feel better Yesterday, a student I’ve been mentoring was suspended for giving a xanax to another student. He was expelled earlier in the year for selling weed.   The adults all seemed to be disappointed beyond redemption, mostly angry, and intent on punishing the student. This does not mean the student should not be held accountable for restoring the harm and learning the lesson. But when a child falters, the last thing we want to do is shame and isolate him.

Stay with me on this one. . .

When we feel better, we do better. This is why a compassionate community is so important, and the greatest predictor to how well an individual will do. There’s a lot of trendy talk around restorative processes at schools, but these processes will become just another failed intervention if we don’t truly understand the incredible amount of mercy that it takes to support our children through transformation and change. It’s not only about understanding that we can hold children accountable for their behavior and give them an opportunity to restore the harm without being punitive and retaliatory; it’s also about understanding what it takes for a child to redeem himself and develop new behaviors that are positive, productive, and build their sense of worth.

Every river is born from a single drip of melted snow. The drips collect together and trickle down the mountain forming into creaks and streams that meet together and converge into a river. Moving water is a powerful force and can wear away soil and rocks through erosion. Once a path is created by erosion, because water takes the path of less resistance, water will most likely continue to flow through that path, creating further erosion and therefore, greater flow. Our thoughts and behaviors work in the same way. The more we think or behave a certain way, the more we entrench ourselves in those patterns. Our patterns are the result of the repeated behavior, like rivers are the result of repeated erosion.

Once a river is established, it takes an incredible amount of force for it to create a new pathway. In this same manner, rewiring our brain’s cognitive processes and retraining it to develop new patterns takes an incredible amount of very specific and intentional work, along with immense determination and support systems. Rewiring takes time. It’s not a consistent process. It takes an extreme amount of motivation to perform a habit. The most difficult part of changing a behavior is one’s life is to actually start the behavior. Like a river starts with a drip, a new habit starts with a small behavior change that doesn’t feel threatening or exhausting. Something that seems easy and reasonable to do consistently and constantly.

We can’t expect our children to change a negative habit from one day to the other, or as some would put it, to never fall off the wagon. They will, and we have to be compassionate, forgiving, and patient enough to support them in getting right back up; encouraging them to try again. Each time they try again, they are reaffirming their worth, their goodness, and the idea that they are deserving of better.

Here is what we can expect them to do:

We can expect them to make mistakes from which they will learn lessons, especially when given the space to process the experiences. Similar experiences will repeat over and over again until the lesson is learned. As parents, mentors, teachers, counselors, and guides, this is where we have to do better than punishment. We have to guide our children to recognize the patterns of the experiences they are living to try to understand why they continue to find themselves in those same circumstances. When we recognize that life provides countless opportunities to heal and our experiences are far more than isolated occurrences, we can begin to feel empowered and determined to take ownership of how we give meaning to our experiences. We can expect to hold them accountable by guiding them to take the necessary steps to restore the harm they have caused as a result of their actions. This not only strengthens their individual dignity, but also allows them to continue to see themselves as part of a community that is always working together for the betterment of all. We can expect to teach them problem solving skills, because when a child learns to work things out on their own, they are less likely to blame others and make excuses. Mostly we can and must expect them to be the beautiful, loving human beings they were born to be.

The following is a community process that was described online in reference to how a tribe uplifts, redirects, and restores the individuals in their community when they have lost their way: When someone does something hurtful and wrong, they take the person to the center of town, and the entire tribe comes and surrounds him. For two days they’ll tell the man every good thing he has ever done.

The tribe believes that every human being comes into the world as good; each of us desiring safety, love, peace, and happiness. But sometimes in the pursuit of those things people make mistakes. The community sees misdeeds as a cry for help. They band together for the sake of their fellow man to hold him up, to reconnect him with his true nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth from which he’d temporarily been disconnected.. Ultimately to have him remember. “I Am Good.”

**Some sources state this is a made up story.  Some sources cite this process from a tribe in the continent of Africa.  It’s a beautiful process that I hope does exist in some form.

Letting Go

Carmen’s 20th birthday celebration – May 13, 2012.

The first time I had to let go of Carmen, the first time I realized she wouldn’t be my little girl forever was when I weaned her from breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding was the first time I experienced a spiritual connection with Carmen; it was an opportunity to sit in stillness and silence and feel as her spirit evolved in my arms.  She’d latch on with such fervor, shaking her head in an attempt to place her mouth precisely on my nipple.  She was so vulnerable, so peaceful, so innocent.   When I held her in my arms, I felt as though I was holding her heart in my hands.  It was her heart that I learned to see, that guided me to understand who she would become. I knew I was special then, because only someone special could produce such an incredible being.  For the first time, I felt that I had worth – that I had a purpose in my life.  I would watch as she suctioned in a peaceful rhythm, the same rhythm that paced the length of the seasons, the strength of the wind, the rotation of the earth, the duration of the day, and the destination of the hummingbird.  She’d set her little hand on my breast and I could feel it touch my soul.  In the act of giving, I was receiving a love so pure, so unconditional, it could only be described as God.   After birth, the act of breast feeding is one of the most divine gifts God has given to women.

She was a year and eight months when I decided to start weaning her from breast-feeding. Carmen had been asking about going to school, and I knew her heart was yearning for the learning and interaction she would find in pre-school.  But weaning her was much more difficult for me than I thought.  Before beginning the process, I researched and bought every type of bottle and nipple that was out there to buy.  I figured transitioning her to a bottle would be the most natural progression.  I also researched every type of breast pump I read about, and even rented breast pumps to find the one that was the most effective and practical.  I pumped enough milk for three days of feeding and put it in the freezer.  I filled up all the bottles and had them lined up according to size and nipple.  I was ready to begin the weaning process.  What I had not realized, was that I wasn’t ready to let go.  The first time I tried to bottle feed her, I cried more than she did.  I couldn’t handle my rejection of her – it wasn’t natural.  I could hear my Tita crying in the kitchen. Carmen never took the bottle.  My Tita took her to Mexico for a week, and only then did she (I)  learn to let go.  When I saw Carmen again, she immediately latched on to my breast, but she began to ask for her sports bottle more and more.  And I had to learn to be part of her life in a different way.

Letting go wasn’t always so life changing.  Sometimes letting go meant understanding that she was becoming her own person.  I had to learn to respect her identity and allow her to explore the world at her own pace, on her own terms.  Letting her choose the color of her shirt, the vegetables she would eat, or the book she wanted to read gave her a voice and empowered her (me) to understand the process of making decisions as a journey to her independence.   It also meant allowing her to make mistakes and not running to solve every problem for her.  It meant letting her ride her bike to school in 5th grade.  It meant riding the bus and trolley route with her so she would become acquainted with her commute to and from high school.  It meant letting her travel to Peru and hike the Inca trail when she was 14, even though my heart was fearful and I wanted to contain her when I knew she had the soul of a hummingbird.  Every time I made a decision, I had to look into my heart – most importantly, I had to look into hers.

The next time I had to let go was when she told me she had a boyfriend.  We were driving on the freeway in evening-heavy traffic talking, as we usually did, about anything and everything when all of a sudden she became very quiet and said there was something she needed to tell me.  I slowly lifted my hand and pressed the minus symbol on the volume button until the music was completely drowned by the silence.  And then, “Mom, I have a boyfriend.”  All I remember was screaming Oh My God over and over, and rubbing the saltiness off my cheeks. In the background I could hear Carmen shouting, “Mom, Mom, grab the steering wheel,” as she tried to steer from the passenger seat.  I felt so many emotions at once: fear, anxiety, joy, compassion, nervousness, hesitation, delight.  I was joyous that she was experiencing her first love, hesitant because she might get her heart broken, nervous because I might not know how to help her mend her heart, joyous because her heart was opening and taking a risk to love, compassion because I remembered what it was like to feel butterflies for someone, and fearful because she was becoming a woman.  She was growing up and I was afraid I hadn’t taught her everything she needed to know to be safe, to be happy.  I could no longer hold her in my arms to protect her.  She wasn’t my little girl anymore.  She was becoming a young woman who was exploring and experiencing life on her own.  She didn’t just belong to me and I could no longer keep her from the world .

My daughter, Carmen, left to college June 12, 2010.   I cried every day for a year.  I felt lost, without a purpose.  She had been my purpose for 18 years.  

When I was in high school, I didn’t have a vision for myself, in fact I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life . . . that is until I found out I was pregnant.  I wanted to give Carmen the world, and to do so, I had to learn how to navigate this world.  She gave me a sense of power and a will to do better for myself that I had never felt before.  All I could think was that I wanted to make her proud of having me as a mother, so with every choice I made, I looked in her eyes to make sure it was something I was doing for her, and not just for myself.  My number one priority was to be the kind of mother that Carmen could trust, feel safe with, and be inspired by.  I had suffered a great deal of abandonment in my life, and I wanted Carmen to know that I would never walk away no matter how difficult our lives; I learned this lesson because my grandmother never walked away from me (us).

Letting go of Carmen felt like letting go a part of me; the part of me that owed its life to her.  Everything I had become, I became because of her, and when she left, I feared I would lose it all – I would lose myself.  My mom calls her “agua fresca” because nothing can survive without fresh water.  She is so alive and her energy is incredibly inspiring, so I had to learn how to feel alive without her.  The one thing I was certain about was, I would not guilt her into staying, for from the time she became part of my life, I promised her the world.

Once again, I had to learn to be part of Carmen’s life in a different way.  I couldn’t make decisions for her, or even tell her what I thought she should do.  I had to learn how to listen, guide her to listen to her heart, and allow her the space to reflect and learn.  The following is an excerpt from a journal entry on learning to be Carmen’s mother all over again:

Today was Carmen’s official first day of college. She called me last night-anxious and fearful-“What if . . . ? she probed. This is what I responded – Hey College Girl, don’t forget to know your heart and understand who YOU are in the inside. Without that, nothing else you learn will matter, ’cause the truth is you don’t have to be an expert at anything if you allow your life to be the process of learning from others.

It is essential, vital, that in every experience of your life – whether it be college, career, motherhood, etc. – you never stop questioning and exploring who you are.  It is through the process of questioning and exploring that you become deeply rooted in the beauty of these experiences.  This is truly the way that one can appreciate all the gifts around us, through knowing oneself.  Learn the ways of your heart.  Anything can be justified through persuasion with a good argument.  This is why it’s so hard to make up one’s mind at times.  But, if you learn to use your heart as your compass (not your emotions, but your heart), you will learn to make up your heart and follow in the path which is true to who you are. 

I had to learn to put the phone down and trust that I had taught her enough and loved her enough that she would ultimately make the right choices for herself.  Being at a distance made our relationship even more challenging.  I had to learn to pay attention to her voice, to read in between the lines, to be patient with our conversations until she was comfortable enough to tell me if something was wrong.  I prayed so that she would have the wisdom and strength to navigate the grey hues of life.  And I was (am) always there to talk.  I miss her touch, her kisses on my forehead, her smell, but we are profoundly connected spiritually, in such a way that I can feel her inside of me everyday.

Adjusting to Carmen’s absence was painful.  But the day she referred to herself as a guest in our home, I felt my heart gasping for air.  Once again I had to learn to let go a little more.  Though I still have the gift of having her during Christmas breaks and summer breaks, it is inevitable that she will make her own home one day.  That one day she will stop staying the night and cuddling with me in bed.  It’s such a paradox to know that this human being that was once a part of me (literally), is now someone whom I must learn to let go.  The gift was never for me to keep her; the gift is that I had the honor of loving her and learning from her.  

Kahlil Gibran said it most beautifully when he wrote:

             Your children are not your children.

            They are the sons and daughters of Life’s

longing for itself.

            They come through you but not from


            And though they are with you yet they

Belong not to you.

            You may give them your love but not

Your thoughts,

            For they have their own thoughts

            You may house their bodies but not

their souls,

            For their souls dwell in the house of

tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even

in your dreams.

            You may strive to be like them, but seek

not to make them like you.

            For life goes not backward nor tarries

With yesterday. 

           You are the bows from which your children

as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path

of the infinite, and He bends you with His 

might that far His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand

be for gladness;

            For even as He loves the arrow that flies,

so He loves also the bow that is stable.