Michael Mendizza

Writer, Filmmaker

What Makes The Difference


Parenting, Playful Advice

What is it that makes my response to Carly Elizabeth different? Two things. First, I make sure that she knows that I see her for who she is, what is important to her this moment and what she is feeling, and second, I do my best to see that she does not feel wrong or blamed for what is happening.

I had the great good fortune to work with Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, producing basic and advanced training programs. This means that after the initial recording I sat with the material for hours as an editor. Usually something sinks in. One of the core messages Marshall shared is that everyone has feelings and needs and these must be acknowledged before we or they can hear and feel what others are saying. The greater the feelings and underlying needs the more important empathy becomes. The simple but often missed truth is: our little ones have really BIG FEELINGS and therefore a really BIG NEED to feel that they are understood and respected at every age and stage of development. Especially at the beginning. And this goes on every day, 24/7. Recognizing and respecting this one thing makes a lifetime of difference to our child’s development and our own.

Carly sat on our wood floor, peeled stickers from her book and stuck them on the floor. By the time I noticed there must have been twenty sticky stickers stuck to my precious floor. You know, the kind that they leave half of the sticker stuck to the floor when you peel them off. I sat down close and whispered; “Oh no! If the stickers are stuck to the floor, we can’t use them again for other things. Let’s try and put them back in the book so we can use them again.” And we did. There is a ‘look’ that children give when they feel any form of disapproval. Carly gave me that look, scanning me inside and out to see if I was rejecting her in any way. The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed that we can’t lie to children, that they have a physic lie detector percolating inside. I think there is some truth to that. Carly was checking to see how authentic I was. I had to mean what I was saying or it wouldn’t count.

I believe, and deeply, that these two behaviors – actually seeing our children for who and what they are, and not blaming or shaming them, radically alters the developing psyche and emotional templates that form a child’s image of self and relationships with others, including the authority culture presumes in the form of comparison, compulsory schooling and other competitive models.

I sing to Carly every day. One of the phrases I often hum is: ‘You are the luckiest little girl in the world.’ Yes, she is privileged, not being one in three American children living in poverty. In the wealthiest nation in the world one third of our children live in poverty, just slightly less than Mexico. Being lucky translates into less contaminated water and fewer toxic pesticides and chemicals in Carly’s diet. Her diet is exceptional. One of the best. And yet, the purity and nutritional value that is exceptional today was normal before 1960. Carly is not exceptional. She is just a normal kid. The difference is that Carly is not being handicapped by her models and the environment as many children are today.

At two and a half years Carly is bilingual with Czech being her dominating language. Her memory and vocabulary is nothing less than astonishing, as nature designed. I ask her to translate what she is saying into English so Da-Da-Dad can follow along. In these thirty months, Carly has viewed less than thirty minutes of children’s programing on a screen. She is moving all day, often outside. After some false starts she finally mastered the up and down motion on the pink tricycle we unwrapped for Christmas. It sat for a long time. When she was ready, it began to squeak around the kitchen floor. Today, for the first time ever, she peddled up and down all the way around the block, like a big girl (velká holka), she said in Czech. Carly is strong and trim like a gymnast. We talk, play and read stories after dinner followed by a splashy bath with bubbles and toys, often with me in the tub too. Books, not screens, are making a huge difference in Carly being what nature expects – naturally normal.

By contrast here is what is normal is for most children: Screen time for children under three is linked to delayed language acquisition. The more time preschool children spend with screens, the less time they spend engaged in creative play, which is the foundation of all learning, constructive problem solving, and creativity. For babies and preschool children, time with screens is negatively correlated with time spent interacting with parents–which is also essential for learning. Even when parents co-view, they spend less time talking and interacting with their children than when they’re engaged in activities such as reading or hands-on play. Toddler screen time is associated with problems in later childhood, including lower math and school achievement, reduced physical activity, obesity and victimization by classmates. Children with two or more hours of daily screen time are more likely to have increased psychological difficulties, including hyperactivity, emotional and conduct problems, which translates into difficulties with peers. Add to that often toxic food and water, limited outside spontaneous play, early and extended child care beginning at six months or earlier and more. That is quite a list of handicaps for a two and a half year old who wants nothing more than to explore and soar.

Last week a series of trade shows took us to Phoenix and Tucson. Carly and Barbora went to the children’s museum, the phoenix zoo, a butterfly habitat, and spent hours splashing in the pool. It looked a lot like Camp Carly to me. But then, every day looks like that. Of course, language keeps exploding like popcorn in a microwave. One of Carly’s favorite phrases is; “I have an idea.” Then she explains her plan in Czech and if I am around she translates to English. And this goes on all day, every day from the moment she peeks up from under her blanket until she passes out in Z’s embrace after nursing. Two and a half years and counting.

And through it all is playful, affectionate touch punctuated by moments of resonate attunement. What I call soft, quiet, melting hugs. When you think of all the pop songs; ‘Baby-oh-baby, I need you,” what they need is the touch and connection we are sharing with Carly today. The experiences we are sharing are priming her developing body, like an investment portfolio, with safe, attuned touch and movement, bathed in heart centered fields of radiant energy. And that is exactly what she will expect as she relates to life in all its forms.

Think of this investment as the opposite of addiction, as Gabor Maté, M.D., describes in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. It is the absence of these early childhood experiences, what I refer to as handicaps, that leave holes in the developmental framework, creating gaps that become the addictions we crave as adults in various, often twisted or violent, forms. By reducing the handicaps, the shame and blame, not being seen and respected for who she really is, not being read to, the counterfeit form of authentic play that screens represent, being shut away from nature, less than nutritious food and water, during these critical early years, Carly’s psyche, the nature and structure that builds her self-world view, what we call the social ego, is free to open, develop and expand as nature designed. Instead of feeding hungry ghosts, Carly will be bonded with life. Life will be her mentor, her guide and playmate. A dreamer’s ideal? Perhaps. But I am that dreamer. And maybe this dream will come true. But, let’s not overcomplicate this idealistic dream. I simply treat Carly the way I want to be treated, in ways that are in sync with her developing feeling and needs. That is the difference that make the difference.

Being related, connected and attuned takes time and attention. It is an investment. What most people don’t get is that the investment is in and for us all and the living world. We all have the same 24/7 attention. The difference is, how we choose to use it? The meaning of life is what we make of it each day and that is defined by how we behave, the inner state of being we experience and express moment by moment. When I compare the quiet, calm, affectionate experiences I share with Carly walking to the park or sitting in the tub to the hectic state I feel navigating our technocratic social-cultural world, it is easy to make time for sanity and joy. Being with Carly is a meditation with life. It is insane not to make the investment. Everyone wins. Especially me.

Michael Mendizza