My son won’t brush his teeth!

M = Mother; W = Wise Old Man

M: My five-year-old son won’t brush his teeth.

W: So what is the problem?

M: The problem is that he won’t brush his teeth!

W: That is not the problem.

M: He refuses to brush his teeth, no matter what I say. That is a problem.

W: Your son is not not the problem.

M: What do you mean, my son is not the problem?! He needs to brush his teeth!

W: His teeth are not the problem. You are the problem.

M: I beg your pardon?

W: You’ve come to me for honest answers, yes?

M: Yes.

W: So do you want me to dance around the issue or speak the truth?

M: I just want some help with this. I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried everything to get him to brush his teeth. We’ve talked about decay. We’ve talked about cavities and fillings. I’ve shown him pictures of people who never brush their teeth. I’ve tried being patient. I’ve tried yelling at him. I’ve promised him treats. I’ve used time out. Nothing I say or do makes any difference. If you had only witnessed all the tantrums…

W: Hmm… so are you ready to hear what I have to say?

M: Not if you’re just gonna tell me this is all my fault!!

W: Rest assured, I won’t be saying anything like that.

M: But you just did a moment ago!

W: I did no such thing. I reminded you that your son refusing to brush his teeth is not the problem.

M: And then you told me that I was the problem!

W: Yes, that is correct.

M: So you are saying it’s my fault!

W: I said nothing about ‘fault’. The situation is nobody’s ‘fault’. The situation is the situation. You have created a problem out of the situation. Since you created the problem, you are the problem. Since you are the problem, you are also the solution.

M: Why am I the problem? They are his teeth!

W: Agreed. They are his teeth… so what is the problem?

M: The problem is that he refuses to brush them.

W: As I have already said, that is not the problem.

M: He’s only five years old!

W: What has his age got to do with anything?

M: Look, he’s my son. I have a responsibility to ensure that he brushes his teeth each morning and night.

W: No, you have a responsibility to brush your own teeth each morning and night – if you so choose. You are not responsible for your son’s teeth; they are in his mouth.

M: He’s too young to be responsible for his own teeth.

W: Really?

M: If he doesn’t brush his teeth then he will get cavities. Who will be responsible for that? Me, of course! I’m his mother; he’s just a child.

W: How are you in any way responsible for your son’s decision not to brush his teeth? Do you control his mind?

M: Of course not, but I’m his mother!

W: Does being his mother give you the right to make choices for him?

M: Yes, when the choice is in his own best interest.

W: And how do you decide what is in his own best interest?

M: How do I decide? People brush their teeth to keep their mouth and gums healthy. My son needs to brush his teeth!

W: Can your son walk?

M: Sorry?

W: Can your son walk?

M: Of course he can walk!

W: Can your son talk?

M: Yes, he can talk… what kind of questions are these?

W: The kind of questions you would benefit from asking yourself if you want to solve the problem you have created.

M: I haven’t created a problem. I’m stating a fact: MY SON REFUSES TO BRUSH HIS TEETH. That is the problem.

W: How did your son learn to walk?

M: For goodness sake!

W: How did your son learn to walk?

M: By moving his legs (laughs).

W: How did he know to move his legs?

M: I taught him.

W: Really? How did you manage that?

M: By showing him what to do.

W: Did you have to force your son to walk?

M: Of course not. He wanted to do it himself.

W: Why do you think he wanted to walk?

M: Because that’s what babies do. They want to be like the grown ups around them.

W: Ahh now we’re really getting somewhere. So you accept that your son’s desire to walk was a self-motivated one?

M: Well… I encouraged him.

W: Of course you did. But did you actually ‘teach’ him how to walk? Did you hold formal classes on the subject?

M: This is getting ridiculous.

W: No more ridiculous than the idea that your son refusing to brush his teeth is a problem. Did you teach your son to walk?

M: Not in the sense that a teacher teaches students in a classroom, no.

W: So you accept that your son essentially taught himself to walk.

M: Well… I was a role model.

W: Agreed. And something within your son prompted him to observe you – his role model – and to make the choice to replicate your behaviour, without you having to apply any pressure as his parent.

M: Yes.

W: While your son was learning to walk, did he ever lose his balance and fall to the ground?

M: Yes, of course he did, hundreds of times.

W: Was this a cause of great concern for you?

M: Not really.

W: You didn’t put him in time-out every time he lost his balance?

M: (laughs)

W: Why are you laughing? Your son failed to walk… hundreds of times. Wasn’t this a problem?

M: (still laughing) No, it wasn’t a problem.

W: Why wasn’t it a problem?

M: Because I knew he would get back up on his feet and try again.

W: Now I’m curious… how did you know that? Was there no doubt in your mind at all?

M: Hmm… I guess I just knew he would keep on trying.

W: Yes, but how did you know?

M: Because… he wanted to succeed.

W: How do you know he wanted to succeed?

M: Because he didn’t give up. He kept trying and trying and trying until he mastered it.

W: How remarkable. Your baby son not only perceived the need to walk and taught himself to do so without your intervention. He also fell to the ground over and over again and yet – even as a tiny child – possessed the wisdom to keep trying. That your son wants to succeed in life was evident even as a baby.

M: My encouragement played an important part.

W: But did you have to force him? Were you continually expressing concern each time he fell to the ground? Were you torturing yourself because of his inability to stand?

M: No.

W: Why not? What is the difference between your son choosing to walk and your son choosing to brush his teeth?

M: The difference is he doesn’t have to brush his teeth in order to function in the world.

W: He didn’t have to learn to walk in order to function in the world. He chose to learn because he wanted to. And his desire to succeed was so strong that he simply would not give up, no matter how many times he failed. How did it feel to observe this as his mother?

M: ………..I can still remember his first few steps today (smile). It was a proud moment.

W: How would you describe your emotional state as you observed your son learning to walk?

M: I suppose I was excited for him. Perhaps a bit anxious that he might knock his head on something if he fell. But mostly excited.

W: Is it possible that your excitement could have in any way inspired your son to keep trying?

M: Yes, I’m sure that was the case. He was moving towards my outstretched arms. He would have seen the encouraging smile on my face.

W: And when you think about your son brushing his teeth, do you experience the same feeling of excitement?

M: Another silly question, to which you already know the answer.

W: But an important question nonetheless. Are you currently inspiring your son to brush his teeth by ensuring that you feel good about the subject?

M: How can I feel good about the subject?

W: By redirecting your thoughts to feel-good places. Were you aware that your emotional state is determined by the most dominant thoughts and beliefs held in your mind – often subconsciously?

M: …. Hmm, I’m not sure I agree with that.

W: Would you say that your thoughts about your son – in relation to brushing his teeth – are helping to generate good-feeling emotions within you?

M: No. But it’s his refusal to brush that causes the negative emotions.

W: No, it’s your thoughts about his refusal to brush that causes the negative emotions. You are responsible for your emotions, not your son.

You say your son can also talk. Who taught him to talk?

M: Okay, Okay, I get the point. My son taught himself to walk. My son also taught himself to talk….. I couldn’t teach him how to talk because he would have needed to be able to talk to understand – so he had to work it out for himself.

W: Great! And are these not the two most complex learning processes that any human being undergoes?

M: Well… yes, I think I would agree with that.

W: And yet your son learned to do both without the need for formal instruction and without any pressure from you.

M: Yes, that’s right. But what has this got to do with brushing his teeth?

W: It has everything to do with it. You have just acknowledged that when your son was learning to walk and fell to the ground, you trusted him to pull himself back on to his feet without any fear-based intervention on your part. Likewise, you trusted that your son would eventually figure out how to speak.

M: Yes, okay…

W: And yet you do not trust your son – now five years old – to brush his teeth without your intervention? This despite him having demonstrated to you what he was capable of as a baby.

M: It’s not the same. I’m telling you, he refuses to brush his teeth.

W: I don’t doubt that for one moment!

M: It’s because he refuses to brush them that I have to intervene.

WIt’s because you intervene that he refuses to brush.

M: No… that can’t be right. I only intervene because he refuses to brush.

W: You can easily find yourself going round and round in circles here. It does not serve you, or your son, to attempt to apportion blame in this situation. The solution to your problem lies in your willingness to accept responsibility for the role your thoughts have played in this co-creation between you and your son.

M: My thoughts… but he is the one…

W: Yes, we have already covered that. You are not responsible for your son. Your son is responsible for your son. You are responsible only for yourself. You cannot change your son. You cannot make your son do anything. You can only take charge of your own thoughts.

M: But how does that solve the problem?

W: Well, the problem exists only in your mind – in your thinking. As I pointed out at the beginning of this conversation, the situation is the situation. It is you who have chosen to label the situation as a problem. Hence, you are the problem.

M: But how is changing my thoughts going to affect my son’s behaviour?

W: Why are you still focused on your son’s behaviour? You are not responsible for your son’s behaviour.

M: But I am his mother. You agreed that I have a role to play in inspiring him.

W: You are his mother. And you do have a role to play in inspiring him. But this does not make you “responsible” for his behaviour. There is nothing inspirational about attempting to remove another’s freedom to choose.

M: I just can’t accept that. If I didn’t make my son brush his teeth and he then developed cavities, how could I forgive myself? I would be responsible for the cavities.

W: No, your son would be responsible for his cavities. You would still be responsible only for your thoughts on the subject.

M: What kind of mother would allow her son to develop cavities?

W: The kind of mother that trusts her son to figure out what is best for him.

M: But if he had cavities then that would mean he didn’t know what was best for him! That would make me an irresponsible parent.

W: In whose eyes would you be an irresponsible parent?

M: In my eyes! I would blame myself.

W: You would blame yourself for your child’s choice not to brush his teeth?

M: I would blame myself for allowing him to make that choice when he didn’t know any better.

W: Is your son going to make that choice? How do you know your son doesn’t know any better?

M: He is already making that choice by refusing to brush his teeth!

W: No. He is attempting to teach you an important lesson. It is you who refuses to listen. He is merely reflecting back your own refusal to listen to what you know to be true in your heart but are reluctant to acknowledge in your fearful mind. He is reminding you who is in charge of his behaviour – in the only way he knows how – by refusing to give in to your false view of him as an ignorant, inferior and incapable being. He perceives – so painfully clearly – your lack of faith in his ability to make up his own mind. He refuses to honour your belief that you, as his mother, are responsible for his choices because he knows that he is a powerful creator and that freedom is his birthright. He knows that his own inner guidance is infinitely more reliable than any guidance that you – or any other adult in his life, for that matter – could ever provide. Your son is reminding you that no amount of pressure applied on your part can ever compensate for his innate knowing that he is free to choose. When you interfere with his freedom you undermine the truth of his inner being. Nay, the irresponsible parent is the parent who attempts to assume responsibility for their child’s happiness.

M: Are you saying I should’t want my child to be happy? There is nothing I want more in this world!

W: I’m not saying that at all. Of course you want your child to be happy. But you are not responsible for your child’s happiness; you are responsible for your own happiness. You cannot secure a child’s well-being by demanding it. The best you can do is inspire it through the power of your own personal example. The greatest gift you can offer your son is the message that you trust him to figure out what is best for him. That you accept responsibility for your happiness. That your happiness is not in any way dependent on his behaviour.

M: What a selfish way of looking at parenting! I will never put my own happiness before my child’s. I can’t be happy if my child isn’t happy.

W: If that is the premise upon which you base your parental approach then you really are in trouble. Making your own happiness contingent on the behaviour of your child is setting yourself up for a lifetime of misery. Even if his behaviour satisfies you in the short run you will ultimately end up disappointed for you simply cannot fight forever the freedom that resides at the core of his being. For as long as you cling on to the belief that your son “needs” your guidance, you will create problem after problem after problem. You inspire his happiness by offering him the gift of your own happiness. By demonstrating responsibility for your own happiness, you teach him the true meaning of responsibility.

Your son was not born to please you. You son is not here to modify his choices according to your approval or disapproval. He is here to be his gloriously unique self. He is here to make mistakes. He is here to learn from those mistakes. He is here to evolve his soul. Do you know your son’s life purpose? What if he is destined to be the inventor of the world’s most advanced set of false teeth? What gives you the right to stand in the way of his destiny by forcing him to brush his teeth? You serve your child by letting go of any temptation to interfere in the natural unfolding of his life’s blueprint; by trusting in his ability to follow his own inner guidance.

M: Inventing false teeth? You expect me to buy into arguments like that?

W: I’m merely presenting you with a different way of looking at the situation. My example is irrelevant. The point is, you do not know your son’s life purpose and so you are not in a position to tell him what is in his best interests; you know only what is in your best interests. I’m encouraging you to let go of the reigns and to trust in your child’s innate intelligence. In the unlikely scenario that he did still end up with a mouth full of cavities, would he not learn something from the experience? What is your biggest fear?

M: ……That he would come to resent me as an adult for not being tougher with him as a child.

W: This could only happen if you were still beating yourself up for the cavities in his mouth! What choice would he have but to continue pointing out to you the error of your thinking? That is the whole function of relationships with others: they provide mirrors in which to view ourselves.

M: ?

W: Other people are always holding up mirrors for us. Problems arise only when we attempt to fix the reflections rather than look within ourselves. Very few parents are prepared to hear this. Why? Because most would rather throw away the mirror than face their own pain.

The parent’s function is two-fold: (1) to serve as an avenue through which a non-physical being can enter the physical world as a child; and (2) to provide – to the best of their ability – a stable platform upon which that seemingly dependent child can stand until he is sufficiently independent to rely solely upon his own inner guidance. There are no hard and fast rules – every child is different because every child is unique – but most children are ready to accept full responsibility for their own choices at around the age of 5.

Your son is giving you the very clear message that he is ready to make his own decisions. He is offering you an opportunity to realign with your inner truth. He is offering you a beautiful gift. The solution is at hand.

You need only look in the mirror.