by BENJAMIN GARBER PHD 16 Nov 2016
I’m told that one Chinese character communicates both “crisis” and “opportunity.” Its meaning—like so much in this life—is what you make of it, and what you make of it will trickle down to your kids.
If you see crisis, specific pathways in your brain are put on red alert. Your blood is diverted from higher order functions like creativity and communication to fuel basic survival instincts like fight or flight. You prepare for war and, fists clenched, mind set, vision and hearing and smell hyper-alert, everything will seem like an invitation to do battle. Your defenses go up. Sleep comes in ragged, anxious bits causing exhaustion which further restricts mental and physical resources. You won’t see beauty or understand humor, you won’t take time to think, you’ll just react. You’ll be hair-trigger-ready to protect yourself and your loved ones.
Very different neural pathways are activated when you see opportunity. Your pulse and heart beat slow. Your muscles go slack. Blood floods the creativity centers in your brain allowing you to think outside of the box. You become able to recognize abstract connections. To consider brand new could-be’s and what-if’s. To consider the world through other people’s eyes. Opportunity mode means that every problem has a solution, that there are always other choices, and that every scrap and crumb and thread, every thought and word and deed has value somewhere, somehow.
Of course, misreading the situation can have serious consequences. Crisis mode might keep you alive, but it gets in the way of learning and insight, invention and charity and growth. If you feel threatened, the last thing that you want to do is play a board game or play dress-up or try to appreciate your son’s favorite heavy metal grunge rap artist. Parenting in crisis mode means ignoring the kids and neglecting their interests to keep them alive.
Parenting in opportunity mode promotes real emotional bonds. It helps to build self-esteem, teach moral values and model healthy choices. But parenting in opportunity mode leaves your defenses down. Investing in empathy and creativity and intimacy and emotion means abandoning the defenses. It leaves you blind and deaf and vulnerable if there’s a knock at the door or a howl in the night.
Yes, of course there is something in between. There is a way to read the ambiguous symbols as both crisis and opportunity. But because our resources are finite, the more that you embrace one, you necessarily neglect the other. And your kids will feel it.
Our kids read our body language and emotion long before they understand our words. They feel our heart beat change as a threat approaches and slow as calm returns. They hear our breathing become rapid and shallow in crisis, and they hear it slow to a rhythmic, reassuring cadence when we calm. But more important, is that their bodies respond in kind.
Children raised in a war zone—no matter whether the war is between countries or cultures or parents—grow up on hyper-alert. Early experience makes the neural pathways associated with crisis into superhighways so that later in life, when there is no crisis, they’re still on red alert. Untrusting. Hypervigilant. Always feeling threatened. These children may ever after struggle with empathy and creativity and beauty and joy.
And children raised in calm? If you can see opportunity rather than crisis, your children are likely to learn to do the same. Your calm, thoughtful kindness will fortify the pathways in their brains that lead to generosity and kindness, respect and diversity, creativity and humanity and goodness.
Take a deep breath right now. Let your muscles relax. Listen as your heart rate slows. Put away your weapons. If you can make this into a time of opportunity—not crisis—your kids may do the same.
The best way to recognize opportunity is by giving thanks. Let’s make this coming Thanksgiving more than just turkey and gravy and pumpkin pie. Let’s make it an opportunity to give real thanks.
What are you thankful for? If sarcastic remarks about culture and politics spring to mind, I don’t blame you, but put it away for now. Your kids have been hearing that stuff for months. Now is the time to refocus everyone on opportunity and on gratitude.
Here’s some thoughts:
1. How many people will be at your Thanksgiving table? Give everyone that number of blank cards and a pen. The job throughout the night is to write one note of gratitude to everyone present. After the meal, deliver all the cards and have a public reading.
2. Make giving and empathy part of every day, but especially this Thanksgiving season. Take the kids and go volunteer at the local Soup Kitchen, animal shelter, Goodwill center and similar. You’ll find that creating opportunities for others who have less is an amazing opportunity for you.
3. Teach your family about the Chinese symbol and then use it to talk about current events. For every crisis, find the associated opportunity. Once you begin to talk this way, it’ll be easier to genuinely think this way.
4. Google “The Thankfulness Project” and learn what others have done to make opportunity more a part of their lives than crisis.
Benjamin D. Garber is a husband, son and the father of two. He is a New Hampshire licensed psychologist, a former Guardian ad litem and a Parenting Coordinator. He speaks globally about parenting, divorce and child development (and he's a closet cartoonist). He is author of Holding Tight/Letting Go (2015).
Dr. Garber has advanced degrees in child and family development, clinical psychology, and psycholinguistics from the Pennsylvania State University and the University of Michigan. He has lived and worked in New Hampshire since 1988, opening his present practice in clinical child, family, forensic and consulting psychology in 1999.