When it comes to parenting, we are mostly winging it. Every day of this job/privilege where we have to keep these tinies alive and make sure they grow up to be decent humans is a learning curve. Every day we are faced with new challenges that we hadn't thought about how we would handle and conversations that we are in over our head with. "Mummy, when you're dead are you just lying in the ground dead?".... Yeah. That stuff.
The last six years of parenting has been both but a tiny portion of life and a steep time of growth. We have unlearned a heap of things that we thought we were supposed to do and be as parents and that process has been difficult and freeing all at the same time. I write what I'm about to write here not as an expert, but as a normal parent that is figuring it out daily - drinking in grace and compassion for myself as we navigate these unchartered territories for our own family. It is relentless and rewarding. It is hard.
For us there have been some approaches and values that have emerged and felt really natural and magnetic for us - ways to view and operate that make sense to us and help keep us tuned in to the kind of way we want to raise our family. I thought I'd go into our top three parenting approaches a bit here - the values we come back to when we are finding it tough. I'll include some practical examples of how they play out in our day to day lives in the hope that some or any of it serves you on your path too and maybe frees you up to parent to your own tune.
1) RESPECT & CONSENT
This may seem like a no-brainer, but most of what I had known or seen of parenting was that respect was largely a one-way street when it came to children. Kids were expected to respect anyone older than them without question and consent was something we didn't really need to talk about until adolescence. For us, respect is something we want to be really mutual and really natural in our family. We are all equal, and every single member of our tribe deserves the same amount of respect as the other. This is the message I drive at in my work life, so why would it not apply in my home life? Nobody is the boss of anyone else; that language isn't even used in our home because we don't have to thrive on power-play dynamics. We all help each other because that's what makes a family work best. We apologise to each other when we know we have caused upset - us adults unafraid to show vulnerability when we have acted or spoken out of frustration. When it comes to consent, we are intent that children are in charge of their own bodies. Unless they are posing a risk to themselves or others, we try to stay out of the way and allow them to move around their world and try things without us hovering or intervening all the time. It took a lot of unlearning to get here - we live in a world that is so adult-centric and to offer children the same amount of autonomy over their bodies and decisions as we do grown ups is a real challenge to our culture, so we have struggled to get this right all the time and feel valid in our choices. But, we want our kids to grow up in a world where this is the norm and is a priority so we try to model this from the outset.
HOW IT LOOKS FOR US:
Respect and consent can be fostered in so many big and small ways. We don't force hugs or kisses - if someone asks for one we make sure Levi knows that he doesn't have to - that he can give a high five, or a fist bump or nothing at all. We don't make a big deal out of him saying no - it's not up to him or us to satisfy someones need for affection just because he is small. It's totally up to him. We stop tickling when he says stop or isn't having fun anymore. We try not to talk about him with other people as though he is not in the room - if someone asks about him, we allow him to answer. Also, lately Levi has been really aware of his picture being on social media so we have started to ask him if it's OK before we go ahead and put his picture online (anyone who has been tagged in someone else's picture when you were unaware of the picture being taken and might look less than camera/public forum ready may be able to relate). Sometimes he says no to putting a picture online, and we have to follow through and respect that (even if it is the cuuuuutest picture and it pains me not to share). We allow him to try things for himself when he asks - like pouring out the juice. Sometimes he spills it, sometimes he doesn't. We try not to be annoyed about that (entirely against the grain of my tidy nature) because he is learning that he can do things for himself and that we can trust him to try, even if he makes mistakes or doesn't get it right.
2) FINDING A WIN/WIN
Have you heard of the saying that you should never negotiate with terrorists or toddlers? Ha! I totally understand the sentiment of that statement but for us, negotiation is not only welcome in our family life but it is encouraged. There are so many times where we butt heads with each other. We could dig our heels in (and we have) to make a point, to try and make life easier for us adults or to assert our need to feel in control. What we have found to really diffuse difficult situations or power struggles in our family is trying to find a solution that meets everyones needs if we can. Children are not exempt from needing some sort of control over their lives and for so long that concept has been talked about as a terrible thing. "He'll rule you" "You're too soft" "You give in too easily" "You need to be the parent".
Well, for us, 'being the parent' is trying to find a way where everyone feels heard - not just the grown ups. A little give and take can go a long way when you let go of the dynamic in your head that determines only adults can be in control. This approach of giving and taking, of picking the right battles (although battle isn't a great word to use because it doesn't have to be one against the other) can be mistaken for being permissive or not having boundaries but I find that a really unhelpful way to look at it. There is so much more room for connection and mutual respect when we try to find a way for everyone to get what they want. Sure, it requires calling on all of your communication reserves and that can be tiring and mean having to dig deep but it's worth it.
Of course the necessity to negotiate isn't applicable all the time and sometimes you just have to make a call in the moment and be OK - understanding that your child will likely have big unhappy feelings about it. Don't be afraid of being a 'soft' parent - we can be soft and supportive; soft and boundaried. It doesn't have to be one or the other. The world needs people to be a little softer these days, anyhow.
HOW IT LOOKS FOR US:
Bedtime. The most testing moments of the day in lots of family homes. The time when most good and patient people can transform into shouty, threatening maniacs. Amiright? Everyone is tired (even if they like to pretend they are not) and us parents are ready for some down time with Harvey, Lorelai, Schmidt or some other box-set friend. Every little delay in the bedtime process can feel like your child has decided to wage war on you and it can really provoke some tense feelings. Levi loves to negotiate at bed time and so we have tried to get into the habit of pre-empting the stalling and protesting by firstly giving lots of time warnings ("20 minutes until we go up to do teeth and toilet!"). Often he will ask for more time to play or draw or watch something, so we negotiate. "Sure, you can stay up for an extra 10 minutes if you get your jammies on now and brush your teeth." Sometimes we get in there first and initiate the negotiation. "Levi, do you want to get your jammies on now and stay up a little bit later tonight?". I love to see him working out a deal with us ("Right mummy, let's make a deal?" - we go back and forth until we are both happy with the arrangement and we have to shake on it too). I can see that he is proud to have some power or say in our dynamic. I really believe it will serve him well as he grows up and will help him assert his voice and at the same time be aware of other people's need to be heard too.
3. EMPATHY & ACKNOWLEDGING FEELINGS
Have you ever felt really entirely bummed out about something and you just can't shake it? Something has happened to upset you and you are struggling to lift yourself out of your mood? Imagine you call a trusted friend and after you pour your heart out, their response is this: "Now, that's enough. Don't be silly - you're fine! Up you get and get on with things. On you go!" Or, worse still - they completely ignore your feelings and try to drive the conversation away onto other things? Ugh. The worst, right? I see this happen so often with children. They fall and cry and our first response is "You're OK! No need to cry." or "That's a good girl - up you get, you're fine". We can quite easily dismiss their feelings as immature and dramatic, instead of valid, or desiring of connection and entirely age-appropriate. There is something so powerful about someone else acknowledging your feelings that can help you shift how you feel. Even the smallest recognition of your situation can unlock deep isolating feelings. Validating and recognising a child's feelings (whether big dramatic displays or small) can be such an opportunity to foster empathy and we have found that prioritising that validation almost always diffuses the situation at hand and opens the door to communication and connection. For children, when the people that they trust and love most in their life truly show that they understand and are not afraid or nuisanced by their hurt or anger (and can even help them name what they are feeling), children are so much more able to regulate their feelings, build trust, show empathy to others and feel safe to come to you with other stuff.
HOW IT LOOKS FOR US:
One of our big struggles is food. Namely sugar. We have a little boy who loves his treats but really doesn't cope well with the come-down from a sugar high. It can get pretty ugly and hard to manage, so we have had to really think hard about the boundaries we put in place when it comes to his intake of the sweet stuff. He is pretty persistent in asking for a 'treat' after school, and can get really upset when the answer is no. We have to spend time acknowledging that yes, sweet treats do taste nice, and that it's hard to not get things that you really want. We talk about how our body needs good food to make us feel good so we can have better fun and we try to make sure that there are good alternatives in the house. Sometimes I even try to redirect that sad or upset energy into baking something healthy instead because we connect really well when we're doing something like that together. We don't dismiss that he feels sad or annoyed with us, hoping that our avoidance of his feelings somehow magics him into being OK with it. Sometimes talking it through helps, sometimes he needs some time to be annoyed or sad and know that it's OK to feel that way. Often this acknowledgement can lead back to negotiation and we try to figure out a way forward.
Hear me out - taking on some of these ways to parent does not means that your child will behave perfectly all of the time. That is definitely not true.
“WELL WHAT’S THE POINT, THEN??” you cry!
Choosing to parent with respect, consent, negotiation and empathy is a long-term approach. It is not a fool-proof guide to making your kid do all the right things so they don't ever end up lying on a shop floor crying in a fit of public rage because it was too close to dinner time for an ice-cream. This isn’t about producing results or compliant children (good luck with that - compliance is over-rated anyway). This is about choosing connection over our need for control. When we stop seeing our relationship with our kids as a battle-field or a power struggle we can begin to foster a culture in our family life that really aims to see that all our needs are met. Parents who forgo their own needs for their children's end up resentful and struggle to enjoy family life. I know this because I have found myself veering into this zone myself and it's not how it's supposed to be.
Children will still hit out, cry when you set limits, be unreasonable about things that we don’t understand but showing up for them with consistent empathy and respect in all of those moments is part of the process of building resilient people who can tap into empathy and respect as they journey through our fragile broken world.
What do you think about these three approaches? What are the values that underpin your parenting style? Leave me a comment here or on my facebook page and let's chat more...