Friday, May 15, 2009

Un-Becoming Mrs. Bennet

The unprogrammed life is going very well. Pamela has watched Monty Python, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and The Prince of Egypt and is waiting for an episode of Big Comfy Couch from Netflix, and David is waiting for Sonic the Hedgehog. We spent the past two nights viewing the Pride and Prejudice mini-series.

Mrs. Bennet, the heroine's mother in Pride and Prejudice, was a terrible guide for her girls in emotional regulation. She lets her moods be buffeted by any and all circumstances, swinging rapidly from one extreme to the next, complaining all the while about her "poor nerves." When her youngest daughter does the unthinkable, she locks herself in her bedroom complaining about "such tremblings, such flutterings, all over me—such spasms" that I was waiting for her to say she was getting a thrill up her leg! Mrs. Bennet would give the airport lady a run for her money in a contest. My consultant would suggest Mrs. Bennet is in desperate need of some thinkspace to learn to be calm and neutral!

Being calm and neutral is critical to set up "a learning environment that optimally balances cognitive challenge and safety" (page 13). Parents and teachers who tremble, flutter, and spasm may end up guiding their children into becoming easily unregulated. Without feeling emotionally safe, their amygdalas go into fight or flight mode and learning stops. Charlotte Mason taught me this a long time ago. In habit training, she explains not to cry out "because she knows that a summons of that kind is exasperating to big or little" (Volume 1, page 123). When we think that everything rests with us, "our endeavours become fussy and restless" (Volume 3, page 27) and "the thing that her children will get from her in these moods is a touch of her nervousness--most catching of complaints. She will find them fractious, rebellious, unmanageable, and will be slow to realise that it is her fault; not the fault of her act but of her state" (Volume 3, page 33).

Ideas are great, but the proof is how we act in real life! The other day, I was fixing Steve's lunch: trail mix, fruit, and heavy salad (he likes this stuff, REALLY). I opened a brand-new jar of heart of palms and a thick layer of green mold covered the top of each one! Steve, the one who usually makes such nasty discoveries, tends to freak out a bit because of his affinity with Monk and loses the opportunity for teachable moments. Calmly and playfully, I carried the jar to Pamela and wrinkled up my nose, "Ew!" Her face mirrored mine and she said, "Yucky!" I said, "The palmitos are covered with green mold." She mirrored my words, "Green. Moldy! Ew!" Then, I added, "Mold will grow on the palmitos if you put the jar back in the cupboard." She said, "Throw in the trash." I asked, "If you open a new jar, do you know where it goes?" She said, "Refrigerator!"

Note to Self: I will not digress about David's account of a failed science experiment that he just found shoved in a drawer, preserved in a plastic bag for TWO YEARS, that ought to be in the dictionary for the word mycotoxin. Calm and Neutral! Deep cleansing breaths, well, not too deep . . .

The vignette with Pamela may seem simple on the surface, but it illustrates two of five dynamic functions of the brain covered in the first chapter of The RDI Book. The first is vertical integration, the interplay between the basal-ganglia (the low-level clerk doing things by the book) and the prefrontal cortex (the CEO telling the clerk when to deviate from the rules). Some rules of putting stuff away that Pamela has stored in her procedural memory are:
  • Throw empty temporary containers in the trash.
  • Put empty permanent containers in the sink.
  • Put something you took out of the refrigerator back in, if it is not empty.
  • Put an opened can from the cupboard into the refrigerator, if it is not empty.
  • Put an opened jar from the cupboard back into the cupboard, if it is not empty (oil, vinegar, vanilla, etc.)
When we buy heart of palms in a can, Pamela puts it into the refrigerator. If in a jar, she sometimes forgets because she lumps it in with bottled stuff. Come to think of it, Pamela occasionally puts newly opened ketchup, mayonnaise, pickles, and mustard back in the cupboard too.

Pamela's clerk was following standard operating procedure, and the interaction we had about the mold was to draw her CEO's attention to a problem. When I slowed down and spotlighted what happened to the palmitos, I tried to help Pamela encode an episodic memory for future events. The next time I find any open jars in the cupboard, I will remind her of the palmitos and give her CEO a chance to consider putting them in the refrigerator.

We were also tapping into a second dynamic function of the brain, lateral integration (which folks in RDI circles call broadband communication). Our face-to-face interaction included facial expression (wrinkled nose and disgusted look), auditory non-verbal (how we exaggerated our pronunciation of "Ewwwwwww!" and "Yuuuuuuck!"), gestures (pointing at the mold), and posture (both leaning into the jar) and blended into one message: nasty things happen when palmitos are not refrigerated. Lateral integration allows us to tap into our intuition and to integrate our perspective with that of others, emotions, and ideas.

Later that day, I struggled to unscrew the cable connection, which was not secured into the wall at all. Simple mechanic things befuddle me and test my ability to remain calm and neutral. Pamela grew antsy while I struggled to unscrew the cable and showed signs of escalating anxiety. I turned to her several times and smiled broadly to reassure her. I spoke in a bright voice to update her on my progress. Because of her edginess, I did not further stress her out by spotlighting my problem solving techniques: using a rubber jar opener to grip the nut with a back-up option of unscrewing the electrical plate. Her feeling of safety was too low for me to place anymore cognitive challenges on her.

Steve and I believe the decision to kiss cable good-bye is sound. Our church's Wednesday night Bible study on Philippians 1:21-22 ("For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!"). The pastor asked what things of this world get in the way of living in Christ. When someone mentioned television, he brought up a good point: the purpose of television is not to report the news (usually bad) nor entertain. Its real goal is to sell stuff because advertising pays for the programming.

Later that night, while we were watching Lizzie and Mr. D'Arcy engage in verbal combat, Pamela walked into the television room with her homemade guitar (three rubber bands on a plastic plate) and verbally riffed "Smoke on the Water."


poohder said...

This was a great post!
BTW, I am one of those funny people who do not like my ketchup cold because it cools down the food. So we keep our ketchup (from Aldi's) in the cupboard. Yep, really!! Look on the bottle it does not say that you must refrigerate after opening. However, just yesterday, I bought some UNsweetened ketchup from the health food store and it DOES say refrigerate after opening so I guess I'll have to suffer with cold ketchup. I don't know why I felt the need to have this ketchup lesson, LOL! Rhonda

walking said...

It doesn't hurt to have Jane Austen's inspiration . . .

I did not know that about ketchup. And, as fast as Pamela goes through it, it would not have time to grow moldy!

Stephanie said...

What a fantastic post! I dearly love your take on Mrs. Bennett.

Jenny said...

What a great exposition on Mrs. Bennett! A wonderful example of how NOT to be around our kids, and how our emotional reactions can interfere with their learning...I am guilty of such things sometimes, letting my emotions get the best of me...especially when I am tired. Its good to be reminded of the consequences of letting my emotions lead me...


Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

Funny. I thought Mrs. Bennet was that way to manipulate OTHERS around her to do as she wished and to gain attention for herself. :]

walking said...

I agree, Mrs. C. Mrs. Bennet is very manipulative. Her lack of emotional regulation, deliberate or otherwise, keeps the household in an uproar!

I daresay the result of going without cable is rediscovering old favorites like this mini-series!