Why toddlers are like empty boats

I’m holding myself back from delving too deeply into the “feral toddler” panic that certain media outlets have whipped up. But to paraphrase:  taking her cues from the French system (as she did regarding childcare ratios for the under-fives), Elizabeth Truss has decided that UK nurseries are too rowdy, and that small children should be more settled, calm, and taught more formally. I really can’t comment much on this as there is such a disparity between nurseries – some are overcrowded hellholes that I wouldn’t want to send my hamster to, while others are  kind, caring environments that alternate between “quiet time” and more boisterous playing. If you want to read more about it, there’s a good thread over on Mumsnet to read.

But I read an article by Leo Balbuta today (regular readers of this blog will know I’m a fan) which prompted something of a lightbulb moment. I’m going to copy some of the article here as he describes it beautifully:

“In her book Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck tells a story that I’ll paraphrase here:

“Imagine you’re rowing a boat on a foggy lake, and out of the fog comes another boat that crashes into you! At first you’re angry at the fool who crashed into you — what was he thinking! You just painted the boat. But then you notice the boat is empty, and the anger leaves … you’ll have to repaint the boat, that’s all, and you just row around the empty boat. But if there were a person steering the boat, we’d be angry!

“Here’s the thing: the boat is always empty. Whenever we interact with other people who might “do something to us” (be rude, ignore us, be too demanding, break our favorite coffee cup, etc.), we’re bumping into an empty boat. We just think there’s some fool in that boat who should have known better, but really it’s just a boat bumping into us, no harm intended by the boat.

“That’s a hard lesson to learn, because we tend to imbue the actions of others with a story of their intentions, and how they should have acted instead. We think they’re out to get us, or they should base their lives around being considerate to us and not offending us. But really they’re just doing their thing, without bad intent, and the boat just happens to bump into us.

“When we see things with this lens, they suddenly become emptied of anger and stress. Our boss was rude? Empty boat, just respond appropriately, don’t imbue with a story. Kid throws a tantrum? Empty boat, just breathe and find the appropriate, non-angry response.

“This is detachment. It’s seeing the actions and words of others as just phenomena happening outside of us, like a leaf falling or the wind blowing. We don’t get angry at the wind for blowing, and yet the blowing does affect us. Let the actions of your kid be the wind blowing — you just need to find an appropriate response, rather than being stressed that this phenomenon is happening.

“So when your kid is doing something other than what you’d like, let go of that desired outcome that’s stressing you out, and let go of the story you’ve imbued into their actions. Just think, “Empty boat, wind blowing.”

“And then give them a hug. Let love guide your actions. Teach, don’t control. Set an example of how they should behave with your compassionate response. They’re watching you, not listening to your words, and that’s how they learn.”

I absolutely love this – and of course, it’s applicable to all life situations, not just when the kids are driving you mad. It’s so easy to attribute negative intentions to other people’s actions – the word “thoughtless” is used as a pretty damning description of someone’s behaviour. But taken literally, it means the other person wasn’t thinking of harming you – knowing this, your reaction may be less hostile, more muted. My young children push my buttons all the time, but I will try to keep this in mind when they’re doing something I think they “shouldn’t’.


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