Those of you who have been hanging out here for awhile have probably already met my dear friend Bruce Dolin. Not only is Bruce a husband, father of two sons (at least one of whom “is able to use an electric hand-dryer”*), clinical psychologist, former director and screenwriter, blogger, and the author of my all-time favorite blog post (which I managed to trick him into publishing here…cue evil laughter), but he is also the author of the new book, Privilege of Parenting: On Becoming Our Best Selves Through Raising Children.
Those of you who have been hanging out here for awhile probably also know that I am generally not a big fan of parenting books. Indeed, the only thing I know for sure about parenting is that there is no one way to do any of this. And that’s why I love Bruce’s book so much: he doesn’t promise a child-care equivalent of a Get Rich Quick scheme. Instead he admits upfront, “The art of parenting is not so much knowing what to do, as it is consistently doing it,” and goes on to explain that his book “is not so much a ‘how-to’ book as it is ‘why-to.’ The more deeply we understand each other, ourselves and our children, the more we are able to be our best Self in parenting and all our endeavors.”
So how does Bruce go about helping us understand ourselves, each other, and our kids? By tapping into his nearly two decades of experience as a clinical psychologist in the “system” and in private practice (not to mention as a partner and as a dad) to tell stories that skillfully illustrate his ideas. We meet Lenny, a foul-mouthed group home kid of questionable hygiene, to learn about the importance of trying to understand rather than change. And Allison, a sweet 11-year old left out of the “cool” girl’s sleepover party, to illuminate the connection between self-esteem and kindness. And Joseph, a sweet, developmentally disabled boy on the cusp of adulthood, to reflect on “our essential task as human beings: loving presence to the moment and all it contains.” Bruce also mines his exhaustive knowledge of film and literature to give us other lessons from sources as wide-ranging as Atticus Finch, Mary Poppins, and Mr. Henshaw (to whom I wrote a letter in grade school and received in reply a postcard from Beverly Cleary…but that’s a story for another time).
Among the many images and lessons from Bruce’s book that I will carry with me as I continue to grow up alongside my kids is that of the bowl. Bruce explains,
As parents we invariably need to be present to our children, as a psychological bowl, to help hold whatever they cannot – such as intense sadness. One way to think about depression is as sadness without a bowl to contain it, so that even a small amount of sorrow can become overwhelming…
Paying sincere attention to our child and their feelings offers a way out; being understood helps a child form a self and this empowers them to contain their own sadness rather than feel engulfed by it, which is like drowning in fear and isolation…Dealing with sadness in those we love, especially children, can be emotionally very hard but is also very rewarding when we see their spirits lift again, and when we see them grow strong and solid through years of being understood and loved.
Although I am fortunate not to have dealt with sadness intense enough to be considered depression in any of my kids, I find the idea of the bowl to be a powerful one. And it’s one that I turn to frequently when one of the boys is having a tantrum. While holding them and trying to comfort them, I’ve even gone so far as to imagine myself as a bowl trying to contain all of their anger, sadness, and frustration – whether it be due to low blood sugar or a smashed Lego tower. As I try to contain and understand, I do my best to employ what Bruce calls “our penultimate parenting tool – the ability to hold, to bear compassionate witness, and to simply be with our children.”
I bought Bruce’s book on the day it was published last December. I then read it through cover to cover. Since then, I have dipped back in before bed each night to read a page or two to find inspiration and camaraderie as I try to parent mindfully. From his graceful writing and powerful examples to his gentle sense of humor and helpful exercises to consider, Bruce offers us parents a powerful tool to create for ourselves and our kids “good feelings that last.”
*Impressive, huh? See Chapter 6 to learn how Bruce managed this feat and to hear more of his other thoughts on calming anxious kids.