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Sunday, August 17, 2008

On Raising Kids with Resilience and Authenticity: A Conversation with Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW

By Jen Lee

Ever since I ordered The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Compassion, Courage and Connection , a lecture series by Brené Brown, I haven't been able to stop talking about it. Brené Brown is a member of the research faculty at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, and I invite you to eavesdrop on our recent chat about raising kids with resilience and authenticity.

HSM: My girlfriend is in town visiting me this week. She lives in Beirut, and a common theme among our conversations about life here and in Lebanon is the way Americans not only avoid suffering, but try to alleviate discomfort in any form. Thanks to digital video recording, my girls don't even have to deal with the frustration of their favorite cartoon not being on when they want it. I worry that they'll lose out on developing resilience, and I keep telling my friend about your research and what I've learned from your parenting CDs. Do you think resilience is going to be a problem for this upcoming generation?

BB: I agree with your girlfriend - we're so terrified of the dark that we risk never finding the light. As you know my research is about understanding what it takes to live with the courage to be authentic, the compassion we need to love ourselves and others and connection - that precious thing that brings joy into our lives. Through my research I've learned that numbing pain and discomfort means also numbing joy. We do that and our children watch us. We numb all kinds of pain - fear, shame, grief, despair, stress and disappointment. I worry that we're not teaching our children how to hold these hard emotions. Of course, we can't give our children what we don't have. If we can't lean into pain and discomfort, our children won't be able to either.

HSM: I think it can be confusing as a parent to discern which kind of pain to try to alleviate and when to let them hold it. Sometimes I feel like if I'm not fixing something, I'm not being a Good Mom. Do you have any advice on how to discern between the two?

BB: That's a good question. We don't want our children to suffer, but we also want them to know how to survive suffering. I struggle with the same thing with my children. For me, I try to figure out if I'm fixing it to make myself feel better (and avoid judgment from other moms) or if I'm doing the best thing for Ellen and Charlie. Sometimes I get it right, other times I don't. It's a journey. An imperfect journey.

I think the best thing we can do is model how to sit with discomfort. Yesterday, Sprint turned my phone off. I was in a great mood--Ellen and I were grocery shopping and laughing. I picked up my phone and almost went crazy. Ellen said, "What's wrong?" I wanted to throw cilantro against the wall at the store, but I said, "I'm so frustrated right now. I feel like I'm coming out of my skin. I just need a few minutes of quiet and breathing." I explained how it's hard not to yell, scream, eat, or blame when you're angry. Especially if someone did something wrong. They will learn the most by watching us. Sometimes that's good--sometimes it's cilantro against the wall.

HSM: Can you say a little about why you differ from so many parenting resources that focus on techniques and tools (like how to discipline, how to do bedtime)?

BB: I think the techniques and tools can be very helpful. But, at the soul of it, who we are equals how we parent. In eight years of research, I can't tell you that there were certain tips/tools associated with courage, compassion and connection. There were, however, ways of living and looking at the world that made huge differences.

HSM: That's a huge relief for me to hear. I get so stuck in worrying that I'm ruining my kid by letting her have a bottle longer than I should or some other little detail, and I lose the big picture so easily. I think the things you focus on--our children learning compassion, courage and connection--are the real jackpot.

BB: Parenting is a shame minefield. Everyone is holding on as tight as they can. When we observe people doing it differently, we automatically take that in as criticism. If the small issues are symptoms of something larger - maybe they're an issue. Most of the time, they're just small issues.

I think the lens I put on parenting is very different than what's out there. To tell parents, "If you want your children to live authentically, you have to stay on your own journey for authenticity" - that's different. I actually had a really hard time publishing my findings. I sat on them for over a year. I didn't want it to be true. I want my children to know loving-kindness, but I hated hearing that it meant I had to keep working on treating myself with loving-kindness. There are no shortcuts. We can only give what we have.

I also think we need to acknowledge and talk about how hard it is for parents of children under the age of five. It's tough to stay on our own path during this period. Our personal journey suffers, our marriages suffer - it's really wonderful, but it's extremely difficult not to lose yourself.

Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW is an educator, writer, activist and researcher. She is a member of the research faculty at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work where she has spent the past eight years studying shame, empathy and vulnerability and how these powerful emotions affect the way we live, love, parent, work and build relationships. For more of Brené's work, visit her Imperfect Parenting series on her blog ordinarycourage.squarespace.com, order her CDs ordinarycourage.squarespace.com/whats-this-series-all-about, and check out her speaking schedule (including when she'll be in New York) at www.Brenébrown.com.

Interview by: Jen Lee, a Park Slope mother, writer and photographer. She is also a regular contributor to Hip Slope Mama. Her latest book, Fortunes, is a gift-sized collection of poetry and photography. Find your fortune here.