So here’s a parenting conundrum to kick off your day:
Q: How do we keep our kids grounded and secure?
So many possible answers. But the truth behind all of them is really very simple:
A: We give our kids wings and show them how to be free.
This is one of the primary contradictions of parenting – the delicate juggling act between setting limits, while simultaneously encouraging independence.
Finding a way to give our kids both roots to keep them grounded and wings to soar, is quite possibly the best gift we parents can ever give.
It begins as soon as our children start to move unaided. And it’s a paradox that will haunt many of our parenting decisions until they leave home. And beyond.
Finding the balance between boundaries and freedom is key to raising strong kids who will thrive no matter what. It’s the difference between raising a child who is tentative, and one who is self-assured. One who will take life’s knock-backs hard, and one who will meet challenges with confidence.
No pressure then.
It’s enough to tie your own emotions in knots. Not to mention your stomach. Mine is all tangled just thinking about it. So just how do we find a way to give our kids this precious gift?
Setting Limits – Parents are Like Parachutes
We have to remember that we are our children’s parachutes – there to let them break the fall and land softly. But in order to help our kids flourish we need also to be willing to allow a little free form skydiving before deploying the chute.
The trick is to work out when to pull the cord.
Our kids need room to breathe, to learn for themselves. But too much good stuff can be intoxicating. And we all know where that leads.
In some situations finding the right mix is easy – outdoors we talk about appropriate road safety behaviours. In the home, we ensure our kids learn caution around the hot stove. And so on.
Where it gets tricky is when there is no imminent danger. In these more mundane situations it’s easy to forget how little our kids actually know about life.
They are very adept at learning how to behave in different situations by copying us, but that is no excuse to be passive. There are times when a little more guidance is needed to help them understand the social intricacies of the world.
Take this scenario that unfolded with my little boy in the summer:
We visited a local government office so that I could take care of some household paperwork. My 4-year-old had no concept of this stuffy bureaucratic space as a specific behavioural environment. To him, the offices were just another playground to be explored.
My first parenting fail was to assume he would know instinctively how to behave appropriately.
Naturally, he had no idea. Why would he? He leapt into his skydive with great enthusiasm.
As I shuffled papers and mangled the French language my brain had sufficient capacity only to keep track of my son’s presence. Distracted, I failed to notice him constructing a clever and elaborate game involving a precariously balanced cup of water, and an extendable elastic barrier.
I turned just in time to avert disaster. Or in his eyes … to spoil his fun. Stressed and frustrated I glared at him and muttered barely comprehensible sounds in his general direction.
My second parenting fail was to assume that by hissing ‘Behave!’ in his ear he would somehow magically know what he is supposed to do and transform into ‘Model Child’.
Naturally, this directionless attempt to appeal to his better nature had absolutely zero effect. Zip. He merely nodded seriously and went zooming off in search of something else to do. I had averted one disaster, but knew in an instant that another one would soon start brewing. Sensing the need for swift damage limitation measures I lifted him onto the counter next to me.
My final parenting fail was to assume that watching me do dull adult stuff was an acceptable way of spending time for him.
Naturally, he rewarded my Inadequate-Mom-Moment by seeking my attention. He licked the plastic barrier glass and blew a wet raspberry at the lady behind the desk. Paperwork done, I deployed my parachute woefully late and shuffled red-faced from the building, my giggling boy at my side.
I got the balance wrong this day. I allowed my son to fall too far. He was just being 4, and my pleas for him to ‘Behave’ fell on deaf ears simply because he had no idea what type of behaviour I meant.
I learned that leaving our children free to explore the world is fine in certain environments. But also that I need to modify my own expectations of just what they will learn if I don’t provide any guidance in other environments.
Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Md Mate provide some excellent wisdom on this is their book Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. Their basic idea is that parents need to be the rock that children can depend on. If we provide this security, they will have the strength to find independence when the time is right for them. In short:
The only way to become independent is through being dependent.
Independence requires knowledge, and our kids need to know they can depend on us to provide that. Everyday scenarios like the one I experienced with my son offer a wealth of opportunities for show and tell. And, importantly, a safe place under our watchful eyes for them to try out what they’ve learned.
In a carefully timed parachute moment, we simultaneously provide safe limits for our kids, while allowing their confidence to grow. Leave it too late, and they can spin out of control. The best we can do is aim for that perfect glide to ground.
Some days we may even achieve it!
Roots – What You See isn’t All that You Get
Did you know that, given the right soil conditions, a tree can grow roots that are as deep as it is tall?
The point here is that what creates stability – in trees, in kids … in life – is not always the stuff that is visible. We can help our kids grow into physically healthy, strong and fit people by teaching about nutrition, exercise, and caring for your body. And that’s important.
But if the roots of their emotional and spiritual well-being are not also nurtured then they may become weakened, and vulnerable.
We need to take care of the invisible stuff too.
Giving them roots provides the stability and internal resilience they will need to meet life’s challenges with confidence. We need to make sure we nurture their sense of self, the belief they are inherently good, and their knowledge that they can cope with unknown and thrive.
John Bowlby is the father of Attachment Theory. His work suggests that a child who develops a secure attachment with their caregiver early in life will naturally develop into a more secure and confident person. This is broadly true because via secure attachment all children’s basic needs are met, and through this they learn to truly value themselves.
Attachment theory teaches that, as children grow, parents can help their child form secure attachment by explaining things to them, by being present as much as possible, and by continuing to meet basic needs.
On my Admin Quest with my son I didn’t explain the situation to him. I allowed him to flounder. And then got frustrated with him for misbehaving.
Not exactly fair.
With hindsight the simple act of placing myself in his shoes could have averted the stress for us both. A new root for him, and moment of much needed freedom for me to complete my chores.
Of course, even knowing what was expected may not have turned my son into Model Child. But it would have given him a choice within a safe limit. And that promotes strength and self- control. And a chance to test self-dependency.
Roots take time to establish. But each small effort we make to guide our children with loving limits, and a healthy dose of empathy, is like giving them a dose of Miracle Gro.
According Freedom – Be an ACE Parent
Let’s just return to the idea that kicked off this article for a second:
We help our children remain grounded by showing them how to be free.
We’ve looked at the roots part of the equation. Now let’s think about the wings.
In my opening I deliberately avoided using the term ‘setting them free’. Our children are not our possessions, to be corralled and herded, then put out to pasture when we see fit.
They are little independent miracles of life.
And we have the honour, privilege and responsibility of helping to prepare them for the adult world.
Showing them how to be free is a crucial part of our role as parents. Because freedom is not just about being able to do what you want, when you want, with who you want.
Freedom is also about being able to think, act and feel without being plagued by negative self-talk, doubts and uncertainty.
This is the kind of true freedom that comes from self-acceptance.
We can help our kids to achieve this by honouring their feelings every day, and giving them the freedom just to be. Especially in respect of their emotions.
There are 3 very simple ways to do this. In fact, every parent can ACE this:
- Acknowledge your children’s feelings
- Create an environment where they feel safe to express themselves and then …
- Encourage them to let the feelings flow
As Neufeld and Mate state:
The ultimate gift is to make a child feel invited to exist in our presence exactly as he is, to express our delight in his very being.
This technique is so powerful. As parents our default is often to hush down strong emotions in our child in an effort to take away the pain. It works in the short term, but those emotions don’t simply vanish. They hide away, unresolved. And peek out again whenever they can, in an acting out that may seem to come from nowhere, or be out of proportion with the challenge of the moment.
As you first try this approach the intensity of their feelings may take them (and you) by surprise. But with practice, and experience, your child will learn that feelings are not to be feared. And that allowing them space is very liberating.
This gift of freedom from their emotions is one of the very best ways to help put the strength in their wings.
Wings – From Tandem to Solo
On one level parenting can be viewed as a series of separation events.
First, our children are born, and the cutting of the umbilical cord marks the start of their journey of independence. Over the years a series of ‘separation firsts’ will stretch our parental heartstrings to breaking point:
… the first day of nursery
… the first day of school
… the first sleepover away from home
… the first school trip away
… and on it goes.
And in between all of these are a multitude of mini-independence steps, where our children begin to do things for themselves.
The way in which we present all these separations to our children can have a significant effect on how they deal with them. A sobbing parent waving a soggy tissue at the nursery door is not going to make our baby feel happy. But that doesn’t mean we should mask our feelings either.
Spreading their wings is easier for some children than others. A lot of it comes down the personality. But in either case the emotion of the impending separation will be present. And it’s vital we acknowledge and validate their feelings in order to help our children cope.
In her wonderful book Encouraging Words For Kids, Kelly Bartlett calls this emotional encouragement. It includes helping a child to ‘know he doesn’t have to be happy all of the time, and that he is capable of handling his emotions. It means communicating to a child that you love him no matter what.‘
I love this concept, and seek to bring it into my everyday interactions with my kids.
Earlier this year the value of this approach was tested when my 7-year old daughter faced her biggest independence challenge yet. A 5-night school trip away on a canal boat, 6 hours from home.
This was huge.
For us both.
We knew it was coming. The school she attends runs this trip every two years. There is much chat in the playground – smug hype from the ones who have already navigated this rite of passage; fear and speculation from those yet to go.
My girl had previously only ever spent two single nights away from home. And cried both times. I spent a lot of time and energy working out how best to help her prepare for what was to come.
I finally realised that my role was not to dump all my anxieties on her to manage. But to make sure she felt strong and secure enough to manage her own.
I bit back my own insecurities, and gave her space and time to share how she was feeling. And together we worked on strategies she could employ when she was feeling sad, homesick, left out, or overwhelmed.
We shopped for supplies and packed her bag together, giving her some ownership of the event. She chose some photos and small items to remind her of home and tucked them neatly into her socks for safety.
In the days before the trip I could sense her withdrawing. She was retreating to her internal stronghold. I resisted the urge to hug her too much. The gift of wings is the gift of healthy self-esteem. We give children the gift of wings by providing opportunities for them to become capable and feel valued. So I left her to grow her wings in peace.
Boy, was that tough.
But essential. I could do no more for her now.
She left on a bus at 06.00 one dark morning in June. I spent the week adrift, my thoughts never far from her. The daily online photo posted by the school offered some small comfort. Along with the opportunity for much Mom-obsessing about her well-being. The school’s No-Contact policy was a killer.
Every second of separation was a reminder of how precious she is, and how easily that can get lost in the day-to-day. I resolved to just enjoy both kids more. And to get less stressed by the little things.
It was a painful but useful reminder to be grateful. Every day.
My daughter came home 6 days later on an evening train, tired and distant. It took a while for her to unwind. The week had been exciting and fun, but also physically and emotionally exhausting.
Yet she had not only survived.
She had thrived.
I was so proud of her. Slowly, in the week or two that followed, she blended back into home-life. But she has changed. Just a little.
She is more independent. More self-assured. More willing to give new things a try. She is growing up, with a newfound confidence.
Her wings are extending. Supported by the roots of a strong and loving family connection.
And that’s a great thing … even if it does make me cry a little.
Raising strong kids is partly about providing a strong base to which they can feel attached and safely grounded. When this is in place, our children will internalise it and use it as a springboard for healthy growth. In allowing our children this freedom to explore in the context of caring boundaries we provide the ideal platform for them to fly. Here are some helpful tips to keep us all focused on right path …
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Every interaction with our children provides an opportunity to strengthen our bond, or encourage independence. All these tiny moments act like credits in the bank of self-assurance inside our child. Try these easy exercises today:
1: In any given scenario take a second to place yourself in your child’s shoes – what do you understand about where you are, and what is happening around you? If there is a chance they are unsure at all step in and explain what’s happening. Define any limits you may feel will help keep them grounded and feeling safe.
2: Remember the ACE plan for emotional regulation and management. Be ready to show your child how to free their feelings whenever they bubble up.
3: Nurture those roots. Take any chance you get to bond with your child and create a secure attachment. Offer empathy while simultaneously explaining where the boundaries lie in any situation. Don’t worry that they will then cling – the roots you help them create will give them the strength to seek independence on their own terms, when they are ready.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
When you have a little more time to reflect on how your child is feeling their way in the world try these exercises:
1: Learn to recognize when your kids are filing a plan for a solo-jump and step back from the landing zone. This can be anything from allowing them to fill their cup alone (and not minding the spills), to a bigger independence step like a sleepover. Actively make space for them to stretch their wings.
2: Notice when your child feels uncertain about doing something (putting on a jumper, going to the toilet alone, using scissors, going to a party …). Help them to name their feelings (anxious, afraid, worried, concerned) and help them with preparing for the task or event. When they are done, ask how they feel about having accomplished it (happy, successful, proud). Over time this will build up a pattern of good feelings around facing and overcoming challenges. And soon they will strive to make that leap alone. Be ready with your parachute when they try, just in case.
3: Prepare yourself to watch them fly. In many ways I was less ready than my daughter for her school trip. This put me in danger of hampering her own ability to cope. Know these moments are coming, and show your children they will be okay by working on your own sense of self-belief.