On Balance: Parenting and Education

Parenting through Uncertainty with Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen

July 29, 2020 Blue School / Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen Season 1 Episode 15
On Balance: Parenting and Education
Parenting through Uncertainty with Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen
Show Notes Transcript

In our Season One Finale, Dawn Williams speaks with Blue School Advisory Board member Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen. Larry shares tools and suggestions for how to parent, play, and foster autonomy through the uncertainty created by COVID-19. Larry is a licensed psychologist specializing in children's play, play therapy, and the author of parenting books including: Playful Parenting, The Opposite of Worry and The Art of Roughhousing.

Visit Blue School's new website to learn more about our education philosophy and Fall 2020 offerings. BlueSchoolConnected.org

DAWN WILLIAMS: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance at home and in life can be a challenge. And now we’ve been called on to be 24 hour a day parents, while balancing work responsibilities and our own emotions during this difficult moment in time. If you are finding it particularly difficult, we’re so with you. 

Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be joyful, creative, courageous, and compassionate. I am Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I will be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re here to partner with you. Together we will find our way. 

Today I have the great pleasure of speaking with Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen. Larry is the author of books for parents including: Playful Parenting, The Opposite of Worry and The Art of Roughhousing. He is a licensed psychologist specializing in children's play and play therapy. In addition to his private therapy practice, he is also a speaker and consultant to public and independent schools and a teacher of parenting classes. Larry is also a beloved Blue School Advisory Board member whose books and workshops have shaped the parenting and teaching of many folks at Blue School over the past 13 years. 

Hello. I'm so glad that you are here today and that we're getting a chance to talk.

LARRY:  Thanks. Me too.

DAWN:  I know you've spent so much time this spring supporting families and children through these wild months, and now it's July, and COVID-19 still feels very much like it's shaping our days and our plans for the fall. So many parents just seem to be in this state of sort of overwhelming uncertainty. I'm wondering if you have thoughts about how we can navigate this uncertainty with our children?

LARRY:  Hmm. Well, it's a wonderful question [LAUGHTER], a question I have a lot of empathy for and a lot of understanding. But I have more empathy and understanding than I have answers of how to navigate. I think that the simple answer is we don't really know. We don't really know what even navigating all this means. And there is certainly no formula or playbook, unfortunately. I think that because of being overwhelmed -- and it's not just one thing; it's so many things. And it's not just regular uncertainty, which life is always uncertainty, it's this compounded uncertainty, and we're even uncertain what the uncertain plans are.

DAWN:  Yes.

LARRY:  I think our human minds don't do well in that situation of things. And we're driven to find certainty. We're driven to find answers. And we keep looking, and even if we know there's no answer under that rock, we keep picking the rock up and looking. It's like when you're searching for your keys, and you've looked in that pocket before, but you're going to just keep looking again because maybe -- really I think maybe they could be in that pocket.

I don't mean to make light of this. We are just really needing these answers, and we're really searching for them. And it's hard to accept that because we don't have the clear answers, what we need to do is sit with the uncertainty. We need to not know what to do and have it be okay somehow that we don't know what to do. And none of us are used to doing that. Well, maybe some people meditate six hours a day, and they're used to doing that, but most of us are not used to it. And what's needed is an understanding of just how to sit with big, big feelings -- big, big feelings of uncertainty and anxiety and confusion, and how to sit with the chaos, and how to sit with children who are either curled in a corner or bouncing off the walls.

The biggest thing we need is a container for that feeling. We're looking for answers. That would be a good way to deal with it, but since they aren't there, [SIGHING] just knowing that we're not alone is a part of it. Knowing that actually, no matter how big a feeling is, it's okay to have that feeling. Knowing that we can name it. We can even name it as unnamable. That even helps. "I don't know what to call this feeling that I'm having." That actually is naming it. "I don't know what to do." That's naming the helplessness. Lay on the floor and say, "I surrender!" Right? It's surrendering in a way, but it's acknowledging, and we get up differently, I think, if we do that instead of fight it.

DAWN:  That's such a lovely way to think about this moment, sort of surrender to this moment. And then I know there's as a parent this drive to be able to either provide some kind of container for our children about the future -- and this feels like it might be a very different answer when we're talking about very young children, and when we're talking about older children -- but knowing that, and I guess I'm thinking about school specifically. Like knowing that September is approaching and that none of us know what September is going to look like. And for little ones, perhaps we don't want to preview that unknown too much, and maybe with older kids, we're talking about this all the time because they're talking about it all the time. I wonder if you have any thoughts about that?

LARRY:  Yes, I think that one of the most important things is not to fake it. You know, a lot of us want to provide security and stability for our children, of course, and because we're not feeling stable and secure inside, we think, "Well, I'll fake it." But your children are too smart for that, and so instead of faking it, I think it's acknowledge it and turn the volume down, because what happens now is like terrible feedback sounds. It's like our children are anxious, and like, [SCREAMING], me too. And we think, "Well, I'll just smile through gritted teeth and say it's going to be okay," but children actually feel more anxious when there's an incongruity like that. They feel it. They don't know. They can't articulate it, but they feel it. And so to say, "Oh, boy, it is uncertain, and it gives me a little bit of a feeling of [SCREAMING SOUND]." And I like to use noises like that. We're all told in preschool, "Use your words," but I think that that's way overrated. I would say, "Use your noises and use your body language and use your fall-on-the-floor skills. And yeah, I'm feeling kind of [SHOUTING NOISE]. How about you?" 

And so you provide a container by honesty with the volume turned down, a little lightness added to it, because why not have a little lightness? You know, a lot of us have magical thinking. I know I still have a lot of magical thinking held over from my childhood. So for some people, the magical thinking is, "If I think all the bad things, then they won't happen." Other people think, "If I think all the bad things, they will happen. I have to not think about them." But the reality is we don't know, and we can be just modeling that, "Whoa, yes, it is a little uncomfortable."

And even saying "a little uncomfortable" is pretending. It's like, "Oooh, I feel kind of like there's not any floor underneath me, and I'm going [FEIGNED SCREAMING], and I'm about to fall over, [MORE FEIGNED SCREAMING]." And so you're honest, but there's a really different quality to the being honest about how you're feeling.

And you acknowledge wishes, and you share your own wishes, because a lot of parents are afraid of validating wishes because we get confused between the difference between validating a wish and making the wish come true. But those are two completely different things. So, oh, you wish you knew what was going to happen in September. You wish you knew what school would look like. So do I. Let's imagine it. So the wish is in the imagination.

We often want to replace the wish with reality. It's like, "We don't know. Get over it," you know? But we try to stop them from wishing what they wish with, "But you love school," or "But you don't even like school." You know, like these things are really irrelevant. But the wish is an opening to the imagination, as they say. "Since we don't know, let's just imagine. Let's imagine this,you know? Like the most fantastical, perfect school of September, and we'll call it "Sky Blue School," and enter into that realm of wish and imagination because there's a tremendous amount of healing that can happen in that world.

And of course some children will say, "Noooo! I want to know what's going to happen!" So then they're telling you, "Don't forget this imagination stuff, this playful, lighthearted stuff. Just be here with me in my terrible pain." And it reminds me of one of the wisest things I ever heard. It was this guy Elvin Semrad, who I never got to know. He trained all these therapists in Boston for generations, and I got to Boston after he had passed away. But I heard stories because everybody told their Semrad stories. And one of his pearls of wisdom was that -- he was talking about a therapist's job, but I think it's the same for a parent's job. It's to "acknowledge the other person's pain and bear it and hold it in perspective."

I think if you think about parenting, it's so hard sometimes to acknowledge our children's pain. Like, "You don't really want that." We don't want them to be sad, so we say, "You don't really want it."

DAWN:  Right.

LARRY:  And I remember this mom who'd bribe her son to come to therapy with me by getting him a doughnut. And then she'd get one for his little sister who was not there, so she wouldn't feel bad that her brother got a doughnut. And so he would try to eat his sister's doughnut, and she would say, "Don't you want to share it with your little sister, and don't you want her to have one, too?" And no, of course he didn't want that.

So we just let it be okay. We acknowledge what they feel, and we bear it. Some people have the opposite problem, which is, "Oh no! You're so upset, you're so enraged, you're so scared. I can't stand it. You have to feel better because I can't stand it." And so we have to acknowledge it, and we have to bear it. And we have to keep some perspective. And that's really hard now when things are falling apart in many ways, and we don't know what tomorrow's going to look like, much less September and beyond. But we have to find in ourselves some bigger picture, some perspective. And this can come from a lot of sources. I think about my grandparents, leaving this tiny village in Ukraine and coming to another country. And it's like, "Boy, they had some guts. They lived through a lot, and they did something incredible." Talk about uncertainty. And like, "Well, they did it."

And you know, that's not going to work for everybody. That was just an example. You know, spiritual, religious things provide perspective for many people. The big picture of the planet -- that can be a bigger perspective. But we don't hit our children over the head with that part.

DAWN:  Right.

LARRY:  We keep it quiet. Children are more likely to be upset about the tiny things than the big things usually. And that's normal. That's what they can grasp. And so we know there'll be another sleepover. We know there'll be another whatever it is -- the Lego that broke. But we don't hit them over the head with that, like, "Oh, have some perspective!" We just have the perspective that, "Yes, this happens. This is universal. This is painful."

I know I'm going on and on, but I just want to share one more thing. There's a technique that I offer to people who have panic attacks, and I think we're kind of having one big global panic attack, and it's lasting too long. The blessed things about most panic attacks is they are fairly brief. They make up for it in intensity. So we're kind of having this ongoing, chronic panic attack.

And so my technique for panic attacks is to have a little piece of paper in your pocket, and you write on it, "I'm having a panic attack. It's extremely unpleasant, but it's not life-threatening. It will pass." And your technique for the panic attack is pull this out and read it. And so applying that to our life context now, it's like, "Yes, this is happening. We're acknowledging the reality of it. We're not in denial. We're not pretending everything is normal and fine when it's not." And we're acknowledging the pain of it. It's extremely painful. But we're also seeing that it's not the whole story of our lives. Nothing, even people in extreme situations, people who survive gracefully and manage and come out stronger after excruciating circumstances -- they knew that no matter what, this wasn't the whole entirety of their life and soul in the world. And it will pass, and we don't know what's next, but we do know that nothing lasts -- whether we want it to and hold onto it -- it changes. And if we hate it and fight it, it changes.

DAWN:  Yes, that's such a great tool. I can't wait to bring that into my family and into myself. as you're talking about uncertainty, I'm also hearing you talk about loss. And I know so many of us, all of us, have had to deal with loss over these months from real family tragedy to job loss, to the loss of playing outside or playing with friends. There are just lots of things to mourn or to acknowledge. 

LARRY:  Yes.

DAWN:  And I hear you talking about the way that parents can enter into that with children, can bear it with children. I'm also wondering if you have thoughts about ways that play can support children in processing these losses?

LARRY:  Yes, I think it's the one-two punch. One is, "I hear you, and I'm here." And loss is the hardest thing. You know, attachment is the most wonderful thing, and that's why loss is the hardest thing. And then the number two is the play, and so that could be, "It's not the same, but let's get all the stuffed animals and pretend they're our friends." Or you pick up a stuffed animal, and you say, "I miss all the other kids' stuffed animals. You might miss your friends, but I really miss the stuffed animals of your friends."

And so this is a different kind of container for the feeling. It's instantly brought into the symbolic realm, and that puts this sort of warm embrace around the people feeling. And the game might be tender, or it might be funny. And you kind of feel your way through. I think about this kind of emotionally loaded play as kind of a dance of leading and following. And so you lead by introducing the themes if the child doesn't do it spontaneously. And then you step back and you follow, and you see where the child takes the game. 

You know, just as simple as, "Let's play school." That can be that you drop the pebble in the pond, and you see where the ripples are going to go. And the child might say, "Noooo! You shouldn't even talk about school!" And then, okay, we'll switch gears, and we'll comfort and soothe and love and, "Tell me more," and "Tell me all about it," and "I hear you." You know, one of the number one rules of emotion is there's always more. The number two rule is it's like not paying your bills and sticking them in the drawer. It's like if you push away the feelings now, they're going to come back with interest later, so you might as well just pay that bill right now, as soon as it comes in.

But sometimes you say, "Let's play school," and they say "Okay." And then you say, "Who do you want to be?" And then you play school, and goofier and naughtier is more playful than serious. A lot of times when parents think about, "Okay, I'll use play to deal with the situations," and then it becomes a poorly disguised lecture. And no -- it's this laughing, silliness, doing everything wrong. 

Another thing is roughhousing is sort of the universal antidote, I think. So ten minutes a day of co-fighting and wrestling will make an enormous difference. If you're already doing ten minutes, then make it twenty minutes a day. And if you always have trouble when you've got to settle into doing your work at home or going out to work, do some roughhousing right before then -- concentrated time. And yes, they'll be sadder when you leave because they had such a good time with you, but they'll be filled up.

There's a specific roughhousing game which I think is very appropriate to the moment, which is based on this pun of the word "tackle." So you tackle a problem, and you tackle a person in football. So you say to the child, "I'll be the coronavirus, and I'm coming at you changing. I'm making school unknown, and I'm making this person sick, and I'm making you have to wear a mask, and ahhhh! And you have to tackle me." 

And children understand that this is symbolic. This isn't like -- they're not going to actually be curing it or getting rid of it. And then they tackle you, and you let them win. And depending on the age and level of timidity or powerfulness in the child, you make them work for it. So maybe the first time, they clobber you easily and get you to the ground, and the next time it's like, "Oh, you're not going to get me that easy!" And they have to really bring you down.

And some children will like to use tricks to get you. "Look over there!" And you fall for all the tricks. In other ones, we use brute force. And if children are only using tricks, I usually after a while say, "Oh, those tricks aren't working. You're going to have to pull me down with your strength." Because we want to activate the inner power that gets sapped by all these feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that are, of course, going through all of us.

DAWN:  I wonder, actually, if you could share how children -- the need for power, their need for control might be showing up these days, and that feels like such a good game to support that, but I'm sure there are others up your sleeve, too.

LARRY:  Yes, babies are born with an incredible sense of power. Sometimes it's knocked out by birth experiences that are traumatic, or in utero experiences that are traumatic, but for the most part, they have this expectation that, "The world will bend to my will." And, "Look, I cry, and somebody comes." And, "I'm hungry, and somebody comes and feeds me."

And there's a tremendous sense of power. And they kind of get this chipped away, and they start to feel powerless. But inside of everyone is this memory of power and this drive for power and this need for power -- and a pure kind of power that's not power over anyone else. It's not at anyone else's expense. When children are powerless, even in their regular life, just always having to be at adults' beck and call, and schedules, and "Eat this, and don't eat that." And "Sleep now, and wake up now." All that stuff. Children really suffer from this, and a lot of parents get confused because they think, "Well, the only alternative is to give them the keys to the car and let them decide the family budget."

And it's like, "No, no, no, no. That's not the power they need." What they need is an inner sense of power, and play is the best way to get it. And play where they're in the powerful role. If you're playing school, they're more likely to be the teacher. If you're playing doctor, they're the doctor. And you're, "No, no, no -- don't give me that shot! Ahhh!" Or you're like, "You can't make me wear a mask! I don't like masks! I'm not wearing one! Waaaahhh!" And they get to be the authority.

Asking children's expertise is really a great way for them to feel their power. So you say, "I was just talking to a friend. Her son's not sleeping well. I think he's nervous about everything going on. I know you've thought a lot about that. Do you have any tips you could give for me to give to my friend?"

So you're not tricking them, because you're acknowledging, "Yes, you've had this problem, too." But instead of, "You have this problem, too. You have nothing to offer," it's, "You have this problem, and so you've really thought a lot about it." Where they've always felt powerless in relation to the problem and not powerful.

There was a boy I saw years ago. His father was very, very ill and in and out of the hospital. And when he was home, he had these machines and everything. And this boy was really into guns -- every kind of gun you can imagine. And he saw a big branch. We were out in the woods by his house, and he picked up this enormous branch. He could barely lift it. And he said, "It's a bazooka!" So I said, "Gee, I wonder why some kids are really into guns?" And he said, "Oh, my friend Joe is really into guns." I said, "I don't want to meet your friend Joe if he's more into guns than you are!"

And I said, "Gee, I wonder if things just really feel out of control? It's so hard. There are things that you can't control. Your dad is sick, and there are machines." And then it's like, "Oh, I'm a big, tough guy, and I have a gun. It feels kind of powerful." And he whipped around. He was in front of me, and I had to duck out of the way of his giant bazooka branch. And he said, "That's not it, and don't tell my mom!"

DAWN:  Ah!

LARRY:  And so there are many ways to try to get power, and some of them are kind of desperate. And here this boy was very young, but he had this, "I don't want even my mother to know that I have this tenderness and this vulnerability. I'm going to have this really tough shell and this aggression to be my source of power." But if we help children find the power, they can do it with much more connection. So wrestling with you, pillow fighting with you, being in the powerful role. You make mistakes, and they correct you.

I love to brag outrageously, like, "I'm the best piano player!" And then it's horrible, and then they're like, "Ohh, you don't know anything!" And then they show you how to do it, instead of fighting about having to do piano practice.

DAWN:  Another thing that I'm hearing over and over again from parents right now is this question of autonomy. And this is actually parents of children of all ages. Parents of toddlers who were just starting to have a little bit of separation from their parents. They were just starting to head to school. And then there are the parents of teenagers who were just starting to travel on the subway on their own for the first time. And then suddenly there was a pause to all of this in March. And for many families, you know, children and parents have been together all day every day. And I wonder if you have thoughts about how this is affecting children, and maybe about ways that we as parents can continue to build that autonomy muscle, work that autonomy muscle?

LARRY:  Yeah, we don't know yet the effect, and it's so different. There are families that are just relieved and so happy to not have the daily fights about school, like getting to school, and others who are having new daily fights about getting any schoolwork done. And in terms of the autonomy, I think for younger kids, having an area -- even if it's a big, empty box, that's their spot. You know, in a small apartment, it's not going to be a separate room, but it could be a corner with a curtain. It could be a box. It could be a little private area. And the child is in charge of decorating it or not decorating it, of what it looks like, of who comes in and when.

And I think for older kids jobs -- and this is very tricky because you don't just want to have another opportunity for nagging and that kind of conflict. But I think what helps with that is having the jobs be meaningful. I think for teenagers and pre-teens, doing things that are really meaningful and contribute to the family don't feel like make-work chores that become big sources of conflict. And that could mean menu planning and cooking. It could mean older ones caring for younger ones. Think having projects, plants. A good nurturing project -- I think nurturing energy is pretty drained, and so you replenish nurturing energy. You know, taking care of plants, taking of pets, evoking --

So if the nurturing energy is drained, the autonomy energy is not being built up, how do you evoke these? Whose picture do you want to have on the wall? Who do you want to call every day or every week to really build up this? I think with teenagers, having somebody other than their parents that they can talk to on a regular basis -- an aunt or uncle or teacher or former teacher. I have this theory that every teenager and parent needs somebody who they both trust. So the teenager needs to trust that this person is not going to come running back to Mom and Dad with every little thing. And the parents need to trust that this person is going to -- will come to them if there's something really dangerous and really crucial for them to know.

So for some people, it's the therapist. For other people, it's a family member. For some people, it's a teacher or coach. But this makes a big difference if teenagers have this in their lives. And there's an autonomy that comes from, "I get to choose who to tell what to about my life."

And it's really hard, because I know a lot of teenagers are pushing their autonomy, and they're like, "You can't make me wear a mask," you know? "You can't make me socially distant from my friends." And it's partly, "I cannot bear being away from them," and it's partly, "I don't know where my autonomy is going to come from. I'll put it here."

And so sitting down and saying, "Let's find a way for you to build autonomy that works for everyone." And I think this is a wonderful general principle. "Let's find something that works for everyone." I remember this with my daughter as a teenager shopping for clothes. It's like, "Look, I'm not going to make you wear clothes like Laura Ingalls Wilder and look like Little House on the Prairie, and you're not going to just buy the clothes that scream out to you to buy them. There's got to be plenty of clothes that work for all of us." And there were, of course. There were plenty. But once you take it out of the, "No, you can't wear that," and "No, you can't stop me from wearing that!" And instead, it's like, "Let's find the ones that work for everybody." Let's find the autonomy things that work for everyone. The subway might not be the one. Hanging out at the park without a mask with your friends might not be the one. It doesn't work for me. But stay home and study more doesn't work for you, so --

DAWN:  This is so helpful, Larry. I wish we could talk to you all day. I feel like we've just sort of skimmed the surface. And thank you for all of the support that you have given Blue School families in the spring and Blue School teachers who I really did continue to hear throughout the school year were using things that they heard from your talks in their classrooms.

One teacher told me over and over that the idea of play on Zoom became something that he was aiming for every day. He was trying to figure out how to be playful about the mute button, how to be playful about -- So we're very grateful.

LARRY:  Okay, it was really a pleasure, and I really feel connected to all of you and all the Blue School families and wish you all well.

DAWN: If you share Blue School’s vision of a balanced approach to learning and living, so that children can be courageous and innovative thinkers, please take a moment to subscribe and listen in on our weekly discussions. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook @BlueSchoolNYC, or visit BlueSchool.org for more in depth content. We’re sending support and strength to you and your loved ones as you endeavor to create balance.