How Parenting Can Skin You to the Bone “Just Shrink About It!” Guest Post - Wisdom from Dr. Viktor Frankl

Please enjoy my Guest Post on Just Shrink About It! By José Briones (Link is down, so I’ve posted full text below.)


How Parenting Can Skin You to the Bone, and How Staring Down a Tree Can Help. Lessons from Dr. Viktor Frankl  

The Dilemma:

Parenting can be a rugged business. It's visceral, immediate, messy and unrelenting.  

Have you ever attempted to buckle 3 carseated tots into the back of a 5-seater sedan? How do you stifle the primal scream that threatens to erupt from the depths of your being?

How do you quell the blast of irritation that begins to bubble when your three year old asks for the 27th time to play a drawing game on your phone while you're nursing the baby with one hand and emailing your fourth-grader's teacher with the other?

And what about your tween's inevitable eye rolls  

when you simply ask her to come help clear the table?

I currently have a 1, a 2, and a 3 year old, a 17, 18 & 19 year old and 5 more school agers in between. I get you. 

We LOVE OUR KIDS, yet do you ever feel that your only two options are to stifle or explode?  I know I do.  I titled this "skin you to the bone", because sometimes I just feel like a naked, out-of-control animal. Full stop.

Once, in my studies at Rudolf Steiner College, my classmates and I were asked to focus on a short section of Rudolf Steiner's writing, and listen for any insights that came. The words I read were, "...our whole life would flow along in monotonous indifference."  My thoughts then ran thus: My life is flowing along in monotonous indifference. I'm so worried about getting angry at my kids that I've simply turned off my feelings. What can I do?  I listened, and an answer came. Stay tuned, and I'll share.

The Teachings:

José has given us some excellent starting points for looking inward as parents, following some "principles of mindfulness," specifically, being in silence. Silence?! I'm a mom, what even is silence? Again, I get you, and I want to expand on that.

I recently reread Man's Search for Meaning by Dr. Viktor Frankl, and I was underlining like mad. I love to learn wisdom from people who are passed on. Do you know why? When I read writings that have survived their author, I feel that I'm connecting with something much more powerful and permanent than what's trending on twitter. Something worth living and dying for. That's why I like to include masterful teachings in my blog and children's books- I feel woven into the narrative of humanity. Here is one of Dr. Frankl's quotes:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

That space, parents, is what José has been talking to us about. That space is mindfulness.

And sometimes the space feels impossibly minuscule. Here's one tried and true way of spying out that elusive space and pouncing on it:

The Practice:

Again, at Rudolf Steiner College, I was given the assignment to observe a tree. Wait...what?! 

Yes. For a few minutes each day, say 5-15, I was to sit and put my attention on a tree. The same one each day. It's best to have a view of the whole tree. So, if you want to try it yourself, it's easier, of course, if it's in your backyard or at a not-too-crowded park you often pass by.  If your kids are old enough to play outside without interrupting you and without your eyes on them for 5 minutes, you are blessed. Or if you can make this a daily first priority for nap time, or have a helper take over, give it a go. It is certainly worth the effort. I like to use a simple kitchen timer, so I can completely focus on the tree until I hear the signal, or you can use your phone timer and turn on "do not disturb," if you have the strength to leave it alone for a few minutes.

Simply sit and attend to the tree as if you were in the presence of a best friend who needed to confide in you. When you notice your thoughts wander, and THEY WILL, don't berate yourself. Just relax, and think, "Oh, yes, back to the tree." Let your eyes take in all of its various aspects, quietly, trying to hush any inner commentary and instead, "listening," as it were, to your friend, the tree.  Ok, now you're getting weird, Summer. Just trust me. Repeat until your timer goes off. You may wish to start very small and gradually add minutes until you reach your daily workable limit.

The Outcome:

Results are as many and varied as the people who try it. In any practice of meditation as one attempts to observe thoughts and train attention, the usual outcomes are increased patience and calmness, with decreased anger and irritability. This is true because zeroing in on that "space" and learning what goes on there gives us greater ability to participate and move things in more helpful directions. This can certainly happen with this exercise as well, as you keep it up.

But let me tell you what else a tree brings to the table. 

How can you focus your attention on a tree for any real amount of time without becoming aware that some kind of ineffable power is causing its growth? Whatever your religious or spiritual leanings, you can't fail to perceive that there is life in it! Growth and interaction with its environment are ever present. Whatever science has uncovered, the spark of life yet retains an element of mystery, inspiring reverence in the observer.  You may notice, as I did, a precise pattern of "intended perfection" in the tree's growth, that becomes challenged by the particular conditions of its environment, and that the real beauty emerges in the struggle between them.  You will likely find, with practice, that answers to questions you've been struggling with for weeks, will simply float into your head, as you observe the branches and leaves of the tree- probably because they'd been waiting for a space to get a word in edgewise.

You might wonder what answer came to me when I asked my earlier question, "What can I do?" 

This is what came: 

Let the child be the tree.

In other words, look at the child with the same calm reverence you give the tree. Besides stifling or exploding, there is a 3rd alternative. Resetting. You can readjust your perspective and look at your child as a living, growing entity more worthy of awe than annoyance. I would not become angry with a tree for sending its branch in an odd direction, neither is it any use to become angry at the means a child has arrived at for coping with her circumstances.

Interestingly, Dr. Frankl describes in his book that he was deeply moved by a young woman in her final days of life who found comfort in watching a branch of a tree. Somewhat taken aback upon hearing her say that the tree "talks back" to her, he asked her what it said: "I am here-I am here-" was her reply, "I am life- eternal life".

The setting was a Nazi concentration camp, and he and the young woman were prisoners. If hope and encouragement could be found there, it is most certainly available to us. I wish you all the best in your struggles.

I want to thank José for his kindness in allowing me to post here. I welcome all feedback. At you'll find many ways to contact me. I would be deeply honored if you'd join my little band of email subscribers there. Thank you!