Marshmallows and the Middle Way

Opposites Are Necessary

If you raise your children to be generous,

you must first allow them to be selfish.

If you want them to be disciplined,

you must first allow then to be spontaneous.

If you want them to be hard-working,

you must first allow them to be lazy.

This is a subtle distinction,

and hard to explain to those who criticize you.

A quality cannot be fully learned

without understanding the opposite.

All your friends,

(especially the grandparents)

will tell you this is nonsense.

But look carefully inside of yourself.

Only the child with a strong sense of self

can be truly generous.

Only the child who discovers his or her bliss

will truly work hard.

Most of what passes as discipline and hard work

is an overlay of coerced behavior.

It has no authentic power or joy.

Only the lazy, undisciplined dreamer

can discover within the source of true discipline

that will bring great success.

~The Parent’s Tao Te Ching

William Martin


Lars is obsessed with marshmallows lately. I thought it would be a fun idea to make hot chocolate every morning together, sprinkling the marshmallows on top – a little daily celebration of the good in life.

Well, he quickly forgot about the hot chocolate and only wanted the marshmallows.

I, too, wanted the marshmallows – all. the. time. I experienced disappointment after all the excitement of Christmas, and food became a temporary compulsion. We had treats left over from the holidays, and the marshmallows I could grab every time I walked through the kitchen offered a little pick-me-up through the long, gray winter days of being a stay-at-home mother.

Larsen and I encountered the same obstacle: learning “the middle way.” It’s a Buddhist term that implies balance in life and reminding us to harness awareness with our impulses and behavior.

At the time, I couldn’t see that I was depressed that the excitement – of Dad being home more, opening presents, traveling, seeing family, and being caught up in the season – was over. We are in the dark ages again- with no fun holiday in sight.

I couldn’t believe the pull the fluffy marshmallows had on me and my son. He would ask for them when he woke, when he had lunch, when he just finished brushing his teeth.

I asked for the marshmallows incessantly too, only realizing later what there was a lesson to be learned here.

The words from Momma Zen echo in my mind daily. Motherhood is something spiritual. It offers an amazing opportunity to draw out your own issues, giving you the time, repetition, and space to reach moments of the higher self.

Her thesis is simple: Look at yourself first.

“You are not raising a mindful child. I am raising a child who is raising my mindfulness.”

Maybe Larsen was feeding off of my compulsion. Maybe I was modeling obsession. Maybe I was pursing food for adventure. Maybe a two-year-old can read all of this on his mother’s face and her actions and her energy.

Thinking in the zen way of looking within offers more possibility in my approach than thinking this is an opportunity to break Larsen’s selfish will of demanding marshmallows.

If I were to assume all children lust for power, then I would need to see how my own lust for power has tainted this view.

We are called to lead them. But maybe the leading them involves much more than dictating from a position of utter authority over another person. Maybe it involves moving out of their way and moving out of our own way, showing them by example how awareness and reason and calm action and empathy solves problems.

For me, the zen path helps me parent from the inside out.

Momma Zen tells me how to do just that:

I must observe the situation and intuit the cause. I must consider her development urges and instincts.  I must listen carefully to her words. I must use my own words or silence precisely. I must alter the aggravating situation, ofter by removing her, sometimes by removing me. I must bring all my attention and all my power to correcting what I have done or not done to unwittingly allow, encourage, foster, and fester this mess taking place right now in my own house. And if you argue that this is all too liberal, too permissive, because my daughter must learn what is right and what is wrong, I will respond that in fact my daughter will learn in the same way she learns almost all things – by watching, hearing, and imitating me. My child will do what I do and say what I say, but she will never, without coercion, do what I say. How I wish that every single time she could watch me calm down, cool off, take responsibility, and solve the problem. Only then can she learn to do likewise.

But what happens when you realize you are still in a developmental phase as an adult? What happens when you realize you don’t have self-control when there are marshmallows involved?

In other words, when we as adults haven’t mastered self-discipline, sometimes we must learn alongside our toddler as we slow down and examine our intentions about food, feelings, and freedom.

Maria Montessori reminds us that when a young child is giving freedom, he’ll use it to further his development. He actually needs some autonomy in order to reach the next milestone. And I love that Momma Zen also offers up the idea of “developmental urges” that push us toward actualization.

The marshmallow opportunity gave me just what I needed to learn about authentic choice – freedom.

I bought those marshmallows. I put them within my reach. I walked through the kitchen searching for a little perk.

I went from eating a few here and there to the other side of the spectrum and having too many. Grazing then devouring. I was learning about opposites. I was on my way to finding my middle ground.

I needed to have all those Christmas treats and marshmallows haunting me daily. I needed to eat them till my stomach and my soul could register fullness. I needed the opposite to work me back to the middle. I needed my son to watch me practice this so he can master it before he is an adult.

And now that I recognize what is happening, the opening to learn about the full spectrum of choice and then reaching a point of authentic balance, I see it being manifested with Larsen often.

I’ve seen it when I let him have a box of wipes on his own table, so he could wipe his hands as needed throughout the day. In the beginning, he only wanted to pull the wipes out of the container.

I’ve seen it when I’ve put out a container of water and toys to play with and all he wanted to do was dump the water on the floor.

I’ve seen it when I told him we were finished with breastfeeding, and then he became obsessed with “mommy’s milk.”

I’ve seen it when I’ve let him watch Octonauts on the iPad. He begged for it all the time.

I’ve seen it with Band-aids. Any small hurt, and off we go to get bandaged.

I am there to help Larsen reach a balance. I give him as much independence as possible within his developmental phase, yet I provide assistance when needed.

The Montessori idea of freedom within limits and her descriptive developmental phases help us to understand what is being worked on with these experiences:

  1. Sensitive periods
    These are critical periods in a child’s development between birth and age six that show key sensitivity for the child’s attention and exploration of their environment. These unique times of sensitivity help the child acquire certain traits and create a drive for the child’s exploration and particular activity. They may overlap but have differing critical periods. Once the special developmental acquisition is fulfilled, or that window of development has passed, the sensitive period disappears. Acquiring traits outside of this sensitive period is not as deep and requires more effort by the brain. The sensitive periods for children between the ages of birth and six years include:

    • Language
    • Order
    • Refinement of the senses
    • Tactile input
    • Movement
    • Small details
    • Social behavior
    • Spatial relationships
    • Music
    • Reading
    • Writing and mathematics

    In the elementary aged child, for example, there is a sensitive period for acquiring knowledge of grammar, and also for social orientation and justice.

  2. Normalization and adaptation
    Normalization is the process that occurs during the first six years of life (the first plane of development) that allows the child to self-construct through their own purposeful activity which Montessori calls “work”. Through activity that is self-chosen and that engages the child’s innate capacities and tendencies, effort, repetition and concentration, the process of normalization aid the child to develop:

    • Self-confidence
    • Self-discipline
    • Passion and purpose
    • Attachment to caring for others in the social community
    • A sense of responsibility for care of their environment
    • Meaningful contribution
    • A general sense of happiness with self and the world around them.

    Thus, the child of the second plane of development becomes fully engaged in a conscious adaptation to their social culture and to the broader world. They develop joyful, enthusiastic and inquisitive exploration and life long love of learning.

I’ve arranged our home to foster his autonomy, but I have come to understand it takes time, repetition, and parental scaffolding to achieve it.

Maybe he’s working on refinement of the senses or tactile input when he’s pulling out the wipes. According to Montessori, this is the foundation of learning self-control. And once he was allowed the freedom of doing just what he needed – pulling out the wipes – after a two boxes of doing this, me reminding him of the wipe’s use, and redirecting his impulse to pull out something from a box (scarves work well for this!), his need was fulfilled. He could now understand balance and move to the next developmental level.

So maybe I need to redirect my impulse to eat marshmallows, starting with an awareness of why I have this need – I was depressed the holidays were gone. I was bored. I needed time to write and read and think, to ingest new ideas (instead of eat).

As an adult, I even needed to shift from one end of the spectrum to another to find my bearings again. I literally had to eat my way to other side for awhile in order to learn my middle path.

If I don’t offer him room to play with the extremes, I am actually inhibiting his progress.

The swinging back and forth should be understood as learning or part of the process. To demand our child become proficient at only one side of the issue seems illogical now.

To model self-kindness (“Let’s try again tomorrow- no worries”) and empathy  (“I know it’s hard to wait till tomorrow to have our marshmallows again”) is part of this zen parenting practice.

Sometimes I have to treat myself as a little child, telling myself these things too, in order to achieve my balance. I need my developmental impulses to be fulfilled so I can move on to a new level of self-discipline as well.

There seems to be a human need for balance that propels us to evolve. As a child – or an adult- we all are working on a developmental sensitivities, finding the middle way that feels authentic to us, finding out how many marshmallows it takes to find our zen.

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