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,!

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