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In-Between Worlds – Connecting With My Dying Father

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It’s a long corridor, cold fluorescent light, constant beep-noises from invisible machines, and that smell. A strong disinfectant, like a heavy layer on everything and everywhere: on my hands, on my clothes, on people – even the water I drink tastes of it. In the distance two nurses and a doctor exchange encrypted messages – fast, emotionless, I had forgotten how harsh the German language can sound.

I sit in a small visitor area at the Berlin-Buch hospital. Intensive care unit. My father is here. My father, who I haven’t seen in 4 ½ years.

…48 hours earlier I had received a short email from my sister, who I hadn’t seen in 4 ½ years either. She had written that our father had major bleedings and had been taken to hospital for an emergency operation. Could I come? Of course, I can. I did. In less than six hours I had booked a flight, emailed my employer, packed a bag. A friend picked me up in the middle of the night to drive me to the airport. On my journey to Berlin a huge wave of anxiety, fear, tiredness and confusion flooded my body. What should I expect to see when I’m there? What can or should I say? Will he be alive? What will happen?

With sweaty but cold hands I boarded the plane. A beautiful purple-orange sunrise at take-off did let me forget everything for a moment. I just wondered who else might witness this little piece of magic and peace? Would my Dad see it? Or my children? No, they were probably still asleep. At 6am they didn’t know yet that their Dad left for Berlin to see Grandad. I left a note for them on the table.

In the early afternoon my mother, sister and I arrived at the hospital. With heavy steps we climbed up to the first floor. I held my mother and felt her shaking hand. The room seemed small. Behind a white curtain I saw the silhouette of a human body. Screens, tubes, cables, more tubes, beeps, noises. His face white and bloated. His eyes colourless and empty. I hardly recognised him…

When the Borders between Life and Death become Blurred

Now I’m sitting here. I try to figure out what’s going on. What am I doing here? What am I supposed to do? The doctors say it doesn’t look good for him. He’s got cancer. For months he had been receiving therapy and for a while he had been recovering quite well. Then this sudden bleeding. In only seconds he loses so much blood that life is fading away. The paramedics save him by minutes only. But after two days of artificial coma he’s coming around. Still, the doctor’s advice to me is to say good bye. How the fuck do I say good bye to my dying Dad? We haven’t spoken much in the last years. Short emails for birthdays and Christmas. Once in a while meaningless conversations over the phone: ‘Yes, it’s still rainy here. How’s the weather in Berlin?’ – you know, that kind of chat.

I have not the slightest idea what is going to happen. I feel helpless, speechless, alone. The only way to deal with this devastating situation is to follow my very own instinct and heart. Yes, in the back of my mind I remember so many moments where he and I were light years apart. His life and mine have little in common. Disappointment, frustration and even anger have been the ingredients for our relationship over the last years. He knows that. I know that. But I’m not here to judge him. This is not about forgiving, understanding or questioning. This is about being present and authentic. I listen to my heart and I feel my love for him. Love he needs to know about.

I go inside his room again. He is awake and his tired eyes look at me. I don’t know whether he is wondering what I’m thinking right now. He tries to smile. I take his hand, look into his eyes and kiss him. Tears run down his cheeks. Everything is still. Just him and I. We hold each other. A perfect moment between father and son. We are close, we are connected.
I don’t care about the past. I care about the present, about him, about now. I hold his hand and whisper that I love him. Tears block my throat. With a shaking hand he picks up pen and paper. He writes: ‘Torsten, I’m happy that you came’. I cry.

A New Closeness to My Family

He sleeps and I’m talking to a doctor again. He’s very clear and doesn’t hold back. His question drills a hole in my heart: ‘How far shall we go to keep him alive?’ What the hell does that mean? Of course they should and must try everything they can. Even if only machines keep him alive? You see, life is not always life. Am I here to make such a decision? No. As long as my father has clear moments it is entirely up to him.

My sister and I agree on that. My mother, understandably, wants to answer for him. Confusion follows. The doctors receive different messages, some get even lost with shift hand overs. It gets blurry and misty. Does this happen to all families where a relative might die? The chaos needs sorting. My sister and I sit together and talk. It feels good as we didn’t speak much with each other for years. We push our own issues with one another beside and focus on our father. I feel closer to her. I know her pain and she knows mine.

Together and somehow united we talk to the doctors again. And to our father. Gently I tell him what the doctors can do if he starts bleeding again. Frankly, it’s not much. I hold his hand again and under tears my sister and I talk about our mother; that he doesn’t need to worry about her, we’ll take care of her. No pressure on him, from no one. We ask him to use all his strength for himself, to make up his own mind. And whatever he decides about the hours and days to come, we will be there for him.

It’s quiet again. My Dad looks at my sister, then at me. He writes just one sentence on the white board I bought for him: ‘I want to go in peace’. We hug and kiss him. He smiles at us. I try to smile back. But tears run over my face and my body shivers. I feel incredibly sad and my heart could break any moment. But I also feel peace and truth. We are close to him and I am glad that we experience this moment together.

I don’t know how much time he has left. No one knows. What’s important for me is that in all this sorrow my father and I feel connected again. Something I have been longing for, for years. He knows that his son loves him, something all fathers want to know sooner or later. His note ‘I’m happy that you came’ is inside my pocket when I board the plane home.


 

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Raising Confident Children Through Trust

person-1037607_1280“Sharp knives don’t belong into children’s hands”, “That’s not safe, let me do it”, “A kitchen is no place for kids” – sounds familiar to you? Well, that’s some stuff I had to cope with when growing up myself, and – bad enough that’s still the mantra for many parents or adults working with kids nowadays.

I just recall some playgroup situations: the parents’ response when their two-year-old picks up a plastic knife (yes, the good ones for butchering play dough) to murder a cucumber at snack time. Eyes wide open, panic mode, shrill voice: “Ah sweetie, Mummy will hold that dangerous knife for you, don’t you think?”. A millisecond later – the object of mass destruction is safe in Mummy’s hand. All other parents exhale a sigh of relief.

playground-408658_1280Another example comes from the next-best playground of your choice. Little Joe tries to balance over the climbing frame. He concentrates hard enough and works his way up. Before he reaches the top little Joe hears his Dad shouting “Oh Buddy, that’s quite high. Just watch out. Hold tight. No, not left, go right. Easy man. Not quite sure if that’s a good idea”. Smiles nervously. Dad that is. “Hang on. Let me guide you. Stop. Stop I said!” Joe loses his balance and falls off the climbing frame. “Told you to stop!”

Clever omniscient grown-ups have created a fluffy, pink, bullet-proof world of health-and-safety where we all wear safety goggles to watch the wind and face masks to breathe nature. Because…, just in case…, because we’re rather safe than sorry…, because to make sure… because. Well, just take a moment and stop breathing – just to be safe!

What has gone wrong here? Have we lost the very basic connection and trust in our children? Or, was there ever a time when we trusted them? Hmm… Let’s see. Just back in the 19th century children would have lots of responsibilities: cleaning, cooking, looking after their siblings, helping on the farm… and, yes, brutal hard labour in dark factories, ten or twelve hours a day… good that we left those times behind us (well, over here in the rich part of the world…). And, yes, many of those household chores were done by children because of living in large families or parents having to work twelve and more hours a day as well.

When World War II was over, still many children played important roles in helping their families with household chores. You could argue that this happened because out of necessity or desperation. Indeed, that’s one reason. Another one was simply called trust.

Trust and a strong bond between parents and their children. Only from the 1950’s onwards, something strangely has been happening in our society. Families started to spend less time together. The so-called classic family model, where dad leaves in the morning for his desk in an office while his wife stays home to look after house and kids, took over.

That quite artificial construction became a bit of a relationship killer. While in the past fathers and their sons, as an example, would often work and spent time together (on the field, in their business…), now children missed their father for most of the time under the week. Mums got busy in their brand new kitchen with all the latest inventions and gadgets. Kids? Go to school or your bedroom.

You see what else went on here? Skills. Not only relationships suffered, there’s a whole generation of lost skills. Cooking, working with tools, fixing and mending – you name it. Fixing something, why? Buy it new, it’s easier. Cooking? Get a ready meal. I still remember my parents’ pride when they bought the latest of modern cooking inventions in the mid 1990’s: a shiny, adorable, handsome, easy-to-use microwave! Plus 200 packs of ready-to-microwave food. Yuck! I can still sense the aftertaste. They probably spend two or three weekends in deciding which microwave to buy… I wished they had taken one afternoon to teach me the basics of cooking.

You know, I’m not the least surprised that today three-quarters of children in the UK have no idea how to boil an egg, or that 30% have never chopped veggies. I probably was 18 or so when I found out that kitchen knives have more purposes than just hanging on the magnetic knife holder. And another five or so years to get serious about cooking.

Starting to trust our children is the very foundation of a well-connected relationship. Children (and, indeed us adults too) learn by trying. They give it a go. They might fail, they might succeed. It doesn’t matter, as long as we provide a bit of a safety net in the background so that they won’t ever get seriously hurt. If they feel excited and stimulated, they will try again… and again.

cookingMy eldest, who is nearly 8 now, showed a great interest in preparing meals and cooking lunch and dinner. He’s been watching my wife and me since babyhood. When he was about three, he used a sharp knife (not one you are able to cut your fingers off with, but one that’s just sharp enough for cutting with – a bland one would be safest, sure, but equally useless and only frustrating) for cutting up an apple. Yes, he cut himself a few times, but that’s how he learnt, and nothing happened apart from some quickly dried tears and a cool plaster on a tiny wound. With four he cooked himself porridge on the hob for the first time. Yes, his first cooking session was guided and supervised by me, but I didn’t interfere. I just watched. Today his cooking repertoire includes pasta and tomato sauce, scrambled egg, various cakes and biscuits, and – hold your breath – sushi (ok, the sushi rolls can’t compete with a sushi bar, but it’s just a question of perspective and expectations. Expect a perfectly cooked and awesome looking meal? Do it yourself).

It’s a great learning curve for us parents to lower expectations and to be more prepared for a giving-it-a-go mantra. And, yes, sometimes we get pushed out of our comfort zone as well. In our family it’s a bit of a tradition to make pancakes for Sunday breakfast. Often – I admit my sins – they go with chocolate spread. This morning we had run out of the sweet treat and no-one seemed to be willing to go down to the local shop (2-minute walk) to get more. Only my nearly 5-year-old volunteered. I hesitated as I wasn’t sure whether he would manage. I trusted him with finding his way to the shop and paying for the item, but I feared the road he would have to cross.

My wife’s response was more clear. Yes, he’ll be fine. And off he went. But, I threw over my invisible cloak and sneaked after him to watch his adventure. He didn’t see me and I had a great time hiding behind bushes and trees. My main fear – the road – was quiet, he stopped, checked, checked again, and crossed. No problems. A woman stopped him (she was probably a little anxious… as me), but he carried on.

At the shop I peeped through the window (gosh, if someone had observed me they must have thought I’m a little… well, crazy) to make sure he’s alright and the shopkeeper is not calling the police or social care. She didn’t. With a great smile she scanned his jar and gave him receipt and change. I stood there – watching and with tears in my eyes. My little son, so great and independent. He skipped all the way home. Just fifty metres behind him, I – his dad, full of love, joy and trust. At home we both hugged for a long time. And, of course, we enjoyed our chocolate pancakes!

The confidence and self-esteem he gained from his independent venture was giving him a glowing buzz all day – he knows his parents trust his abilities.

Next time your little one is climbing up high on the climbing frame or tree, just position yourself, discreetly, so that if they fall, you could catch them, and just observe. Neither encouraging nor anxious, just observing and trusting (your facial expression and body language can communicate that, too!) that when they are able to climb something unassisted they’ll know how to get down again by themselves. Soon enough, they have learnt to use their body well, trust themselves and know where their limits are.

Trust your children and you’ll be amazed by what they are able to do by themselves and how their self-esteem grows each day!

PS: A few days after I published and shared this post on facebook, I had this reply:
Untitled…just awesome! 🙂

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Am I a Good Parent? Feeling Judged by Others

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I love my children. But sometimes I seem to stop loving them so unconditionally or looking at them through this (rightly!) blurred vision of a parent when there are other people around.

I notice myself thinking: “Oh why is he doing this/behaving that way?”. Whenever there are other people around, my children seem to become these total strangers that I suddenly feel ashamed of. What’s going on?

First of all, they are so easily excitable by visitors and then act in a way that I often find so hard to tolerate. I hear myself saying “oh they are very excited” to excuse them (and let’s be honest: try and convince my guests that really it’s not my fault they are like that!). The other day our landlady came around and my four year old was hiding behind me (which he REALLY! never does), the seven year old was whizzing around as if he hadn’t had been outside for days and was on a sugar high (REALLY not true!). Immediately, I felt judged “she will think my kids are not social/behaving oddly/need more parental input/stimulation/less sugar. AND, maybe worst of all: “he is not ‘up to it’ as a dad).

I think as a parent we often feel that we are judged as people by how our children look or act. So, we try and make them do things we wouldn’t ever do at home or even think are stupid to ask of them anyway. To my six month old baby I hear myself saying “be gentle” and anxiously wonder whether she will be an aggressive child because she is playing with another baby in a way a six month old baby does (poking at eyes, pulling feet, scratching…). Later I can laugh about how my own thinking is influenced by the fact another parent is watching. Of course, she will learn that we are gentle with each other, simply because she sees us being that way with one another. And, of course, I should not judge her for being the way she is: just a normal six month old baby.

I remember with shame those days I tried to get my two year old son to share. Just because it made me feel better in front of the other parents present. Even though I knew he wasn’t able to understand that concept yet at all. His needs suddenly became less important than other children’s needs. Putting other people’s needs first (and sometimes up to an unhealthy degree) is what we adults can do, but we cannot expect that of a small child. Even though I knew that at the time the need to fit in and be accepted as a father by other parents was so great, that I wouldn’t stop myself and just say “sorry, I think my child isn’t ready to share this yet” and stand up for him.

Secondly, they just adapt to other people, like I do. I need to accept they will take on a different persona when they are with certain people. One of my sons will sometimes just not answer people. So, if he is asked a question, he often stays quiet. I used to feel very ashamed that I still had to talk for him, way past the toddler years. Now, I mostly try and stay calm inside and accept it. He is old enough for us to talk about that and I tell him the impression that his behaviour might have on other people but ultimately I feel it’s his decision. I cannot make him do things, that would also go totally against our parenting philosophy. So, I will have to accept that side of him and free myself from making judgments. Tirelessly I will reject labels such as “oh he is shy/ introvert” because I don’t think they are true. He is perceived like that in this situation, but it is not a true description of his character. At home or with a different set of people he will talk non-stop and wouldn’t dream of not answering.

And when I think about it I know that I am the same. It is mostly hidden though, because I am an adult and have learnt to act differently to how I feel, but it still comes through. There are several “personas” in me for different people. I will feel more relaxed with my family and that means act and talk in a different way.

Our children are the best they can be in any situation. If they behave in a way we would like to change, then they are actually diverting our attention to a need of theirs that needs addressing by us! Not because they are “naughty”. So, if they act ‘impolite’, they might feel insecure or simply don’t know what to say. We can help them out, it’s ok, whatever their age.

I am working hard at being proud of who they are despite of how they are. I also, as my children get older, understand that they are not me, and are walking their own paths that have, in some respect, nothing to do with me. I am guiding them, but I don’t have control over their every step and they will make decisions that I might consider wrong, it’s not always to do with me.

I am working hard at being a better parent – yes, I’m talking about the best person I am possibly capable of becoming. That also means in becoming immune to other people’s judgments. This goes along with my own seeking not to judge others and becoming more compassionate. Towards myself and others. There is always a reason we and others behave the way we do and by loving my kids unconditionally I show them that it really doesn’t matter if they take up roles sometimes (as long as they do it intentionally and happily) or act out their emotions (which I sometimes, secretly, wish they would hide) and hopefully they will grow up self-confident and compassionate towards others and themselves, instead of worrying what other people think.

So, am I a good parent? The only people I will grant judgement of that are my children. The older they get, the more I have to face their irritated looks when I, again, have chosen the wrong tone ‘Daddy, you really don’t need to shout’ or come up with a stupid ‘rule’ and their reply is ‘Daddy, I can do that, it’s ok, really’.

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Raising Boys To Become Gentle Men

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When I became a father I was full of excitement, joy and happiness. My wife and I felt well prepared as we had read dozens (it felt even more) of parenting books, we went to two antenatal courses, and we took every opportunity to sit on the sofa and chat about our baby. I hoped this would make me into one of those super-dads (because actually I was quite apprehensive about having a son and all that this might bring up, at first)!

From pre-baby time it was clear to us that we believe in attachment parenting, co-sleeping, feeding on demand and unconditional love. I always imagined me to be a gentle, relaxed and easy-going father. Today, seven years later, I can say that I have achieved some of that gentleness and peacefulness. But it was a long journey and I’m still on it.

When you believe mainstream media, it often seems harder for men to be a great parent. Too often dads are being pictured as the workaholic money machine with no or little interest in his offspring. Is that just a stereotype or a real problem?

When comparing figures, one can definitely see that more women care for their children full time or working in part time jobs to spend more time with their kids, than men. Not all fathers take time off work when their baby is born. There are various reasons for this I believe. One of the main reasons is the lack of positive male role models, taking on an active role within the family.

2014-07-09 16.16.44When I was a teenager I probably considered myself as a nice, friendly and gentle person. But, after a lot of reflecting, I now would say that I couldn’t communicate very well. I did hurt other people’s feelings and I sometimes was very mean as I couldn’t deal with my emotions and feelings. Why is that? I had never learnt to talk about them. Not to my father or another man. I had some very good female friends and it always seemed easier talking to them. I felt heard and listened to; they took me seriously. Still, something was missing.

The search for men who really can open up is not unusual for boys, young men and the older generations as well. I was lucky enough to meet one man (it’s always that one person who can change your life) who I met in my early twenties. He touched my soul and opened my heart. He let me cry and held me tight. For the first time I discovered some genuine, true closeness and real manhood. No games, no masks, no pretending. I could be myself.

From then on I could start my personal journey in becoming a better man, and yes, a better father. To me being better means more authentic, more empathic, more myself. To stop playing a role in order to find appreciation. To stop strengthening myself at the expenses of others. To be confident and clear, without upgrading my ego all the time.

Being masculine is all about hyper-competition, being super-hero-hard and strong. Men are labelled (and often it’s true) with exactly those attributes. And that’s the second key problem: our society. How can we expect gentle and empathic men when we already start treating boys as the stronger gender? Boys don’t cry, they are the emotionless super-heroes, they should “man up”, and certainly they should not play with girls (toys) or dollies. “Their” toys are action figures, fast cars, modern day heroes (fire fighters, police men), monsters, toy weapons and the like. The same stereotypes get applied to them when they turn into men: They are expected to have a lucrative and prestigious career. Men are strong leaders who will govern countries from behind their desks, go to war for our western ideologies, and they… well, they just save the planet. Right?

Yes, I know, in many ways things have changed. More and more men decide to put their families first, take longer paternity leave or even consider working part time to spend greater chunks of time with their families. (And obviously there are women now who are filling these traditional “male careers”). There is a shift in society, away from the ego-driven hard men to “new” men who believe in equality and mutual respect. But it’s still a very long way to go and a minority of men feel able to (or want to commit to) a more active role in family life.

happyWhen I stayed at home to look after our children for about two years, I painfully realised how alone I can feel. Don’t get me wrong. I made many female friends, mainly stay-at-home mums. I very much appreciated their company and I had a great time being at home with our kids. But I also longed for some other men and fathers; to share the experience and to see how they cope and feel. I also think it would do many men good to experience this role of full time carer (even if only for a few days a week); it certainly got me more connected to how I want to be and less focused on outside pressures.
Especially that time as a stay-at-home dad made me realise how important it is for me to give my sons a better start into the beauty and chaos of life. They don’t need a super-dad I pictured to be, but someone real, someone authentic, someone they can trust and talk to. A male person (or preferably a few) who loves them unconditionally – who has (lots of) time for them!

As a start I looked at the way I communicated with my sons: Am I really listening to them? Do I judge them? Are there any pre-conceived ideas I have about how they “ought” to be (because they are boys)? Will they feel respected and loved when I say x, y or z to them/are my actions communicating my love for them?

I also introduced an evening-check-in with my eldest son, who was 5 years old by then. When we are cuddled up in bed and have finished our night time story, we do a ‘check-in’. I normally start off by talking about my day, what I liked and disliked, things which made me happy or sad. I really try to name my feelings. Nothing needs to be covered. Equally important in our talks is being honest. Bloody honest. That includes to apologise. (That’s another thing many men struggle with. I can’t remember that my dad had ever apologised for anything.) I want my boys to see that I make mistakes. I mess up, I say things I don’t mean to say, I lose my patience, I’m unfair. That’s ok, as long as I do the aftermath: reconnecting and apologising. And, yes, kids are so great in forgiving.

The just-before-bedtime-talk is a win-win for my son and me. This way I learn about what’s going on inside him and he sees how I talk about emotions and feelings, that I take responsibility for them and reflect on my actions and words.

Start those talks asap. And carry on. Don’t stop when they turn teenagers. Especially then they need you and your open ear more than you might think.

world changer newI also notice how the culture we live in influences our sons. The other day on our walk through the local park, we watched a soccer match of 9-year-old boys. For many boys sport is an extremely important activity in their life (obviously same applies to girls). As we watched the game my boys and I observed those boys swear, shout, spit, push and make a fall look dramatically heroic (probably copying their professional counterparts). It left all three of us baffled by how much they seem to be putting on adult behaviour. It was difficult to explain why they were shouting so much and hurting each other, well it was nearly impossible. Equally, to make sense of parents on both sides shout and scream their heads off, in quite an aggressive manner. Sports are naturally good for physical health, but what about emotional health? What is it we are teaching boys here? What is competition, pressure, fear to fail doing to our children’s emotional development? One could argue it prepares them for the “hard” world out there, where being ambitious and competitive is valued highly. While I am all for having determination when you really want to achieve something, I believe getting to your aim without making others fail along the way, is preferable.

Don’t get me wrong, not all kinds of sports work like that, but definitely most competitive ones. The game, the joy, the fun and a good team spirit should guide our sons games. In fairness, whether they lose or win (does it always have to be one or the other?) I am confident there are teams out there, who are achieving this, we need more of them!

I want my sons to grow up to become gentle, empathic and kind men. Men who love and respect their partner and children. Men who treat other women, men and transgender with tolerance and kindness. Men who can listen and reflect before they speak. Men who are confident and strong without polishing their ego. Men who truly have something to give. As I am working on becoming one of those, I hope my children will copy and follow me into a more peaceful future.

Read further and get your copy of my book ‘The Empathic Father’

This article was originally published in The Natural Parent Magazine (June 2015)

Interested in more? Enjoy my Love-Letter video to my sons:
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My Son Wants A New Doll…

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My son wants a new doll, he has given his other one’s to his younger siblings. Now, he would like a more “grown up” one. One that is a bit more like him.

I find an Internet store selling nice dolls and they even have a “eco-friendly” box you can tick to select one you like from that range. However, I am not quite clear what they mean by “eco-friendly” and decide to ring them. The conversation goes as follows:

Me: Oh hello, I would like to find out what the criteria for your “eco -friendly” dolls are? I assume they are all phthalate-free?

Shop-owner: Oh yes, they are all phthalate-free. The dolls in the eco-friendly section have all been made in Europe, but they are all made of the same materials, more or less.

Me: Ah, great. Good to know. Then we could choose one from that range…

Shop-owner (interrupts me… wanting to help me choose): How old is the girl you would like to buy a doll for?

Me: Ah, ehm, my son is seven.

Shop-owner: Oh. (Pause) That’s good you are buying a doll for your son.

Me: Eh… yes. He has outgrown his other one’s and would like a new one and I thought I try and buy one that’s as eco-friendly as possible.

Shop-owner: Yes, we have very nice boy dolls. Have you seen our pirate boy doll on the website?

Me: Yes, he doesn’t like that one. He doesn’t really like pirates and dolls with short hair.

Shop-owner: Oh, but that brand has other boy dolls, I could order some in for you.

Me: Hm… he would like the doll to sort of look similar to him and he has long hair and all the boy dolls have short hair.

Shop-owner: Oh. Well, you could also buy boy clothes…

Me: But, he likes their beautiful dresses. And seeing that he likes wearing dresses too…. and anyhow, I guess the dolls you are selling, well most of them, could really be boy or girl as they don’t have body parts anyway, have they?

Shop-owner: No, that’s true. Hm… you have quite a character there *laughs*

Me: Eh!? Yeah…

Then she proceeded to explain more about the different brands and that some of their dolls are made in China and how some are shipped from China to America, then to Europe and which one’s she liked best. Bla, bla, bla.

In the end it left me feeling a bit odd. My son had also listened to the conversation (being so excited about finally getting his doll…) and I felt sad he had to listen to his dad AGAIN having to explain to others that really boys can like dresses and long hair and dolls, too. Does he feel he is not normal, that his dad has to explain his choices to others? How different would the conversation have been had I said the doll is for my daughter?

IMG_3223Why don’t toy shops sell dolls? Just dolls. Rather than boy or girl dolls? Why have some dolls “make up” on, i.e. red painted lips and dark eyelashes, very rosy cheeks etc.? Yes, can you hear me Mattel? It’s not good enough to have a boy in your ads, the actual problem lies in the doll itself. Barbie doesn’t look very natural to me.

Apparently, children at the age of my son, want dolls as an identification figure. But the only dolls I can find that, sort of, look like him (meaning having long hair) are “girls”. Well, I try and pretend they aren’t but they all have a female name and many very gendered clothing.

However, maybe the more we speak to toy shop owners directly, the more they will think: it’s not just the odd one out. The one weird child… there must be others, like my son! Well, I don’t care if not, he is definitely wonderfully unique, and just right the way he is!

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That’s How I Deal With My Children’s Meltdowns, Tantrums And Hard Times

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In German we have a saying that goes like this: ‘Wobbly tooth, wobbly soul’. My eldest, who is seven, has at least three wobbly teeth at the moment. That gives you an idea about his emotional balance. Or should I say imbalance? His unpredictable mood swings feel like a hard ride on one of those very big rollercoasters. Each yeeeaaaaaahhhh-that’s -so-much-fun-moment, follows an oooooh-noooooo-crash. Or the other way around. Or just many oooooh-noooooo-crashes at once.

Most children will go through them: meltdowns, tantrums, emotional breakdowns. And it’s always up to us parents how we deal with them. And, yes, it’s not only the typical two-year-old who throws herself onto the floor in protest; it can happen to your seven-year-old or teenager too (well, maybe not the throwing-onto-the-floor-thing anymore).

As I said, my eldest is not quite himself at the moment. He gets very tense and easily frustrated when he thinks he can’t do something (he’s into chemical experiments right now, and yes, you need a lot of patience there). He will scream and shout or just have another (aggressive) argument with his younger brother. All that and more usually between 8am and 8pm. Every day. And here comes the challenge: when he gets loud, aggressive or frustrated, then my initial feeling is – he needs my help and I’m right there to support him. But this becomes such a hard task when it goes on and on. By the afternoon and after a few of those meltdowns, my first inner response is something like ‘Stop!!! I can’t take this anymore! Leave your brother alone!’ And the like. Not very empathic, eh?

I admit that often enough I feel exactly like that: instead of pouring empathy, love and kindness into my son’s empty glass of emotions, I would give him a stern look and a firm ‘stop’ or ‘no’. The trouble here is, my firmness (or helplessness) won’t give him what he actually needs and cries out for: connection and unconditional love. If he feels both of that he will be able to manoeuvre through all meltdowns and difficult times in the whole world. If not, he will probably feel guilty and might think something is wrong with him.

Giving my child lots of love when he’s behaving like a cage man? Yes. And the reasons are simple and indeed logical: My son does NOT want to annoy me or anyone else. That’s my mantra and it should be every parent’s. He is learning. Every day, every moment. He figures out about social interactions , boundaries, emotions, feelings, skills and so on. His meltdowns are cries for help, saying ‘Papa (or Mama, of course) I can’t take this anymore. I’m confused. I’m frightened. I missed you all day. I’m tired. I’m …’ well, pick your own.

You and I (the parents) have to come to terms with the fact that our children respond so much better to connection, love, and empathy than to commands, isolation, and blame. From observations and talking to parents I can say that many react to a child’s ‘misbehaviour’ by sending the child to his bedroom. That goes with the message he should do some THINKING! Well, that is, quite frankly, bonkers. Why should an angry or upset seven-year-old suddenly start thinking like ‘oh yes, dad is right. I really screwed up here and I deserve sitting in my bedroom on my own. OK. I just calm down and then I go down to apologise.’? Really?

Connection, love and offering help is the better answer. Yes, your child might want and need his space for a moment. That’s often like that with my son. Before he is able to accept my closeness, he asks for his own space. And I have to respect hat. But that also means I’m still there for him if he wishes to connect.

Recently I attended a brilliant talk by Parenting by Connection Instructor Stephanie Parker (Hand in Hand Parenting). She talked about great tools and strategies in staying close and supportive when your child is going through difficult times. She stressed the importance of being there. Offering hugs and cuddles. Don’t leave your child alone or sent him away. Even if he chooses to be in his bedroom, you can wait by the door and say things like ‘I’m here for you. I love you.’

DadsTalkBlueAnother great idea Hand-in-Hand Parenting suggest, is to have Special Time with your child. It can be as simple as having five, ten, or fifteen minutes of undisturbed playtime. And, here comes the trick, your child is in charge. He is the boss telling you what you both do at Special Time. If he wants to play his favourite game with his made-up-rules, it’s your call. Of course, Special Time doesn’t mean you do dangerous things or spend £2,000 on toys at online shops. No. Special Time gives your child the chance to feel more empowered (how often is it the other way around?). And for you it’s a beautiful moment to truly (re)connect with him. It’s like filling up your child’s emotional cup with confidence, love, and trust. Using Special Time regularly can help to prevent meltdowns and tantrums.

Another way to show a more positive attitude is something psychologist Oliver James calls “Love Bombing”.

It could work like this: Spend this Saturday with the motto ‘Let your child decide!’ Yes, everything: from when he wants to get up in the morning (hey, he might choose to stay in bed until lunchtime, so you have the morning to yourself), then the activities he chooses for the daytime, his favourite food, to the point he decides it’s bedtime (agreed, it could be late!).

Oliver James says “I developed Love Bombing to reset the emotional thermostats of children aged from 3 to puberty. It gives your child a very intense, condensed experience of feeling completely loved and completely in control”. He advises to have a go at Love Bombing for a day or two or even a shorter period, followed by daily half hour slots devoted to it.

Both ideas can help you and me to feel more connected to our children. I’ve tried them and I can assure you that my son (and other children too) always felt so much lighter, happier and confident afterwards. Yes, tantrums and meltdowns are still part of my parenting journey and they always will be. I have to accept that and breathe calmly through those moments. When I see him arguing and fighting with his younger brother, then I remember that he is preparing for social interactions in the real world. At home he can test out things safely.

However, I also feel I am allowed, every now and then, to voice my feelings about his tantrums, too. Maybe not right there in the moment, if that doesn’t feel right. But it’s authentic and important to let our children know the effect their behaviour has on other family members. So, for example, I can say: ‘I feel unable to listen to you at the moment. My head hurts and I need some space for myself right now. Later on we can talk again (have a cuddle, enjoy a story together…etc.).’

And, again, my son is NOT meaning to annoy me. He’s not giving me a difficult time, he is going through one. I need to be there to hold and hug him (if he wants to be hold). Reassuring and loving words will guide him. And, yes, the wobbly teeth and wobbly-soul-moments will pass.

Wanna read further? Get my book ‘The Empathic Father’.

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My Dear Gentle Boys…

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My Dear Gentle Boys,

I can’t believe that you’re already four and seven years old. Where has that time gone? Didn’t you just crawl over the kitchen floor and made your first wobbly steps? It feels like yesterday when you said your first words, and I remember exactly the moment I saw you both dancing together in the garden.

Time flies. And that’s OK. Because now you’re not the Little Ones anymore. Soon another baby will be with us. All of us. And I know how exited you are. I feel the same. That bubbly, fizzy, I-need-to-jump-up-and-down feeling inside our tummies. Like a balloon just before it bursts.

You are unique and perfect to me. When I’m around you I can feel all your positive, creative energy and love. I listen to your stories and watch you dancing. I cuddle up with you or we rough house on the bed. I see all rainbow colours in your eyes when you laugh and I hold you tight when you cry.

You explore the world every day. Bravely you climb the highest trees and you will never stop asking questions until you are satisfied with the answer. Yes, you scream and stomp your feet when things go wrong. But you don’t give up. Every day I see you try again.

You surprise me . Your thoughts and the way you care. When I mess up, you forgive quickly. Yes, you fight with each other too, but you also create an inner peace and harmony in the blink of an eye. Your respect for others make this world a better place.

Here and now I want to pause for a moment and just tell you how much I love you.

Let’s keep walking together. You, Mama and I – and, of course, our little girl to come. I’ll be there for you, behind you, next to you. Keep your clear and critical mind. Don’t feel judged by people who tell you how and what boys should look like or how they should behave. You are strong. You are gentle. Keep playing with the toys you enjoy, care for your dolls as you would care for a baby. Wear the colours you like – let it be pink if you choose to. Whether your hair is long or short; whether you wear ‘girls’ sandals or not; whether you play football or skipping rope – I don’t care. What I care for is your happiness and health.

Let’s keep talking. I love sharing my thoughts and dreams with you. Your stories matter to me. Yes, sometimes I get lost in your tales. Then you roll your eyes and start patiently all over again. Until I understand.

Let’s keep dancing together. Turning up the music and dancing through the house. Getting the musical instruments out and having a spontaneous party. You dress up as fairies and I get three free wishes. You hold my hands and I swing you through the air. We are one.

No super hero on your shirt, no toy gun in your hand, no merchandise poisoning your mind. You don’t need them and never missed them either.

Real feelings, real love, real boys instead. You got me. You got Mama. You got our unconditional love. Forever.

In Love,

Your Father


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