When I was expecting baby Jake, I imagined giving him an idyllic, carefree childhood. My visions were of bare feet and giggles, exploration and play. Once Jake was born, he and I began attending coffee groups for new mums and, as he got older, we also went along to baby activities, such as story sessions at the library and playgroup.
At these places, I often found myself surrounded by anxious parents, whose daily outing with their babies were not primarily for a bit of fun and to get out of the house but to fast-track their babies’ development. I met parents at playgroup who were there to “socialise” their babies and I watched parents at the library earnestly trying to get their 4-month-olds to focus on the letters and words in books as if it would give them a head-start as readers. At these young ages, our babies didn’t need any extra socialising or literacy instruction beyond what daily life with Mum and Dad provided – their young brains couldn’t even process some of the things we parents were keen for them to learn.
I realised that, already, many parents were caught in the hamster wheel of always trying to prepare their babies for the next stage of life. By “socialising” their babies at playgroup, they assumed their toddlers would be more prepared for early childhood education. When the time came, they looked for early childhood centres that would formally teach reading, writing and maths so that their children would be “ready for school”. And so it continues – each stage being merely a stepping stone to the next.
In this way, for many people, childhood has been reduced to preparation for adulthood. Parents fear that, if they don’t “start early”, their children will “fall behind” in some way, destined for unsuccessful, unhappy futures. My opinion is that, if we continue to sacrifice their childhoods for the sake of their adulthoods, both their years as children and as adults will be unsuccessful and unhappy.
THE PROBLEM WITH REDUCING CHILDHOOD TO PREPARATION FOR ADULTHOOD
When we are too focussed on preparing our children for adulthood, we are not respecting who they are. From a spiritual perspective, the real purpose of parenting is to honour and support our children in being the people they came here to be. In trying to prepare them for adulthood too early, we inflict on them our own ideas about what kind of adult they should become whereas, if we’re present with who they are as children, we enable them to be themselves.
Further, without some perspective, we begin to hold our children up against the adult we hope they’ll become and, being children, they will almost always fall short. We develop a deficit-approach to parenting in which we try to improve our children rather than value them as they are. Our impossible measures become messages to them that they are not good enough. I know I’m guilty of this myself. Sometimes, I expect my boys to be able to manage their emotions in respectful, controlled ways like an adult would but, developmentally, they can’t always do this. My disapproval of their outbursts gives the message that they are not acceptable when their emotions get the better of them. They’re only 3 and 6 years old!
WHY WE NEED TO VALUE CHILDHOOD MORE
Here’s my case for why we are better to value and be present with our children as they are now rather than pushing them into their future.
Children contribute in so many ways. When we take our children out and about with us, other people delight in them. Many stop to fuss over our babies, engage our children in conversation or smile at their antics. Just by being their childish selves, they are like little beacons of light scattered about the community. More personally, most parents feel that their children have contributed to their own lives in numerous ways – the tender moments between us, the memories we make together and the ways they make us laugh or help us to see things differently. Then there are the little souls who never became adults for some reason but still touched our hearts. The one I miscarried changed me forever and, on a more public scale, think of Matty Steponik.
Children have things they need to know now. When I was a teacher, we had meetings in which we speculated about what kind of future we were preparing our students for. Those discussions had a place but mostly I was thinking, “we don’t know what the future will be like but we know what the kids need now”. Part of the discussion was always around technology – its growing prevalence in our lives and how it will have changed exponentially between the time a child starts school and when they leave. There was almost an obsession to use technology in the classroom as much as possible for these reasons but sometimes I felt that a lot of rich, relevant learning was lost in order to be seen as progressive & relevant by using technology. My 7-year-old students needed to be able to read the books they loved, to count their pocket money and to negotiate with their friends more than they needed to know how to use the latest multi-media program.
Joy is found in the present. The childhoods we dreamed of for our unborn babies were joyful ones. Only available in the present, joy is lost for both ourselves and our children when we are mentally tied up in worries about the future and how our children aren’t yet meeting the expectations we have of them as adults. As I said in my blog post about joy, I think joy is essential to a fully-lived life. Do we want to teach our children to constantly be striving for the next thing or to find joy in every stage?
“We tend to think of childhood as preparation for adulthood and almost forget that childhood has its own value”. – Julie Louisson
BY TAKING CARE OF THE PRESENT, WE TAKE CARE OF THE FUTURE
All things in nature follow a natural progression. In its own time, a seed becomes a beautiful, strong tree. As a seed, it needed different things to what it needs as a tree. Some seeds can’t grow in the presence of light but, once they are trees, they need the light for photosynthesis. There is no doubt that we are sowing the seeds of our children’s futures through our parenting but we can trust the process, knowing that, by tending to our children’s current needs, their futures will take care of themselves.
IN SUMMARY – A NEW QUESTION TO ASK
Let’s stop asking children “what are you going to be when you grow up?” and instead ask, “who are you?” Our children arrive fully-formed, ready to enjoy an contribute to life now. Let’s love who they are and get excited, rather than fearful, about who they will become.
Much love to you and your little souls,
PS – In what ways do you catch yourself nudging your child towards the next stage instead of honouring the one they are in? Comment below.
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I came across Christina Fletcher of Spiritually Aware Parenting online, through our shared passion for seeing children thrive mind, body and spirit. Her website is full of great resources for parents wanting to honour and nurture their children’s spirituality. When Christina invited me to contribute this guest blog post, I was thrilled to be part of her great work.
Here in New Zealand, teachers at early childhood centres and schools encourage children to use the phrase “stop it, I don’t like” as a clear and respectful way to stand up for themselves when needed. So, I have taught my boys (aged 2 and 5) to use this phrase with one another at home. One morning, I heard my eldest saying “stop it, I don’t like it”, repeatedly. His brother obviously wasn’t listening to him so I went over to investigate what was going on. It turned out my son was talking to me!
“What am I doing that you don’t like?” I asked, incredulously.
“You’re being bossy”. I was told.
And I was. It was a humbling reminder that I had strayed from my intentions to collaborate with my boys rather than insist on unquestioned compliance. When we demand compliance from our children, we silence their voice and teach them to bow to the expectations others have of them. On the other hand, when we recruit our children’s co-operation, we teach them to value the needs and wants of themselves and others equally. They develop a sense of their power to impact their own lives and others’ in positive ways.
I believe we are spiritual equals with our children. I don’t think we have the right to thoughtlessly dish out instructions and expect them to do everything we say. Sure, there are occasions when our children just have to do as they are told, perhaps for safety or practical reasons, but we have to respect their needs and wants as much as our own. As a parent, I also want to teach my boys to regard everybody’s needs and wants equally themselves.
The way I parent, including the way I get my boys to do what I need them to do, is an important part of teaching them to value everybody equally and to approach life with a collaborative spirit. Being bossy is not a part of this! Here are some of the things I do to enlist their co-operation rather than enforce compliance –
I ask my children for help rather than instruct and demand. For example, our Wednesday mornings are particularly busy as my husband leaves home early for a breakfast meeting. Things need to go smoothly in order for my boys and I to get out the door in time. So, over breakfast, I tell them that I find it hard doing everything without Daddy’s help and ask them to please help me by being especially quick with their morning tasks. It’s a team effort and, lately, we’ve been running early on Wednesday mornings.
I thank more than I praise. When one of my boys has done something that is helpful to me, instead of praising (eg. “Good boy”), I offer a sincere thank you (eg. “I really appreciate you getting the mail, I already had my hands full”). Showing appreciation acknowledges their giving heart. Praise only affirms that they did what I wanted them to.
I acknowledge spontaneous co-operation. Doesn’t it make your heart swell to see your children thinking of and serving others of their own accord? My youngest often finds my things around the house and brings them to me in case I might need them. I give him a big hug of thanks for his thoughtfulness.
I get my children to do chores. In our house, chores are unpaid. They are an opportunity for my boys to co-operate and help with the smooth-running of the house. If my son doesn’t set the table, for example, we can’t eat. The natural consequences of co-operation are far more enjoyable than the natural consequences of not helping. My boys see and experience the fruits of their labour.
I co-operate with my children too. Co-operation is a two-way street and my example is one of my best parenting tools. I help my eldest to find the missing Lego piece he needs. Sometimes, I change my plans around to accommodate a playdate he has requested.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent. – John Donne
Apart from being a respectful way to get our children to do what we need them to, a spirit of co-operation in the family helps them to see the big picture – they are a part of humanity and everyone’s behaviour impacts on the other people around them. They learn that, when people co-operate, it makes a positive difference for everyone involved. Co-operating also helps our children to see that they have something to contribute, giving them a sense of their own worth and everybody else’s.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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Looking over what I have written so far in Nurturing Little Souls, I have said often that I believe spiritual parenting requires us to be led by our children. Our role is to empower them to be themselves and, to do this, we need to tune into them and follow the direction that they are going. I have also said a number of times that we are spiritual equals with our children to remind us not to be over-bearing or heavy-handed in our parenting. But, being equals with our children also means that we parents must be respected and have our needs and wants valued too. Our whole lives do not have to be child-centred to be good parents.
TWO EXTREMES OF PARENTING
There are as many parenting styles out there as there are parents. When it comes to the position our children have in our lives, everyone lies somewhere on the continuum between these two extremes.
Children as Accessories – Many expectant parents express an intention for their children to fit into their lives, believing their children will be flexible if, from the start, they are taken along to their parents’ social events and activities. Some baby capsules become accessories to the parents’ lives, while the occupants’ needs, especially for quality sleep, aren’t prioritised. We can’t fully understand until we’ve had children that, if we don’t want our lives to change, it’s not a good idea to have them.
Children as the Centre of Everything The other extreme is parents who sacrifice everything – losing social connections, time for their interests and rest to become slaves to their child’s every whim. I don’t think this is necessary. In fact, I think it’s a bad idea.
“You can’t pour from an empty cup”.
If we allow our lives to be entirely child-centred, we quickly become depleted, with nothing to give. Tending to our children’s needs & wants and rarely our own will see us become emotionally and physically exhausted. When this kind of imbalance continues for too long, we can’t help but grow resentful because our lives have been reduced to the drudgery of “serving” our children. When we are with them, we’re really far away, dreaming of that movie we’d love to see…or just sleep. Our hearts aren’t in it and our children can sense that.
For example, I am hopeless at dramatic play when I haven’t had enough time for myself. I have no energy, enthusiasm or creativity. Thomas loves playing firefighters and he saves our playroom from multiple fires a day. He often wants me to join in so we start by making a firetruck together with cushions. On an empty cup day, I’m grateful to be able to just sit in the truck while we journey to the emergency, joining in (half-heartedly) with the “nee-nah, nee-nah”. When we get to the fire, Firefighter Mummy sends Firefighter Thomas to put out the fires while I “look after the fire truck”. It’s a poor effort. Thomas must think I’m no fun and, on some level, probably realises that I don’t really want to be playing firefighters at these times. On other days, when I’ve felt adequately rested and full from doing something for myself, playing firefighters with Thomas has been fun and I’ve cherished my time with him.
THE MIDDLE GROUND
As my boys have gotten older and their physical needs less urgent, I have gradually reclaimed more of my own needs and wants. I’m writing this blog for starters! I nip out to see friends for coffee some evenings once the boys are tucked in. If I’m out shopping with my boys, we take turns choosing which shops to look at and try to wait patiently while each other has their turn (Thank you Max fashions for having a toy box!) I have also protected my coffee-drinking time in order to drink a whole cup, sitting down, before it goes cold. My husband and I have introduced a new rule that our boys can’t ask us to play if we still have coffee in our cups. They can chat with us, have a drink too if they wish, but we get to stay seated and enjoy our coffee. (If you have a baby and none of these things are possible for you yet, trust that the day will come when they will be and, in the meantime, take as many tiny moments for yourself as you can.)
I want my boys to feel equal, valued and loved unconditionally for the unique beings that they are but I don’t want them to expect everything in life to be organised around them, as if they are at the centre. From a broader perspective, I want them to see themselves as part of the whole of humanity. Almost all of the world’s spiritual traditions emphasise the oneness we share with others.
The dynamic we create in our homes sets an example to our children of what to expect out in the wider world. In our family, mutual respect and consideration of everyone’s needs and wants is important and I hope my boys will take this perspective with them wherever they go. At times, one of them will complain because I have made a decision that doesn’t go his way. I’ll say to him, “What you want is important but what everyone else wants is important too”. I enlist my boys’ help in many ways so that they feel part of the family team and realise they can contribute. For example, they help to carry bags in from the car and they do their bit in the mornings to get us out the door in time. Practicing co-operation and collaboration in small ways makes it a given when bigger things come up, within our family or in the wider world.
IN SUMMARY: CHILD-LED IS NOT CHILD-CENTRED
Life with children will always be a little lop-sided in their favour but we can still practise the give and take of community within our homes. We don’t want our children believing they are the centre of everything but we do want them to see their unique value – each piece of a jigsaw puzzle is important to the bigger picture. And, when we parents have our needs and wants met (at least to some extent), we have the resources to deal with the challenges – big and small – that parenthood throws at us and to enjoy the beautiful moments.
Much love to you and your little souls,
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