Stars, Rainbows and Pots of Gold

A profound realisation from abandoned star charts.

“It’s not fair! My friend says if she scores an A in her end of term exams, she will get her own iPhone. This other friend, her parents have promised her money for getting a distinction in her piano exam! It’s just so unfair!” This is not the first or the last time I have heard such declarations of injustice from my children. They live with parents who do not believe in incentivising them materially to achieve certain grades or scores. Disgruntled, she reluctantly consoles herself with “I know. I know. I know what you’re going to say – what else would be worth more than a hug and a kiss from your mom?” I smile empathetically and offer no retort.

For many years, I have been unable to articulate why I am ineffective in administering star charts or incentive programs at home. It is not to say that we have never celebrated our children’s effort or achievements. Rewards are received as surprise treats. They have initiated proposals to us which we have considered and acceded to. At the age of six, our youngest child desperately wanted a hamster as a pet. She pitched that if she completed her daily chores for a whole month without having to be reminded, would we allow her a pet hamster? She impressively achieved it and we welcomed Honey Macaron into our home. Sadly, after a few months, her weekly cleaning of Honey Macaron’s cage triggered her asthma, so we found the hamster a new home. While the end of this incentive story was heartbreaking, I digress.

As a motivational tool, some reward systems create expectations of a direct correlation between completing a set of tasks and the immediate receipt of a material reward. Not every action in life will reap a tangible reward, let alone deliver immediate gratification. I am cautious about encouraging a sense of entitlement and nurturing children who only take action after a favourable “what’s in it for me?” evaluation. How about taking action simply because it is your responsibility or that it is a way of expressing gratitude? I have tried to find creative ways to inspire action from my children. For example, making their beds has been coined as “1-minute appreciation in the morning”. I did a quick survey around my parent friends and most admitted that while they would like to implement it, not many have been successful, with the early morning rush, to insist their children tidy their own beds on weekdays. A few were successful by offering a reward. I decided to experiment without any enticement. One relaxing bedtime, the children and I discussed how each of us loved snuggling or reading in bed, how much time we spent in our beds overnight and the importance of a good night’s rest. I suggested that routinely making their beds in the morning would be one way they could express their gratitude for the adults who tidy around them. I confess my method is unlikely to yield as effective a result as dangling a personal iPhone reward for bed making, but when I ask them “Have you done your 1-minute appreciation this morning?” it feels less like nagging than a reminder to express gratitude.

Through avoidance of direct reward schemes, I hope to lessen the effort my children will need to devote as adults, to recalibrate the balance between external fulfilment and inner contentment. I encourage them to find happiness in the present moment, to recognise that the overwhelming sense of self-pride, tremendous satisfaction and uncontainable excitement they feel as a result of an achievement, is the ultimate repayment of their own effort. Any tangible reward may distract from fully experiencing an exceptional, inimitable emotional uplift which nourishes and powers the soul.

I desire for them to set their own goals and find ways to inspire themselves to achieve their dreams. The gift may be in the journey towards realisation of their own vision. To my dearest children I say, “While you may map your dreams with stars, illuminate your journey with magnificent rainbows and the pot of gold that is your heart.”



The Tale of Two Arrows

Neither an archer nor a target be…

The Tale of Two Arrows from the Sallatha Sutta is an interesting representation of how humans experience physical and emotional pain.  When experiencing physical pain, the human body suffers a bodily sensation, discomfort or injury. In this depiction, this pain is referred to as the first arrow. The second arrow however, is the emotional response to the first arrow or the physical sense.  As humans, we may spend hours, days or even years lamenting, analysing, reliving the pain or the infliction of the first arrow. This second arrow, is the mental anguish associated with examining regrets, bemoaning or reprimanding our past actions or undergoing anxiety of the future that is associated with this pain. The moral of the tale is that while the first arrow is involuntary, we can be taught to avoid launching the self-inflicted second or any subsequent arrows.

One morning, preoccupied with getting to an appointment on time, I hastily picked up my then toddler while balancing a few bags in hand and rushed us both out the front door. I bolted up a flight of stairs and almost immediately, I tripped.  I winced in pain from a twisted ankle and realised my child had fallen out of my arms onto the concrete floor.  She did not sustain any injuries and in fact, I can still see her rather unperturbed facial expression staring back at me. This incident happened many years ago. While my ankle recovered within days, I have continued to suffer the effects of secondary arrows.  When I am in a hurry, it is not uncommon for me to be transported back in time and I relive the awful guilt for not being more careful and wave accusing fingers at myself for having dropped my toddler onto concrete. At times I even catch myself wondering if my child has secured any “yet to be discovered” injuries!

There are so many such incidents that have occurred during my parenting journey, that have involved physical injuries to myself or my children, as well as corresponding emotional wounds too. Some days when friends ask me “How are you?” I find myself replying with diminishing vitality “I feel tired”. While I am not physically tired, what I am expressing is more akin to emotional or mental exhaustion. It is likely that I am drained from nursing these wounds from secondary arrows which arise from unfounded fears, critical self-doubt, futile regret or even unreasonable expectations of myself.

Armed with realisations from this teaching, I will put my bow down and choose to attend to wounds of any first arrows with empathy, self-compassion and personal forgiveness.  I will no longer allow myself to be a target for arrows of mental anguish that are launched by my unconscious, uninstructed inner critic.

The Tale of Two Arrows (Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental… 

Now, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones, when touched with a feeling of pain, does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. He feels one pain: physical, but not mental.”