Walking the Line

Mother teaching baby to play piano

Somewhere between high expectations and open-minded parenting, I walk the line with my children—both expecting and hoping that they will be happy and engaged people now and in their future.

I sympathize with tiger parents, as the memoir of a couple of years ago called them, who set strict rules and expectations for their children. They want high achievers. I think I understand that desire.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I read a biography of Tiger Woods. He wasn’t a maladjusted adult then but just a young golfing phenom. He golfed because that is what one did in his family. He golfed well because he probably spent his 10,000 hours practicing before he hit his teens.

Forgive me now for what I’m about to write, since hindsight changes my view a bit, but I wondered reading that biography how I could help my child grow into her future self life this hot, new golfer did. I saw that expectations drew him forward into his career. I knew I would set expectations for my children.

I sympathize with radical unschoolers, as well. They advocate learning that is initiated and controlled by the learner.

I know that coercion has the opposite of desired effect on some kids. From the experience my own 24+ years of formal education, I know that my self-directed learning is all I retain. I’m not saying the formal schooling was useless, though, it was a catalyst for me a lot of the time. Even as an adult, I kept (and I keep) going back for more and more degrees and certificates. I get something out of it, but I learn more on my own than I do from teachers. Sometimes. Usually.

Realizing this about my own education, I knew that internally motivated learning was my goal for my children.

I’ve known people who come from both kinds of homes. I’ve seen people turn out focused and happy from both, and I’ve seen people turn out confused and resentful from both. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter how you parent. Of course it does! I’m just trying to figure out why I find both of these approaches attractive in some way when they seem so contradictory on the surface.

In trying to figure out how I’ve managed to walk the line so far between expectations and openness with my homeschooled children, it occurs to me that I’ve needed both approaches. Is that contradictory? I think it isn’t—or maybe it is, and that just doesn’t matter to me. I think the reason both work for me, for us as a family, is that they have different goals.

The high expectations of tiger parenting focus on achievement. The radical openness of unschooling focuses on learning. They each emphasize a different phase in the journey—the result or the journey itself.

Malcolm Gladwell tries to make big ideas digestible for a mainstream audience. His big idea in Outliers was high achievement. “Achievement,” he wrote, “is talent plus preparation.” It’s in this book that he popularized the idea that mastery takes at least 10,000 hours.

Yes, innate talent exists, but there is no way around the need for practice, exercise, and preparation for achievement. The tiger parent sets expectations for preparation, which can work when the talent is there—and when the talent coincides with desire. Coercion can’t force a child to want what they achieve, though. A child who doesn’t have time or space to understand their own internal motivations might not find that sweet spot where desire, talent, and practice come together. Denying a child the space to explore their own deepest desires probably means a crisis is coming in the future.

I haven’t been terribly deliberate in setting expectations for my children. They know they are going to college. That wasn’t up for debate, but they also understand that the meaning and use of college is changing rapidly. We focus more on the desired outcome than on the means to that end. They know they are welcome to try out new interests, but they also know they are expected to stick things out when they make a commitment. Quitting in the middle of a book or a class or a conversation is a serious choice. Sometimes we might choose to end what isn’t working for each of us, but we know that kind of choice is rare. I say “we” because the same rules apply to me and to my husband as to the children.

I haven’t been radically open in education either. We do quite a bit of school together. We create a common understanding of basics, like history, science, math, and other subjects that help us understand how things work in the world. Beyond that, though, they have a lot of space to follow their interests and shape their own learning. Beyond that, they are a bit feral.

I’m glad I didn’t go the way of absolute expectations in my parenting, since data shows that tiger parenting doesn’t produce the outcomes of high achievement and happiness that parents hope for. Neither does easy going parenting, which produces more happiness but low achievement. The closest parents come to the desired outcome of high achievement and high happiness—according to a study of tiger parenting—is supportive parenting. In this study, “Warmth, reasoning, monitoring, and democratic parenting were considered positive attributes, while hostility, psychological control, shaming, and punitive measures were considered negative.”

I heard a friend describe her educational style as leading children down a path strewn with interesting baubles to see what they pick up and carry with them. Some baubles we turn over and over to explore them then set them back down. Some become our treasures.

As you figure out where that line is for each of your children between your expectations and their internally-motivated learning, as you walk that line, just keep checking in with the children and keep checking in with yourself about what you already know about the world they are growing into. It’s your job to prepare them, but they will follow their own paths eventually.

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Build Your Support System

Young mothers with babies

Recently, a friend of mine said to me, “I seem to have misplaced my support system.” It’s easy to do. While you are still thinking about what you genuinely need in your life during the new year, ask if you have the support you need. For new parents, the new reality can sometimes mean you need to adjust or even rebuild as you find that you need a different kind of support than you did before children.

For me, the support system came in the form of a play group. A group of parents who had planned homebirths within a few months of one another had also taken a birth relaxation class together. We knew one another pregnant, and we continued to see one another as we gave birth to our babies over several months. When the children were tiny, they didn’t play much, but we as adults needed the time we had together. We sat around breastfeeding and talking. Occasionally, we invited others from our community to join us, and the play group turned into time for the children as well as for the parents. Now, our children are teenagers and close friends.

The kind of support system you seek should be driven by your need. Do you need breastfeeding support? La Leche League could be the support you need. Do you want to talk about diapers or parenting? Try a Real Diaper Circle or a Holistic Moms Network local chapter. Do you want someone to walk to the park with? Get together with new parents in your neighborhood.

Years ago, Mothering Magazine published an article called “Finding Your Tribe” on each of us seeking or building the support system we need as parents. They have continued to have a Finding Your Tribe section in the Mothering forums. If you don’t know of any local resources, look in the Mothering forums to find any posts by other parents in your area who are looking just as you are.

Stop long enough to ask if you have what you need. If not, you are not alone. You can find other parents so you can share support for your parenting journey. Good luck finding your tribe.

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I’m a Multitaskin’ Mother

Raising Arrows profile

Motherhood means changing a diaper while on the phone.

Motherhood means breastfeeding and sleeping at the same time.

Motherhood means cooking dinner with a baby strapped to you.

Motherhood means sweeping the floor with a toddler attached to your leg.

Motherhood means answering 50 questions while driving in rush hour traffic.

Motherhood means loving them while cleaning up their messes.

Motherhood means Multitasking.

Amy of Raising Arrows received the greatest number of your votes for The Most Inspiring Blogger in our Blog to Inspire contest.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of Eco Baby Steps or Parenting By Nature.

Really Listening to Your Child

Mother listening to child

“Just a minute.”

How many times a day do I put my children off? I’ve become more aware lately as I push and drag myself into parenting consciousness.

I adore my children. I want to know all about them. As I saw them acting out my failings on me, I realized that love wasn’t the message I was sending.


Listening Is Love

Listening is love, loving not just the idea of our child but the unique, quirky individual they are and the grown person they are becoming. They have thoughts and ideas that can surprise us as parents. The question is whether we are willing to hear them.

Are you interested in your child? Are you engaged?

When you listen to learn about your child, listen for the meaning in what your child says, you not only learn more about this person you love but you build a foundation. This foundation will help as they go through the emotional ups and downs of growing up, and it will help as they learn to be good listeners in their other relationships.


Ready to Listen

My children and I have been talking lately about being ready both as listener and as speaker. The listener needs to focus, and the speaker needs to be sure they have a listener. As my children get older, we establish rules of conversation together.

I find myself frustrated by frequent interruptions and having to start the same idea over and over again. To make sure that listening and respect goes both ways, I have been working with my children to recognize whether people are ready to listen and to save up their questions to perhaps just one per minute rather than 5 per minute. If I am in the middle of a phone call, they wait unless it is an emergency. If I am in the middle of typing a sentence, they wait until I have finished. When reading, we ask, “Let me finish this paragraph.” When knitting, “Let me finish this row.”

And, I need to give them the same respect. I remind myself that I can’t interrupt just because I’m the parent and I think I’m very important.

In our new rules of conversation, once the speaker has a listener, the listener puts down what she is doing, muting any sound, and we look at one another. We look one another in the eyes. It does wonders!

That’s when the listening begins.


Open Listening

Keep yourself open to your child, and your child is more likely to continue expressing himself openly.

Don’t interrupt to express your own thoughts. Don’t interrupt your own listening to form a response, either. Hold on to your thoughts without letting yourself become the center of your own attention.

It’s tough for an excited, young child to hold on in his own words. When my son interrupts, I find myself saying, “When you interrupt, I think you aren’t listening.” I know he is listening in the way he knows how, so I try to help him find a way to hold on to his thoughts so he can share at an appropriate point in conversation.

Even with this in mind, I have to coach myself to listen patiently, not to interrupt my children. It takes a conscious effort to slow down my listening, empty myself of speeches, and just hear my child.

While you are listening, keep your attention on the other person so you really hear what is being said. Focus with openness.


The Conversation Starts

Following the quiet listening comes responding and confirming.

Confirm. Are you sure you heard correctly? Are you sure you understood what your child said? Confirm not only as a way to be sure that you heard what you think you heard but to review and remember.

Question. Do you want to know more? Ask open questions that will extend the conversation: “Can you describe that?” or “And what did you think?”

Identify. It might also help your child to identify emotions if you ask questions about how they are or were feeling. “It sounds like you were upset about that.” Maybe you get a confirmation, or maybe you start a conversation that draws your child out to articulate her own feelings and thoughts.
Clarify. Your child might be able clarify the experience as a whole when given an opportunity to explore feelings and meanings.

In families where true listening is going on, children believe that what they have to say is important. That leads to more empowered and resilient children. Children begin to trust themselves more and have a better understanding about who they are.

Reading

  • Lisa Burman, “Are You Listening?: Fostering Conversations That Help Young Children Learn.” Though focused on listening to young children in the classroom, this book can be quite helpful to parents as well.
  • Wendy, The Creative Relationship Coach, “How to Really Listen to Your Child, Your Spouse or Anyone.” The therapist quoted above also shared a moving experience of half-listening to her son. She didn’t slow down and focus until her son broke down.

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Throughout March we will offer getting started guides. This is a week of Letting Go of Old Habits.

Positive Discipline, Kind and Firm

Father and child handsWe all want to guide our children to become confident, independent people capable of self-discipline. It isn’t necessarily obvious for a parent to figure out how to get them there, though. As a parenting model, Positive Discipline seeks to give parents tools to build independence and confidence in their children, avoiding the fear that punishment brings and the self-indulgence that lack of boundaries brings. Positive discipline encourages adults to remain kind and firm with children in order to develop mutual respect.


Kind and Firm

Positive discipline developed through parenting and classroom management models of the early 20th century that sought to be respectful of children while still giving them the firm consistency they need. Positive discipline is most familiar today through a series of books by Dr. Jane Nelson and a long list of co-authors.

Now positive discipline is applied in a wide variety of settings where people want to step away from authoritarian to authoritative interactions. Positive Discipline schools help teachers and other adults to provide consistent and secure learning environments. Positive Discipline is one of the eight principles of Attachment Parenting International. I’ve seen it outlined as a practice in adult-to-adult settings such as the workplace as well.

Positive discipline is rooted in a secure, trusting, connected relationship between parent and child. Discipline that is empathetic, loving and respectful strengthens that the connection between parent and child, while harsh or overly-punitive discipline weakens the connection. Remember that the ultimate goal of discipline is to help children develop self-control and self-discipline. ~“Practice Positive Discipline,” Attachment Parenting International


What Do Parents Need to Know?

Dr. Nelson outlines five criteria for effective discipline as:

  • Helps children feel a sense of connection.
  • Is mutually respectful and encouraging.
  • Is effective long – term.
  • Teaches important social and life skills .
  • Invites children to discover how capable they are.

For children of different ages, this means that different techniques will be needed to reach the goals of mutual respect. With a baby or toddler, for example, it doesn’t do much good to reason with them. They just aren’t developmentally capable of benefitting from our well-polished speeches on good behavior. The different books in the Positive Discipline series emphasize that the person in authority needs to adjust to the needs of children at different stages of development and people in different situations.

Amongst the countless parents and teachers who express their deep gratitude for the guidance that Positive Discipline gives, I’ve seen parents say this method doesn’t work. Like nonviolent communication, I am sure that this is a practice rather than an accomplishment. If we aren’t starting from birth, it may take a while to develop the foundations of mutual respect. Rather than focus on the points of practice, it is important to keep in mind that ultimate goal of helping children become good humans.


Resources

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