Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Challenge for the Parent

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This post is dedicated to Uta Hagen, who, in teaching the art of acting also taught the art of empathy.

I am not a religious person, but as an actor, I do have a bible. It's called A Challenge For the Actor, by Uta Hagen. It's a meticulous guide to uncovering why humans do the things we do, when we do them, how we do them, how events that precede the things we do affect the way in which we do them.

Recently my Facebook feed has carried a steady stream of articles about children and the way adults view them. I've read dozens of articles about how often "discipline" is misguided because at the root, the parent fails to see what the child is experiencing and the "discipline" only confuses the issue and creates further conflict and pain down the road. Parents too often confuse behavior that is a nonverbal attempt at communication with being "naughty." They resort to punitive measures when empathy could uncover the mystery of the behavior if we could only tune into the right frequency -- that of our child's. (My god, what a hippy I've become!)

Eleanor Roosevelt said that the basis of all etiquette, of good manners, is kindness, and if you remember this you will never be too far off in your manners, regardless of the fork you choose at the dinner table. I believe that empathy is the basis of much of parenting, and if you remember this you will never be too far off in ensuring a happy childhood for and a good relationship with your offspring, regardless of whether you err occasionally with too many toys or too much TV or the reverse. Further, you will guide a small person toward being a loving, useful and fulfilled individual and thus be a success as a parent.

"One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is, I think, to have a happy childhood."
-Agatha Christie

 There's a consistent chatter that surrounds you as you walk the streets of the city, as you stare at museum exhibits with your toddler climbing over the railing to try to touch the elk or the grizzly bear, among friends at mothers' groups, in the nine thousand books you read or articles you google about milestones and child development. 

"Two years old is the age of bossiness. Two years old is the age of everything having to be in just the right place, of telling people where things should go. My little boy has obsessive compulsive disorder! Ah, she's your boss, isn't she? Oh, he's the one running the show, huh? If you don't establish a firm bedtime, you're sunk. If you miss the window for nap time, you're toast. If you let them sleep in your bed, they'll be dependent and whiny their whole childhoods and possibly their whole lives. They'll grow up to rob banks and threaten kittens if you don't get them in a crib by three months. If a child is allowed to manipulate you by requesting something different to eat, where will it stop? A firm hand in all matters pays off later." 

There is a group on Facebook called "The Dangers of Baby Training." Its mission is mostly to catalog outdated and cruel ideas about how to raise your child, and to offer alternatives. This site finds fault with many methods of "discipline" because at root, the methods lack empathy. (And therefore also fail to assist a child in her path toward enlightenment and happy co-citizenship with her fellow man or woman.)  I think our society suffers from a decline in empathy in general. Or perhaps we've never had enough and there's no time like the present to change that.

What is empathy? There are many dictionary definitions, but here's one from Merriam-Webster that I find most fitting for the argument I'd like to make:

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experiences of another of either the past or the present without having the feelings, thoughts and experiences fully communicated in an explicit manner.
Without the feelings being communicated in an explicit manner. This phrase is the central axis around which empathy with a child is based. Children do not have the complex verbal centers (nor do most adults, for that matter) to translate their feelings and thoughts into words. Thoughts and feelings result from a multitude of incoming data both internal and external and the brain processes this data at lightning speed and reacts.

Back to Uta Hagen, who championed the art of self-observation for the purpose of uncovering the reasons behind our actions and reactions. The great actor and teacher believed we had to empathize with ourselves in order to build the technique an actor needed to re-create behavior realistically. What was useful to her was what she recognized in others as something she herself did, but she didn't observe only others to find the truthful reasons behind behavior.  She first observed herself. She did this through meticulous rehearsal and repetition of basic activities. I'll outline two of her exercises to give an idea of how she did her detective work.

Destination is the first exercise. In it, you must choose a destination, be it a funeral, a wedding or a trip to the grocery store for paper towels. You must then rehearse with all the necessary objects of your daily life the two minutes leading up to your departure for this destination. In this rehearsal, you will uncover things and when you present it to the class, you will uncover more still. For example, the way one buttons one's coat is entirely different depending on one's destination. Destination shapes our speed, our accuracy, what we are distracted by around the room: where is my purse? Did I pack my glasses? Do I have my best man's speech in my pocket? Let me straighten my hair one last time as I button up, that man I flirted with last week is supposed to be at the reception. I'll let you fill in the two minutes of coat buttoning and purse packing before the funeral of a beloved uncle and how it differs from the coat buttoning and briefcase packing that occurs in the two minutes before leaving for a job interview.

Endowment is the next exercise. Essentially, an actor must learn how to endow objects (and other physical things such as weather or the height from which they view a scene) with the properties one would perceive them to have in real life. For example, you can't safely use a genuinely burning hot iron on stage, so an actor must learn to endow a cool iron with burning heat to recreate the behavior of being burned when accidentally touching it in a scene. (As for creating the behavior of surprise, that is a whole other exercise. I told you Uta Hagen was thorough.) Sometimes an actor must behave as though she were madly attracted to another actor on stage. Once a student asked Ms. Hagen what to do if she found her on stage partner unpalatable. She answered thus: "endow, endow, endow." Crude jokes aside, I believe she left it to the individual actor to decide which characteristics to endow her partner with.

There are many other exercises, and they are all building blocks toward understanding the effect our perceptions of reality have on our behavior.

This is a most useful skill when raising a child. Behavior that is mysterious to a parent who lacks this skill will be easily understood by one who hones it. Most parents are loving and want very much to see mostly good in their children, but the specifics interfere. For example, when I was a nanny and now as a mother, I hear the generic "She's just tired" excuse for a child who has thrown her crayons on the floor or announced her dislike of a person she was hugging five minutes ago with no intervening event. Lord knows I have seen the "tired" effect in my own child: when their batteries run low, there is no rational center to withhold the well of emotion that rises in an exhausted brain. But often there are more specific reasons to uncover.

Just the other night my daughter threw her crayons on the floor. It was nearing 10 pm and even though I tend to be nonchalant about bedtimes and sleep arrangements, that night I was worn out. I shook my head and retreated from her room. I knew enough to keep silent; I knew there was of course a reason but I was just too tired to unearth it. I felt a smidgen of anger too. All of her art supplies were so nicely lined up, I was so proud of myself for giving her this lovely work space and for a moment I lost that she was two and perceived instead the ingratitude of a grown person in the act of dismantling the little studio. All my years of training as an actor have made me intimately aware of and comfortable with my many character flaws, those both momentary and those more stubbornly recurrent. I did not judge myself for being angry, I knew that simply seeing her throw her art supplies activated something in my primal center. I did not judge myself for my lack of generosity but I also did not judge my daughter's act, because with lightning speed my brain relayed the message that she was hurting over something and her behavior had a reason.

Fortunately, my husband was less tired and more generous that night. He dug in and pulled out the insight. Apparently, two minutes before the great crayon throwing event, I had casually mentioned that it was getting to be time for going to sleep. I had not made any steps toward preparing for her bedtime, no toothbrushes were offered, no books lined up, I had merely mentioned it was getting late. But this was more than enough to induce panic in my tiny child.

Imagine if you were an insomniac and someone much taller and stronger than you made a decision that you had to close your eyes and fight every impulse in your body to read, to paint, to wander the apartment, to snack, to be simply awake. And in imagining that, suddenly the throwing of some crayons seems like a very mild reaction to such a prison sentence. Imagine that everyone bigger and stronger kept telling you to smile after you had just lost your girlfriend. A child who has just lost her favorite toy is often in just such a position. Imagine that your destination is a fine clothing store where you have a certificate for a free beautiful dress, but someone tells you that instead you must go to the grocery store and forego the dress. Now you can feel how your child feels when his destination is his box of blocks but he is being forced to have his coat buttoned for a mundane trip out, or any trip other than one to his box of blocks. His destination shapes his behavior with regard to that coat. (Ask any parent who is in a desperate hurry about the physical impossibility of compliance in coat-buttoning when a child is at play. The very hurry only exacerbates the panic the child feels.) Imagine that you are on a planet where everyone finds burnt three day old pizza crusts a delicacy and begs you to eat just one bite and just see if you don't agree. You know you are surrounded by madmen, as you know it smells awful and the mere sight is distasteful. A toddler feels this way when confronted with any number of foods we consider delicious. (So do adults, by the way.)

Can a parent endow a succulent roast carrot or a broiled salmon fillet with the odor of a three day old burnt pizza crust? If she can, she can empathize with her child. And suddenly it will become easy to put out a bowl of applesauce in its place, to give up on trying to persuade and instead to respect the space that every person on the planet needs, it will be easy to grant a toddler self-determination.

We must empathize with ourselves first. Uta Hagen said it was only when she stopped seeing herself  as a free-spirited artist hippy skipping through the woods picking flowers and came to terms with the other, darker side of her soul that she learned how to act. We need intimate understanding of and comfort with our less attractive needs, motives and feelings to create the full spectrum of human behavior.

When parents talk about a "bossy stage" they truly are failing to see that we all want things the way we want them (see: Sally Albright.) We are not bossy or high-maintenance. We are people. We want our trousers folded in this way and we don't like it when people put backpacks that have been on the subway on our couches and we want people to love the music we recommend. We order our universes with our specific passions and methods. We have wide varieties of passions, but we all share the having of them.

Children are people with passions and a deep need for ordering their universe, arguably even more than adults have because they feel the imbalance of power in their lives.  They are helpless in the face of authoritarian will. Thwarted desires for order result in non-verbal demonstrations because they don't have the words yet and even if they did, they don't have the control, unless we grant it to them. Sometimes words won't do even if we have them; they can't contain our passion either good or bad. Before my daughter's vocabulary grew (seemingly overnight, those brains grow at an astonishingly fast rate) she used to make a motion with her whole body, a kind of shudder while holding out her arms when she saw a beloved playmate or when she was about to kiss you. Her body was a free-flowing vessel of physical communication. Maybe sometimes, to quote an old song, the words get in the way.

Sometimes they do find the words. My husband went into my daughter's room the other night and asked her why she threw the crayons. She said "I'm mad." Why? he asked. "Because I don't want to go to bed." OK, he said. Let's not, then.

I know when I can't sleep I sit on the couch and read a book or the Internet. My daughter wanted to draw until she felt tired. Convention might have it that she needs to be trained to fall asleep or at least lie in her bed by 8 pm. But human need and social convention are unfortunately too often at odds with each other.

Let us parent according to human need, not social convention.

I am not saying a child needs no guidance. Let's save that for another post. (Although I will say that a child, a social creature from birth, is most absorbent of guidance when she is empathized with and given the space to accept that guidance.) I am also not going to go into the many tools that developmental experts have for deducing the reasons for a  child's behavior, because there are so many wonderful web sites and books already dedicated to this very hot topic now.

I want simply to offer my perspective as an actor who is now also a parent. Let those mirror neurons tingle and the road of communication between you and your child will be a generally tranquil and even idyllic route with lovely scenery along the way.

What does it feel like to have an object placed just out of grasp at the moment you are reaching for it and worse, because you are reaching for it? What kind of outrage might that legitimately stir in the breast of a helpless person? Is it fair to call the ensuing tears a "tantrum" or is it more accurate to say that a child has better access to the wellspring of emotion that ought to flow forth from having her right to hold something she covets denied? Perhaps it is the Hope Diamond and you can't let your child play with it. Fine. Empathize with having something shiny snatched away for no reason that you can possibly understand. Have you ever lost a boyfriend to an unworthy replacement? Then you know what it is to feel that something precious has been stolen but remains miserably in view.

Uta Hagen was once asked by a student how to play a murderer when she had never wanted to murder anyone. How could she possibly relate to such an "outsize" desire, so beyond the realm of the "normal" human brain.  Uta Hagen asked the student if anyone had ever with impunity stolen her parking space in a crowded lot. Of course that student had felt murderous. There is a big difference between feeling murderous and being capable of murdering. When a child strikes you in anger out of a feeling of helplessness she may feel murderous. But you are not in any danger, and not just because she is small and weak. She is not a murderer, she is just playing one on the stage of life.

Our struggles all have something in common. They involve a struggle to cope with the event, to understand it, to fight for normalcy, to regain control over the emotions we are having because we do not yet understand the consequence of such events on our lives and souls. 
-Uta Hagen

 Children's souls have the same need for control as those of adults. Deny them this control at society's peril. Grant them this control and they will use it one day for society's good.

Uta Hagen, actor, writer, teacher, humanist. 





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