The Captain of the Ship

For my birthday, my twenty-three year old son gave me a gift that I will always treasure. It was a letter he had written, chronicling some of his childhood memories, and thanking me for the part I had played in helping him grow into the man he is becoming. Sprinkled throughout were recollections of times when I had said “no” to something he wanted, followed by a comment from his now-adult vantage point, appreciating that I had held my ground about whatever it was that, in retrospect, he could see had not been in his best interest.

I sat quietly, touched by this gift not only because my son had shared something so sweet, but because his reflections allowed me to recall those experiences when I had struggled to stay present with his unhappiness rather than scrambling to transform things more to his liking.

I remembered those times when I had to be what I now call the ‘Captain of the Ship’, sacrificing approval from my son that my ego wanted in favor of his safety or welfare. Those moments weren’t easy; like most parents, I wanted my child to like me and to be happy. But I knew that while my painbody might try to get me to cave in to please my son or avoid the discomfort of establishing boundaries, I could choose to simply be with my uneasiness and my son’s frustration, without trying to change either.

In my work with parents, I talk about the challenge of avoiding power struggles or coming across as desperate and needy when things with our child aren’t going as you wish. When we are the Captains of the Ship, we are capable of navigating whatever storm our child is sailing through, demonstrating a willingness to stay in the moment while he is upset without explaining, debating or trying to fix his problem.

Our child says, “I hate this dinner. Why can’t we have frozen pizza like Eddie gets every night?” We may take his upset personally. “Frozen pizza has no nutritional value. Why can’t you appreciate the wonderful meals that I work so hard to prepare?” At war with what is, we push against our child, participating in the power struggle that disconnects us from our hearts and sets up an adversarial relationship with our child.

If, however, we are able to Captain the ship, simply allowing our child to experience his frustration without feeling a need to remedy it, we may respond with, “It sounds like you’re tired of fish and veggies…You were hoping for pizza tonight…” without debating the merits of healthy food or heading to the kitchen to prepare an entirely new meal.

As Eckhart Tolle says in A New Earth, “while the child is having a painbody attack, there isn’t much you can do except to stay present so that you are not drawn into an emotional reaction. The child’s painbody would only feed on it. Painbodies can be extremely dramatic. Don’t buy into the drama. Don’t take it too seriously. If the painbody was triggered by thwarted wanting, don’t give in now to its demands. Otherwise, the child will learn: ‘The more unhappy I become, the more likely I am to get what I want’” (page 106).

This idea is what is powerful. When we argue or negotiate with a child while he or she is caught up in an emotional hurricane, we only make the winds blow more fiercely. Instead, parents can stay quiet and still, listening with a loving and open heart, without having an agenda for making things different than they are.

Embracing this moment as we parent with presence, even during the challenging times, offers us a gift that truly does keep on giving—for us, and for our children.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting without Power Struggles, a guidebook for transforming your day-to-day parenting life. For more information on being the Captain of the ship, please visit here.

19 responses to “The Captain of the Ship

  1. Thank you! This is wonderful. I’m not a parent, but I taught elementary school for more than two decades. Sixth graders can be challenging! I remember how I began in my teaching, thinking I had to be “nice” and that it was important for the kids to “like” me. I got walked all over, and found myself frustrated and angry. Then one day I had an epiphany: My job was to be their teacher. And with that revelation came a new stance as the clear and compassionate director of the classroom. Sometimes I’d call myself a “benevolent dictator.” :-) I learned the power of the word “no,” and that I could say it without losing the goodwill of my students. In fact, the more I adhered to my own sense of how the classroom needed to be run, with clear and consistent guidelines, the better they liked me. I became a much-requested teacher by the parents of upcoming 6th graders!
    I think a big part of the challenge of running a classroom (and perhaps a family) is that children think adults don’t see from their perspective. One skill I learned, to carry on with your “Captain of the Ship” metaphor, was an approach that would take the wind out of their sails of objection. For example, if we had to change our plan for a kickball game for some reason, I would begin with the words like these: “I need to tell you something you won’t want to hear. I don’t like saying it. The kickball field is … (whatever the issue is).” Then we’d work together to make a new plan. This approach tells them that I already see their point of view, and so I (again) keep their goodwill.

    1. You are very wise. No wonder the parents request you. I especially love your way of letting the students know you understand their perspective. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for your insight. How can we be a passive captain of our ship when the child in question is 20 years old. And does not comply because he is lost at sea and refuses to communicate?

  3. Great article. The same mindset and practices that work with children often work with your employees in the workplace or your relatives during holidays.

  4. Oh my gosh..although I’ve read the book, my mind did not read that message. This is so serendipitisly perfect for myself & my husband right now! Thank though for the reminder!!!

  5. I wish I had done that when my kids were young, but as I worked I felt bad because I wasn’t with them so many times I gave up to their “wishes” as a way of compensating things. Now at 20 (son) and 16 (daughter) they aren’t bad but I do fight for somethings, especially now that I’ve recently separeted and they know I’m more vulnerable.

  6. beautiful article. thank you. I did the same thing when raising two boys and staying present in their life. One time my older son asked me “IS conscious is good thing?” because I was teaching them how to be aware of your thoughts and always ask for guidance from Divine. And my younger son once told me when he was 10 that “you say you listen , but YOU don’t LISTEN”..that made me ?? my “presence” and after that I was paying more attention how I was dealing with them and giving them more “space”. Now these two boys are grown- one become Doctor and one become Scientist. Learn so much from Eckhart..how our “presence” is so powerful and how our pain body works. Most I am very grateful to all his wisdom. love.

  7. Wonderful! Thank you for explaining so clearly what I also experienced and couldn´t understand. I wish I had known this when my child was small! I could have avoid so much difficulties for both here and for myself. I was sometimes the captain but a lot of the time I acted out my painbody.

  8. Thank you so much, I’ve been struggling with my daughter for over 6 years. I try to be the captain of the ship but my psi body and ego take over. This is just what I needed right now!! Thank you x

  9. Thank you. While I, too, have become a huge fan of the word, “NO,” I have also found that with my son, he has a need to feel like he has some say in certain things….mainly things like time on electronics and homework or task completion. If I can find any way to involve him in coming up with “the plan,” he is so much more positive. The other angle of this for me is both of my kids’ intensity and stubbornness, has, at times, made me reflect on what I might let go of, as well….do they really need to take a shower every night? No. If they want to take a shower once a week, fine. If they want to wear crocks with no socks in the winter….Oh well. How do you feel about flat out bratty behavior and talking to a parent…badgering, incessant why’s? How do you stop that cycle? I typically tell my kids that I’m not answering any “why’s” right now, and sometimes I tell that that I am going to stop responding if they continue.

  10. this helps as a practical advise to spiritual path. . in the sense of not yielding to the painbody will open a direct
    door to presence. .a step by step narration. . very impressive ! ..

  11. Oh my. Where were Eckhart and Susan when I was raising my 3 children? How I wish I had known then about presence and being still, with what is. That didn’t come til they were about grown. (I almost said “unfortunately,” but it is what it is, no?)

    I was a fulltime mom who did not work outside the home. Yet I still made plenty of mistakes and tried to hard to “fix” what my kids saw as wrong.

    Anyhow, this article and Susan’s explanations with Kim are SOOO helpful and beautiful and hopeful. I kinda wish I could do it all over again, in my “present” state. (Naahhh, not really.)

    p.s. to S.A.: You might try turning your children’s incessant “Why?” questionas back on them — genuinely. Ask them to figure out why you are telling them what your are telling them — no, or whatever. It might help them to understand you and your perspective, and it might also stop the
    why game.

  12. Thank you. This is exactly what i have been going through with my 5 year old. I thought i had “let the past go” until i became a parent. I’ve been struggling with wanting to be a better parent than i had but get angry and frustrated because the programmed baggage of my childhood comes to the surface. Thank you for explaining things so well. I feel hopeful

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