What is “parenting”? The familiar definitions usually center around “the rearing of children”, or “discipline employed to guide behaviour”. To back this up, there is an endless collection of “parenting” literature on “how to make your child behave”; you need only peruse the library aisles for a few minutes to see that, between 1-2-3 Magic, The Good Child Guide, and countless similar titles, the focus is almost exclusively on the behaviour of our children.
Now imagine, for a moment, what would happen to your marriage if you entered into it (and spent the first 18 years!) with a serious focus on the behaviour of your spouse – even the thought is laughable! In Western culture we understand relationship building to be a healthy marriage focus. So why then do we fail to place more emphasis on relationship with our own children, the few people in the world we will know for the rest of our lives? Isn’t it a natural conclusion that we would want to engage in relationship building with our children? Would an extension of this idea not be to let a “healthy relationship” mandate guide our parenting decisions, rather than focusing doggedly on behaviour alone?
Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that children should be left to run wild with parents taking a “hands-off” approach or other permissive philosophy in the name of being “friends” instead of parents, but I believe that a healthy balance can be struck. For example, in your marriage, when stresses and tensions are running high, do you consider how your words might make your spouse feel before they come out of your mouth? Rather ironic that we rarely take the time for a similar form of emotional empathy with our children, given that they’re often the most sensitive souls we engage with.
So what do children respond to? What would open them up to the relationship building process? Not surprisingly, much the same things that adults look for: mutual respect, trust, honesty and consistency. Children are incredibly intelligent, observant and intuitive, so that the “do as I say and not as I do” approach that so many of us grew up with is doomed to fail with the current generation.
How to engage with your child in a relationship-building way will be unique to every child, just as you would expect that what makes one marriage work is unique to the people involved. A good starting point can be to identify your child’s “love language”. What does your child respond to or seek out most often: Words of praise telling him he’s done a good job, or that you’re proud of one of his character traits? Lots of hugs and physical affection? Quality time, like going ice skating or playing a board game together? Receiving gifts, like some stickers or a book from a favorite series? Thoughtful acts, like helping him use a stapler or do a craft project? Once you know the two or three “languages” your child gravitates to, you can focus your time and energies on these areas to start deepening your relationship. If observation alone isn’t giving you the clues you need to see which languages he responds to (or speaks!), try asking at bed time, “What were the three best things that happened today? Something I said? Something you got? Something we did?” By making this part of his bedtime routine, you’ll soon see a pattern develop.
Another tool can be sharing control rather than taking it. The simple act of allowing your child to choose which vegetables to have with dinner gives her the message that you value her ideas and you have confidence in her ability to make good choices; the same approach can be used to decide what activities to do together on a weekend. By giving the choice between two or three options, even young children won’t feel overwhelmed, but they will feel a sense of control over their day, or their meal. When you foster this culture of choice in your home, your child will progressively feel less need to engage in “power struggles” in other areas, because you’ve demonstrated that when you are able to share the control, you do. Remember, for adults and children alike, actions speak far louder than words; your actions are the most powerful relationship-building tools you have.
I’d like to challenge parents to redefine parenting in “big picture” terms. If you want only to manage your child’s behaviour, by all means, continue with whatever methods work to achieve that end; but if your vision is for a healthy, long-term relationship with your child that will endure for your lifetime, you might want to keep that in mind as you’re faced with those spur-of-the-moment parenting decisions. Try asking yourself a few simple questions before you act (or react!), like, “Will this cause my child to trust me more or less?” or, “Am I giving him the message that I respect him as a whole person?” Fundamentally, you can always do a “gut check” to see if you believe your upcoming actions or words are relationship building or eroding.
And perhaps one of the best skills of all is being able to apologize when you feel, after the fact, that you would rather have handled something differently. After all, your child looks to you for modeling all of the necessary life skills to be a successful, healthy and whole adult in life – how will they ever learn to apologize for their mistakes if you never show them how? A simple and heartfelt “I’m sorry” goes a long way to building trust and fostering a respectful culture between you and your child. These simple few steps will take only minutes out of your day, but they represent a huge step towards conscious parenting and empowering your emotionally intelligent child to flourish.
Tiffany Nelson practices as a birth and postpartum doula, and childbirth educator in Nanaimo.