Letter: Doing The Work with Children

Here’s a letter from a friend about her children doing The Work. If any of you have stories about your children doing The Work, I invite you to post them.

Dear Katie,

I wanted to tell you about how we used the conflict resolution method of doing The Work with our children this Thanksgiving.

Claire, 15, and Zeffi, almost 9, were arguing, and the words and tones I heard from them felt tediously familiar. I started talking and my husband entered the room with his decisive, take-action energy and told me I had missed an entire episode of Claire-Zeffi dynamics the previous day. He asked them both what they planned to do about this, because an old pattern that we’d certainly looked at and talked about plenty just wasn’t budging. Everyone looked at him. Something they planned to do?

There was a confused moment when both girls started telling their story at once and Ravi stopped them and declared that we were absolutely not going to let this go on and we were going to do something about it right now. Both girls looked miserable. We had talked to them, pointed out patterns, pointed out alternatives to their habitual behaviors, asked how they would feel if . . ., and even done The Work with them separately on thoughts they had about each other.

I don’t know why I’d never thought of this before, probably because it seemed such a formal approach, but in that moment the conflict resolution approach to The Work rose to the surface of my awareness. So I said at once that all I could see for them to do was to fill out a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet about each other then do The Work together, with the parents facilitating. Ravi’s immediate reaction was “Let’s do it.” Zeffi agreed. Claire took a breath and said, “Ooooh-kay.”

She filled out her sheet where I was working toward our feast in the kitchen, and Zeffi went to the living room with Papa so that he could be her scribe. She cheerfully dictated all her judgments about Claire for him to write down.

Children are so good at filling out JYN sheets, and you don’t have to instruct them not to be spiritual or mature or nudge them toward pettiness. They’re just so happy to be completely honest. After Claire filled out hers, she did find herself a bit thrown off by the level of honesty she was reading back on her sheet. “This is mean,” she said. “I’m supposed to read this to her? I know I’m mean to Zeffi, but this is really mean to just sit here and read all this out loud to her.”

I told her that mean, just as she’d said, was the way she treated Z when she was living out of those thoughts she just wrote down. Everything on that sheet represented her thinking about Zeffi; the way she treated Zeffi didn’t come out of nowhere, it came out of those thoughts. The JYN sheet isn’t mean; it’s the place where we take the story in our mind and pin it down on paper. There, we can see it very clearly. Then when we do The Work on those thoughts, we’re on the road to seeing things differently. Behaving differently follows naturally.

So on Thanksgiving, as I chopped and sliced and mixed and spiced, my daughters sat with me and did The Work on each other. Ravi took the not-unpleasant job of playing with Gaelen in the living room to give us the space we needed.

Zeffi read her sheet first and Claire said thank-you for each item. I asked her to take each piece in and try to find it, and assured her she didn’t have to find it. She could just look and see what she saw. And whether she found it or not, she was to say thank-you. She did this. Sometimes she laughed at something Zeffi had written. I had to interpret Papa’s handwriting a couple of times. Claire was very patient with this.

Then Claire read hers to Zeffi. I saw what she meant about being mean and did have a few flashes of concern over how Zeffi would manage receiving harsh thoughts about herself. I found that what I had told Claire earlier held true: Zeffi had already received all of this in what she and Claire lived together. She was fine sitting there hearing “Zeffi is an annoying brat” and saying thank-you. None of the ways I’ve seen her melt into distress or fly into rage in response to Claire even began to show up here. Her face was open, her eyes were serious, she was fully present. And, as had happened with Claire, laughter just burst out of her a couple times: For her sister’s perception? Or the way it was phrased? I can’t say. I did have a strong sense of both girls being alive and alert.

Zeffi volunteered to be facilitated first. This was perfect. It addressed at the onset Claire’s frustration about having to work harder than Zeffi. In this story, Claire feels we, her parents, blame her more and expect her to take more responsibility. And in part, this is true. With The Work, both girls took turns looking at their thoughts and taking responsibility for them with the turnarounds. Both girls heard each other explore her own thinking and the effects of that thinking. They saw how the unhappy thoughts didn’t merely cause fighting between them but caused each girl to be unhappy in herself and usually to feel bad about herself and dislike her own behaviors. With The Work, both girls worked on themselves and their own thinking equally.

Claire explored her responsibility deeply, even before the turnarounds. She found that Zeffi couldn’t possibly tell on her but could only tell her story. When Claire ran after her to defend herself and tell her version, that was the moment it became “Zeffi telling on Claire.” Amazing clarity. She also looked deeply at the turnaround to herself—how she told on herself. Here and throughout The Work we did that morning, she was surprised to find that most of the statements she was exploring held something for her about her entire life, not just life with Zeffi. She found ways she told on herself with her friends, exposing or shaming herself by telling things about herself she would better keep to herself. She found ways that she told on herself to her parents, about things unrelated to Zeffi. At fifteen, Claire is fully capable of understanding the mirror principle, that Zeffi shows up only as her mirror so she can look at something in herself and see how it operates in every aspect of her life.

Zeffi’s Work was more directly about Claire. For her, the magic happens with finding very concrete answers to number 3 and very concrete examples of the turnarounds. One thing I love about doing The Work with Z at her age now is that it shows me the process at its simplest. We’re just asking and answering questions. The answers are simple and pure and honest: when I believe this thought, I get mad and I want to hit her and sometimes I do hit her. I try to make her mad. I ignore her when she says stop. I hate her. I feel bad. I don’t like myself.

I also love the purity of the answers to 4 in Work with a 9-year-old. Who would you be if you couldn’t believe that Claire excludes you with Gaelen? Zeffi shrugs. I’d be fine. I’d just go do something I want to do. It reminds me of how easy it all is, really.

I took Zeffi and Claire through one long exploration each. We did the first statement on Zeffi’s list, and Claire chose one that seemed the most potent to her. From there, we went through the sheets doing turnarounds, though I think I did a couple of quickies—when a statement seemed especially rich, or in a different vein from the others, I asked the four questions briefly and moved into the turnarounds from there.

Zeffi and Claire did not fall weeping into each other’s arms at the end of the process and swear to be sweet to each other for the rest of all time. What did happen was that they both left feeling very solid, present, and calm. They both had a lot to be with after the process, and it was fascinating how it was no longer about Claire and Zeffi. It was about Claire for Claire and it was about Zeffi for Zeffi. For me, it was about falling more in love with The Work and with my amazing daughters.

Zeffi had trouble staying put at some point in our process and actually wandered into the other room to see what Papa and Gaelen were doing. Claire and I were so focused on what we were then looking at that neither of us responded to this initially, then Claire said, “Uh, is Zeffi coming back?” I asked Z to bring in her drawing pad and pencils and told her to stay here with us during the process and to feel free to draw the whole time. Z is capable of drawing for at least two hours straight. This worked perfectly. The drawing gave her a focus and a structure that held her while she gave her mind to the inquiry process. I didn’t learn until days later that what she chose to draw was a picture of Claire going off with Gaelen and the dog, above which she wrote, “No you can’t play Zeffi Go that way.”

If we had done this four years ago I would have given Zeffi a catalog and a pair of scissors. She used to sit still for nothing except cutting. She could go-go-go and move and talk all day, but with a pair of scissors in hand she would drop into perfect stillness except for her little hands intently following the shapes as she extracted them from a page. I would now recommend to any parent sitting down with a serious inquiry project to find whatever works best for the particular child and use this tactic of keeping hands busy and eyes focused so that the mind and body can be still for The Work.

The one thing I noticed about doing The Work with Claire and Zeffi in this situation as compared to Working with two adults was that I gave them a lot of praise. I told them often they were doing great Work. I told them when I thought something they’d located was a great find, and then stayed quiet a moment for them to take that in. All of this was completely genuine.

I don’t know how long we hung in there exactly, but my husband and I both estimate two hours. This may sound like an insanely long time to do this with children, but they were fine with it. They were completely immersed in the process. Truly, they were just as tired of the issue as we were. And finally, they would rather do The Work for two hours than be on the receiving end of five minutes of tense and angry lecturing or fifteen minutes of restrained and reasonable lecturing from their parents. The children can see just as we can that The Work takes them through a process to know themselves that is actually interesting to them, leads them to new insights, and leaves them feeling better. Lecturing can sometimes lead to new insights, usually later when some bit of wisdom breaks off from the rest and sinks in, but they hate it. They feel attacked or at the very least overwhelmed and dictated to. In no way do they find it interesting and they do not feel better—sometimes feel worse—when it’s over.

That’s my report.

Love, Jaya


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