Default Parenting versus Compassionate Parenting


Parenting is challenging and unlike any job I’ve ever had. You must be equipped to deal with everything from tantrums to booger flicking, trying to explain who or what God is and why people die, make vegetables and fruits more appealing than icecream and candy and develop an infinite amount of patience. But sometimes the challenge lies in discovering the holes in your own parenting pedagogy.

I learned very early on that if you don’t take the time to think through your parenting techniques, you will default to how you were raised, thus imitating your own mom and dad.  Luckily for me, I have great parents.  But even great parents get caught in the cycle of default parenting, and let’s just say there are some things I want to do differently.

For example, one day Ezra started talking in a baby voice. This annoying little voice was accompanied by a physical performance, his legs waddling along in little baby steps as if he was a toddler, his lips pursing into fish lips, his eyebrows raised. I don’t like seeing my bright, capable four-year old acting like an 18-month old. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this behavior. I felt a surge of annoyance, which transformed into words, passed over my vocal cords and spilled into the room before I had a chance to stop and think: “Stop acting like a baby,” I said.

Its one thing to think something. It’s quite another to give it voice. I was as surprised as he was to hear these words. They instantly brought me back to a situation with my father 36 years ago. I remember wearing new cowboy boots, which were slippery on the bottom. We were walking with my two older brothers down a hill covered in chapparal on an expanse of natural land behind our home. My steps felt uncertain and I began to whine a little bit, wanting to hold my dad’s hand. Instead of reaching out his hand, my father snapped at me; “Stop acting like such a baby.” I was shocked, as he usually didn’t speak to me like this, and his words felt biting and mean.

Now I had just repeated the performance with my child, not even thinking of the consequences of my words. If Ezra is acting like a baby, he is asking for attention, even negative attention, as he knows we don’t like this baby voice. Snapping at him only worsens the problem. If I stop and think for half a second, I know it is more effective to say, “Please use your big boy voice,” or better yet, “You know we don’t like baby voice. Do you feel the need for more attention? Is that why you are using your baby voice?” But, these words don’t come naturally. You have to work at it.

Non-Violent Communication

According to Marshall Rosenberg, P.h.D, author of a series of books on nonviolent communication and raising children compassionately, people often treat their children with less respect and compassion than they do acquaintances. He gives an example from a workshop he held. The participants were broken into two groups to discuss how they would resolve a conflict with another person. One group was told the conflict was with a child, the other was told the conflict was with a neighbor. When the two groups were brought back together, they thought they had been given the same scenario. Each time he performed this experiment, the group who was resolving a conflict with a child seemed less respectful and less compassionate than the group that had been told the other person was a neighbor.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t tell my neighbor to stop acting like a baby, or send him to his house for a time out, for that matter. I would think my words through carefully and make sure I used respectful language in trying to come up with a resolution. I obviously love my son much more than my neighbor, so why the disrespect? Definitely time to re-train!

My parents also taught me you need to be friends with everyone, even people you don’t really like. When I had a birthday party, we invited everyone in the class–even Eric Tipton, a boy who had karate chopped my birthday cake into an unrecognizable mush the year before.

In my version of the world, you don’t have to be friends with everyone. You need to be kind to everyone, but you don’t have to be their friends. In fact, in some situations, it can even be necessary to establish a healthy distance from other people. Yet, just the other day, I found myself defaulting to the “be friends with everyone” policy of my childhood–despite the fact that I don’t believe in this.

Choosing Friends for our Kids

I befriended a very nice woman at Ezra’s school who is the mother of one of Ezra’s classmates. Thus, without consulting Ezra, I decided that our sons should have a play date together. From the get go, Ezra was opposed, but I told him he had to be nice. The kids played well enough together, but before long, I could see that Ezra was more reserved than he was with other kids. Two or three more playdates passed before I half admitted I was forcing the friendship, more thinking of myself than of Ezra.

I didn’t realize the repercusions of my actions until a few weeks later. My son is usually the type to answer the question, “So what did you do at school today?” with a case closed “Nothing.” Thus, when Ezra volunteered a rather ghastly story of kicking the other little boy, I listened carefully, encouraging him gently yet firmly to tell the whole story.

I soon learned that two little boys wanted to hold Ezra’s hand; his favorite friend Jan, and the boy I had pushed upon Ezra whom we’ll call David. Ezra told David he didn’t want to hold his hand, but David insisted and wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, Ezra kicked him. Hard. David started crying.

“What did you do then?” I asked sternly.
“You just let him cry?”
“But, isn’t David your friend?””
“No. I don’t want to be friends with him.”
“But honey. David is your friend, and we’re friends with his family . . . did a teacher come to help him?”
“No. There weren’t any teachers around.”
I looked upon Ezra with new eyes. My little 4 year old angel had kicked another little boy with no remorse, a child whom had been to our house a handful of times, whom we had taken a train ride to visit outside the city, a child he had laughed and played with well enough in my presence.
“Thank you for telling me Ezra,” I said at first. I heard myself saying a few other things that seemed appropriate, yet not scolding: “It seems you feel a little bad about kicking David. Do you think it was okay to kick David?”

That evening and the next day, I created stories of a forlorn little boy who lost a friend, and Ezra felt very sorry for the little boy in my stories, felt as if rhis little boy was treated unfairly. I saw the light bulb go on at some point, and by the next morning over breakfast we were planning together the best way to say sorry to his little friend.

Choosing his Own Friends

“You don’t have to be friends with someone you don’t want to be friends with,”Arie Jan said calmly, “but you do need to be nice and use your words if you don’t like something.” And of course Arie Jan was right. Through it all, I was still trying to make Ezra be friends with this sweet little boy. I was doing what I had been programmed to do by my own upbringing. Yet, you can’t force anyone to be friends, just as you can’t force two people to love one another. It has to be by mutual consent.  But, you can teach someone how to be compassionate and nonviolent in conveying that information.

Ezra’s apology was met with a happy dance by David. Two days later, I volunteered for Sport’s day, a morning filled with sports activities, which called for a large amount of parent volunteers. The boys were in the same group for sports day, along with three, meek little girls. As we walked along with the children, who are required to hold hands when walking from the school to the sports field, I saw Ezra hold David’s hand with acceptance, rather than joy. It seemed the teachers were also trying to make a match or help along the relationship; I noted that each group of five children seemed to be carefully selected based on energy levels and friendships.

Ezra was friendly enough, but more from a position of tolerance. By the end of the sports day, he no longer wanted to hold David’s hand on the walk home, and for once, I listened. And it seemed Ezra had listened too. He knew he had a choice about being friends, but he also knew how to be gentle yet firm when saying no. I felt proud of Ezra in a way I hadn’t before. I saw him being tough, cool, a bit distant. And though it was uncomfortable for all involved, it showed that Ezra has the strength to do what was right for him.


Our First Visit from the U.S.

Wednesday afternoon at 20 minutes after one I looked out the kitchen window and saw Lauren and Nico walking up our street, small travel bags over their shoulders. I knew they were coming. I had known for months they were coming. But seeing them there, within the context of our new Dutch lives, sent a wave of excitement through my body. I set down the dish I had been washing and ran outside. I hugged each of them firmly, amazed that my friends, who had been represented by Facebook and phone calls for the last two and a half years, were now there in 100% physical form—which in this world of keeping in touch through technology, seemed somehow unreal.

I had also experienced this strange sensation back when I was dating Arie Jan long distance. I was in Santa Barbara, California and he in Amsterdam, Holland. He was a voice on the phone, an occasional picture, a letter, instant messaging (our dating period pre-dated Facebook). Then, after two and a half months of knowing this person intensely as a voice, a collected series of thoughts, opinions and emotions, suddenly he was there in the flesh. A body holding the mind, writer, and conversationalist I had gotten to know. It seems rather appropriate, then, that Nico and Lauren, also a Dutch-American couple, are the reason Arie Jan and I met and our first U.S. visitors to our new home in Holland.

So there they were, in the flesh. They looked like themselves, but of course slightly different. Lauren looked great. She always does, from the beautiful collection of exotic rings on her fingers, each with an intricate story of purchase, to her hair, clothing and large blue eyes. Nico seemed to have settled into his role as a banker: still handsome, a bit more salt in his pepper black hair, clean shaven, dressed in khakis and a comfortable sweater. With some people you haven’t seen for a long time, there’s a bit of a transition time. Not with Lauren and Nico. Immediately, we launched into conversation after conversation and laughter came easily. Before I was even aware of what was happening, tears came to my eyes; tears of joy and release at feeling so comfortable with friends. I can talk well enough with people here, but having a long and deep history with others provides you with a level of comfort that lets you be more fully yourself, and thus more present.

Ezra was shy at first, but it didn’t take long before he was flying balsa wood airplanes with Nico in the garden and screaming with laughter at a voice warp recorder—just two of the many presents bestowed upon him by our guests. The evening was filled with interesting conversations, first at the house, and then at De Tuyn, an excellent restaurant in our neighborhood on the bezuidenhout of Den Haag. After dinner we walked back to our house, and the conversation didn’t miss a beat as we settled back into our living room. We covered everything from politics, our individual health, our outlooks on life, Osama Bin Laden, Snow in New Hampshire, our jobs to Dutch culture and more.

We knew we had just one evening and two days, but the rapid rate of topics we covered was not in effort to cram it all in, but rather the pace we fall into when together. When Arie Jan threw in the towel at half past midnight, saying he needed to get some sleep, I was shocked. I hadn’t intentionally stayed up that late since we left the States.

The next day, we had a leisurely start that belied our short time together. By 1pm, we were on a fleet of bicycles cruising to the city center for a tour led by Arie Jan, a Hague native. Lauren and Nico rode the tandem, Ezra rode with Arie Jan, and I was solo on a second hand bike we picked up that is perpetually stuck in third gear. As we followed Arie Jan through Den Haag, I realized I had fit more pieces of the geographical puzzle together. I knew which neighborhoods to expect next; I looked to the old church towers, the modern building of the Central Train station and other buildings to confirm my location. But then, Arie Jan peddled to a side street, and suddenly I was somewhere I had never been before. Or so I thought.

We cycled down a wide street with older, Dutch row houses in an area called Archipelbuurt after the archipelago Islands of Indonesia. We all marveled at the style and craftsmanship of the buildings, some more than two centuries old. Then Arie Jan turned down another side street, and there it was; a beautiful hidden neighborhood he had shown me 8 years ago on the residential end of Malle Molen. The mini-community of sorts suddenly emerged as we turned the corner behind an ancient wall. There, a brick lined entry led to a row of white washed old Dutch homes no bigger than 25 square meters. A small, tree lined path led between the little homes, and it seemed this was the idyllic community model. How could you not know and depend upon your neighbors when you lived this close, in homes that had held Dutch families for hundreds of years? It was a peaceful setting. A young woman who had one of the side residences sat in the sun in a wooden lounge chair reading a book, apparently undisturbed by our arrival. Although I felt drawn to walk down the little path, it was also clear that to do so would be intrusive. On my last visit with Arie Jan, almost a decade ago, we had arrived at dusk when the lights burned in the windows. It was strange to see that the tiny neighborhood hadn’t lost any of its intimacy or charm.

In the center of Den Haag, there was a lot to see, as the Dutch celebrate their liberation from Germany on the 5th of May, and the city was partying. The squares were transformed into performance areas with scores of people watching singers and dancers on the stages. Another area had a carnival going on, and much to Ezra’s dismay, we cycled right past the rides, cotton candy and booths full of cheap stuffed animals. We cycled through Binnenhof, where the Dutch government conducts its business in a stately square of buildings surrounding an interior courtyard, crossed by Malieveld, a large field where Dutch citizens gather for organized protests and ended the tour in het Haagse Bos with a view through a large gate to Huis ten Bosch, Queen Beatrix’s palatial residence.

By the time Lauren and Nico gathered up their belongings and headed out the door, it seemed we had put a shiny new coat of varnish on our enduring friendship; tying our old and new lives together.

Fire Engine, Police Car, Ambulance

Fire Engine

In honor of Queen’s Day, April 30th, we hung the Dutch flag along with an orange banner on the flag pole outside the church. But instead of flapping gently in the breeze in honor of Queen Beatrix and the former Queen Juliana, the flag entangled itself in a large branch of an adjacent tree. Clearly the branch needed to be trimmed before May 4th and 5th; May 4th the Dutch flag is raised at half mast across the nation in what seems to be the equivalent of U.S. Veteran’s day, and on May 5th, the flag flies at full mast to celebrate the end of the WWII German occupation of Holland.

Arie Jan was particularly annoyed to see the flag entangled. I have to admit, it looked pretty lame in comparison to all of the unencumbered flags dancing in the breeze throughout the neighborhood. Clearly, the flag wrapped around the branch was an old problem, as when we asked the church managers about it, they all nodded their heads. The tree belonged to the church and not the city, so it was up to the church to take care of it, and so far, no one had taken action.

So, bright and early one morning, Arie Jan told me he was going to trim the offending branch. I knew there was a long maintenance ladder on the side of the church and that he was handy with a saw. I didn’t feel worried. But, after I checked some emails and finished watching president Obama’s speech to the nation about the death of Osama Bin Laden, I became aware of the passage of time. Where WAS Arie Jan? What was taking him so long? So, I wandered outside. And there he was. Hanging from a tree.

Well, not exactly hanging. He was still standing on the ladder, but his hands firmly gripped the remainder of the branch, a branch that had risen further into the air when he trimmed off the heavy part of the branch that had dared to touch the Dutch flag. Instead of safely leaning well above the tree branch, now only the tip of the ladder rested just a few inches above the branch. Arie Jan was not only holding on, he was pulling down. If he stopped pulling down on the branch, there was a  chance that both he and the ladder would come crashing down.

Luckily, I wasn’t the first on the scene. After calling for me to no avail, he had called to a cyclist, who just happened to be a bicycle cop. Arie Jan thought it would be simple; the police officer could firmly hold the ladder while he climbed down. But the police officer didn’t think this was a safe option, and I have to agree. So he called the fire department. Instead of being stricken by fear, Arie Jan had a slight smirk on his face. Not quite embarrassment, but more of an acknowledgment that this was a ridiculous situation. I ran down to the street and talked to the officer while we waited for the fire department. The ladder looked a bit precarious. I debated over what I could do. If I stayed there, I wouldn’t be of any help. So, I decided to do what any modern citizen would do; I went upstairs and grabbed my flip video, positioning myself on the balcony to take in the show.

I started filming just at the fire department arrived. Needless to say, sometimes a movie is better than words.

Police Car

The following day, our friends Lauren and Nico arrived (see previous post). That evening, after hanging the flag at half mast, we got ready to go out to dinner. But before we made it to the street, we encountered a young woman running through the parking lot of the church. She wore the casual uniform of a teenager who should be hanging out in her bedroom—stretch pants, patterned t-shirt, socks, no shoes–not running down the street in the early evening. As I got closer, I realized she was much younger than she appeared, and by the tears on her face, clearly in distress.

The story that unfolded was cruel and painful. She and her mother had gotten into a fight, and her stepfather had physically pushed her out the front door, causing her to fall down the stairs. She ran away as fast as she could, too afraid to go back for even her shoes, let alone a purse or other personal belongings. Arie Jan and I took her into the church, where she logged on to email friends in search of a place to spend the night. Arie Jan gently, but firmly convinced her it was best for all if we called the children’s protection agency. But apparently child protection is put on hold for Dutch Memorial Day, as the office was closed.

Next, we called the police. The 13 year old swallowed. She wasn’t afraid of the police, but afraid that the police would take her back home. We assured her that if she felt physically threatened, that there was an agency that would protect her. As the police car arrived in front of the church, we could see relief on the young girl’s face, who had been peering out the blinds afraid her mother or stepfather would get there first, even though they had no idea where she had gone. Two young officers, male and female, came as a team and gently talked to the girl. They would take her to the station, where she would meet with a child specialist and we were assured she would have a safe place to stay that evening.

Fire engine yesterday, police car today. What next, we joked, an ambulance? As the words left our mouths, we instantly tried to recall them, but it was too late. They had been spilled into the universe.


The following day passed without incident, and thus, as we were getting ready for bed, we had forgotten all about our inappropriate joke. Arie Jan headed to bed first and I read just one more chapter of a book on raising boys. It mentioned that raising a boy into a man can be a difficult venture, as if they don’t have proper mentoring from their father and other male role models outside the family from age 14 to adult (mid twenties), there is a chance they will seek out negative ways to express their manhood and independence; fighting, stealing, turning to drugs and alcohol and doing dangerous things. I felt a bit overwhelmed by the idea and wanted to read on, but soon I started to read the same lines over and over, a sure sign that it was time to go to bed.

It was then that I heard the sirens. An ambulance pulled up on the street right in front of our window followed by a police car. I looked out as if that albatross from that Ancient Mariner’s rhyme had just perched itself on the rails of my balcony. Arie Jan came downstairs and his words said it all. “This is just too weird.” And it was.

I couldn’t help but watch the whole thing unfold in front of me, as if the world outside were a TV channel, and I a bit too tired to turn the off switch, or in this case, close the curtains. I watched as the paramedics wheeled a gurney up the path where Ezra and I crossed to his school every day. A young Asian woman lay unconscious at the tram stop, surrounded by a group of young men who moved about animatedly and a single female friend, who sat still on the bench. It seemed the group had been partying, as the women were dressed up and the men appeared to be drunk.  The paramedics lifted the young woman and laid her flat on the stretcher, a lifeless, bare leg dangling down, exposing strappy heels.

Instead of following her friend to the ambulance, the other woman sat still on the bench, her back to us. The paramedics pushed her leg onto the cot and wrapped a blanket around her, carrying her off. Once she was loaded into the ambulance, the sirens didn’t start sounding. The ambulance didn’t drive away.  I didn’t know if this boded well for the young woman or not. Was she coming back to consciousness? Is that why they waited?

People on the street stood by, equally transfixed. One man, who had come to his car minutes after the ambulance arrived took out a large camera and started taking pictures. Finally the ambulance drove away, and I willed this to be a good sign. When the police car left, the young, rowdy men began to yell at one another, menacingly. It wasn’t long before a fight broke out. I couldn’t help but think of the words I had just read about raising boys as I ran for my phone to call the police back to the scene. But, before I got to the phone, the fight was over.

They say good things always come in threes. And, if you look at it this way, I suppose the saying holds up; the firemen rescued my husband, the police helped a young girl, the ambulance came to the aid of a young woman. The outcome of two out of three will remain a mystery.