The Waking Up Game - A Treasure Map to Family Evolution By Brock Noyes
It was a pivotal moment when my eleven year old son walked into the kitchen, stubbed his toe, and blurted, “God f------- damn!” I could have swallowed a whale. When the shock of it finally gave rise to speech I queried as calmly as possible, “Shane where did you learn to speak like that?” Without hesitation he responded, “From you Dad; you speak that way all the time.” “A gross exaggeration,” I started to protest, until my girlfriend chimed in, “He’s right Brock, you do speak that way sometimes.”
There I was, the shadow fool dancing onstage when the lights unexpectedly came on. After the initial embarrassment subsided I concluded his cursing was primarily my responsibility, and it was also completely unacceptable. This situation presented a wonderful moment to wake up; but how was I going to do this?
Like so many others, my son Shane is a product of the divorce epidemic. Without trying to surf that tsunami, let it suffice to say that he developed a lot of anger that played out in the theatres of school and home. This was a true volcano that could blow and keep on blowing. I would be called into school to take him home; his homework was an Arab-Israeli negotiation. His obstinacy was legendary: he could sit at his desk for hours and do nothing. If he was confined to his room for not completing a task he could seemingly camp out there for days; “I will show Dad how angry I am by punishing myself.”
Getting Into the Game One key realization I needed to get through the “expletive dilemma” was that children’s ability to wake up is vastly underestimated. Once I got that realization, it took just nine months to work through Shane’s anger with him. Like a mantra I would calmly repeat, “Anger is the cup of poison you pour for someone else and drink yourself.” Then I would carefully and patiently lay out the consequences of his decisions and how they were far more harmful to him than to me. Eventually something clicked, and Shane started choosing fun over self-punishment. His consciousness would catch the rage when it started to build, and he would simply reason, “this is going to burn me; it’s a black hole and I am going to walk around it.” His anger essentially stopped, and when it did surface it was a brief flash fire and then it was gone. Watching my son accomplish this was simply exhilarating.
We all know kids grow up heartbreakingly fast in our drive-by TV culture. Although we must be cautious of miring them in adult psychotherapy, (a route we found completely useless with Shane), we nevertheless must give them some functional tools to adapt in an increasingly complex world. Love of course is the primary Rx, but I think it is critical to meet children on the playground where they do their most important work. This opens up the possibility of the parent and child evolving together.
In my own family, our short-term goal of course was cleaning up the language of father and son. My expletive habit was the product of my own “l’aissez-faire” childhood, and living in a culture where the “F” word is used interchangeably as a verb, adjective, conjunction, noun and exclamation. My son parroting my own unconscious behavior turned out to be an incredible gift; for I was able to see how habitual and rhetorical I could on occasion speak. So we devised a game where each of us was fined 50 cents for a curse and a dollar for the “F” word. At the end of the month the loser had to pay off. My son was elated because Captain Victorious almost always won, and his reward was victory over the power force and hard cold cash as his trophy. And then something truly wonderful happened; I stopped swearing. My son had become my teacher.
The waking up game continues to evolve. Another iceberg that surfaced was that my son started to become wittily and caustically sarcastic, and a Machiavellian button-pusher. It was impossible not to look in the mirror again, and reflect that my father was indeed the button-pusher from his bunker beneath the earth. Truthfully I find sarcasm can be delightfully funny, but I have a genuine ability to laugh at myself. When my buttons are pushed I welcome it as an opportunity to explore the shadow self. I suppose I tacitly encouraged my son’s depreciating wit—until I saw him transferring this to his play with other children. Immediately sarcasm and button-pushing went up on the board, my girlfriend joined the game and we had the whole family playing “Wake Up.”
Shane, whose behavior was the initial catalyst for the game, became the consistent winner (again), and the rewards have extended far beyond the game. His anger no longer impairs his life; his issues at school have dramatically subsided, his self-esteem has risen remarkably, his playmate situation has blossomed—and another special insight surfaced out of the “Wake Up Game.” Shane had been diagnosed as a possible candidate for ADD because of his disruptive behavior in school, and his consistent failure to complete tasks and pass in schoolwork. This seemed logical enough since it certainly ran amuck in my own family; my mother was so ADD she was consistently on another planet. But as our game progressed we noticed that Shane’s score stayed consistently at zero for incredibly long periods of time. He was displaying a Zen-like focus on his own behavior in the Waking Up Game, and was like some prehistoric bird of prey when one of the adults stumbled. The kid displayed an amazing ability to be present.
I figured out that Shane’s failure to complete his tasks at home and school were just a system he had cunningly devised so that he did not have to be accountable. Now we are bringing the Waking Up Game into his school performances and we fully expect the same “alchemy.” Admittedly, to our chagrin, the thrill of the game for Shane is winning and the reward is money. I am sure some purists would call this “punishment by reward,” but I got over this caveat quickly when the results consistently exceeded any realistic expectation.
The Waking Up game continues to become more refined and evolved as our goals change and become more specific. Shane stays actively involved because of the endorphin rush of victory and money. This has proved a systemic not symptomatic fix; in gaining mastery over his unconscious self my son has truly changed everything, most importantly, the way he feels about himself.
As parents we should carefully observe our tendency to view children as something that should be molded into our own illusionary vision of ourselves. Perhaps it is more important to see them as mirrors of who we really are, because of their uncanny ability to reflect the unconscious parts of ourselves. Remember that old Crosby Stills and Nash song, “Children, teach your parents well.”?
Rather than regimenting into traditional teacher/student parent/child roles, explore the possibility of co-evolving with your child. In order to do this you must fully respect that child as a cognizant human being while simultaneously meeting them on the field of play. Waking up with my son has proved as profound as staring into the mystery of the Northern Lights; for there are these ecstatic moments when Shane and I are waking up together in a playground of grace.
Brock Noyes is a counselor, home remodeller, writer and world traveller living in the Mount Tabor area of Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at www.brocknoyes.com.