Relationship is Everything

April 25, 2012

One of the core concepts in Privilege of Parenting (the book) is the concept that everything in parenting turns on relationship.

Cultivating good relationships with our kids requires addressing three core motivations in life:  feeling safe, feeling loved and feeling empowered.

These apply to us grown-ups as well:  if we don’t feel safe then we don’t feel connected and may tend to either retreat into isolation or become aggressive, angry or explosive (and then end up in a place of shame and/or isolation).

When we are in our own red zone, or are parenting a child in the zone of anger or alienation, it is worth keeping in mind that in these moments we do not feel safe.  This is not the time to talk and reason, it is not the time for limits and consequences: it is the time for openhearted compassion and understanding.

If we, or our kids, are truly not safe, this is a time for action to protect them or ourselves; but when we, or our kids, are in actuality safe, but do not feel safe, we have moved into the second motivation (and its frustration).

Feeling loved rests upon feeling understood.  Thus when our kid says that they are a loser and everyone hates them, or that they do not feel safe, and we tell them that this is ridiculous and that they are wonderful, they tend to clam up and feel neither heard nor understood.

This is when parenting turns to crap because we know we love our kids, but our love is not landing and we feel powerless, lame and sometimes angry that our child won’t just cut out the nonsense and realize how wonderful they are.

When we’re down in the dumps, we don’t really want “glass is half-full” talk so much as we want someone to bear witness to our experience.  When we do this for our kids they feel company in misery and they do more than know that we love them, they feel that love.

Finally, we all want to feel empowered.  This can take the form of self-expression, autonomy, athletics, academics or social relatedness (to name a few arenas of potential empowerment).  As parents, empowering our children is where we must walk the line between love and limits, between helicopter and absenteeism: if we overprotect we suppress autonomy, but if we under-protect we leave our kids at undue risk.

Here we circle back to the need to feel loved; if we listen with our hearts to our children (and to our own instincts), we will better calibrate our love and limits and facilitate empowerment.  Kids are constantly growing and changing (as are we), but listening deeply and observing our children’s subtle shifts in mind and behavior allows us to better understand, and thus make them feel loved, safe and yet free to learn, grow and develop.

Given that in parenting we are often striving to bestow upon our children some of the very things that we ourselves did not get, parenting can trigger us to feel scared (for our kids, for our economics, scared about our abilities); and it can trigger us to feel unloved (i.e. not understood, mischaracterized, unsupported); and it can lead to our own feelings of disempowerment (particularly when kids test, or break, limits and our words are shrugged off and our consequences received without behavioral change).

This is where we parents particularly need community, camaraderie and support from each other to help us feel safe, loved/understood and empowered.  Community and understanding will prove more important than expertise, and the “expert” arises as the wisdom and love of the group, not the ideas of experts.

We generally know things like that it’s best not to yell at our kids too much, it’s finding ways to calm down, be effective and to sustain our right-actions that tend to elude us.

I write about parenting, here and in my book, in an attempt to provide insights, support and encouragement to other parents in the service for all our collective children, but also as a way to connect with the group through bringing something to the table.

Perhaps today is a good day to take a deep breath and to set an intention to deepen our understanding of where our kids are at today (emotionally, intellectually, socially), to intuit what they might be feeling—and to re-envision this exploration as love in pragmatic action.


p.s. Kristen over at Motherese was kind enough to review my book; she is one of the best spirits I’ve met in the blogosphere and I adored her even before she said such nice things about me and my book.  Friendship is one of life’s great treasures and in this realm I consider myself extremely blessed.  Please check out what she has to say (and thank you, thank you, Kristen):

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen @ Motherese April 25, 2012 at 7:42 am

One of the great lessons I took from your book is the idea of understanding as containing. When one of my boys is on a tear, I sometimes feel at a loss to figure out what I can do or say to get them to stop. But then I remember that the first thing to try is just to listen, to bear witness to whatever they’re feeling (however silly it might seem to me in the moment). And that it isn’t so much about changing them as it is trying to understand.

Be the bowl, baby. :)


Bruce April 25, 2012 at 10:12 pm

And then we can be the collective bowl, supporting each other and containing all of our children. Be the bowl, baby, I love it :)


BigLittleWolf April 25, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Someone to bear witness to our experience.


Reading this wonderful post, Bruce, I’m recalling something you wrote awhile back. Two years ago, perhaps longer. It was a post that reminds us that we need to encourage our kids to talk – and sometimes that means asking open ended questions, and being willing to sit with the answers, whatever they may be.

No judging. No defenses. Possibly probing. “Witnessing” as you say.

I recall the experience that it was, when I did exactly that with my younger son, my “orchid” child, whose habit of clamming up was extremely trying for me as a parent, and the solo parent.

I asked something like “What can I do to be a better parent to you?” He was surprised, but he opened up. I was surprised at the direction of the conversation. What I learned was to return to that method, and not only with my sons, but in any relationship where I wish to move beyond a seeming obstacle.

It’s hard to “be the bowl” as Kristen says (or the vessel, as I believe you sometimes put it). But it’s effective.


Bruce April 25, 2012 at 10:15 pm

How lovely to hear the echo of connection coming back from that cave of lonely darkness around which we often stumble as parents. It’s nice to have camaraderie in the journey, and to keep learning and growing together.


Mark April 26, 2012 at 5:23 am

And once again we are reminded why parenting IS the hardest job on the planet. Now if it would only be universally recognized for what it actually IS!

Thanks, Bruce.


Bruce April 26, 2012 at 6:18 am

Here’s to working together in loving kindness to help our selves, each other and our fellow parents, across the life-cycle and the spectrum of parentings’ challenges, rise to both the demands, and the rewards, of a job at which we all want to succeed.


TheKitchenWitch April 26, 2012 at 7:03 am

It’s true–I remember telling my parents SO many things that were important to me and they just brushed it off. I felt invisible when they did that.


Bruce April 26, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Hey KW, Sometimes it’s our very wounds that we can turn into empathy and compassion as we strive to give our kids what we ourselves might have needed but not quite gotten—and while that can be more than a little painful for us sometimes (I could hardly get the invisibility cloak off of myself most of my life), giving what we didn’t get can ultimately be healing for all involved (especially when our best efforts bring us parents together into community and camaraderie).


Wolf Pascoe April 26, 2012 at 11:56 pm

Bugs in a Bowl

Han Shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:
We’re just like bugs in a bowl. All day going around never leaving their bowl.
I say, That’s right! Every day climbing up
the steep sides, sliding back.
Over and over again. Around and around.
Up and back down.
Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
cry, moan, feel sorry for yourself.
Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
Walk around.
Say, Hey, how you doin’?
Say, Nice Bowl!

— David Budbill


Bruce April 27, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Hey, Wolf, how you doin’? Nice bowl!

Sometimes we’re in the bottom of the bowl, and we can put an arm around each other; cry and moan together. Worse yet is when the center does not hold and the bowl fragments and we are despair itself.

But we repair the bowl, each bringing our shard to a collective mending. And we become the bowl itself and all it does and does not contain. And we are Love.

Hey Wolf, are are we doin’? Nice Bowl!


rebecca @ altared spaces April 27, 2012 at 9:39 am

These three: safety, love and empowerment. Parenting is slow business. It is relationship and that is not something that fits on a calendar. It is stopping what I’m doing when I get a call from the school, postponing a meeting to tend to my child with needs, having a real meal because table time encourages conversation. All this stuff is slow and builds what you call the core 3. I love the number 3. I can actually remember 3 things. Especially these 3.


Bruce April 27, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Here’s to safety in our collective family, to the love born of understanding each other, to the empowerment found in a circle time that has time and space for all of us and all our collective children, spirits, voices, works, pains and loves. XO


pamela April 27, 2012 at 3:39 pm

I already love your book but these posts really help the book land in a new way. My son was extremely frustrating today and I found it challenging to be empathetic when he kept yelling at me. We both took a little space and met up again and it was fine, but I find this to be a very delicate dance – when to set limits or consequences and when to just let it go and meet up again in 15 minutes. I love what you write about listening and being aware of their hard times too.


Bruce April 27, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Hi Pamela, Sometimes our kids just need us to bear compassionate witness to their rage, angst, fear and sorrow. This is so much more easily said than done, that the point of our village, our bowl, our collective soul-making is to support each other to hold fast together as an act of Love and containment, very much like your fabulous and moving post about our soldiers and what they contain for us (that image of the service dog, steadying and containing the war-ravaged man slays me and stays with me). Namaste

If any readers haven’t read this one by Pamela, it’s one of the best posts I’ve come across:


The Exception August 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Being a single parent I find giving my daughter safety a bit difficult. She is concerned that should anything happen to me her whole life changes… and this wasn’t something I expressed to hre but something she expressed to me at an early age and we revisit now and again. I have fostered engagement and listening in our relationship from the beginning but with the new additions of work issues and her becoming a teen aged girl – I am hearing more often that I just “don’t listen.” and I have to stop and consider – I think I am listening but I am not listening in a way that she is understanding anymore. As she grows, i have to learn to adapt to that changing child to woman thing… and it is a challenge at times but I have full intention of maintaining an engaged relationship with her. Kids are not only here to learn from us but they are here to teach us


Bruce August 22, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Hi Exception,

I really agree that our kids also teach us. And I resonate to how hard it can all be. As for deepening our skills and endurance for getting this right I would offer up my book (see “exit through the gift shop”) for much more in-depth information on this very topic.

All Best Wishes


Alexandra January 18, 2013 at 3:39 am

This post has brought me peace this morning.

Sadly, so sadly, my nephew took his life last week Monday. We are still reeling, I am scared for my sister, I am scared for my children.

My father did the same thing, but we never thought we’d have to live through round 2 in 1 lifetime.

A blogroll hop of desperate searching on anything “suicide” led me here.

I feel so lucky, I feel a bit of peace and respite from the guilt I’ve been carrying since the news.s

I have to somehow find a way to find relief for my sister.

Thank you for the sincerity and firm conviction of your voice here.


Alexandra January 18, 2013 at 3:41 am

Just read your Parenting Manifesto, and am in tears.

So at the core of my life.

Thank you. I have to keep on pushing through, because yes to parenting being my life.


Bruce January 18, 2013 at 5:23 pm

Hi Alexandra,

I am so sorry for the recent tragedy in your family, and also for that of your father—the wounds these disasters leave are terribly deep and never go away, perhaps they scar over time, perhaps we can find a little solace and compassion from far-flung quarters and, in turn, bring whatever love and compassion we can muster to those who suffer (which so often includes our own selves).

I thank you for sharing your pain-laced and loving words and hope others may come across them in the future and feel a little less alone.


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