Mothers everywhere know that special type of chaos when their young children are overdone. Call it Cabin-fever, witching-hour, or the full moon – sometimes it seems like NOTHING helps to stop someone from bursting into tears every minute and whining “Brother looked at meeee” or “sister sniffed at meeeee”. This kind of behaviour REALLY sets me off and my bad mood further fuels their bad moods.
There are many things about parenting that leave me just stupefied and gobsmacked. My daughter says “he called me stupid!” My son says “that’s because she is ruining my game!” Sometimes I don’t even know how to respond other than say “Don’t call her stupid,” and “don’t ruin his game.” So far my success rate for solving these grievances is low.
While I am far from an expert child-whisperer, I thought I’d share a simple framework that often works to reset us when my children are grumpy over-done chickens. I call it the Four Elements.
Earth. Air. Water. Fire. You know, those 4 elements.
These elements were the Ancient Greek way of understanding our universe and they believed that the world was made up entirely of these 4 elements. This elemental theory also extended to medicine and it was believed that these elements are also reflected in 4 human temperaments and the 4 humors found in the human body (blood, yellow bile, black bile, phlegm). The Ancient Greeks believed that health and wellness required the balance of these temperaments and the humors of the body.
Of course, we know now that these theories were wrong. I’m of course not suggesting we revert back to 2000 year old medicine when raising our children. But, I have found in my parenting experience, that in moments when my kids are overtired, overstimulated, overdone, and just generally cantankerous – applying the 4 elements to our physical space really helps.
One thing I try to remember when raising my kids in this modern high-tech and human-made world we live in – we are still human beings and our brains haven’t structurally changed over thousands of years. We haven’t really evolved. We humans still have the same brains as our ancestors thousands of years ago. We have the same brains as our hunting and gathering ancestors and fellow contemporary humans who still live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Yes, our brains have learned different things, but they aren’t further *evolved*. We have the same instincts.
Instinct is a funny thing – sometimes you don’t know why something feels wrong or right unless you tap into that instinct. I take my neighbor’s dog with me when I go running around my downtown Sunnyvale urbanized landscape. One thing I’ve noticed is that the dog will go out of her way to not step on a grate or manhole cover or other construction type thing covering a hole. Even if the cover is flat and wouldn’t seem to be a claw-tangle risk. I wondered why this is – why would a dog jump over a metal cover to a hole? My childhood dog, Canon was the same. He would not walk over a metal cover on the sidewalk. If I think back to her instincts as a dog in the wild, any dog would be wary of something similar to a thin layer of ice covering a body of water. It just feels unsafe.
As another example, sitting across the table from my child, I can take my hand and crawl my fingers across the table like it’s a tarantula spider skittering towards them. My children jump every time. And then they try to murder my hand. Which I deserve.
Structurally our brains are the same now as they were 2,000 years ago. And so while the Greek’s understanding of the human body was not scientific, at the time *they did think it worked* probably because balancing these humors *did* work to some degree in the same way the placebo effect works.
So here are four things to try next time you and your kids are losing your minds and you are Googling child-free all-inclusive Mexican resorts.
Take your shoes and socks off and go put your feet in the grass or the dirt. Feel the earth beneath your feet. Go to the beach (if you live near one) and walk barefoot on the sand. Lay down on the grass and look up at the underneath of a tree. Study the clouds, feeling the hard earth behind your back. I call this “grounding”. I don’t know why, but feeling the earth between my toes or on my back just feels right.
For my Canadian readers who spend half the year under a blanket of snow, might I suggest laying down in the snow in your winter wear to rest and look at the frosty trees and winter sky, the snowflakes floating down towards your face.
Or if it’s -30 and way to effing cold for that, maybe put your hands in a big bag of rice. Or let your kid play with a container full of dried lentils or beans. Stomp some (washed) feet in the lentils, pour the lentils through your fingers, mimicking some of the sensory input the earth gives us and playing with things that grew from the earth.
We live in an ocean of air. We cannot live without it. Of the three things that sustain human life – water, food, and air, going without air will kill us the fastest. Yet despite how critical it is for our health, we have become so accustomed to living inside, we forget how good it feels to take in some deep breaths of fresh outside air.
Of course not all outside air is fresh air or good for us. In California we are often subjected to months with poor air quality from surrounding wildfires. Sometimes it’s healthier to stay indoors with air filtration systems. We all must use our senses, primarily our sense of smell, to assess if the air around us is safe to breathe.
But sometimes we’ve just been inside so long, my nose can’t tell if the house is full of stagnant air. But our moods are in the garbage, I’m short with my kids, my kids are crabby with one another, I’m yawning, feeling sluggish – to me that’s a sign – we need some more oxygen! Air!
So here are some I do to let the air around us improve our overall moods:
- If the air quality outside is okay, I open the windows to your home and get some more oxygen inside. Simple but effective!
- I take out the trash, food scraps, run the dishwasher or washing machine, clean out the fridge. We might not notice bad smells after a while but they are still there and we are still subconsciously smelling them.
- I get us outside for a walk. I feel like water cleans the body but wind cleans the soul. I love the feeling of wind swooping and swirling around me on a walk. Taking my kids around the block or on a longer walk with a stroller or wagon makes a huge difference.
- When my kids are bickering in the car, I try putting all the windows down for a bit and just let the wind wash over us in the car.
- When I was trying to get my son to sleep as a baby, he loved to fall asleep in front of a fan with air blowing on him. It helped a lot to calm him down.
We humans have been using water to clean and care for our bodies for a long time. And while we haven’t always known of the link between human health and environmental cleanliness, our efforts to understand the science date back to Ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates himself, when he wrote the book “Airs Waters and Places” in the 4th or 5th century BCE. Ancient Greeks loved to bathe, and Romans famously loved to bathe in luxurious public bathhouses. Yet by the middle ages, people had turned their backs on bathing.
“Then in the Middle Ages, the spread of the plague made people consider more closely their attitude to hygiene and what they might do to modify their own susceptibility to outbreaks. Unfortunately people everywhere came to exactly the wrong conclusion. All the best minds agreed that bathing opened the epidermal pores and encouraged deathly vapors to invade the body. The best policy was to plug the pores with dirt. For the next six hundred years most people didn’t wash, or even get wet, if they could help it – and in consequence they paid an uncomfortable price. Infections became part of everyday life. Boils grew commonplace. Rashes and blotches were routine. Nearly everyone itched nearly all the time. Discomfort was constant, and serious illness was accepted with resignation.” – At Home, Bill Bryson (p. 681).
It truly blows my mind that for long periods of human history, we didn’t think it was good to clean our skin with water.
I’m glad we’ve culturally moved beyond a society-wide phobia of getting wet, and I often use water to reset our moods. While the generations of Middle Agers who never got wet disprove my theory that feeling clean is a human instinct, I still think it’s critical for our mental health in 2023. I don’t know what the mothers in in the year 600 CE were thinking.
My kids get a bath every second day after supper and before bedtime, but you know what? There’s no rule. Throwing them in the bath tub at 2 in the afternoon is allowed. I am allowed to give my kids more than one bath a day. There is no bath police.
And while they are contained in the bath full of warm water and bubbles and toys, I attempt to reset my own mood by practicing a little gratitude.
Did you know that a gallon of water weighs eight pounds? A standard bathtub filled to just below the overflow holds 42 gallons.
Back before modern plumbing and hot water heaters, scullery maids used to have to heat the water in the kitchen and carry 336 pounds worth of hot water upstairs in cans so that one fancy person living in fancy house with scullery maids could have a bath. Even though we now have the technology to pour hot water directly out of the faucet into the tub, much of the world’s population continues to live without this basic luxury.
Oh man am I ever so grateful for modern plumbing. For water treatment. For hot water that just comes out of my taps.
Sometimes there’s no bathtub, or time for a bath. So here are some other indoor ideas of how to use water to reset the mood:
- Fill up the bathroom sink with soapy water and a few bath toys for kids to play in.
- Fill up a mixing bowl with water and send the kids outside (weather permitting) with some plastic measuring cups and buckets to practice their scooping and pouring.
- Drink a glass of cold water. Seriously, this helps me so much. Sometimes all I need is a glass of cold water and I feel so much better. Drinking it through a straw I think is also helpful at calming an over-stimulated sensory system.
- I feel better when I’m clean, so sometimes that just means washing my hands and my feet, or changing my socks. Taking the time to wash hands with soapy warm water and enjoy it, rather than just complete the process as quickly as possible, really helps reset the mood. It helps so much with kids too.
Some days in California, it rains (it is infrequent, but it happens!) Some times it rains for weeks at a time and we can go crazy if we just stay inside avoiding all the rain. There is so much joy in rainy day walks if you’re dressed for it!
One rainy day my grumpy toddler and I went to explore the drains at the tennis courts near our house. He was mesmerized and it ended up being a good day.
If you’re wondering, my son is wearing Crocs rainboots (so lightweight!) in a bigger size with merino wool socks inside (keeps the toes warm even if water gets into boots from puddle splashing), Reima rainpants (very waterproof!), and a Hatley lined jacket (waterproof and warm!). My stroller (Thule Urban Glide 2) has the Thule raincover on it.
I’m really not sure what it is about fire that calms down over-wrought children. Maybe it’s the beauty of the flame, maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the power and the danger of an open flame. But it works.
We humans have been using fire for about 200,000 years. Gathering together around an open flame to cook, or tell stories at night is an intimate part of human social connection. Not just for cooking food, or providing us light in darkness, we use fire for reverent moments and to facilitate social connection.
- We light candles on a cake to celebrate someone’s continued existence on earth (Happy Birthday!)
- We light candles to honor the dead, like altar candles lit on Day of the Dead. Or last year on the winter solstice (the longest night of the year, December 21st), I lit a candle to remember and grieve my mom’s passing before all the joy and merriment of Christmas celebrations began.
- We gather around a lit Christmas tree to celebrate family, community and love.
- We gathering with friends and family around a campfire to sing songs and share stories. When I was 17, my friends and I would gather around firepits in backyards or parks to just hang out, have a fire, and connect with one another. These are some of my fondest memories of my childhood. There’s something about the way a campfire lights up our loved ones’ faces that speaks to sharing and vulnerability.
Now, not everyone can have a campfire on a bad mood day, especially in California. But there are other things we can do to inspire our connection to others and appease our minds with reverence.
- Light some candles. These could be home decor candles, or maybe tapers in candle holders on the table with a meal. I light candles during our Friday morning tea time. I also make a point to have candle-lit dinners whenever my husband is out of town and it’s just me and the kids at witching hour.
- Dim the bright human-made lights and get some cozier atmosphere going. Did you know that these days you can buy all sorts of colour temperatures for lightbulbs? Even if you don’t have a dimmer, you can change our your bright white lights for a more orange/firelight like glow.
- Go sit in a sunny spot and let the sun’s warmth warm your skin.
- Make a point to light candles in honor of something – a birthday, a death, an important gathering.
- Include lighting rituals in your yearly rhythm – light altar candles on Day of the Dead, light candles on the winter solstice to acknowledge the darkness in us all and remember those we have lost, attend a local Christmas tree lighting ceremony, or make your own ceremony at home turning on (or off) lights during a holiday season that your family celebrates.
So there you have it, my four elements parenting secret.
When you’re feeling the cabin fever coming on, say to yourself, Earth, Air, Water, Fire. What can I do to bring any of these elements into my life right now?
Have you seen these four elements work in mysterious ways in your life too? Do you have any ideas for how to earth, air, water, fire in the long afternoons? I’d love to hear your ideas!