“Mom, I made a 90 in math class, I joined the chess club and I am helping an Indian boy who just moved to Canada learn English. I think you did a good job raising me.”
This statement will be cherished in my heart forever, more than my son will ever know. We never are sure if we are doing a good job raising our kids, we just hope we are. The external influences of this world can be a lot more convincing than a parent’s voice and so many of us just hope that we can divert their attention and focus it on the most important person to love, themselves.
My mother used to tell me that I would never truly fall in love until I learned to love myself first. Comprehending this as a teenager was difficult and I hated her for saying it because if she were correct, that meant that I would never fall in love.
The external influences in my world got the better of me as a youth. The bullying, isolation that comes from bullying and self-doubt that embedded itself so deeply into my subconscious convinced me that I really was as ugly as they proclaimed.
My mother would scream into my soul with hugs, love and assurance, but self-love is a journey that we all must take alone. It is only ourselves that can look into the mirror and love what is starring back.
When I gave birth to my son I prayed that he would know self-love long before I did, but I also knew there were no guarantees. It’s incredible when a tragedy happens and a young child is there to bear witness. It’s as if you can see their innocence slipping out of their eyes and you would do anything to preserve it, but it’s gone. They are different now and you, as a parent, try to find a way to help them learn to love their “new self”. The part of them that has had the veil lifted exposing them to the world. The part where they realize, like in the movie the Matrix, “There really is no spoon.”
This was how it felt to me when my son began suffering from anxiety and depression. It was as if we were in the Matrix and everyone else was asleep to the reality of his suffering.
One day, about four years ago, I was at a speaking engagement where Dr. Martin Brokenleg was presenting his work called, The Circle of Courage.
The Circle of Courage® is a model of positive youth development based on the universal principle that to be emotionally healthy all youth need a sense of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. This unique model integrates the cultural wisdom of tribal peoples, the practice wisdom of professional pioneers with troubled youth, and findings of modern youth development research. The four directions portray universal human needs for belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. These are the foundations for Psychological resilience and positive youth development. (Circle of Courage).
As I listened to Dr. Brokenleg break down the Circle of Courage I quickly began to see why my son’s struggle clearer than I had ever imagined.
In Native American and First Nations cultures, significance was nurtured in communities of belonging. Lakota anthropologist Ella Deloria described the core value of belonging in these simple words: “Be related, somehow, to everyone you know.” Treating others as kin forges powerful social bonds that draw all into relationships of respect. Theologian Marty observed that throughout history the tribe, not the nuclear family, always ensured the survival of the culture. Even if parents died or were not responsible, the tribe was always there to nourish the next generation. (Circle of Courage).
My thoughts immediately were validated; I had moved my son to the other side of Canada leaving behind the only community he knew. We had no community in Alberta and the truth was that Nova Scotia has found a way to preserve “community.” I had no one to talk to about our struggles, no friends to help and the two people who my son loved more than anything in the world, his Nana and Papa, were no longer there.
Papa couldn’t pick him up a the bus stop. Nana couldn’t greet him at the door with a snack when he arrived home. No more play dates or Halloween get-togethers with my friends kids. The list was endless. By moving to Alberta we had lost our tribe.
Competence in traditional cultures is ensured by guaranteed opportunity for mastery. Children were taught to carefully observe and listen to those with more experience. A person with greater ability was seen as a model for learning, not as a rival. Each person strives for mastery for personal growth, but not to be superior to someone else. Humans have an innate drive to become competent and solve problems. With success in surmounting challenges, the desire to achieve is strengthened. To lead by example and be responsible. (Circle of Courage).
I knew that my son had a good start in life and learned about mastery from my parents, friends and myself. Now that it was just my son, my partner and myself, it was up to us to make sure he did not lose his love of learning. To lead by example when all seemed lost and to remind him every day of the lessons he continues to learn from my parents.
I walked up to Dr. Brokenleg and told him, “I moved my son to Alberta because we needed to find work. He is struggling and we no longer have our tribe.”
Dr. Brokenleg told me to focus on the first two elements of the Circle of Courage, the other two will fall into place, and so it did.
During the next 3 years I home-schooled my son, I taught him about self-love, generosity and why it was important to learn. When he wanted to play I would drop everything and play, so that he could see the Mastery of love and attention. I didn’t give up and by his final year of homeschooling I saw a huge change in him. He was volunteering with the RCMP to help educate the public on car thief, he learned to cook with the Tabono Centre and most importantly, he continued to strive in his education.
When the day arrived where he began his first day at a new school and then could not stop crying afterwards, I did what any mother would do, I listened.
His cry was soulful, desperate and scared me at the same time. He said, “Mom, how am I going to pretend to be okay for the rest of my life when I’m not. I’m not okay, I’m faking it.”
These words broke my heart and I understood them so deeply. As a person who works with youth I have seen this situation on many occasions and as I looked into his eyes I became aware that if I didn’t do something I was going to lose my son. It could happen through the depression or it could be through self-medication, surrounding himself with people who are not looking out for his best interest. All I knew is, I had to act and act fast.
I asked my son with tears in my eyes, “Hun, if mommy could do anything, like wave a magic wand that made you feel you could succeed, what would it look like? What do you need in order to feel you can achieve success?”
He looked at me with tears dripping down his face and responded, “Mom, I just want to go back to Nova Scotia, live with Papa and try to go to school there. I want to see my friends again.”
It was the same wish he had asked for every week for four years. He grabbed my hand and with desperation he added, “I will be so good, I’ll clean my room, I’ll take the bus and I will help Papa any way I can!”
I sat there frozen. “Honey, I don’t even know if Papa can handle you being there, he is not as healthy as he used to be.”
“I know mom,” he responded with disappointment in his voice, “But if I had a wish, that would be it.”
I paused, “But babe, won’t you miss Mommy and Kyle?”
What my son answered next might have hurt other parents’ feelings, but for me it actually felt like the opposite. He answered, “Not as much as I miss Papa, mom!”
I was so proud in that moment because I knew that the first two parts of the Circle of Courage worked and he had moved into the final two stages. After all these years, after all the anxiety and depression, he was able to express his truth and showed me how we was turning into an independent young man.
Power in Western culture was based on dominance, but in tribal traditions, it meant respecting the right for independence. In contrast to obedience models of discipline, Native teaching was designed to build respect and teach inner discipline. From earliest childhood, children were encouraged to make decisions, solve problems, and show personal responsibility. Adults modeled, nurtured, taught values, and gave feedback, but children were given abundant opportunities to make choices without coercion. It means that people can rely on you and trust you at all times. (Circle of Courage).
Although I was happy for my son, I laughed about the Circle of Courage actually working. Yes, I wanted to teach my son how to be independent, I just thought I had a few more years and didn’t think it would happen at the age of 12.
I called all my Nova Scotia channels, booked his flight and signed him up for school for the following Monday.
My father was, of course, absolutely thrilled to have him and I swear his presence makes my dad younger. He does clean his room, and help his Papa in every way he can, but most important, he is happy.
It was hard to let him go, but I think experiencing judgement from some my friends was even more difficult. Before my son left, he heard me crying in my room and came in to check on me. I was honest and told him that some of my friends think I am making a big mistake and said things to me like, “How can you do that to your son, haven’t you put him through enough?” or “I could never do that to my son.” The words hurt so much, but my son grabbed my hand and with all the knowledge and love he has he looked at me and said, “Mom, they are so wrong, you aren’t doing this “to me” you are doing this “for me.”
Giving me a big hug I knew that those were the only words of encouragement I needed and the only opinion I cared about. As the old saying goes, “What others think of me is none of my business.”
Now, my son is succeeding! Every day we Skype and he tells me about his grades, his friends and how he is helping other students in the school. I miss him terribly but after so many years of seeing him struggle it is a breath of fresh air to see him reach the final step in the Circle of Courage.
Finally, virtue was reflected in the preeminent value of generosity. The central goal in Native American child-rearing is to teach the importance of being generous and unselfish. In the words of a Lakota Elder, “You should be able to give away your most cherished possession without your heart beating faster.” In helping others, youth create their own proof of worthiness: they make a positive contribution to another human life. (Circle of Courage).
Sometimes being a parent is painful and it can make you question your personal journey of self-love, but it is the moments when we see our children’s happiness that we are reminded that maybe we aren’t doing a half-bad job.