“Sometimes an insight is worth a life’s experience.”
—Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

One of the ways we can change our behavior is to have an insight and then work with that insight until it becomes a habit.

Research about the brain has informed my thinking about this:

  • We actually have insights frequently. Our minds are connection machines—continually taking thoughts stored in different parts of our brains and making a connection between those thoughts.
  • Energy is released upon having an insight, which helps propel us into action to capitalize on the insights we have.
  • The energy released that helps us get into action dissipates within a few hours, making it more likely that the insight itself will disappear.  This increases the importance of capturing our insights before we lose them.
  • It is easy to create new habits from our insights. It does require that we find ways to reinforce the insight by practicing.

This is useful information for most of us who might have been operating from the view that our insights automatically translate to new behavior.

Recently I exchanged some e-mail with a friend who is working on being a great mom for her teenage daughter and keeping track of her observations.

Here are several of Terri’s recent insights:

  • I’m finding out that parenting is more about what I learn about myself rather than what Ashley is supposed to do.
  • I am realizing that how I see things is much different from the way Ashley does.
  • I am learning to letting her finish her thoughts before I jump in.
  • She makes me rethink things—it gives her a sense of empowerment just to know that when she asks something, I don’t immediately have an answer, but that I will think about it.

I love Terri’s first insight. It reminds me that kids are not only reacting to us, but we are reacting to them. All relationships can be seen as a dance—one person leading and the other following—sometimes we initiate the conversation and other times we respond to a conversation. The point is to not to fall into a way of reacting that isn’t consistent with who we want to be in life.

These two notions, captured by the following questions, are compelling because they each provide another lens through which we can reflect upon our interactions with our kids:

  • Where and how am I reacting to my children?
  • What am I learning about myself? 

Since I don’t have daily interactions with my children or grandchildren, last night I reflected on a lifetime of interactions and rediscovered some of the insights I had over the years about myself when dealing with my children and grandchildren.

Here are a few that helped me move toward being who I wanted to be:

  • I was capable of being threatening to my kids when they were small even though I didn’t see myself as a scary person.
  • I had a difficult time letting my kids win at anything.
  • I could say things I don’t mean and I know I don’t mean them at the time I say them.
  • It was hard to say “I’m sorry.”
  • I was uncomfortable hugging.
  • I learned to cut way back on the teasing that might be hurtful.

I also had some more positive insights about myself:

  • I am very willing to set the rest of the world aside and take time with children.
  • I love watching kids learn and practice. It’s one of the best things to do in life.
  • I know I can’t truly understand their reality, but trying to understand means a lot to them.

Neuroscientists also say the best way to change behavior is to work with a single insight over time. Think about the term muscle memory. In disciplines such as yoga or golf, where you want to replicate a certain movement, repetition is critical to retaining the desired movement, especially under pressure. It’s not enough to know how to do something; you have to be able to feel the action physically and repeat it on demand.

“Hitting, a lot of times, is a feel thing,” Matt Holliday, St. Louis Cardinal outfielder, said. “You can hear it and see it, but until you feel that feeling—whether it’s through drills or just one day getting the swing to feel the right way—you won’t start repeating it. I felt like that was when I first began to understand it, feel it and repeat it.”

The same principle applies to many other areas of life where we haven’t given practice enough credit. In all fields of life, consistent practice is required to increase skill level: cooking, a tennis serve, knitting, keyboarding, video games. It’s no different with parenting skills. If you can capture the insights you have as you watch yourself respond to your kids, you can work with those insights until the behaviors become so ingrained, you are able to respond as you want to without even thinking about it.

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