Learning to pay attention

“Your form is perfect,” said my dance instructor as he analyzed my pliés. “But it’s frozen. You need to bring yourself to the movement.” 

I used to take an entry-level modern dance class every week. I started these classes as an absolute beginner, with no formal dance experience. My instructor, John Munger, was a local dance legend, and I very much wanted to impress him. I’d been taking his class for a few years when he made this assessment of my pliés. 

I knew what he said was true. My form wasn’t always perfect, but sometimes I got close. I knew just how to hold my arms, where to focus my gaze, the importance of equal weight on both feet. But that’s part of the problem with technical mastery — it’s easy to check out once you’ve figured out the formula.

The reason I’m talking about dancing and not babies is because the way John used to talk about teaching dance actually sheds a lot of light on the way I want to parent. Whenever I start getting bogged down in the information overload that is modern-day, Western-world parenting, I try to take a step back and remember the things he used to say and how they might apply to my particular situation. 

What follows are some of John’s insights that have been especially helpful to me over the years. 

‘Perceive what they need’

In a brief essay that he wrote in the months before he died, John wrote about the time he taught an “intellectually heartfelt” class that he later realized had been “terrible.” 

“[The students] didn’t like it, and rightly so,” he wrote. “It was about my theories instead of what they needed.” 

I cringe when I think about all the times I’ve turned a blind eye to the needs of my kids, choosing to focus on the needs of my theories instead. One of the most painful examples of this is related to my breastfeeding experience with my first baby. 

I simply never made enough milk for her, despite my frantic and grasping efforts. What I thought she needed — breastmilk and only breastmilk. The theories I’d internalized urged me to “try harder” and confidently announced that “low milk supply” is basically just an excuse for mothers who don’t want to try harder. 

What she really needed? Calories. It seems so obvious now, but at the time, it wasn’t. 

‘Know who you’re teaching’ 

One time John taught class to a group of middle-schoolers. He attempted to teach them an exercise that always went over fabulously with adults — but it was a disaster with the tweens. “The little boys, in particular, destroyed the whole thing,” he wrote. 

I try to keep this in mind whenever I notice that I’m setting my expectations too high. 

“Oh yeah — he’s a toddler,” I have to remind myself when I get irritated at my son for, say, emptying the cat’s water bowl on the floor for the third time that morning. 

‘Know your strengths’ 

One day John walked into the studio to face a class of about 65 attendees (a huge number for a dance class), all of varying abilities, and knew he had what it took to handle the class. 

“I suddenly realized, right in my gut, that I possessed the hard-earned experience and know-how to handle this situation. I proceeded with joy and confidence, and we had a wonderful class.” 

I’m not sure that I have the hard-earned experience it takes to raise a good kid — after all, I’m just starting out here. But that doesn’t mean I need to phone it in for the next 15 years. 

This reminds me of another experience I had in John’s class. One day I was completely out of sync. 

The combination was baffling to me and I was frustrated as I struggled to keep up. I felt ridiculous and out of my league. 

I skulked out of class and wondered whom I thought I was, taking these dance classes — clearly I was a fraud. Later I ran into John in the hallway. 

“You were wonderful in class today,” he said. He wasn’t being a jerk; he really meant it. “One of your best classes ever.”  

Shannon Keough lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to skeough@mnparent.com.