Emotions make the environment
I’d like to share with you what yoga psychology has to say about child rearing. It turns out that it is aligned with much of what western psychology has to say on the subject. The foundational idea is that the early years (0-4) are like a continued gestation period with a brain that is only ¼ developed at birth but will triple in mass by age 4. Consequently, the environment must provide the necessary emotional support to allow the child’s nervous system to develop. Everything in the environment has the potential to imprint on the child. Whatever fears, anxieties and frustrations are present in you or other members of the child’s environmental community will become part of the child’s emotional experience.
Therefore, it is not enough to just feel and display love and support to the child, you have to manage the entire emotional ecology surrounding your child.That is a very tall order and requires planning and practice. What follows is a list of issues to consider in this process.
According to the Vedic Model the time in utero is primarily stressful. The quarters are cramped and even frightening. Increasingly Western science is proving that the experience in utero can have a lasting impact on the baby. The first order of importance is the mother’s emotions.
The more balanced her nervous system the better. Getting stuck in either a stimulated state (angry, frustrated, nervous, anxious, fearful, keyed up…) or a depressed (parasympathetic) state (sad, lonely, depressed, fatigued…) can create an in utero environment that inhibits healthy development of the foetus. The more time the mother spends in a stable, content mood the better.
Learning to manage emotions is key to this process. It is important that emotional management be honest and not based on any type of repression as that will result in a disruptive influence on the child. Repressed emotions leak or spill out in an unhealthy manner and the baby feels what the mother feels, whether she is willing acknowledge it or not. You can’t lie to an embryo.
The next most important factor is diet. The goal is to share a diet in the mode of goodness (Sanskrit – sattvic). A sattvic diet is plant-based with limited amounts of refined simple carbs (white flour, white rice, white sugar.) The ideal is to consume whole foods, complex carbs (whole grains, legumes, vegetables certain fruits), health fats (avocado, nuts, flax..). This type of balance of complex carbs and fats will provide sufficient protein. Eating regularly (smaller amounts more often is better as it prevents hunger or over eating related mood swings.) Additionally, it is important to pay attention to the emotional state in which food is prepared and ingested. Be sure to check with a holistic-prenatal nutritionist for additional advice specific to your needs.
The next element to control for is the mother’s voice. Reading out loud or speaking out loud to the gestating baby is very valuable. While the sounds the mother hears are important to the extent that they influence the mother’s mood they do not directly impact the baby. What the mother speaks (or sings) on the other hand is the most perceptible sound the embryo will experience. So skip the headphones attached to the belly and instead pick a book and read out loud. As for choosing Dr. Seuss versus Shakespeare or Rumi, it is not going to matter to the baby as much as the mood it puts the mother in. So choose subject matter (or songs) that provides a positive effect on your mood. (Mantra chanting is an excellent pastime for mother and womb inhabitant),
Attunement is the emotional dance of reciprocation. This is all about being emotionally available without bringing your own needs or expectations to the process. Your child must feel that you are always emotionally present on their terms. If they are happy, then you are present with matching joy. If they are aloof or distracted you are patient. If they are grumpy or colicky you are present without demands or frustration, simply demonstrating support. This is very challenging, as it requires you to be emotionally engaged without being drawn into the child’s moods.
1 -3 years
In the early years, it is important to not admonish them with anger. Nonetheless, correction is crucial because it is for their benefit. Consequently, it should be done with emotions ranging from aloof-detachment to loving-engagement, but not with anger, fear or frustration. This is another reason emotional management is such an important skill for parents. The trick is to understand that emotions are both spontaneous and mechanical. In other words, if the anger and frustration you feel is spontaneous you can’t always stop it before it erupts. You can, however, choose to experience the frustration internally and display a different more constructive emotion externally.
This is a little like rubbing your belly and patting your head. It is hard at first but with practice you can learn to take responsibility for your frustration and anger by feeling it and acknowledging its presence in your body and then choosing to smile inwardly into the challenge. Then you can decide to experience and express a more productive emotion for the benefit of the child. I repeat my warning from earlier, this must not be just an act of repression. You must be honest with yourself about the frustration you feel, and that is not easy. It is a practice that requires courage. But in practicing the courage needed to feel difficult emotions on the inside, you model an important virtue for your child.
Do not feed them dead animals. Science is clear humans do not require meat to flourish. Omnivores are not carnivores. We can eat meat if we have to but we are not meant to. Children who are never given meat will not develop physiological dependencies on it. One of the great gifts of modern culture is that we don’t need to eat meat any more. It is a healthier, environmentally sound, humane choice. Additionally, it instills a greater degree of empathy and virtue in those who do not choose to participate in snuffing out a life for their own sense gratification. The path to finding deep happiness is difficult when we are bringing unhappiness to other sentient beings.
Don’t reward them emotionally for what they produce; reward them for simply being. Let them feel important because they exist, not because they must do something to earn your love.
After the age of five they should learn self-discipline and pranayama. Self discipline is based on learning to do what the body and mind do not want to do. This is a great art to teach. It cannot proceed too slowly as the principle will not be learned, or too fast as the child might be harmed. Rewards have to be used lightly because the real benefit of self-discipline is in having it for its own sake rather than as a result of external rewards and outcomes. This helps teach the important principle of being focused on their actions rather than their outcomes.
Pranayama provides the ability to manage their emotional experience of life. They must learn and become experienced at controlling their own nervous system. This technique alone will improve the quality of their lives. In order to teach them pranayama you must first be experienced and proficient at it. This is not difficult but it does require practice. Your personal practice can be a simple as controlled counted breath.
Allow them to make mistakes in an environment you manage. Create opportunities for them to create and fail. Learn to apply the principle of controlled chaos in allowing them to learn the decision making process. You do this by giving them chances to make choices and allowing them to experience the consequences.
Teaching kids to be simultaneously present and detached
They are not the roles that culture and society impose upon them. The question and the goal is how do you get them from identifying too deeply with these roles? How do you teach them that all the world is a stage and we are just players? And, how do you teach this without risking that they become sociopaths? One clue is that the difference between the sociopath and the enlightened being is intention. This brings the focus to the development of character and virtuous intentions. The additional challenge here is how to develop real character without simply superimposing a superficial notion upon those kids smart enough to simply mimic it for the sake of getting rewarded?
For them to be secure in who they are they have to be ok with the insecurity of not knowing who they are because that is the human condition. Anything else is just reinforcement of the ego, which is the source of prolonged suffering. So focus on the development of virtue and character.
The father’s role should not be overlooked in all this. If the mother provides more nurturing and support than the father, their identity and gender awareness may be impaired. It is just as important that the father practice attunement, emotional management, and the ability to be lovingly present without expectations.
So here’s the catch – if you consider the full range of your responsibilities and the magnitude of what can go wrong in the raising of your kid you can reasonably expect to be overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. At the very least the weight of your responsibility will be stressful. Persistent parental stress has been shown to be a predictor of developmental disruption for children. So the more you worry about raising your child the more you put her or him at risk. What to do?
Embrace the impossibility of life…life is not a game you win; it is an event you experience, either positively or negatively. Life becomes more positive when you emphasize experiencing life over understanding life and self-forgetting over self-love. The key to being an experiencer of life and an in the moment self-forgetter is in your willingness to embrace and appreciate the mystery, the paradox, and the impossibility of life.
Consider the paradox that children represent: for all the joy and hope associated with the birth of your child you have simultaneously condemned a human being to pain, disease, and a non-commutable death sentence. These are the inevitable realities of human life. Do you reflect on these facts? Have you enshrined these truths along with the dreams and well wishes you have for your child? Can you allow the good will you have for your child to coexist with the reality that despite your best efforts you cannot control the way your child will turn out?
You might choose to ignore the negative side of raising a child but that would be unwise. Resisting or ignoring the darker aspects requires a type of emotional repression. You would have to be unwilling to be present and to experience reality. This impoverishes you as a human and leads to unconscious stress; a stress that will impact your child’s development. The challenging and all-important solution is to choose to live in the impossible paradoxes created by life. You can if you wish choose to feel everything. This gives you tolerance and resilience. This gives you the ability to be present. This allows life to flow around you in all its mystery and variance. It doesn’t make the unpleasant or difficult moments of life disappear but it makes you a stronger more balanced person and you will be modeling this to your child.
So you must live with the catch-22; raising a child is stressful and stress must be minimized when raising a child. The more you learn to enjoy and have a positive emotional experience of the challenges of raising a kid the better the environment you will create for them.