Balancing the Head and the Heart as Parents

One of the values expressed in our culture is a belief that thinking is of a higher value than feeling. As human processes, thinking and feeling are often put at opposite ends of the spectrum. We value rationality and logic. Our school systems mirror this hierarchy as well.

Children are often described as emotional and irrational beings. Part of our socialization of children involves the long process of teaching children how to control their emotions so that they are better able to navigate the world from a rational stance.

In many ways, we ignore the role of feeling and emotion in the learning process. We are taught that learning occurs through engaging our minds.

On the other hand, transformative learning, learning that changes the ways in which we see the world, that expands our world-view and causes us to rethink our previously held beliefs, values, and actions, is holistic. It engages the whole-person. It requires attention to both feelings and thoughts.

Transformative learning requires us examine previously unexamined beliefs and values, through a process that brings together our feelings, thoughts and experiences.

In my experience of facilitating transformative learning with students, real change (transformation) occurred when students were able to connect to how they felt in addition to using their capacity for critical thinking. Another critical aspect of this process is to be able to take in another’s perspective.

We often think of perspective taking as a cognitive (thinking) process. It may involve creating shared understanding of someone’s experience, but it goes deeper, to a felt sense of another’s experience. When we are engaged with others in this learning process, we are learning within the relationships from our differences.

As parents, we have many opportunities for learning and growth. We are learning within our relationships with children. This learning is prompted by the ways in which we are very different as adults and as children.

Though we may have much in common, it is our differences that prompt the challenges in our relationships and, in turn, promote our learning.

If our goal is to have a deeper understanding of our different experiences and world-views as children and adults, we need to engage in learning that is holistic (engages the whole person) and that balances thinking and feeling.

If we hope to develop authentic, deep relationships that honor who we are and who our children are, we must engage in transformative learning.

When children behave in ways that make us uncomfortable, we are challenged to critically reflect on our experiences as children and parents. Rather than pushing away this discomfort, we could feel it and begin to explore the source of the discomfort.

Does it come from the ways we were required to behave as children?

Does it come from some need that was not met when we were growing up?

It is also critically important for us as parent to share a felt sense of children’s experience. Often I spend a lot of time trying to make meaning of whatever Martel or Greyson are experiencing.

Meaning making is a cognitive, thinking process. I examine the experience, connect it to other experiences they have had, try to imagine how I might feel in the same situation and attach meaning to the experience.

Although this is an important part of my growth as a parent, too often, I focus on making meaning to the exclusion of feeling in the moment.

Sharing a felt sense of experience is about being in the moment and feeling what is happening.* In essence, we attune ourselves to the feelings of our children through being present in whatever feelings are occurring.

I was reminded of this when the youngest child in my life and I went to the store. He wanted very badly to buy a particular toy that we couldn’t afford to buy that week. I happened to have a lot of patience that day and was able to be with him wanting this toy and not being able to buy it without reacting emotionally.

We spent about 10 minutes next to the toy with him insisting we buy it and with me responding that we couldn’t afford it get that week (or some such variation on this theme).

As this went on, I kept thinking about the ways in which this situation was difficult for him.

How frustrating it must be for him to not get something he wanted right then, when other times we’ve been able to buy things he wanted. How this inconsistency in our ability to buy things might be confusing.

I was in my head, thinking about all these things, in essence, making meaning of his experience and connecting it to my own experiences.

At some point I was inspired to ask him if he wanted to sit down with me and have me hold him. He came over and we sat together in an out of the way spot. He was sobbing and trying to catch his breath.

I just held him. I stopped thinking about the how, the why, the cause, or the effect. Rather than thinking about what this meant for him, I just shared the felt sense of his experience.

Time suddenly seemed to stand still. We sat together holding each other. Then he put his head on my lap and I stroked his hair. He stopped crying and his breathing slowed down. I’m not sure how long we were there. Eventually he sat up and said he was ready to go.

I realized that I have spent many, many years mastering analysis and reflection. But, what I often lack is a deeper connection that comes from just being in the feelings with the children in my life. Or being in my own feelings.

I go too quickly to my head instead of staying in my heart with them. I can use the feeling to balance the thinking. I can embrace different ways of knowing in the moment, remembering to just feel.

*Lyle Yorks and Elizabeth Kasl “Toward a Theory and Practice for Whole-Person Learning: Reconceptualizing Experience and the Role of Affect” Adult Education Quarterly 2002 52, 243.

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