Often parents get very frustrated (yes, me too) when their children are messy and show no interest in tidying or cleaning up. How can we as parents respond? Bribes, threats or blackmailing are one way … are there any other options? Watch my statement by following the link to my YouTube channel:
A Guest Post by Tyler Jacobson
I was going through Pinterest one day, and I noticed something. The website, which is traditionally most popular with women, was full of photos depicting other women who fit the average supermodel physique. Glancing down at the titles of the pin boards they were placed in, I saw titles like ‘Thinspiration’, ‘Fitspo’, and ‘Goals <3<3’.
What first hit me hard was thinking of my wife. I wondered if on her Pinterest account, or perhaps any other, she might have similar boards. If she filled galleries with photomanipulated images of alleged perfection, pitting her own image against those of what we have been pushed to believe is the ideal. The very idea that she may have fallen victim to such thoughts, this beautiful, perfect woman I loved, broke my heart.
But then, a much darker thought occurred to me: little girls are seeing these same messages. Looking at a couple of the boards confirmed that at least some of them were no more than teenagers. And in the descriptions of each image were phrases like, “How I want to look by next summer”, or “I need to stop being so fat.”
What are we teaching our young girls? How many of our daughters are suffering under the same negative sense of self, and how many will grow up to be women facing the same self-hatred?
Being Proactive: Teaching Our Daughter’s Balance
The solution, I truly believe, begins at home. It is too easy as a father to take a backseat with daughters, leaving the majority of lessons to come from their mother. While not a conscious decision for many of us, it just feels more natural to split the parenting between genders. Who would know better what a young girl goes through than their mother?
But this is a view to be overcome. Fathers have just as much responsibility as mothers to help teach their children (all of their children) to love and respect themselves. On the topic of finding balance between health and beauty, that effort is all the more crucial.
Our girls are living in a time where everything from their phones to their computer screens are bombarding them with messages about what is normal, beautiful, and a goal to achieve. We have to be there to teach them the reality, and to foster a sense of acceptance and self-love based around who they are.
These are four lessons that I feel are our responsibility as fathers to help teach our daughters about health and beauty.
Lesson #1: The Media Lies
Looking through those images on Pinterest, it is plain to see that they are unrealistic. It isn’t a problem isolated to social media, either. Just typing ‘Photoshop in magazines’ into Google will show you the ridiculous ways the media will manipulate photos into fitting an ideal that no one is capable of reaching in real life.
That picture of Taylor Swift that your daughter is staring at, wishing she matched up? Everything from the clearness to her skin to the size of her thighs have been altered with software. And that is after all of the makeup, corsets, careful posing, and lights have been added to hide “imperfections” spotted by the photographer.
Lessons #2: There Is No One-Size-Fits-All Body Type
There is no “right size” for a human being. Some women are tall or short, heavy or slender, stocky or petite. The world is full of all types, and all types are beautiful in their own right. What it doesn’t show is what is inside that person, the things they are capable of doing, the strength or limits of their bodies.
We have to get away from this concept of an ideal. It is individuality that makes someone stand out, not conformity to a clothing size. If we teach our daughters that their worth isn’t related to their frame, and that they are worthy of respect no matter their type of build, we can steer the conversation to more productive avenues, such as their interests, talents, and achievements.
Lesson #3: Health Is a Holistic Process
Health isn’t all about weight. It isn’t even all about the body. Health is a holistic issue, which means it is the combination of all factors that make up a whole person.
You are truly healthy when your body is nourished and cared for, your mind is calm and strong, and your emotions and stable and happy. At least when they are those things most of the time…we all have bad days.
Lesson #4: Self Image Is The Most Important Image
It is impossible to ignore what people think of us all the time. But that doesn’t mean we can’t begin to show our girls that the real opinion that matters is their own. Sure, someone might say they are too fat, too skinny, not tall enough, not have clear enough skin. Who cares?
As long as they can look at themselves and see that they are healthy, happy people with their own skills, talents, personality and qualities (both good and bad), we have done well as parents. A measured and largely positive sense of self is one of the greatest gifts that they can carry with them throughout their lives.
Our Mission Is To Save Our Daughters
Girls face constant examination, ridicule, and an unfair standard that is hard to understand as men. We are rarely confronted with the same standards, and so it is easy to forget the stress being put on their self-esteem.
As fathers, it is our job to help put a buffer between our children and these false images of perfection. We have to teach them to be happy with themselves, and to see the beauty in their individuality. To show them that it is health that matters, not waist size, or how thick their eyelashes are.
If we can show our girls that they are smart, strong, fun, and healthy, we can change a culture that is designed to hurt them. That sees well worth the effort.
Tyler Jacobson is a father, husband, and freelancer, with experience in writing and outreach for organizations that help troubled teens and parents. Tyler has offered personal, humorous and research backed advice to readers on parenting tactics, problems in education, issues with social media, various disorders, addiction, and troublesome issues raising teenage boys.
About ten years ago, we – the then childless couple – were thinking about how we would like to live our lives. We believe many couples and families have such evening-on-the-sofa-rituals. What is important to us? How do we want to raise our children? Where shall we live? What can we work or do to create an income? Which decisions do we need to make to succeed? To some questions we quite easily found the answers: we always wanted to spend as much time as possible with our children. Work as much as needed in order to pay the bills. Live within a community in which people look after and support each other. With lots of green, trees to climb, healthy local food to eat. A place where art and music are being celebrated, where people treat each other with respect and kindness, that’s respect for children too.
We were looking for a life where our family is the centre. To put our family in the centre to us means being able to make our own choices, rather than being dictated by society how we should live. We’re not buying into the current ideologies out there, which are meant to strengthen the patriarchal and capitalist systems. However, it is shocking to think that every day we, who despise these systems, are strengthening them, just because through our upbringing, as well as everyday exposure to this lifestyle it is so ingrained in us that it takes effort to see through them.
In this article we’re going to expose some of the lifestyles and thoughts we have taken on, because they have been presented to us as being the “norm”. Mostly, we want to be normal…
Let’s take a look where it all starts: for most of us it’s in our childhood. From the early days in our parents’ home and in school we get trained and conditioned on so called values about how we should, even on how we must live our lives. A good, meaning valued, citizen is one who has a good job (to get there you must be good in school, so you must get good grades, ideally be better than others), who has a (small) family, a nice house (in a “good” neighbourhood), a rather expensive car, pays into a pension scheme, has an insurance for everything, and asks no stupid questions. Sounds familiar to you?
That spiral continues when working for a company. Your boss carries on telling you how to behave: A good citizen works hard for 45 or so years, does unpaid overtime (you really want that promotion, don’t you?!), lives a short life as a pensioner, then dies of cancer or any other disease.
When the ‘good citizen’ becomes a parent there are certain expectations to fulfil to fit into our society: send the child to nursery, then school while you continue working hard for your employer, see your family for an hour or two in the evening, pay taxes, do as you’re told. This mantra gets repeated in the media day after day. Media controlled and managed by big corporations (who don’t even pay taxes).
Why are we so susceptible to observing this ‘one size fits all’ ruling model? Is it really possible that so many of us, very individual people, all want the same thing? We believe that many are struggling to escape this life because of fear.
Fear As The Disabling Factor In Facilitating Change
This fear, where is it coming from and why do we feel it so extremely present? Fear is the anchor of our consumer society. Economy and politics go hand in hand to project fears on us. The cycle of work, earning money, spending money, needing more money, buying more (bigger) objects are all related to our fear of not being part of the game (you’re unhappy with your job? Buy something and you ‘feel better’).
Our fear lets us to believe we need others (like the government or military) to ‘protect’ us. Have you ever noticed that ALL news programmes are fully loaded with negative news? Stop becoming depressed by watching how horrible some of our fellow humans are. Again, your fear is being fed. Get rid of it. Look at what you can do to support those who struggle in your community, by helping them in practical ways but also by empowering them to know what they really need in their life.
Parenting In A Capitalist Society
Many people we know are getting more and more unhappy, even frustrated with the cycle of obedience, permanent competition and dependence. They’re simply fed up with being the hamster in the wheel, running every day mile after mile in order to just pay off bills, the house, the car… or to save a few bucks to get the next holiday. In this whole mess our parenting job is included.
The UK government throws a lot of money at so called back-to-work-programmes for parents . Parents are getting financially rewarded when they find a job/go back to their job as soon as possible. The baby/toddler goes off to nursery. The earlier the better. Early prevention, that’s what the government calls it. By doing this it throws all attachment theories out of the window at the same time. Well, who really needs a strong bond to his baby or child? Why on earth should you be around when your child does his first step or says her first word?
No, we’re all needed in our shiny offices, factories, schools, departments, supermarkets. For the common good – to produce more, to consume more, to make the rich even richer. No time or energy for fancy ideas of breaking out of this system. Once in it, once a slave to the system how can you break free? How can you live without earning money, we all need it, right?
How Can We Break Out Of This Cycle?
But, as said, people – or let’s stick to our good citizens – are getting fed up with that kind of life. They realise that money doesn’t buy you happiness. They know that the first five years in your child’s life are the most important ones. That your big corporation can go bankrupt tomorrow and suddenly you’re out of work (or that if you make demands/bring in your own thoughts, they’ll drop you, just like that). That two weeks summer holidays (at outrageous costs) doesn’t replace proper quality time and a good relationship with your children.
Many realise that. But then the same people look at us, shrug their shoulders and we see that uneasy feeling on their faces , saying: ‘Well, what can you do? That’s how life is, isn’t it?’. For years we would have sighed and said ‘yes, you’re right. Nothing we can do’. Bonkers. Because our parents, our teachers, our bosses, our prime ministers, our neighbours, our friends have told us so? What is it that holds us back? Why don’t we say to our boss tomorrow ‘look, I’ve got family and I love them to pieces, I need to work less’? Why don’t we say to doctors ‘hey, thank you for your advice (on vaccinations or on your child’s development etc.) but I’m getting a second opinion/listen to my intuition before I decide what’s best for my child’? Why don’t we break out of our over-expensive, damp houses and change our world now? How can we overcome the fear that’s holding us back living our dreams, living life on our own terms?
Our family has made the first (and yes, maybe small) steps – out of our comfort zone. We started with talking, reflecting, researching, dreaming. Then we went a little further. We let go ideas of big careers or 9-to-5 jobs. So, over the last years we always negotiated with our employers about working part time, in order to have enough time for our children. Yes, Torsten even left a job some years ago when he was denied the right of working part time. They pushed him as far as they could. His answer was still simple and straight forward: My family is more important than your business. If one parent or both, work long hours, the bond is compromised and one or both might not even see the benefit of working less and spending more time with your child. (Often women then compromise and backing their partner’s career aims, by working less and taking on the bigger part of childcare and domestic tasks…). And, yes, that’s doable to all of us, as Sweden demonstrates it with a 30-hour-working-week. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.
Digital nomads are finding a new way to escape the hour after hour spent in an office – working remotely, using their laptops only. Nowadays it’s possible for more types of jobs than you think – to talk (even face to face), hold conferences, work on the same documents etc. with modern technology. It’s time more companies think again and offer this style of working to their employees. Companies need to reshape and reorganise themselves. We don’t want hierarchical structures any more – they don’t work. Well, at least not if you like something else than the current systems. We aim for company bosses who are able to talk to their employees on the same level, rather than look down on them and play out their power. All people have the right to be treated respectfully and as individuals, as subjects. The result would be more efficient companies and happier and healthier people and families.
Raising Our Kids To Become Autonomous And Fearless
Before our eldest son was born we decided to unschool. Nearly eight years later all our children enjoy being unschooled. For us, this lifestyle choice is part of a life without fear for all of us. Our kids learn, thrive, explore, question and discover. They learn in their own way and at their pace with our support and respect for their innate development. We create opportunities for them to meet many different people, form relationships, get to know different places, try out a variety of activities and discover their passions so that they have time to develop their potential and be happy.
From baby onwards our children were allowed to be autonomous beings, they decide what they eat (from a range of healthy options), play, who to talk to and what to say. No pressure, no tests, no fears. Instead respect, kindness and unconditional love. This way we get to spend lots of time together as a family, we bond with the kids, siblings bond with each other, we as couple have more of time together. Most people whose children go to school fear the responsibility. Paying others to raise their children for a (often big) chunk of the day, they suddenly feel it’s others who know better what their kids need. They don’t think they can provide what their children require. We don’t blame them, it’s only natural to feel that way, it’s part of the ruling ideology. You are supposed to feel like that. But who decides what’s important for your child to learn? How do they know what your child will need to know in life, in their life? (We can’t even predict where modern advancements will lead us in five, ten, twenty years’ time).
School is a very recent social experiment. For most of human history children would learn from their parents and their wider community. Children used to live and learn in their community what’s important to know to survive within their social structure. Schools can only provide one style of education, it is impossible to individualise the curriculum, which means that it will suit some, by chance, but others it won’t. But, we’re not here to blame teachers. They’re facing the impossible task to nurture and support at least thirty individual children with thirty individual needs in one class.
On the other hand we appreciate and support ideas and practical ways to restructure school. Exciting projects like ‘democratic schools’ are popping up all over the globe.
Another fear factor we eliminated: TV. We haven’t owned a TV for more than 12 years. Because we don’t want our children to get brainwashed by big money making corporations telling us what to buy and what to believe. We don’t want our children to see ads, movies and programmes where gender stereotypes are reinforced.
Our Kids Know They Can Achieve Anything – Regardless Of Their Sex
Gender roles and stereotypes (like in toys, advertisement, consumer products from beauty articles to clothes, sports…) are constantly reinforced within our society. That’s the easiest way to keep the male dominated world of business and politics going.
We raise our children gender-neutrally. Why do kids choose to wear certain clothes? It’s the fear to be different. Gender equality can only be achieved if we let our children choose out of their preference not their sex. They understand they can do/be what and who they want to be. We don’t tell our children that there are clothes and colours for boys and those for girls (who gets to decide that anyway?), we let them choose their toys, whether it’s a dolly or car. We want our sons and daughter to grow up knowing they are just perfect as they are, instead of buying into society’s beauty images. We parent our children equally, responding to them based on their personalities not their gender.
So, yes, our 7-year-old son has long hair, his favourite toy is a doll called Anne, and he wears dresses most days. He loves them. He knows many other boys and men (like his friends) don’t wear them. That’s fine for him, or as he told us: ‘everybody should just wear what they like’. Whenever other adults (it’s mostly them and not other kids) make assumptions on our children’s preferences according to their sex, we challenge them. How else can we change the current inequalities in the workplace (in terms of pay, career paths and progressions)? We, families, need to start demanding for change and be the change ourselves. That means take equal responsibility for childcare and domestic tasks. Women are being held small by how they are portrayed in media, society and treated by our ruling bodies and men are pushed into roles they don’t wish to fulfil.
Fear is one of society’s biggest issue. Fear disables us to try out challenging things and to go for what we really want – regardless of other’s opinions. Fear takes away all the countless possibilities we have. Fear is the heavy chain with a padlock around our neck. But we hold the keys in our hands.
Our fears are not disappearing overnight. Your fears might be very different from ours. You might enjoy life as it is and want to tackle completely different issues. That’s fine. Make it so.
The big steps are not always easy to be made. We know that. If we want a different kind of society, it’s us parents who can change things, by how we live and how we raise our kids. We started small. And we’re not there where we want to be. Not yet. But we’re on our way.
They can grow up, shaping their personalities without the deliberating factor of having to fulfil the artificial gender roles – as much as possible. At least within our family and among our friends. This will, hopefully, prepare them in standing up for themselves in a gendered society.
Nedua and Torsten
Whether it’s shaming, shouting, bribing, ignoring, threatening, over-powering, punishing, hitting, or spanking. The list of disrespectful behaviour towards our children is long and miserable. Easily parents and other adults find a good reason why a child deserves a little smack, some time-out on the naughty step to get him thinking, or the taking-away of treats and rights. Because the child misbehaved, didn’t co-operate or just didn’t listen – to cut it short: ‘the child was naughty’.
As a parent of three young children I can relate to stressful situations. This afternoon we wanted to go to a playgroup, the car was in the garage and we had to take the bus, which only goes every hour. My children took ages to find their shoes, coats, a favourite cuddly toy, a snack, and so on. For twenty minutes I had been running around, calling and reminding them. With rolling eyes, increased pulse rate and mumbling under my breath, I tried to help them. Then, finally, when I thought we really could make a move the youngest shouted ‘I need a wee’. In less than a minute we solved that problem (yes, we skipped washing hands due to time shortage), ran to the bus stop, arrived with our tongues hanging out, just to see the red rear lights of our bus driving off. The knock-on effect felt big: we missed the bus, the playgroup, seeing our friends and, of course, the post office, where a parcel is waiting for us, would be closed later on.
My children wailed, complained and moaned. To make my situation worse it started raining. I could feel that big wave of annoyance and irritation rising inside me. Just an eye blink and I could explode. A tirade of shouting and swearing was about to be poured onto my kids: “Because you didn’t hurry up when I told you. Because you couldn’t find your shoes (and didn’t put them by the door in the first place after you used them last time). Because you needed a wee. Because… because, damn, it’s just your fault. That’s why we missed the bus, the playgroup, seeing our friends, the post office. And, on top of that, we’re dripping wet. I’m not taking you on the bus again. When we get home you can go to your bedroom and stay there for the rest of the day. Serves you right!” People passing by and seeing the scene would probably turn away feeling embarrassed or nod their heads in agreement with me.
I did say, I could explode. And here’s my choice: I, the parent, can choose to control myself and respond differently than just described. Or I can blow.
You see, situations like those do happen every day thousands of times – in our family homes, on playgrounds, in public places, yes, even in schools, kindergartens or playgroups. Adults’ overreactions towards children is a culturally accepted concept. Unfortunately. Would I shout, threaten or hit my neighbour, colleague or partner, I could end up – rightly – in court for assault. Doing the same stuff to my kid would come under the term ‘disciplining’. I’m showing him what’s right and wrong, I’m setting boundaries, I’m teaching her a lesson. Right? Bonkers.
I’m not teaching, I’m not setting a boundary, I’m not changing any behaviour. Instead I’m threatening, over-powering, shaming and punishing. The lesson my child will learn here? Not to trust me. To be afraid of me and my responses. He will learn to supress certain feelings and try to manipulate himself and situations to avoid my hurting reactions. He will feel disconnected, unloved, unworthy, a bad person. Next time my child might shout back at me or (if that’s yet too scary) let it out on his sibling or a younger, equally helpless child.
What we need to understand is the simple fact that our children are not naughty. Their plan is not to annoy or irritate us. They are doing the best they can, with their current ability. We need to understand that we are their models. They will copy us and our behaviour. If we show disrespect towards them, then we shouldn’t be surprised at all if this disrespect comes back like a boomerang. But if we choose to show understanding, empathy and unconditional love, then we will see co-operation, reassurance and trust. Not in every situation, but overall.
The most important thing one can hope for in parenting is to establish a loving relationship with one’s child – this goes above everything else. In every moment of the day ask yourself: is this actually connecting us further or disconnecting us? If you think, e.g. table manners is a must, then ask yourself: at what price am I trying to force my ideas on my child here? (Doesn’t mean that your ideas are wrong, just that your way of achieving your goal might not be right at this moment in time).
Deeply rooted in our culture and society is an understanding that we can treat our children as we wish. Often this behaviour is just a response from our own upbringing. If we were hit or otherwise mistreated by our parents, then – even if we made that promise to try better than our parents – we are likely to repeat similar patterns. Because that’s what we’ve learned and copied many times. So, you misbehaved as a kid and your Mum took your ice cream away? There is a good chance that you punish your own child for not tidying his bedroom with a similar threat. We are repeating our stories, past wounds are still hurting our inner child. Often we watch ourselves act helplessly wondering why on earth we are behaving as we never wanted to.
Pretty grim eh? The good news is you can change that. It is hard, as it is so ingrained in us, often we unconsciously choose to repeat this learned behaviour. Be patient and kind to yourself while in the process of ‘re-programing’ yourself. Take time to reflect on your thoughts and actions and rather than beating yourself up for failing to change your behaviour today, think about what will help you to avoid that stressful situation (in which you might overreact) next time. Any behaviour can be learned and un-learned.
The second major problem of today’s society is TIME. Most of us feel under permanent pressure: family, work, children, household, money, bills, friends – and in between, dozens of digital gadgets to distract us. Our lives have become like a 24/7 non-stop show. Being ‘on call’ all the time shift priorities from the really important things – like our children and how we treat them – to less important gossip, comments or feedback on social media and the like.
Take a look around you and observe parents and their children. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the playground, the bus stop or in a café: the grown-ups are glued to their screens while the kids entertain themselves.
We need to change our life styles. We need to change the way we treat our children. We need to show respect, empathy and love. Now.
Let’s go back to my example where the kids and I run to catch the bus. What could I, the parent, have done differently to avoid the whole situation in its first place? To put it simply, it’s all about time again. I could have started preparing for the outing earlier. I know my children need longer putting their shoes and clothes on. They can’t find their stuff? Well, I can help. My 8-year-old normally does his shoe laces by himself but he has days where he wants me to do it. Not because he’s lazy, because he’s looking for connection. It doesn’t hurt me to do it for him once in a while. OK, but even though we could still have missed the bus, right? Yes. And the news is, it has happened to me. Not only once. Still, I can decide whether to lose the plot and shout and blame – or to pause, breathe in and out, reflect and to offer a plan B. Missed the bus? I wonder what else we can do today as we won’t be able to meet with our friends? Shall we call some other friends and invite them to us for games? And, yes, the parcel at the post office can wait until tomorrow. It’s not the end of the world. – I appreciate that this needs training and practise. For me as well.
And now, let’s go further. Saying that we need a cultural change is good and easy. But we need to make the right steps. All of us – you and I. To challenge mainstream patterns, we need some ideas to help us changing the current climate of disrespect:
- Awareness starts with myself. I need to reflect on my own childhood and find out how my parents treated me. I’m not doing this to judge them. I’m doing this to learn and to see whether my responses are similar. I can write down my emotions and thoughts and discuss them with my partner, a friend or a specialist to overcome past issues.
- How do I talk to children? Am I polite? Do I sound threatening or too loud? Would I choose the same language with my partner, friends, colleagues, a stranger in the street? My kids deserve the same respect I am expecting from everyone else.
- I feel helpless, confused and angry in a tense moment. I acknowledge my feelings, take some deep breaths, if possible I leave the situation for a moment, or I communicate to my children that I need a short break. I take that time to reflect what other options are available.
- I sit down with my partner or a good friend and talk about my parenting and the challenges I face. I don’t expect anyone to fix my problems but someone who can listen to me and reflect with me.
- I am taking time for my children without any distractions. Phones, laptops and gadgets are turned off or not in the same room when I spend time with them.
- I apologise to my and other children. Yes, I make mistakes and I acknowledge that. Apologies are a good way to reconnect and to show authenticity.
- When I plan for an activity, outing, holiday etc. I’ll include my children’s thoughts. I’ll invite them so they can voice their needs and wishes.
- When I set a boundary, I’ll explain to my child why. E.g. to your 3-year-old: I need to hold your hand right now because it’s a busy road and we can’t run around.
- I can always make a quick assessment in my head: how much harm would be done if I ask x, y or z? E.g. the room is untidy but my child is absorbed by playing. Do I really need a tidy room now or could it wait for the moment?
- No bribes, threats, punishments, violence, shaming, ignoring – ever!
Finally, I’m asking for one big thing. This one sounds very easy to be done but I know we as society have still a long way to go. We need to start treating children with equal respect and empathy as all other human beings. Let’s start today.
“Sharp knives don’t belong into children’s hands”, “That’s not safe, let me do it”, “A kitchen is no place for kids” – sounds familiar to you? Well, that’s some stuff I had to cope with when growing up myself, and – bad enough that’s still the mantra for many parents or adults working with kids nowadays.
I just recall some playgroup situations: the parents’ response when their two-year-old picks up a plastic knife (yes, the good ones for butchering play dough) to murder a cucumber at snack time. Eyes wide open, panic mode, shrill voice: “Ah sweetie, Mummy will hold that dangerous knife for you, don’t you think?”. A millisecond later – the object of mass destruction is safe in Mummy’s hand. All other parents exhale a sigh of relief.
Another example comes from the next-best playground of your choice. Little Joe tries to balance over the climbing frame. He concentrates hard enough and works his way up. Before he reaches the top little Joe hears his Dad shouting “Oh Buddy, that’s quite high. Just watch out. Hold tight. No, not left, go right. Easy man. Not quite sure if that’s a good idea”. Smiles nervously. Dad that is. “Hang on. Let me guide you. Stop. Stop I said!” Joe loses his balance and falls off the climbing frame. “Told you to stop!”
Clever omniscient grown-ups have created a fluffy, pink, bullet-proof world of health-and-safety where we all wear safety goggles to watch the wind and face masks to breathe nature. Because…, just in case…, because we’re rather safe than sorry…, because to make sure… because. Well, just take a moment and stop breathing – just to be safe!
What has gone wrong here? Have we lost the very basic connection and trust in our children? Or, was there ever a time when we trusted them? Hmm… Let’s see. Just back in the 19th century children would have lots of responsibilities: cleaning, cooking, looking after their siblings, helping on the farm… and, yes, brutal hard labour in dark factories, ten or twelve hours a day… good that we left those times behind us (well, over here in the rich part of the world…). And, yes, many of those household chores were done by children because of living in large families or parents having to work twelve and more hours a day as well.
When World War II was over, still many children played important roles in helping their families with household chores. You could argue that this happened because out of necessity or desperation. Indeed, that’s one reason. Another one was simply called trust.
Trust and a strong bond between parents and their children. Only from the 1950’s onwards, something strangely has been happening in our society. Families started to spend less time together. The so-called classic family model, where dad leaves in the morning for his desk in an office while his wife stays home to look after house and kids, took over.
That quite artificial construction became a bit of a relationship killer. While in the past fathers and their sons, as an example, would often work and spent time together (on the field, in their business…), now children missed their father for most of the time under the week. Mums got busy in their brand new kitchen with all the latest inventions and gadgets. Kids? Go to school or your bedroom.
You see what else went on here? Skills. Not only relationships suffered, there’s a whole generation of lost skills. Cooking, working with tools, fixing and mending – you name it. Fixing something, why? Buy it new, it’s easier. Cooking? Get a ready meal. I still remember my parents’ pride when they bought the latest of modern cooking inventions in the mid 1990’s: a shiny, adorable, handsome, easy-to-use microwave! Plus 200 packs of ready-to-microwave food. Yuck! I can still sense the aftertaste. They probably spend two or three weekends in deciding which microwave to buy… I wished they had taken one afternoon to teach me the basics of cooking.
You know, I’m not the least surprised that today three-quarters of children in the UK have no idea how to boil an egg, or that 30% have never chopped veggies. I probably was 18 or so when I found out that kitchen knives have more purposes than just hanging on the magnetic knife holder. And another five or so years to get serious about cooking.
Starting to trust our children is the very foundation of a well-connected relationship. Children (and, indeed us adults too) learn by trying. They give it a go. They might fail, they might succeed. It doesn’t matter, as long as we provide a bit of a safety net in the background so that they won’t ever get seriously hurt. If they feel excited and stimulated, they will try again… and again.
My eldest, who is nearly 8 now, showed a great interest in preparing meals and cooking lunch and dinner. He’s been watching my wife and me since babyhood. When he was about three, he used a sharp knife (not one you are able to cut your fingers off with, but one that’s just sharp enough for cutting with – a bland one would be safest, sure, but equally useless and only frustrating) for cutting up an apple. Yes, he cut himself a few times, but that’s how he learnt, and nothing happened apart from some quickly dried tears and a cool plaster on a tiny wound. With four he cooked himself porridge on the hob for the first time. Yes, his first cooking session was guided and supervised by me, but I didn’t interfere. I just watched. Today his cooking repertoire includes pasta and tomato sauce, scrambled egg, various cakes and biscuits, and – hold your breath – sushi (ok, the sushi rolls can’t compete with a sushi bar, but it’s just a question of perspective and expectations. Expect a perfectly cooked and awesome looking meal? Do it yourself).
It’s a great learning curve for us parents to lower expectations and to be more prepared for a giving-it-a-go mantra. And, yes, sometimes we get pushed out of our comfort zone as well. In our family it’s a bit of a tradition to make pancakes for Sunday breakfast. Often – I admit my sins – they go with chocolate spread. This morning we had run out of the sweet treat and no-one seemed to be willing to go down to the local shop (2-minute walk) to get more. Only my nearly 5-year-old volunteered. I hesitated as I wasn’t sure whether he would manage. I trusted him with finding his way to the shop and paying for the item, but I feared the road he would have to cross.
My wife’s response was more clear. Yes, he’ll be fine. And off he went. But, I threw over my invisible cloak and sneaked after him to watch his adventure. He didn’t see me and I had a great time hiding behind bushes and trees. My main fear – the road – was quiet, he stopped, checked, checked again, and crossed. No problems. A woman stopped him (she was probably a little anxious… as me), but he carried on.
At the shop I peeped through the window (gosh, if someone had observed me they must have thought I’m a little… well, crazy) to make sure he’s alright and the shopkeeper is not calling the police or social care. She didn’t. With a great smile she scanned his jar and gave him receipt and change. I stood there – watching and with tears in my eyes. My little son, so great and independent. He skipped all the way home. Just fifty metres behind him, I – his dad, full of love, joy and trust. At home we both hugged for a long time. And, of course, we enjoyed our chocolate pancakes!
The confidence and self-esteem he gained from his independent venture was giving him a glowing buzz all day – he knows his parents trust his abilities.
Next time your little one is climbing up high on the climbing frame or tree, just position yourself, discreetly, so that if they fall, you could catch them, and just observe. Neither encouraging nor anxious, just observing and trusting (your facial expression and body language can communicate that, too!) that when they are able to climb something unassisted they’ll know how to get down again by themselves. Soon enough, they have learnt to use their body well, trust themselves and know where their limits are.
Trust your children and you’ll be amazed by what they are able to do by themselves and how their self-esteem grows each day!
PS: A few days after I published and shared this post on facebook, I had this reply:
…just awesome! 🙂
I love my children. But sometimes I seem to stop loving them so unconditionally or looking at them through this (rightly!) blurred vision of a parent when there are other people around.
I notice myself thinking: “Oh why is he doing this/behaving that way?”. Whenever there are other people around, my children seem to become these total strangers that I suddenly feel ashamed of. What’s going on?
First of all, they are so easily excitable by visitors and then act in a way that I often find so hard to tolerate. I hear myself saying “oh they are very excited” to excuse them (and let’s be honest: try and convince my guests that really it’s not my fault they are like that!). The other day our landlady came around and my four year old was hiding behind me (which he REALLY! never does), the seven year old was whizzing around as if he hadn’t had been outside for days and was on a sugar high (REALLY not true!). Immediately, I felt judged “she will think my kids are not social/behaving oddly/need more parental input/stimulation/less sugar. AND, maybe worst of all: “he is not ‘up to it’ as a dad).
I think as a parent we often feel that we are judged as people by how our children look or act. So, we try and make them do things we wouldn’t ever do at home or even think are stupid to ask of them anyway. To my six month old baby I hear myself saying “be gentle” and anxiously wonder whether she will be an aggressive child because she is playing with another baby in a way a six month old baby does (poking at eyes, pulling feet, scratching…). Later I can laugh about how my own thinking is influenced by the fact another parent is watching. Of course, she will learn that we are gentle with each other, simply because she sees us being that way with one another. And, of course, I should not judge her for being the way she is: just a normal six month old baby.
I remember with shame those days I tried to get my two year old son to share. Just because it made me feel better in front of the other parents present. Even though I knew he wasn’t able to understand that concept yet at all. His needs suddenly became less important than other children’s needs. Putting other people’s needs first (and sometimes up to an unhealthy degree) is what we adults can do, but we cannot expect that of a small child. Even though I knew that at the time the need to fit in and be accepted as a father by other parents was so great, that I wouldn’t stop myself and just say “sorry, I think my child isn’t ready to share this yet” and stand up for him.
Secondly, they just adapt to other people, like I do. I need to accept they will take on a different persona when they are with certain people. One of my sons will sometimes just not answer people. So, if he is asked a question, he often stays quiet. I used to feel very ashamed that I still had to talk for him, way past the toddler years. Now, I mostly try and stay calm inside and accept it. He is old enough for us to talk about that and I tell him the impression that his behaviour might have on other people but ultimately I feel it’s his decision. I cannot make him do things, that would also go totally against our parenting philosophy. So, I will have to accept that side of him and free myself from making judgments. Tirelessly I will reject labels such as “oh he is shy/ introvert” because I don’t think they are true. He is perceived like that in this situation, but it is not a true description of his character. At home or with a different set of people he will talk non-stop and wouldn’t dream of not answering.
And when I think about it I know that I am the same. It is mostly hidden though, because I am an adult and have learnt to act differently to how I feel, but it still comes through. There are several “personas” in me for different people. I will feel more relaxed with my family and that means act and talk in a different way.
Our children are the best they can be in any situation. If they behave in a way we would like to change, then they are actually diverting our attention to a need of theirs that needs addressing by us! Not because they are “naughty”. So, if they act ‘impolite’, they might feel insecure or simply don’t know what to say. We can help them out, it’s ok, whatever their age.
I am working hard at being proud of who they are despite of how they are. I also, as my children get older, understand that they are not me, and are walking their own paths that have, in some respect, nothing to do with me. I am guiding them, but I don’t have control over their every step and they will make decisions that I might consider wrong, it’s not always to do with me.
I am working hard at being a better parent – yes, I’m talking about the best person I am possibly capable of becoming. That also means in becoming immune to other people’s judgments. This goes along with my own seeking not to judge others and becoming more compassionate. Towards myself and others. There is always a reason we and others behave the way we do and by loving my kids unconditionally I show them that it really doesn’t matter if they take up roles sometimes (as long as they do it intentionally and happily) or act out their emotions (which I sometimes, secretly, wish they would hide) and hopefully they will grow up self-confident and compassionate towards others and themselves, instead of worrying what other people think.
So, am I a good parent? The only people I will grant judgement of that are my children. The older they get, the more I have to face their irritated looks when I, again, have chosen the wrong tone ‘Daddy, you really don’t need to shout’ or come up with a stupid ‘rule’ and their reply is ‘Daddy, I can do that, it’s ok, really’.
When I became a father I was full of excitement, joy and happiness. My wife and I felt well prepared as we had read dozens (it felt even more) of parenting books, we went to two antenatal courses, and we took every opportunity to sit on the sofa and chat about our baby. I hoped this would make me into one of those super-dads (because actually I was quite apprehensive about having a son and all that this might bring up, at first)!
From pre-baby time it was clear to us that we believe in attachment parenting, co-sleeping, feeding on demand and unconditional love. I always imagined me to be a gentle, relaxed and easy-going father. Today, seven years later, I can say that I have achieved some of that gentleness and peacefulness. But it was a long journey and I’m still on it.
When you believe mainstream media, it often seems harder for men to be a great parent. Too often dads are being pictured as the workaholic money machine with no or little interest in his offspring. Is that just a stereotype or a real problem?
When comparing figures, one can definitely see that more women care for their children full time or working in part time jobs to spend more time with their kids, than men. Not all fathers take time off work when their baby is born. There are various reasons for this I believe. One of the main reasons is the lack of positive male role models, taking on an active role within the family.
When I was a teenager I probably considered myself as a nice, friendly and gentle person. But, after a lot of reflecting, I now would say that I couldn’t communicate very well. I did hurt other people’s feelings and I sometimes was very mean as I couldn’t deal with my emotions and feelings. Why is that? I had never learnt to talk about them. Not to my father or another man. I had some very good female friends and it always seemed easier talking to them. I felt heard and listened to; they took me seriously. Still, something was missing.
The search for men who really can open up is not unusual for boys, young men and the older generations as well. I was lucky enough to meet one man (it’s always that one person who can change your life) who I met in my early twenties. He touched my soul and opened my heart. He let me cry and held me tight. For the first time I discovered some genuine, true closeness and real manhood. No games, no masks, no pretending. I could be myself.
From then on I could start my personal journey in becoming a better man, and yes, a better father. To me being better means more authentic, more empathic, more myself. To stop playing a role in order to find appreciation. To stop strengthening myself at the expenses of others. To be confident and clear, without upgrading my ego all the time.
Being masculine is all about hyper-competition, being super-hero-hard and strong. Men are labelled (and often it’s true) with exactly those attributes. And that’s the second key problem: our society. How can we expect gentle and empathic men when we already start treating boys as the stronger gender? Boys don’t cry, they are the emotionless super-heroes, they should “man up”, and certainly they should not play with girls (toys) or dollies. “Their” toys are action figures, fast cars, modern day heroes (fire fighters, police men), monsters, toy weapons and the like. The same stereotypes get applied to them when they turn into men: They are expected to have a lucrative and prestigious career. Men are strong leaders who will govern countries from behind their desks, go to war for our western ideologies, and they… well, they just save the planet. Right?
Yes, I know, in many ways things have changed. More and more men decide to put their families first, take longer paternity leave or even consider working part time to spend greater chunks of time with their families. (And obviously there are women now who are filling these traditional “male careers”). There is a shift in society, away from the ego-driven hard men to “new” men who believe in equality and mutual respect. But it’s still a very long way to go and a minority of men feel able to (or want to commit to) a more active role in family life.
When I stayed at home to look after our children for about two years, I painfully realised how alone I can feel. Don’t get me wrong. I made many female friends, mainly stay-at-home mums. I very much appreciated their company and I had a great time being at home with our kids. But I also longed for some other men and fathers; to share the experience and to see how they cope and feel. I also think it would do many men good to experience this role of full time carer (even if only for a few days a week); it certainly got me more connected to how I want to be and less focused on outside pressures.
Especially that time as a stay-at-home dad made me realise how important it is for me to give my sons a better start into the beauty and chaos of life. They don’t need a super-dad I pictured to be, but someone real, someone authentic, someone they can trust and talk to. A male person (or preferably a few) who loves them unconditionally – who has (lots of) time for them!
As a start I looked at the way I communicated with my sons: Am I really listening to them? Do I judge them? Are there any pre-conceived ideas I have about how they “ought” to be (because they are boys)? Will they feel respected and loved when I say x, y or z to them/are my actions communicating my love for them?
I also introduced an evening-check-in with my eldest son, who was 5 years old by then. When we are cuddled up in bed and have finished our night time story, we do a ‘check-in’. I normally start off by talking about my day, what I liked and disliked, things which made me happy or sad. I really try to name my feelings. Nothing needs to be covered. Equally important in our talks is being honest. Bloody honest. That includes to apologise. (That’s another thing many men struggle with. I can’t remember that my dad had ever apologised for anything.) I want my boys to see that I make mistakes. I mess up, I say things I don’t mean to say, I lose my patience, I’m unfair. That’s ok, as long as I do the aftermath: reconnecting and apologising. And, yes, kids are so great in forgiving.
The just-before-bedtime-talk is a win-win for my son and me. This way I learn about what’s going on inside him and he sees how I talk about emotions and feelings, that I take responsibility for them and reflect on my actions and words.
Start those talks asap. And carry on. Don’t stop when they turn teenagers. Especially then they need you and your open ear more than you might think.
I also notice how the culture we live in influences our sons. The other day on our walk through the local park, we watched a soccer match of 9-year-old boys. For many boys sport is an extremely important activity in their life (obviously same applies to girls). As we watched the game my boys and I observed those boys swear, shout, spit, push and make a fall look dramatically heroic (probably copying their professional counterparts). It left all three of us baffled by how much they seem to be putting on adult behaviour. It was difficult to explain why they were shouting so much and hurting each other, well it was nearly impossible. Equally, to make sense of parents on both sides shout and scream their heads off, in quite an aggressive manner. Sports are naturally good for physical health, but what about emotional health? What is it we are teaching boys here? What is competition, pressure, fear to fail doing to our children’s emotional development? One could argue it prepares them for the “hard” world out there, where being ambitious and competitive is valued highly. While I am all for having determination when you really want to achieve something, I believe getting to your aim without making others fail along the way, is preferable.
Don’t get me wrong, not all kinds of sports work like that, but definitely most competitive ones. The game, the joy, the fun and a good team spirit should guide our sons games. In fairness, whether they lose or win (does it always have to be one or the other?) I am confident there are teams out there, who are achieving this, we need more of them!
I want my sons to grow up to become gentle, empathic and kind men. Men who love and respect their partner and children. Men who treat other women, men and transgender with tolerance and kindness. Men who can listen and reflect before they speak. Men who are confident and strong without polishing their ego. Men who truly have something to give. As I am working on becoming one of those, I hope my children will copy and follow me into a more peaceful future.
This article was originally published in The Natural Parent Magazine (June 2015)