skydiving, wake boarding, or repelling; I would die before doing it
These slight differences, plus the nature of life in our neck of the woods, amounts to so many of our married hours in separate places performing very different, separate tasks. I've spent my days and years pregnant, nursing, cooking, cleaning, and reading brain books while Brent walks out the front door or around the world and steps into a business realm of people and terms very foreign to me.

As we've discussed our future together on many occasions (in other words while I've daydreamed on and on with Brent listening ;), we've tried to brainstorm ways we could bond our marriage further by working on something together...not just side-by-side in our own parallel distinct worlds...but truly together in a much different, lovely kind of side-by-side way.

My hopes were hanging on our exciting partnership in day-to-day childcare (playing tag-team in the evenings as we shuffle kids to and fro or trading turns holding the crying baby in the middle of the night) and even more so on our long-term plan to serve a church mission somewhere in the world together...after (or if) empty-nesting hits. I'm content with these goals.

We recently, however, created a new parenting/brain website ( because we jointly agreed I should share a few thoughts and Brent knows enough 'html' to make it shine and keep it running. That counts as sort of together in my book...making me even more content.

Until yesterday...

We both sat typing away at our laptops on the living room couch with several kids playing an animal game nearby and another one sick with the stomach flu lying between us (that counts as a date, right?). After an hour, Brent gave me a smile and a wink and announced he'd created his first post for "OUR BLOG" on the web site.

So...even if Brent would rather be out jumping off a cliff, it looks like WE are taking a cyberspace ride. Now I'm far beyond content. *big smile* *romantic sigh* I have such a cool husband. And I think he's a great writer, too, if I'm allowed to vote.

(and of course he chose to surprise me and toot my horn a bit with his words. *blush* I LOVE that guy more than I could ever accurately express in I'll stop typing and just go give him a big kiss!)

I'd better go strap on a life vest and gear up for getting pulled behind a boat...If Brent's willing to blog alongside me, I can be brave, too.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Best Beauty Salon...EVER

I'd never been to a beauty salon...until my birthday last week.

I had just cuddled up on the couch with my laptop. I felt relieved that MaryAnn was finally down for a nap...and pressure to make the most of those minutes...the clock was ticking. I was planning to post the blog entry that would announce our new website. It felt like a monumental moment for me. After years of stirring up ideas and hypotheses, I was finally ready to share. Excitement welled up inside me and out through my fingertips as I tapped away.

30 seconds later, I heard giggling in the vicinity...and footsteps. I peered above my screen just in time to see a toy mailbox planted at my feet with three cards in it. The backs of three girls scampered away up to the bathroom.*more giggling*

I hesitated...should I accept their energy? Or block it and get back to my important task at hand?

Their giggles rang through my mind. I smiled. I reached into the mailbox and opened card #1. It was written by my 4-yr-old. Random letters filled the inside. Card #2 came from my 5-yr-old. It said, "COME TO THE MOMOSOG."  Interesting. Good thing there was a card #3. 

"Come to the salon in the kids bathroom. Come as soon as you get the card. Love, Kirsten, Allison, and Cienna   See you there."

Decision time. Beauty Salon or Pyramid Post? For a former jock/drummer and future brain scientist wanna-be who now has 4 girls...this was a very challenging decision. I hesitated again and noticed my insides trying to process the conflicting issue at hand. 

It was my birthday, so I could rightfully pick whatever I wanted and feel guilt free. Correct?  Actually, even on depends on which part of my brain I'm using. If I respond only to my own stomach churning and fail to pause and consider the needs of all parties involved in order to the make the best decision in that moment, the issue would remain unresolved and guilt might be one of the consequences.

So, I paused and asked my prefrontal cortex to take an honest look at the situation. 
Then I decided that my birthday was the perfect time for my first spa experience. I set my lap top aside. As I ascended the stairs, I consciously called for my mind to come along, too (because my lower brain wasn't convinced yet), so my children and I could benefit from a fully present mother. (I knew if I left my brain back at my computer, we'd all have a 'half-there' experience...and our brains would take note and have to cope somehow...I knew because we've done that at least a million times.)   

I drew on powers beyond my own as I knocked on the entrance door. 

As my girls greeted me with, "Welcome to the our salon!" in lavish accents, my heart swelled and I was there...fully.

I felt water splash from my companion's toes to mine in the soothing foot soak...
I breathed in the smell of fresh polish as I received a full personalized manicure by small hands struggling to stay steady (with free nail-drying included).

My toes were stretched beyond prior capacity during my spectacular pedicure.

And at THIS salon, the hostesses even let you paint their nails! So posh.

My girls filled me with their love and energy in that salon and when the memory comes back days later (and most definitely in years to come), that same energy flashes through my mind and zings through my whole body...again...and again. 

Being pampered by the minds of my children...It's truly a beautiful experience.

PS. Our giggling woke MaryAnn up early from her The Pyramid had to wait. It was posted at 10:16 Central Standard Time later that night. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Birth Announcement: The Discipline Pyramid has Arrived

Brent and I have been working on a unique kind of “baby” this past year. We’ve created a simple website (including an initial version of The Pyramid) to share our parenting theories, brain research, and discipline experiences.

Conceived in the spring of 2009 for use in our own family, The Pyramid will be viewable to the world starting on January 3, 2013. We’ve decided to name it “Present Parenting: Giving and Receiving the Gifts of Peace and Wisdom.” It weighed in at: Tons of Work; and is 43 pages long.

Visit to take a peek.

There’s so much more to add...more adjustments to make. But it’ll grow and develop as we nurture it some more. We look forward to lots of sleepless nights and page changes. PLEASE NOTE: While we hope to spend time with this new “live” baby, our eating and breathing children will always take priority. ;)

Read on for a more detailed ‘Birth Story’ from Amy’s perspective:

The Present Parenting Birth Story

Everyone's parenting journey is unique.

Mine includes love, laughter, frustration, guilt, struggle, joy, growth (all of these pretty much every day)...and the birth of 6 children…and a pyramid.

When I was pregnant with our first child, preparing for the much anticipated, torturous, beautiful, and widely bragged about experience of giving birth, I vividly remember a friendly, yet hasty, debate regarding parenting styles between two mothers I admired very much. Their attempted civil, yet heated, discussion about whether or not to let a baby cry itself to sleep shook me into an awareness that differences in parenting practices existed. But the details of their conversation sailed in one ear and out the other.

I didn't think much more about this debate for many months because my first born only whimpered a little once in awhile. (His younger siblings all showed me the real meaning of the word ‘cry’. Wow. I get why letting a baby cry is such a debate. I’ll post my opinion on the topic at some future point.)  
Back to my first little angel baby...he did something appalling around 9-months-old. He learned to crawl and curiously grab at the curtains with a grin on his face even after I said a firm "No" from across the room (*gasp*).

Something churned inside me when my first attempts to actually “discipline” my perceived wayward offspring seemed to fail.  I was filled with all the emotions mentioned in paragraph 2 as I sat in my living room rocker projecting the future. “My son’s not listening to me. What if he never listens to me? Or worse…what if he only listens when he wants to listen? What kind of teenager will he become? What kind of man will he become? What kind of husband…father…Oh no!!”

I’ve never payed much attention to curtains (just visit, you’ll see), but my curtains in our small California apartment showed me how deeply I care about raising a son…a good son.  Should I yell louder? Should I spank? Should I slap his hand? Should I put him in time-out? Should I distract him? Should I ignore it (because I really don’t care much for curtains)?  So many disciplinary choices…very different choices.  
The simple baby routines (sleep, eat, diaper, play, sleep, eat, diaper, play, diaper) taught in a book one of the two mothers had given me had worked quite well…until a more complex form of discipline was in order. I felt compelled to understand what my disciplinary actions (verbal and non-verbal) were doing to my child’s brain.

So, in desperation, I read a different parenting book...and then another one...and another...and a few psychology books...and books about education...and a book about motivating employees (because years had passed and my children were doing dishes by then)...and books from many religions...and lots of brain books (of course).  

Brent and I also felt inspired to become foster parents about 7 years ago when our oldest three were 5, 4, and 2. We cared for 2 teenage girls from Ethiopia for about 6 months (before getting transferred to IL). The experience was life-changing...not just in caring for them, but also because we were required to take a parenting class in prep for the experience. In that class, we learned that attachment “issues” were a primary cause for pretty much any unruly behavior that we would see in foster kids.

A light bulb turned on in my mind. Maybe my own children’s “issues” could be related to lack of proper attachment concerns. Or better yet, regardless of the cause of my children’s “issues,” maybe working on loving attachment would promote progress.

But the subject of Attachment is so highly debated. So what should I do??

Being a logical person, I become obsessed with understanding what’s going on inside my child’s brain when an “issue” came up. In short, my library card has been well-used...especially in the last 5 years...and I’ve learned a lot about what’s going on inside my brain, too.

What I didn’t know in the beginning, but do understand now, is that when the human brain encounters opposition (often while interacting with another human…like my curtain conflict), there’s a host of complex neuron explosions (emotions) that work together to try to make sense of the situation. Then the brain has to re-balance and find stable ground…in order to survive. Some brains prefer to fight. Others submit. Some ignore. Still others laugh away the stress. But they all must re-balance. Most brains use a mixture of responses…based on various situations and past re-balancing experiences.

As an adult, I had a huge history of how to cope with conflict…and it all came gushing out when I had a moment of opposition…with my infant, who had virtually no history of dealing with conflict and innocently had no neuronal recognition that he and I were even having a conflict (hence his adorable, but bold grin).

Without properly engaging the most mature part of the brain (the part of the brain that humans eventually have a bigger chunk of than any other living species: the pre-frontal cortex, which is ultimately responsible for handling conflict in the long-run), I call this reaction/re-balancing process coping. But when we manage to positively involve the prefrontal cortex in the face of adversity (which an infant has almost no access to yet), re-balancing is called progress.

So how do I help my children develop a healthy prefrontal cortex? The answer to that question has become my life’s mission. (Is anyone else with me? ready. set. go team!)

I’ve made some progress.

Mostly during the quiet of the night (with special thanks to lots-o-nursing babies, several rounds of the stomach flu, and the wolf that keeps hiding under my child’s bed), life's great parenting issues (sleeping, tantrums, teasing, tattling, potty training, chores, homework, burping at the table, sneaking dinner down the garbage disposal, etc.) have swirled around in my mind along with all the research I’ve read and I’ve labored to painfully piece together the best disciplinary actions for our family...actions that don’t just solve the in-the-moment issues by re-balancing momentarily, but that actually help a child slowly develop the part of his brain that will become his key to long-term peace and joy.

And early one morning almost four years ago, my mind exhaled a big sigh of relief when a parenting pyramid popped into my thoughts and fed my brain like manna from Heaven to combine everything I like (and leave out the things that make my stomach churn) from all those books out there.

I started calling this other Baby: 'The Pyramid' (because I'm not very right-brained) when I was having a serious conversation with Brent about making parenting adjustments. Brent jumped on board (because he’s such a supportive birthing partner), and we've been using it as a parenting guide ever since.

Because of The Pyramid, we've made many changes...some shocking ones that are counter to what many leading parenting books recommend. Many parenting styles use defensive or offensive tactics that push independence in children before the brain is programmed for it and place the child in full responsibility for actions and emotions at a young age (like even at the curtain-pulling age). These tactics can work well in later years when the child is more mature and has an open window of opportunity in the logic area of the brain. But we’ve found devastating results when we use isolation or behavioral manipulation tactics on children who are younger than 8-ish.

My oldest kids developed some scary coping styles in order to defend themselves against these unnatural tactics.  I now know that when we were attempting to change their “bad” behaviors, we were stunting their long-term progress when we tried to slump full consequences for their immaturity on their shoulders before their brains were ripe enough to handle them.

So we’ve eliminated consequences for our young (under 8-ish) children that don’t involve us setting a better example for them to follow or us sharing accountability with them as part of the disciplinary solution.  (After switching styles we had to do some “un-doing” on the older kids…but they’re happily recovering ). Honestly, ‘The Present Parenting Pyramid’ (that’s the full, more grown-up name we’ve chosen) is transforming our family in a lot of good ways and we (including our kids!) give it rave reviews.

PERSONAL DISCLAIMER: While I’m thrilled to have ‘The Present Parenting Pyramid’ in a condition where it might be useful for other parents in the world, I’m nervous, too…because parenting is NOT black and white. It is not mechanical or robotic. I worry that transforming what we do into written words may lead some parents astray as the individual interpretation of words gets translated back into someone else’s actions. Words carry lots of emotional history…like how do you feel when you hear the word “attachment” or “time-out” or “meatloaf”…yep, different feelings for everyone.

And remember, I don’t have any initials after my name. Probably never will. The Present Parenting Pyramid is a hypothesis. It’s never been tested...except by us. Use at your own risk.  
I did graduate with a BA in PR just a couple of months before my first curtain-puller was born. Since then, my children have given me more education than I could ever hope for from an institution. But amidst all the laundry and fruit smoothies, I do admit to daydreaming of having an intelligent and energetic discussion about children and parenting and discipline and human potential with some of the world’s brain science rock stars... And when it’s over, Dr. William Sears, Dr. Daniel Siegel, Daniel Pink, Dr. Susan Smalley, Dr. Daniel Hughes, and Dr. Oliver DeMille and I will exchange rounds of fist bumps. The joy of imagination...

But in reality, I’m just a plain parent (my windows that do have curtains have white ones) with a passion for how to discipline. ;)

2009-2011: Learning to “Use Your PFC”

In the last few years, I’ve started to focus more on which part of my brain I’m using when I’m interacting with my children. I’m certainly far from perfection, but have experienced the joy that comes from even small progress. I use the prefrontal cortex acronym (PFC) to help me remember what to do and how to use that part of my brain when I sense a conflict brewing.

Now when my kids act immature (like when MaryAnn yanked on the curtains for the first time a few months ago), I try to Pause  to congratulate myself that I noticed the immaturity (because that takes a little bit of brains) and while pausing I attempt to accept the immaturity for what it is and ponder the potential still possible (which is often very difficult…it takes a bit more brains and often some recovering from past personal issues).  Then, I Focus my attention on the child(ren). I try to make eye contact, block out distractions, and become fully present with them (which fills me with warm fuzzies because being on the same brainwave as a child is awesome).

Finally, I think of my other “Baby” (the Present Parenting Pyramid) to figure out what kind of Charity will help my child’s brain mature. It’s different depending on age. An infant needs calm physical closeness. A young child needs an example to follow. An older child is ready to practice taking accountability for actions. Teens need space to self-govern as they accept natural consequences. And all ages need to feel assured that Mom and Dad understand their challenges and are confident that their children will progress...even when mistakes are made. Maturity is a slow process, but behavior certainly improves over time.

By attempting this disciplinary pattern, I think, act, and feel more mature myself (even ask my husband) and my prefrontal cortex is more in control, which I think is the main reason my kids’ behavior has improved (their pre-frontal cortexes are slowly figuring out how to keep their bodies in balance because their mirror neurons are copying my attempts at maturity during stressful situations).   
In short, human brains (ie parents and children) mature (or not) together. We need each other. And I’m discovering what a gift it is to be truly present with a child.

The Year 2012: Deciding to Share

Because we’re experiencing such a great emotional transformation in our family and I understand some of the brain science about why, I felt inspired in throughout 2012 to find a way to share our insights with other parents.  I started posting a few blog entries now and again. I shared background info with a few friends looking for feedback and Brent and I toyed around with how to build a website that would accurately depict the beauty we see in The Pyramid.

Weeks went by. Then months. Life is super busy with lots-o-kids. Summer came and went. Then Brent was laid off.  More time to type?? Maybe. But we felt he should spend ample time assisting a small business venture. He did (and is). He’s been very busy (he doesn’t do anything half-way).

The Pyramid/website went back on the shelf. But sharing it kept churning through my mind. Unfinished.

Brent kept encouraging me to just post what I had done so far. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I needed more time to transform it into something that would actually make sense for other parents.

Finally, at the end of October, I decided I would never feel like The Pyramid was done, ready for others to view, use, and critique. And then I remembered that that’s okay. When children are born, half the beauty is that they come with such pure innocence, unmarked by the world and with such Divine splendor. The other half of the beauty is that they come incomplete, with an open slate, ready to learn, grow, make mistakes, and then grow some more.

So Brent and I set a deadline, ready or not, to post our initial discoveries...the end of 2012. 

A few days later, the term “Present Parenting” and the Parenting Response Hypothesis came to mind on November 3, 2012.

As 2012 was coming to a close, January 3, 2013 seemed like an appropriate date for The Pyramid to make an appearance in the world. It’s a nice day for a birthday...

The hours of website work during these last two weeks was Brent's birthday present to me. (Did I mention he's an awesome birthing partner?? I can always count on him. I love you, Honey!!)

Welcome to the family,!