As I folded my washing last night, anticipating the chocolate-covered vegan “ice-cream” I was planning to enjoy once finished, I thought about the switch I’ve been making to an almost-vegan diet. For over a year, I’ve been reducing the amount of animal product in my diet. For me, meat was easy to give up but cheese and baking (which usually contains dairy and eggs) have been more difficult to reduce and I can’t bring myself to spoil a good coffee by using a milk substitute. Even so, I have come a long way and my diet is now only lightly sprinkled with animal products rather than liberally doused with them as it once was. But, this essay is not about dietary choices (stick with me and we’ll get to the parenting stuff in a smidge). What is significant about becoming almost-vegan is how I have gone about it. My approach has been to crowd out the animal products and processed food with the good stuff – plant-based wholefood options like fruit, veggies, nuts and grains. My body nourished and my energy levels sustained, I don’t crave or have room for much of the food I’m trying to avoid – just the occasional vegan desert to reward myself for actually folding the washing rather than walking past it.
Me being me, as I wrestled with a fitted sheet, I also wondered how that philosophy – to crowd out the bad stuff with the good – might work in life in general. When there’s something we would like less of, instead of figuring out how to get rid of it, it might sometimes work better to crowd it out with that which we want more of. Less fatigue? Crowd it out with more sleep, joyful physical activity and nutritious food. Less anxiety? Crowd it out with people, activities and places that make us feel reassured and encouraged. Less busyness? Crowd it out with unscheduled time (ironically, by scheduling unscheduled time in our diaries and treating it equal to other commitments). This idea of crowding out the bad with the good is perhaps not rocket science but, for me, it’s a new way of looking at things and creating change so my theory is still forming, but I think there might be something in it.
As I bunched the sheet up into a ball, I wondered how this idea could be applied to parenting. While I’m a strong believer in accepting our child and the moment we’re in as they stand before us, rather than resisting them, I also think we have a lot of power to set the tone in our homes and to lead our families in new directions. As I thought about it, I realised that I have been using this crowding out approach to do just that for many years without realising it.
Even before I had my own children and I was teaching primary school, I used it to make change to our classroom dynamic in various ways. For example, I liked my students to be able to enjoy and discuss what they were working on with one another. But, if the noise levels in the classroom became too loud, I had to ask for quiet. Calling out over their escalating voices for them to “quieten down please” often didn’t work – it just added to the noise. Instead, I learned to bring my own voice down to a whisper so my students had to quieten down enough to be able to hear me. Soon, they would all be whispering to each other as they went about their work and everyone could think more easily. I crowded out the noise with quietness. This is a very literal and simple example but it illustrates my point.
I’ve also used crowding out when I’ve found myself in a bit of a rut with my own kids. Recently, I realised with stabs of regret that I had become rather impatient with and critical of my boys. I had been pointing out things they could do differently in the name of “teaching” them but, when I got honest with myself, I admitted that, really, I was just finding some of their age-appropriate behaviour irritating and my criticisms weren’t constructive but an outlet for my frustration. I sensed that my words were beginning to weigh my boys down and I knew they were the most likely cause of the slight withdrawal and defiance I had begun to notice in them.
Once I’d caught myself, I committed to turning the dynamic around by building my boys up with appreciation for the great things I noticed about them. I told Jake how kind and caring his offer to help with his little brother’s party was. I praised Thomas’ laser-focus and effort at cricket practice. I thanked them for jobs they did around the house without complaining. Looking for the good in my sons has stolen the air from my frustrations, refocusing me and, in turn, my boys, on all the ways that they are kind, capable and charming. I’ve been crowding out the criticisms with compliments and, as a result, my connection with both of my boys has been repaired and they are feeling better about themselves, even stepping up in new ways because they see me believing in and appreciating them.
So, instead of fighting against it when we’re faced with an unpleasant or difficult pattern in our homes, we could try asking ourselves “what would feel good?” and set about bringing more of that into our day. Crowding out the bad with the good keeps our focus and effort on what we do want rather than what we don’t want. It’s also a practical, actionable strategy for change. And it doesn’t apply only to our parenting. While parenting is the arena in which we learn many lessons, most of what we learn is equally relevant to numerous other areas of our lives also.
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