Helping Your Child between ABM Lessons

Parents can teach “I Wonder” to help their children Learn.

Today I was working with a parent who gave me the opportunity to explain why we don’t ask our kids to “fix” things like their turned in foot, their sitting position, etc.

Parents need to be able guide their children and find solutions when they know that something is not going in the right direction. That’s our job, right? It seems intuitive to just ask your child to try not to turn in their foot. It might even look successful if they understand what your are asking. What could be negative about that?

I gave a couple of examples of what will occur.

Picture a child slouching at the table. Mom wants to guide her child to be upright and strong. Strong people do not have their shoulders forward so she says “put your shoulders back”. If the child fixes themselves this way, a new odd posture is formed that is about having shoulders back, not about being tall and upright. Tall and upright are an internal feeling. Shoulders going back out of context because of an external instruction ruins posture that is based on YOUR brain figuring out what feeling tall looks like.

Try this yourself. Slouch, and without changing your spine, pelvis, or head, follow the instruction to put your shoulders back. Why would anyone do this? I have seen elderly people walking down the street this way. They did not choose it. Well, what you experienced is an exaggeration of the response that people have to external ‘fixing” when you “put your shoulders back”. The result you felt is a lot of extra work. A child would probably not hold the rest of themselves extremely still while putting shoulders back, but the overriding of their own brain’s solution still happens.  Over time it being able to feel recedes in the face of so much external instruction and pressure.

I have seen the same dynamic in dance instruction. Most people have seen video of Mikhail Baryshnikov flying through the air effortlessly. He has mastered the ability to leap high in the air across the stage looking elegant and graceful. He could not have done this by following someone else’s instruction about how to move. He has to have the internal feeling of lightness and balance of efforts throughout his body and actions. There are many many dance teachers and varying levels of training of these instructors. Some dance instructors teach their students to focus on building the skill of feeling internally what they are doing. Those are fortunate students who are building awareness of themselves. Others, like the mom who thought she had the solution that would make her child “look” tall and strong, teach their students to copy a look. “Lift your chest” “Turn out your leg”, etc. Their students will be busy checking to see if they have followed external instructions rather than developing the feeling needed to fly like Mikhail Baryshnikov.

So the child told to make sure their foot doesn’t “turn in” will find a solution in a part of themselves that they can control. Their internal voice takes on the mother role overriding their natural solutions. They will add another layer of muscle contraction over what they are already doing to try to find stability. Their foot might look more straight forward. The concern is how are they achieving that aim?

Going back to the dancer example. Ballet dancers are encouraged to “turn out” their pointed foot. This is a look that occurs from the use of the low back and hip when someone is well organized for the dance movements. That means they are doing big power with big muscles, and distributing the work of their action over their entire body. Some teachers recognize this and train their students well. Others seek to achieve the “look” of turn out by focusing on the foot. The student in the second case usually tries to comply by strongly contracting the muscles of their lower leg in a fixed position that rotates their foot. I have worked with many dancers with rock solid muscles in this area of their leg. They never stop contracting those muscles because the contraction is not connected to an internal feeling of doing a certain action. Dancing is movement distributed over the entire self to feel and look easy and effortless. To have one part held rigidly contracted like this is going to be very limiting.

The child turning their foot in is doing the best organization they can for the information they have available to them. More information is needed about the shape of their form, the relationships between their parts, and how not to keep muscles chronically contracted and therefore unavailable to help with standing and walking. They need more information and more experience that they can learn from. They have gaps in their knowledge. I hope they have a teacher available to help them learn and understand whatis missing for them. Asking them to try again, practice what they are already doing poorly, or fix the “look”, does not take into account the gap in their knowledge and experience. Maybe they have an Anat Baniel Method teacher, a Feldenkrais teacher, or any other professional who knows this is a learning issue, and knows how to help new learning occur. That will give them new possibilities.

So, what do parents do to be helpful on a daily basis? Sometimes the most important thing is what you DON’T do. It is not worth risking your child’s ability to sense and feel themselves to nag about a body part. Remember, their brain is doing the best that it can with the information that it has. Don’t become the watch dog making your child feel like they are constantly being monitored and corrected. Until learning happens their way of moving is not going to change so reminders will need to occur 24/7. Find that helpful teacher. If you don’t, then be prepared to follow your child into adulthood reminding them to “fix your foot”.  OR they might internalize your voice and a part of their brain will always be telling them they are not doing it well enough, OR they will grow up to rebel against this coercion as an adult. None of these are good solutions.

What CAN you do? This parent I was working with had taken video of their child doing a new skill, running. They did it to enjoy watching it with their child and all of them were very excited that he could now run. When watching the video together the child said – “look how my right foot is not going straight”. Yay for awareness and observation!! They gently suggested if he did it again he might be able to do it with a straighter foot, and he WAS successful according to their measurement. The next video showed the foot straighter. I know that meant he was working with his brain and body to keep his foot straight. He was overriding the solution his system had said was the best and safest. He told himself to ignore those feeling messages and “think” himself into a better foot position.

I suggested that next time they have the opportunity, they acknowledge the foot position. They could ask him some questions to help bring more awareness to how it felt. It might look something like this:

“my right foot is not straight”

“you are right! I see that too” 

“Does your left foot feel different from your right foot when you run? How about when you stand on one foot or hop? How does it feel? Solid? Shaky? Easy? Hard? That is very interesting. Which one do you like the best?” “I WONDER if your right foot could learn to feel more like your left foot?” (assuming he prefers left). They would be making a suggestion that things could change and opening that door in their child’s thinking.

Next, I would suggest doing the running with some variation like stepping onto foot prints, or over a line, or with one brace off and one brace on, running backwards, etc. Any new component will cause the brain to seek a new solution and children see this as fun. It takes away the “success or failure” component. Running in one certain way has become an answer to a problem. It is the solution to “how do I run”. The goal is to wake up the brain to a new challenge and re-open that conversation that has been finished. That is when there will be an opportunity to upgrade. With the new awareness, and hopefully the new information gained in movement lessons, opening the conversation whenever there is an opportunity gives the chance to include the new information between lessons and for improvement to happen.

The same day we discussed how to help their child experiment we had a lot of focus on the difference between “guessing” vs “knowing”. This is a learned concept that every child acquires. It is part of understanding make believe, knowing what is made up and what is truth, becoming an accurate reporter of events, etc. The learning the difference can be a very fun time and the great thing about it is there is no success or failure. When you GLUESS you then check yourself and see was I right or not? It is anticipating what the book will be about based on the cover, or what will happen next in the story, then finding out what really happened. Once you have read the book then you KNOW. 

I pointed out the similarity in these two things, Guessing/Knowing and Re-Opening the Conversation by WONDERING. In both cases you NOTICE DETAILS and you WONDER.  Both take the stress out of being right or wrong, they send the message that curiosity and exploration are the most valuable skills to develop. The focus is not on the final product but on the experience. This is where learning lives, and learning is how we change.