Mikhail Lyubansky Ph.D.

Between the Lines

Parenting Without Threats, Coercion, Part 2

Filmmaker Ana Joanes talks about her new film, Taking Our Places

Posted Oct 30, 2014

This is part 2 of my chat with filmmaker Ana Joanes about her new documentary, Taking Our Places, which follows three families as they try to parent without threat or coercion, yet with the general philosophy that everyone's needs (both their children's and their own) matter. See part 1 of the interview here.

ML:  So, what stands out for you as you think about these three families and their experience with NVC parenting? I don't want you to give anything in the film away, but I'm curious about their experiences and what those experiences might imply for other parents thinking about parenting in this way.

Ana: I'll start by telling you what stands out for me about my experience filming families so intimately for such a long time (one family for over two years!). I think the most powerful aspect of shooting/making this movie is how so much of the loneliness and guilt associated with parenting has lifted for me. In public I'm often on my best behavior, but behind closed doors, that's when the worst of my parenting happens: yelling, bribing, nagging, guilt-tripping... I used to think that other parents have it more together, do it better, etc... One of the true gifts of this documentary is to witness these moments in others and realize how NOT alone I am in my humanity and short-comings.

Similarly, it's been incredible to listen to counseling sessions and realize how we ALL struggle with similar things. I think at first I was surprised that I could relate to almost everything that was discussed in counseling. Soon I found that listening to other people's counseling sessions was almost as good as getting my own! It's not that there's no difference between the families and me. We are very different people. It's that the coaching process helps identify feelings and, digging deeper, the universal needs that underlie all our emotions: we all experience anger, fear, sadness, frustration, envy, anxiety, etc driven by our needs for connection, safety, ease, competence, etc... And so, although I might not initially relate to the behavior or attitudes of a parent in my documentary (or my husband or children), I always can relate once their feelings and needs have been unearthed. I guess that for me, the most important and core aspect of NVC is this movement from judgment to compassion. In my own life, with my husband, children and with the participants in my documentary, I have experienced my heart opening by getting to understand the underlying needs motivating each one of us.

I think the families' experience with NVC very much parallels mine. First they thought this was all about learning a few new techniques for parenting more effectively. Then eventually they realized that it was a pretty major shift in the way they understand themselves and others. That realization was not always welcomed! In addition, when the parents first learned NVC principles they often ditched their other tools (time outs, consequences, etc.) without having built much of a practice and tool-set using NVC. As a result, at some point, they all felt like their life was heading into complete chaos and that NVC was really not working and was only nice in theory but totally not applicable in practice. They seemed to have the impression that they were shown why their more traditional parenting tools were probably not what they wanted to be using, without being given a workable alternative! Over time, they started to notice how it was transforming their relationships and the frustration turned into gratitude.

I think the frustration and struggles are also very important to show: When we choose to parent differently, moving beyond traditional parenting and toward partnership-based approach, the road is bumpy. None of us were raised this way and very few of us have had any exposure or practice in any of the skills necessary for communicating/parenting in that way. That's why it's a practice and that's why it truly takes time to integrate. It's also why we all do it differently and sometimes choose to hold on to some of the more traditional strategies that are working for us. I've been practicing NVC for almost 4 years now. In some ways, I've really become more proficient in it and in other ways, it's like I've never learned it at all! This is one of the reasons I am following these families for four years, so that we can see the impact over time of this shift in consciousness. 

The other reason is that many people believe that children raised in that way are going to be spoiled, among other fears that are associated with permissive parenting. There's nothing permissive about partnership-based parenting. But every one of us who has made this transition has run again the fear that, if we are not in control, then our children are. Following children over the course of four years has the potential to really dismiss these misconceptions. Imagine seeing children age 2 to 7 transform in front of the camera into competent, compassionate, problem-solving 6 to 11 years olds! What better proof could you get?

ML: You mentioned the value of counseling. I'm guessing that some of the parents reading this right now could use support of this kind. I know I can. Can you give us a sense of what a counseling session looks like and maybe even end with a few words of wisdom for parents looking to move away from demanding obedience.

Ana: I think coaching is the most amazing concept and one that is applied with incredible success in many professional fields such as education, medicine, and of course, sports. I think we know that although most professional athletes are gifted, they all need to practice every day and we know that they can’t stop practicing, no matter how good they get. But although the concept of practice and coaching are culturally ingrained when it comes to sports, we hold on to the mistaken beliefs that parenting is natural and instinctive. It’s not brain surgery after all, and it’s been going on since the beginning of time! In truth, parenting mindfully is anything but natural and instinctive.

We need to re-learn how we communicate -- not just how we talk, but how we listen, understand, share. I remember a conversation with a good friend who was raging about his boss. I said “I’m sorry you’re feeling so angry”. He replied “I’m not angry, my boss is angry, I’m just telling you what happened.” He had no idea what he was feeling and I think most of us, most of the time, have no idea either! From infancy we’ve been taught to disconnect from our feelings and needs.

Think of the toddler’s falling and the soothing words “you’re ok, you’re ok”... who doesn’t do this? but the child is not “ok”. She might be scarred from her fall, or feeling some pain from a scratch, or perhaps she is just frustrated because she was running and the fall stopped her play? Whatever it is, she doesnt’ get to learn about it if she is told that she is (read “must be”) ok and to shush.

Or take the little boy who calmly states “I hate grandma / little brother / etc”, and the immediate answer: “no you don’t, you know you love grandma/ little Henry/ whatever). And it’s all the cultural norm of acceptable behavior: boys don’t cry, girls don’t show anger, children behave and don’t show big emotions. In general negative emotions are pushed away, in ourselves and in our children.

So yes, we need instruction, coaching, and lots of practice! It starts with the yearning to do things differently, to have deep, connected, trusting, and joyful relationships with our loved ones (and with ourselves!!!). Once we feel this yearning then the work can really start. I’m hoping Taking Our Places will wake up or strengthen this yearning in many parents. And I’m developing the website (www.parentingthemovie.com) to give parents easy access to resources: articles, books, meet-up groups, online classes, coaches.

Once the movie is released, my goal is to have community screenings all over the U.S. and to facilitate the creation of support and coaching groups for parents interested in learning more. In the meantime, interested readers can also watch the Taking Our Places trailer and/or support the making of the film, which is funded primarily through individual contributions.

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