Child Whisperer

I have to share this incredibly insightful post from Pam Slim, entitled “Valuable Coaching Advice Straight From The Horse’s Mouth (And Nose)”. In it, she talks about how her experience at a horse whisperer workshop taught her valuable lessons about her own parenting behaviors.

I started my violin school five years ago, knowing that I would have to start by recruiting the right parents – get their commitment, spend time educating them, and then hope for their long-term buy-in to a philosophy that extends well beyond the boundaries of violin training. What I couldn’t fully articulate back then but am realizing now is that I’m really teaching a way of being. It’s an awareness of the self as the gateway to deep, long-lasting learning. And mainly I’ve been focusing on developing this within each child. After all, that’s why we’re all gathered together – for the sake of the children.

But what I’m beginning to learn is that, in order for the child to learn optimally in this environment, there is an element of openness and awareness of themselves that the parents have to develop as well. This has been the harder problem to address. I’ve never told parents upfront that they are required to be coachable. Once I’ve screened and accepted the parents, it’s easy for me to become totally absorbed in my direct work with the child that I forget to specifically address the parent’s relationship to the child. I’ve used the excuse that it’s “not my place” to comment on parenting style, just to try to work with what is there, and do my best to “work around it” by ignoring the parent’s behaviors when they’re not helping the process. It’s been my habit to avoid the difficult situation of calling out a self-defeating behavior in a parent when it comes up, because I feel ill-equipped to do the necessary work of changing an adult’s patterns of instinctual behavior – especially something as primal as parenting.

The situation Pam describes with both the horse and her toddler son is all too familiar to me. Many times, at just the “threshold moment” when a child needs a strong leader to tell them to keep going, keep trying, and not give up on themselves, a parent’s instinctual response is to rush to their rescue, coddle them, and get all lovey-dovey. I haven’t had the authority and composure of the horse-whisperer (Koelle in Pam’s story) to say, “Getting affectionate right now is not helping the learning. The child needs you to be strong and to be a capable leader.”

Can you imagine saying that to a parent in front of their child? Maybe I need to find that voice within me.

The escalation that Pam describes with her son – where she tries being “lovey”, then tries bribing him with treats, and then negotiates some more, before finally losing her temper – is also such a common occurrence. This “dance” is so common that I wonder if it’s being recommended in some best-selling parenting book I’m not aware of. What is it that drives this behavior?

Pam offers us a framework for examining the emotions behind self-defeating habits, and what holds us back from making necessary changes. I so admire and respect Pam’s sharing of this part of herself, and inspiring us all to become more aware of our own resistance to change.

But my question is, are we really sure that we want to change? And do we know how we want to change?

I think it’s brave of Pam to include an analogy between a horse and a child in her story. The awareness I gained from Pam’s article is that fundamentally, training is training. Whether it’s a horse, a child, or an adult, there are certain common behaviors, emotions, and ways of confronting them effectively or not.

We could all learn a thing or two from a horse whisperer.

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