Letter: Doing The Work with Children

Here’s a letter from a friend about her children doing The Work. If any of you have stories about your children doing The Work, I invite you to post them.

Dear Katie,

I wanted to tell you about how we used the conflict resolution method of doing The Work with our children this Thanksgiving.

Claire, 15, and Zeffi, almost 9, were arguing, and the words and tones I heard from them felt tediously familiar. I started talking and my husband entered the room with his decisive, take-action energy and told me I had missed an entire episode of Claire-Zeffi dynamics the previous day. He asked them both what they planned to do about this, because an old pattern that we’d certainly looked at and talked about plenty just wasn’t budging. Everyone looked at him. Something they planned to do?

There was a confused moment when both girls started telling their story at once and Ravi stopped them and declared that we were absolutely not going to let this go on and we were going to do something about it right now. Both girls looked miserable. We had talked to them, pointed out patterns, pointed out alternatives to their habitual behaviors, asked how they would feel if . . ., and even done The Work with them separately on thoughts they had about each other.

I don’t know why I’d never thought of this before, probably because it seemed such a formal approach, but in that moment the conflict resolution approach to The Work rose to the surface of my awareness. So I said at once that all I could see for them to do was to fill out a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet about each other then do The Work together, with the parents facilitating. Ravi’s immediate reaction was “Let’s do it.” Zeffi agreed. Claire took a breath and said, “Ooooh-kay.”

She filled out her sheet where I was working toward our feast in the kitchen, and Zeffi went to the living room with Papa so that he could be her scribe. She cheerfully dictated all her judgments about Claire for him to write down.

Children are so good at filling out JYN sheets, and you don’t have to instruct them not to be spiritual or mature or nudge them toward pettiness. They’re just so happy to be completely honest. After Claire filled out hers, she did find herself a bit thrown off by the level of honesty she was reading back on her sheet. “This is mean,” she said. “I’m supposed to read this to her? I know I’m mean to Zeffi, but this is really mean to just sit here and read all this out loud to her.”

I told her that mean, just as she’d said, was the way she treated Z when she was living out of those thoughts she just wrote down. Everything on that sheet represented her thinking about Zeffi; the way she treated Zeffi didn’t come out of nowhere, it came out of those thoughts. The JYN sheet isn’t mean; it’s the place where we take the story in our mind and pin it down on paper. There, we can see it very clearly. Then when we do The Work on those thoughts, we’re on the road to seeing things differently. Behaving differently follows naturally.

So on Thanksgiving, as I chopped and sliced and mixed and spiced, my daughters sat with me and did The Work on each other. Ravi took the not-unpleasant job of playing with Gaelen in the living room to give us the space we needed.

Zeffi read her sheet first and Claire said thank-you for each item. I asked her to take each piece in and try to find it, and assured her she didn’t have to find it. She could just look and see what she saw. And whether she found it or not, she was to say thank-you. She did this. Sometimes she laughed at something Zeffi had written. I had to interpret Papa’s handwriting a couple of times. Claire was very patient with this.

Then Claire read hers to Zeffi. I saw what she meant about being mean and did have a few flashes of concern over how Zeffi would manage receiving harsh thoughts about herself. I found that what I had told Claire earlier held true: Zeffi had already received all of this in what she and Claire lived together. She was fine sitting there hearing “Zeffi is an annoying brat” and saying thank-you. None of the ways I’ve seen her melt into distress or fly into rage in response to Claire even began to show up here. Her face was open, her eyes were serious, she was fully present. And, as had happened with Claire, laughter just burst out of her a couple times: For her sister’s perception? Or the way it was phrased? I can’t say. I did have a strong sense of both girls being alive and alert.

Zeffi volunteered to be facilitated first. This was perfect. It addressed at the onset Claire’s frustration about having to work harder than Zeffi. In this story, Claire feels we, her parents, blame her more and expect her to take more responsibility. And in part, this is true. With The Work, both girls took turns looking at their thoughts and taking responsibility for them with the turnarounds. Both girls heard each other explore her own thinking and the effects of that thinking. They saw how the unhappy thoughts didn’t merely cause fighting between them but caused each girl to be unhappy in herself and usually to feel bad about herself and dislike her own behaviors. With The Work, both girls worked on themselves and their own thinking equally.

Claire explored her responsibility deeply, even before the turnarounds. She found that Zeffi couldn’t possibly tell on her but could only tell her story. When Claire ran after her to defend herself and tell her version, that was the moment it became “Zeffi telling on Claire.” Amazing clarity. She also looked deeply at the turnaround to herself—how she told on herself. Here and throughout The Work we did that morning, she was surprised to find that most of the statements she was exploring held something for her about her entire life, not just life with Zeffi. She found ways she told on herself with her friends, exposing or shaming herself by telling things about herself she would better keep to herself. She found ways that she told on herself to her parents, about things unrelated to Zeffi. At fifteen, Claire is fully capable of understanding the mirror principle, that Zeffi shows up only as her mirror so she can look at something in herself and see how it operates in every aspect of her life.

Zeffi’s Work was more directly about Claire. For her, the magic happens with finding very concrete answers to number 3 and very concrete examples of the turnarounds. One thing I love about doing The Work with Z at her age now is that it shows me the process at its simplest. We’re just asking and answering questions. The answers are simple and pure and honest: when I believe this thought, I get mad and I want to hit her and sometimes I do hit her. I try to make her mad. I ignore her when she says stop. I hate her. I feel bad. I don’t like myself.

I also love the purity of the answers to 4 in Work with a 9-year-old. Who would you be if you couldn’t believe that Claire excludes you with Gaelen? Zeffi shrugs. I’d be fine. I’d just go do something I want to do. It reminds me of how easy it all is, really.

I took Zeffi and Claire through one long exploration each. We did the first statement on Zeffi’s list, and Claire chose one that seemed the most potent to her. From there, we went through the sheets doing turnarounds, though I think I did a couple of quickies—when a statement seemed especially rich, or in a different vein from the others, I asked the four questions briefly and moved into the turnarounds from there.

Zeffi and Claire did not fall weeping into each other’s arms at the end of the process and swear to be sweet to each other for the rest of all time. What did happen was that they both left feeling very solid, present, and calm. They both had a lot to be with after the process, and it was fascinating how it was no longer about Claire and Zeffi. It was about Claire for Claire and it was about Zeffi for Zeffi. For me, it was about falling more in love with The Work and with my amazing daughters.

Zeffi had trouble staying put at some point in our process and actually wandered into the other room to see what Papa and Gaelen were doing. Claire and I were so focused on what we were then looking at that neither of us responded to this initially, then Claire said, “Uh, is Zeffi coming back?” I asked Z to bring in her drawing pad and pencils and told her to stay here with us during the process and to feel free to draw the whole time. Z is capable of drawing for at least two hours straight. This worked perfectly. The drawing gave her a focus and a structure that held her while she gave her mind to the inquiry process. I didn’t learn until days later that what she chose to draw was a picture of Claire going off with Gaelen and the dog, above which she wrote, “No you can’t play Zeffi Go that way.”

If we had done this four years ago I would have given Zeffi a catalog and a pair of scissors. She used to sit still for nothing except cutting. She could go-go-go and move and talk all day, but with a pair of scissors in hand she would drop into perfect stillness except for her little hands intently following the shapes as she extracted them from a page. I would now recommend to any parent sitting down with a serious inquiry project to find whatever works best for the particular child and use this tactic of keeping hands busy and eyes focused so that the mind and body can be still for The Work.

The one thing I noticed about doing The Work with Claire and Zeffi in this situation as compared to Working with two adults was that I gave them a lot of praise. I told them often they were doing great Work. I told them when I thought something they’d located was a great find, and then stayed quiet a moment for them to take that in. All of this was completely genuine.

I don’t know how long we hung in there exactly, but my husband and I both estimate two hours. This may sound like an insanely long time to do this with children, but they were fine with it. They were completely immersed in the process. Truly, they were just as tired of the issue as we were. And finally, they would rather do The Work for two hours than be on the receiving end of five minutes of tense and angry lecturing or fifteen minutes of restrained and reasonable lecturing from their parents. The children can see just as we can that The Work takes them through a process to know themselves that is actually interesting to them, leads them to new insights, and leaves them feeling better. Lecturing can sometimes lead to new insights, usually later when some bit of wisdom breaks off from the rest and sinks in, but they hate it. They feel attacked or at the very least overwhelmed and dictated to. In no way do they find it interesting and they do not feel better—sometimes feel worse—when it’s over.

That’s my report.

Love, Jaya

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14 comments

  1. My daughter is not interested in doing The Work. (My husband does not do The Work and is clear that he does not want to do The Work.) As I read the first part of your report, I had the thought that I could ask my daughter to fill out a JYN worksheet on ME and give her the chance to read it to me. WOW! That would allow me to hear more from her than just the angry silence or the yelling at me or the dictating what I should/should not do. I had the thought “I am doing it–parenting–wrong and I am not aware of what I’m doing wrong.” I see how a JYN on ME might help me see into my 9 year-old’s world and then perhaps I could at least see what I do “wrong” according to her! I’m glad I read your report. Heidi

  2. HI Heidi,

    I don’t have children, but after reading your posting I can really see how useful it would be to have friends, family, etc fill in a worksheet about me, so that I can receive it – and that they don’t have to do anything else.

    With love,

    Jon

  3. I just wanted say thank you so very much for posting this and thanks to the woman who wrote it. It was an illuminating account and application. peace,glo

  4. Thank you so much, Jaya, for your discoveries in doing The Work with children. In the past two months I have begun to facilitate The Work via a fee-based practice, and my very first client was a 6-year old. In working with him, I found the same thing you did – that children benefit from having something to do with their bodies as they go through the questioning process. I have yet to let him draw or color during a session, and now that you put that idea out there I will try it. One thing that I found helped for this particular client (a little boy) was to place the question asking/answering process in a game-like setting. It begins by him standing at the far end of the room. I hold up a card with one of the questions on it (the questions are modified to ‘kid lingo’), I read the question aloud to him, he speaks the answer he found, and then I tell him something like “OK, take two steps forward”. Usually I vary up the number of steps he takes from question to question. By the time he’s completed the turnarounds, he’s close enough to “tag” me and I give him a “high five”. Then I walk to the opposite side of the room to start the process over with his next disturbing thought (we call these the Mad, Sad, or Scary thoughts). In an attempt to keep the process feeling fresh for him, sometimes I have him take so many “jumps” or “hops” forward, instead of steps.Just thought I’d throw out another idea. Additionally, based upon your comments, it may be helpful for me to invest in some crayons and a ‘Loving What Is” coloring book , too. (ha, ha).

  5. I can see from reading Allison’s post the possiblities of The Work being a board game…one step forward, two hops forward….it gives another view of *winning* to my mind.

  6. Thank you Jaya and Alison. I tried The Work with my nine year old niece on a weekend where she kept complaining about spiders and scorpions and how she hated them and they made her life miserable. She filled out a JYN sheet about spiders and she was so forthright and clear about all the stories she had attached to about spiders and scorpions. She laughed when she answered question four and she made a drawing of how joyous she´d be without her thoughts about spiders. She was a little tired of writing at the end. I liked the idea oh hopping or taking steps for each question.
    Thanks!
    Reina

  7. I had my son who is 7 do a worksheet today because he was so angry at me and his father in regards to Christmas presents. He seemed to really enjoy doing the JYN worksheet. I asked him the questions and then wrote down exactly what he said. Then I had my husband come into the room and asked him (he is not familiar with the work) if he would be willing to simply listen as I read what Noah wrote and after hearing each part of it to say thank you and I would do the same. Noah seemed to really enjoy having the worksheet read and after question four he said to his dad to be sure and listen to the rest as we were getting to the really good part!

    I did not know what else to do beyond reading it and saying thank you. Later in the day I wrote a JYN sheet on how I felt about my son and did some work with my partner on his being so demanding. My partner was very helpful in that she had me read my worksheet about my son and then she said thank you after each sentence and I felt truly heard by it and began to see how demanding I am in my life. I will finish out the rest of my JYN sheet and am wondering if I could do more with the one my son wrote or if just reading it is enough. He seemed to think that once it was out in the open that we would now agree to all his demands. Number six was that he did not ever want to experience his parents saying NO to him. I find that interesting because one of the hardest things for me is to say NO to him or to anyone.

    Any other suggestions on how to work with children and JYN worksheets would be welcome. I am interested in hearing more about the lingo that Alison talked about.

  8. Hi Jaya,

    Thanks for your wonderful letter, and I am glad they chose to put it up on the blog. I have found that kids really do enjoy doing The Work, and they are quite honest in their responses. In fact, it is often quite humorous by the time we get to the turnarounds as the discover how their thinking has led them to do all sorts of things – like lock others out of the room, break a toy, hit someone, etc.

    I have done The Work with my older boys (6 and 9), and they are now very quick to throw out an “Is that true, mom?” which is a great way to bring me back to my own self. What a gift! My then 3-year-old once said, “Mom, I need to do The Work.” I asked her, “On what?” “There’s no more popcorn in the bowl,” she said – and we laughed. A stressful thought – I need more popcorn, and I need it now! 😉

    My husband and I have also facilitated The Work with our nephews (6 and 10) after a big fight of running around the house and cussing at each other, neighbors (4. 6, and 8), and friends (5 and 9) – mostly on issues around what’s mine and yours, sharing, being mean, etc.

    It’s not a lot of experience, but it is always enjoyable and enlightening. If the kids are willing to answer the questions, they typically get to a much better feeling place pretty quickly, and are always able to own up to their part in the story and move forward from there. They seem to like finding the turnarounds.

    (Sometimes my kids will just say, “Mom, turn it around.” And we all have a good laugh. It does provide for a lot of comedy in our house.)

    As a former elementary school teacher, I thought it would be great to bring The Work into the classroom by first introducing it to teachers through workshops. Many schools invest quite a bit of money and time in conflict resolution curriculum and training, and The Work would be just the fit for this.

    Thanks again.
    Much love,
    Lisa

  9. I don’t have kids but my brother and cousins have kids. Having done the work myself, I have come to see that most of the times we don’t really know what others are meaning especially since they use a language that we believe we understand. For example, I used to think since I understood the word “Love” (I thought that I did), when someone told me that they loved me, I knew what they meant by it. I am more careful these days to assume such things so I tend to ask (sometimes right then, other times later) what they mean/meant and most of the times I am amazed by their answers.

    Just last week I got an opportunity to speak at length to my aunt’s 9 year old son and I learned a lot (about him, myself and how inadequate language can be in understanding people in general). I did not assume that I understood the meaning of words that he used, for example when his mom said something about how he is concerned with getting zits. I asked him why??!! (His skin is as clear and soft as a baby’s bottom!!!) He said that he did not want to be a “Geek”. I said I don’t know what that word means. He said, you know? A “Geek”? I said no I don’t know. He repeated… you know….Geek….some one who wears glasses, is smart, in front of computer all the time, does not get girls and is laughed at. I said wait a minute, I thought people who had problem with their eye site had to wear glasses. And that had nothing to do with being a Geek or not. I asked him to look around (we were in a coffee shop) and notice that mostly grown ups had glasses on. He looked around and I noticed a “oh, I have not noticed that before” look on his face. Then I asked him why he was even interested in girls who liked dumb people? I told him that I am a girl and I like smart guys. I noticed a “oh, I got to recalculate this” look on his face. Then I asked him if this was why he hides his smarts from his classmates and teachers? He shrugged his shoulders. (He is an extremely smart kid and his teachers agree but his grades/output does not reflect it. For example, his mom was telling me that the night before a spelling test, she works with him and he spells everything correctly but when he actually takes the test, he misses bunch of them.)…… Next day his mom reported that he got a 100 in his spelling test. I told him it was great that he aced his test and said “I guess you decided not to hide your smarts in the class, huh?”…..he giggled and smiled……….During another conversation his mom was complaining about him being very slow. Talking to him it was obvious that he has been conditioned to believe that he is “slow” and that that it is a bad thing. So, I asked him to give three examples of why slow was good (his answers dealt mainly with safety and how it helped him be fast in his head) and three things that was good about being fast (most of the examples he used had to do with his video games). His mom gave an example of how when school is over all of the kids leave and he is usually the last one to leave the school (she has to wait for him outside). I asked him what was good about being the last one to leave the class, he said he got to watch his teacher and see what he is doing. I said, oh, so your teacher also leaves last? He said yes. As I spoke to him more and asked more and more questions about things that he said and I did not understand (like anger, emotions, freak, etc…), I discovered a whole amazing world inside his head. He also found out that even if he blows off his school, they will still send him to another school right away and he will not get to stay home for a long time playing while the school is being re-built (I found out that he hates going to school because it is boring and kids treat him “badly” (why badly? because he tried to tell them about his emotions and they got freaked out by his description of his anger monster) “all the time” (They treat you badly “all the time”? You mean every single moment?? No, no 5 times).

    I walked away thanking him for giving me so many “good answers” (at one point he told me that he was out of good answers for me). I told him that I still had lots of questions but I will ask them another time when he has more answers. I also told him that I appreciated how much he thought me about things I did not know.

    Later, I told everyone how appreciative I was that Elia took time to talked with me for a long time and thought me a lot…..others said “Oh, yeah? What about? He said “You know about my emotions and stuff”. I used to like him because he was a kid (like I used to be) and I wanted to pay attention to him and help him be better at school (like my parents pushed me). Now, I love this person and actually feel a deep connection with him. I am privileged that he gives me his “good answers” and allow me to take a peak in his amazing world. 

    In a conversation with my 9 year old niece (who is concerned with her weight), I found out that she believes babies are cute because they are chubby. I said…oh…so if someone has a baby brother (she was only a year and half old when her brother was born), then they might like to get chubby to stay cute and get the same love and attention as their baby brother? ….She said yeah (I felt a long silence on the phone…maybe a connection was being made….who knows). I thanked her for making me see something I had not noticed before…. which was…. babies tend to be chubby and that does make them cute (even kittens and puppies…we talked about how chubby her miniature poodle was when we brought him home).

    Who knew? I had to know less than a 9 year old (by asking questions like “what does chubby mean?”) to discover another reason why one might be overweight or think that they are not thin enough. So I asked myself, could one of the reasons I have always thought that I am not thin enough even when I was size 4 was because I wanted to be as little as my baby brother to get the love and attention that he stole from me (my 5 year old) back?????!!!!

    Katie, thank you. I am learning so much about things I thought I already knew. It is like getting a first hand experience on how it must have been for me (I must have felt like) as I learned my first words.

    As always, nothing but Love,
    Roya.

  10. That is so beautfiul!
    Thank you for sharing.

    I work with pre-schoolers and have been contemplating how to use The Work with children. I know your children are older, but your story is inspiring.

    much love and l*ght,
    nicole

  11. Thanks for posting this. I’m so glad to have found The Work while my son was still a baby (now almost two). It’s such a privilege to be with him and learn from him, and it’s very helpful to see how you’re using inquiry with older ones.

  12. I have a son who is 50 years old and still angry at any slight during the first 15 years of his life. I was a single mother with 2 babies and he was an impossible child. The past 35 years I have been a model mother and grandmother and my son who took an “inner child” weekend with a therapist is still furious with me. I cannot deal with his hostility and scarasm. I cannot deal with how he treats his wife, he is a control freak and he perceives information in the strangest manner. He hears insults that aren’t there, he finds critism in statements that don’t critize. He has been in therapy for over 7 years and he is still the same. How do you deal with your childs “inner child”?

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