“I got a new Tom Gates book from the library today,” Jake enthused as he emptied his school bag one afternoon.
However, when he pulled the book out from his bag, it was damp and warped.
“Uh-oh, the book got wet,” he said.
“How did it get wet?” I asked, although I already had my suspicions.
“My water bottle must’ve leaked.”
“I’ve told you to always check the lid is on tight after drinking. And you have a separate section in your bag for books, to protect them,” I said. Hearing the frustration rising in my voice, I bit my tongue. 
“Oops”, he said, maddeningly unphased by the situation. Then, “It’s just water.”
I took the book from him to inspect the extent of the damage. I tried to flick through the pages but they were stuck together in soggy clumps. My heart dropped when I saw that, glued inside the front cover, was a book plate noting that the book had been donated to the school library only a week ago by the outgoing Principal, a long-serving and well-regarded leader.

Jake bit his lip when he realised that the situation was more significant than just a few damp pages.
“What do you think you should do about this?” I asked calmly.
He looked at me blankly, apparently expecting me to tell him what to do. I didn’t.
“Say sorry?” he enquired.
“An apology is a great start. But this was a brand new book gifted by Mrs P for her to be remembered by. It’s pretty special. And think of all the kids who won’t be able to enjoy reading it now that it’s ruined. How can you try to put things right?”.
“We could buy a new one,” he suggested.
You could buy a new one,” I corrected.
He looked at me slightly alarmed (how many weeks of pocket money would that be?!). But he didn’t resist, he accepted that replacing the book was the right thing to do. Going in to school the next day, he was nervous that his teacher would be cross about the book. I assured him that the teacher would more likely admire him for owning up to what happened and for doing what he could to put things right.


WHAT IT MEANS TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR MISTAKES

Of course, making mistakes isn’t solely the domain of childhood. Adults are just as susceptible to messing up and often do so on a much grander scale! Ranging from absent-minded bloopers to calculated wrong-doing, none of us are immune from mistake-making.

It is humbling for any person to admit their mistakes but the courage to do so grows the more often we are willing to face the discomfort of owning up. If our children practise in childhood, they’ll develop the strength of character and skills needed to become adults who can take responsibility for their inevitable mistakes.

So what does “taking responsibility” really mean? If we deconstruct it, I can see 3 things our children (and many adults) need to learn to do.
1. Admit fault (no more feigned innocence and “it wasn’t me”s)
2. Acknowledge the impact on others (maybe in the form of an apology but we shouldn’t insist on this)
3. Put things right (to whatever extent is possible)


HELPING OUR CHILDREN TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEIR MISTAKES

One of the best ways to discourage our children from taking responsibility is by giving them an earful about their mistakes. How often do children apologise only to have their adult continue to lecture or, worse, “punish” them for what they’ve done? If they learn that an apology has no effect and that fronting up usually has negative consequences, a child is more likely to hide from their mistakes than to front up to them.

So, instead of trying to “teach them a lesson”, we can normalise mistake-making and support our children in taking responsibility. When we teach our children how to take responsibility, we empower them to release themselves and those impacted by their mistakes from the burden of the wrong-doing so that everyone can move forward. It’s not a matter, though, of telling the child what to do. For taking responsibility to be genuine, more than just going through the motions of what is expected of them, our children need to be allowed to put things right in the way that they see fit.

When the library book got wet, I asked Jake to decide how he wanted to put things right. The onus was on him to put things right but I supported him in doing so. I offered to come in to school with him when he told the teacher about the ruined library book and I suggested that we go halves in the cost of buying a new book as he doesn’t get a lot of pocket money (my thoughts on pocket money here). Just because it was his error, didn’t mean he wasn’t deserving of moral support.

My hope was to show Jake that he has to take responsibility for his mistakes but also that I will always support him in doing so. In future, he will know that he can come to me for help whenever he makes a mistake. At the moment, his mistakes are smaller, like not caring for library books, but there will be more serious ones as he gets older.


IN SUMMARY: FINDING A POSITIVE WAY FORWARD

Getting our children to take responsibility is not about punishing them for their mistakes. Apologising to his teacher and paying for a new book wasn’t about humiliating Jake or depriving him of pocket money. It wasn’t even about teaching him not to put books with his drink bottle in his bag (although I hope he learned that too!).

Taking responsibility is the natural response of a regretful heart to its errors. Our job as parents is to help our children to find a positive way forward rather than to get stuck in the shame and regret of their mistakes.  


Much love,
 


PS – If you’re wanting a book recommendation for your child, my 8 year-old son loves the Tom Gates series (not an affiliate link)
 

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It’s 1:53pm on an ordinary school holiday Friday and I have locked myself in my bedroom, leaving my kids to fend for themselves downstairs. I’m not being entirely irresponsible. Before coming up here, I reminded them to put hats & sunscreen on if they go outside. I then told them where I’d be and that I’d come out in time to make dinner. I have disconnected all the screens in the house and removed the unhealthiest snacks from the pantry since I’m not around to supervise consumption of these things. They’ll find something else to sneakily indulge in, I’m sure. In fact, they’re pretty quiet right now. But I’m not even curious what they’re up to. I’m fed up.

More than fed up, if I’m honest. Furious. So furious I’m bawling. I’m not sure, though, if I’m more furious with my boys for their impossible behaviour or with myself for my ineffectual parenting but I can feel the fury coursing through my veins and it’s flowing with so much pressure it could well burst right out of me.

The school holidays have been kind of tough so far. Much of the struggle has been due to my boys’ behaviour which has brought many pleasant and fun experiences to an abrupt end and deemed others impossible. Case in point – today.

I spent the morning motoring through the housework so my boys and I could have a nice afternoon outing in the city together. Our first stop was to be a quick visit to a homeware store to choose frames & hooks for putting their art on their bedroom walls. This morning, Thomas finished a mosaic he has spent many hours working on and he was excited to finally be able to put it up. As soon as we walked into the homeware store, though, the “behaviour” began.

Not a minute had passed before one boy had grabbed the other and it had turned into a chasey grabby game in between the shelves of crockery, glass picture frames and other very fragile items. They ignored my repeated instructions to leave one another alone & settle down and my firm warnings about the breakable objects around them. After a few stressful minutes of trying to juggle my task and supervise them, I resorted to getting them to sit on the floor of separate aisles so I could have just 2 minutes to think through which frames & hooks would meet our requirements. But, of course, they scooted along the floor on their bottoms to get to one another and continued to mess around together, coming dangerously close to the laden shelves. I was terrified they’d break something and couldn’t focus to work out which picture hooks to get. When one boy pushed the other into a trolley of mismatched plates and bowls, I abandoned the outing.

We promptly left the shop without frames and hooks. When we got to the car, my frustration and embarrassment erupted out and I hollered at them about being untrustworthy and ruining so many of our outings recently. Then we drove home in complete silence. After taking the necessary measures and pouring a strong cup of coffee, I came supstairs to my bedroom, being sure to lock the door behind me.

And now, here I am. Bawling and punching my keyboard as if it were in the wrong. And feeling utterly defeated.

I wasn’t at my best today to begin with. The school holidays have already included sickness, a trip to the hospital and too many nights of broken sleep. And this behaviour from my boys, which has become an unwelcome pattern, has worn me down. So a shouty outburst in the car was, perhaps, brewing.

But, really, I don’t understand how we’ve got to the point where I can’t make plans to do nice things with my kids because odds are they will either fight or get too silly together. Once they’re in that zone, just the two of them engaged in an unproductive way, they become incapable of listening to me. I had thought that opportunities to do interesting things together would increase as they got older but, right now, the possibilities seem to be narrowing and I feel both resentful and sad about that.

Thanks for listening. I know I haven’t given you much to take away in this essay. I just wanted to get it out and to say that it’s not all “soulful” over here. But perhaps the soulful part is what I do now. Now that my boys have thoroughly embarrassed, tested and crushed me. Now that I have shouted and withdrawn, both of which don’t align with my parenting ideals.

I’m bound to have written an essay or two which will help me gain perspective and figure out where to go from here. But I’m not ready to consider those yet, I need time to defuse. Frankly, lying here on my bed is probably the safest place for me to be at this moment. My husband gave me a box of deluxe chocolates for our 10th Anniversay this morning which I stashed in my bedside table drawer so my boys couldn’t beg me to share. 3 or 4 of them and a rollicking Liz Gilbert novel are probably the best thing I can do for us all right now.  

 

Much love,

 

PS Nothing got broken in the homeware shop.  

 

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For this, my 100th essay, it seemed fitting to take a moment to reflect on all that I’ve learned both from parenting and from writing about parenting. If someone were to ask me, “what is soulful parenting?” what would I say, now that I’m 100 essays in?

The obvious place to start is with the word soulful? There are many words that would have been appropriate to describe my approach to parenting and it took me a while to settle on this one. I like intentional, compassionate and respectful very much also. But, for me, soulful goes a little deeper. It reminds us that our children are not simply bodies to be cared for and minds to be nourished but that children have all the same capacities, intricacies and subtleties that we experience as adults. For me, soulful parenting suggests nurturing our children down to their core. And that’s what my writing is essentially about – giving our children an experience of childhood that maximises their wellbeing both in the present and throughout their lives.

The manifesto below outlines the principles that guide me as a parent and guide my children towards their deepest wellbeing. They are the commitments that I make to my boys everyday, failing regularly but always recommitting.

 

MY SOULFUL PARENTING COMMITMENTS

1. Above all else, I recognise that my main purpose as your parent is to empower you to be your true self. You came to me whole and perfectly-formed. I let go of all other agendas that may stand in the way of seeing and honouring your truth.

2. I will demonstrate to you your inherent worth through the way I interact with you. Nothing you do makes you any more or less deserving of love, respect and joy. I accept and value you as you are.

3. I will prioritise your physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. I will give all parts of you the love and nurturing they need and will seek help from “the village” when I see a need I am unable to meet.

4. I will show you that you belong and you matter. Your needs and wants are no more or less important than anyone else’s and you have valuable contributions to make to our family, our community and humanity.

5. I will give you space to explore and to make mistakes, keeping you safe by setting boundaries that are necessary and transparent. When you cross boundaries or stumble, I will remember that we all falter and will support you to recover & to learn through your experiences.

6. I will use presence as my main parenting tool will. Being fully with you, whatever is happening, is the best way to connect with you, to perceive what is going on for you and to recognise what you’re needing from me.

7. When I see that something needs to change within our family, I will take responsibility for being the change I wish to see. Through my example and intention, you will learn how you can contribute to the change we need to make.

8. I will show up for you as myself – fully human, honest and unique, knowing that I am enough for you and showing you that you are enough too.

9. I recognise that, when I feel challenged by you, it is my job to manage myself, not to control you. To do this, I will do the ongoing internal work of addressing my personal triggers so that I can avoid inflicting the pain of them on you.

10. I am willing to let you raise me as much as I raise you. The relationship we share is for the learning and growth of us both.


These commitments may sound idealistic & abstract and they are not always easily executed but, in Soulful Parenting, we are allowed to be human & imperfect! I have written 99 other essays that show you how it looks to try and keep these commitments in the ordinary, yet extraordinary, situations that we find ourselves in with our children.

 

If you would like a pdf of these Soulful Parenting Commitments, you can download it here. 

 

Much love,

 

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“I don’t have time for you to have a meltdown!”
I have never actually said this out loud. But I have said it very loudly in my head on many occasions – usually when I’m swirling about like a cyclone, still in my dressing gown with only 4 minutes left before we need to leave the house.
I don’t care that his favourite t-shirt is in the wash or he doesn’t want to go to school today.
I mean, I do.
But not right now.
Right now, I just have to get the kids to school on time.  

For something invisible and, essentially, made up, Time has a remarkable ability to create tension in our lives, even for the most organised of us. Its inability to absorb the unexpected delays that are inevitable in life with kids makes it very unforgiving. When I’m running late or feeling that there isn’t enough time, the pressure can be difficult to contain and often gets inadvertently inflicted onto my boys.  

Especially on weekday mornings. Tightened and taut and already 7 minutes late, it can be agonising to watch my boys as they get into the car. Someone realises they’ve forgotten their sunhat and has to rush back into the house to find it. They squabble over a backpack that’s on the other person’s side of the car seat by an inch. Or they’re just plain slow, chatting breezily as if time doesn’t exist.

But listen to me
“Hurry up!”
“Just leave your brother alone!”
“Put your belt on now!”
Would you feel ready to face a day at school after being barked at and ordered around like this? How many of the meltdowns our children have are actually a result of the pressure we apply by rushing them?  


THE LIGHT AT THE END OF OUR TUNNEL

Recently, my boys changed schools and we now travel only 6 minutes to get there, rather than the 26 minutes or more it took to drive to their old school. Early risers, they have not embraced the opportunity to sleep in a little longer. But that has turned out to be a good thing. Now that we have extra time in the mornings, we can get ready for the day at a more leisurely pace. It is a relief not to rush and we have a greater sense of ease & flow in our mornings.

Now, breakfast table conversation isn’t repeatedly disrupted by my interjections to “keep eating, we’ve gotta get going”. I listen patiently to my youngest as he does his reading homework, taking the time to coach him through figuring out tricky words rather than just telling him what they. Yesterday, I had time to attend to my son’s tears about missing his old school, instead of trying to jolly him along because we had to get out the door.

The benefits of a being able to slow down were obvious after just the first day of our new 6-minutes-to-school routine. Most significant to me is that I now have time to connect with my boys in small ways throughout the morning, rather than treating them like sheep that need herding (even though there are only two of them).  

FINDING TIME TO SLOW DOWN

I am conscious that my relationship to time is one that I’ll pass on to my boys. If the childhood I give them is one in which we are often rushing, slaves to the clock, they will probably assume that that is how life is lived. I don’t want them to grow up believing that getting through everything as quickly as possible is more important than other things, such as connecting with others and enjoying the moment. But how do we find the time to slow down? Not everyone can change the location of their school/work/home to gain back some of their time. Let me make a couple of suggestions that might help, though.

The beginning of the day, when we are trying to get everyone ready and out the door on time, is commonly stressful for families. It’s well worth working to create a buffer of time in the mornings because they set the tone for the rest of the day. Now, when I drop my boys off at their new school, I don’t need a few minutes to unwind from the rush; because we didn’t rush. I imagine it’s the same for my boys; that they arrive at school feeling more calm and ready for the day.

The end of the day can also feel especially pressured due to the need to get our kids to bed at a decent hour. Arriving home after work or extra-curricular activities, still with dinner to make, children to bathe and bedtime stories to read can be stressful.  A more gentle pace and relaxed atmosphere can help everyone to wind down from the day and maybe, even, to fall asleep more easily.

Can you see a few ways to gain extra time and wriggle room for yourselves and your kids at each end of the day?  Even finding just 5 extra minutes can take the edge off.  Perhaps it means getting up a little earlier, limiting time spent checking emails or preparing school lunches the night before. Delegating some tasks to my boys is one of my best strategies for reclaiming time. Whatever time-wrangling you can do to relieve the pressure where it builds most will benefit everyone in the family.  


IN SUMMARY: MAKING TIME FOR OUR INTENTIONS

Essentially, we have to use our time rather than let it use us. I am not talking corporate time-management strategies here, just keeping an eye on the parts of the day where time propels us along rather than our intentions. As a parent, connection and wellbeing are high priorities for me yet they have often been casualties in the rush to get out the door.  Forgetting to hug my son goodbye or criticising him for “being so slow” (it was just me “being so fast”) are not conducive to connection and wellbeing. Time is not the enemy but it requires a little taming.  When we slow down, we can show up for our kids in the way we really want to and create space for everyone to enjoy themselves.  


Much love,
 

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Today’s children and young people are often accused of being entitled, self-centred, and spoiled. When one of my sons takes the last biscuit or refuses to help tidy up because “it’s not my mess”, I worry that he may well be living up to these labels. Sometimes my boys appear oblivious to the fact that they are part of an ecosystem of sorts in which their behaviour impacts on those around them.

In their defence, this egocentric tendency is developmentally normal to a certain extent but, as a parent, I also keep the long game in mind. The question I ask myself is what am I doing to help my children feel connected to needs & interests beyond their own? How can I help them to think more in terms of “we” than of “me”?  

 

A CULTURE OF “ME”

It’s not made easy by the fact we live in a culture in which the individual reigns supreme. Broadly speaking, life has become a jostle for attention and a sense that we each need to make everything happen for ourselves & by ourselves. In my opinion, the pendulum has swung too far from the collectivist thinking of past times towards individualist thinking. “Success” has become standing apart from others rather than with them.

In an effort to differentiate ourselves from others, we have become too busy and self-oriented to nurture many of the connections that once sustained us (eg. with our communities, neighbours and interest groups, to name a few). We no longer make the degree of effort we once did to support others and we no longer receive the level of support these connections once offered us. It’s a more lonely and less meaningful way to live, although it’s normalised now and we may not be particularly conscious of feeling disconnected.

Modern society is by no means all bad but this disconnection is a limitation of the current culture in which we are raising our children. Perhaps we can show our kids another way.  

 

HELPING OUR CHILDREN TO THINK AS “WE”

Connection is a powerful source of wellbeing. It is symbiotic in nature, each individual receiving a sense of belonging and giving what it is that they have to contribute. Feeling connected awakens us to both how much we matter and how much others matter.

How we can create a genuine sense of connection in our children’s lives is something I will need to ponder for a while, especially as I, too, am rather entrenched in my identity as an individual. But here are some simple ways I can begin to help my boys see beyond themselves and to think in terms of “we” rather than “me”.

* Be an example of someone with a “we” mentality Our influence as parents begins with our own behaviour and attitudes. Our children watch our way of being in the world and they need to see us caring about matters beyond ourselves. I am looking for ways to contribute further but have made a start.  My boys have seen me volunteering to teach at their school & offering practical help to other parents and we talk about the humane & environmental reasons I have switched to a predominantly plant-based diet.

* Invite them to join my efforts to serve others For example, when I have made financial donations to causes, I have given them the opportunity to put some of their pocket money towards it; Thomas helped me to prepare the resources for my teaching at school each morning; and they bake with me for school fundraisers.

* Encourage them to commit and contribute to the groups they’re already involved in For example, doing chores for the family (link), turning up to all games & practices for their sports teams, making an effort to get to know their neighbours and making environmentally-kind choices for the benefit of the planet & those living on it.

* Talk about the “ripple effect” with them I have taught my boys that their actions are like stones dropping into a lake and creating ripples that travel far out on the water’s surface. I point out both the positive and negative ripples their actions create. Sometimes we think big and talk about what kind of ripple effect they want to have in the world.  

 

IN SUMMARY: CONTRIBUTION + BELONGING = WE

Within the ecosystem our children live in are various groups they are part of – families, schools, sports teams, neighbourhoods and, on a larger scale, humanity and the biological ecosystem itself, to name a few. Each group offers our children an opportunity to experience connection.

My suggestions above emphasise the contribution our children can bring to these groups because contribution is the way we reach out to create a connection. The belonging and support we receive are the rewards for having contributed.

If we can raise we-thinking individuals (and become them ourselves), our own ripple effect will hopefully be a slow shift of the larger culture so that future generations can live in a more connected, thriving society.  

 

Much love,

 

In the midst of writing this essay, I came across Johann Hari’s book, “Lost Connections”.  In it, he explores the many ways we have lost connection in our lives and the impact of this on our wellbeing.  I think it’s a really important book and I encourage you to check it out here (not an affiliate link).  

 

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I drove into the garage, turned off the engine and digested the condition of our car after a week of school runs, extra curricular activities and errands.  Judging by the state condition of things, there was no doubt that it was Friday afternoon.  Despite having told my boys to bring in their things from the car when we’d arrived home each afternoon, there were snack containers, clothes, Pokemon cards and other forgotten items strewn over the back seat and floor.  So, instead of simply telling my boys to bring it all inside as I climbed out of the car, I policed the operation to make sure it actually got done this time.

One of my sons clearly felt resistant to tidying up but he knew my expectations wouldn’t budge so he quietly got on with it and headed into the house.  My other son was a different story, perhaps because most of the mess was his.  You’d have thought I’d asked him to tidy the whole house, not just his compact one square metre of real estate in the family car.  His cheerful Friday afternoon demeanor quickly vanished and the complaining, moaning and half-crying began.

“I’ve got a thousand things to carry!  My arms are full!  I can’t carry any more!” my son burst out.  Very unreasonably, I pointed out that he might have to come back and make a second trip for the rest of his things.  The whining quickly escalated to red-faced outrage.

“Why can’t you do some of it?!  It’s not just my job!” he barked at me.  Simmering, but managing not to boil over, I showed him all of my own items on the front passenger seat that I would be taking inside and reminded him that, if he’d brought his things in each afternoon, he wouldn’t have so much to do now.  He was furious that I was right.  I gathered my things and headed inside the house, leaving him to stomp and slam doors and, hopefully, clean up.  

TIME TO RETIRE CHORE CHARTS?

As I put things away inside the house, I wondered, “why are my boys so often resistant to helping or even just taking responsibility for their own things?”  No answers came to me but I got thinking about the culture around chores in our family. Since moving house in February, we haven’t quite managed to resurrect the system we had for our boys’ chores.  The charts I had made for each son, showing their responsibilities with cute clip art images  – laminated, even –  had been lost in the move.  They were probably a little out-dated now, anyway, my boys being capable of more than setting the table and checking the mail.  I’ve been meaning to sit down and have a think about new, age-appropriate jobs and to create an updated chart for them each.

But, as I tidied my things away that afternoon, I thought to myself, “why should we need a system just to get our boys helping out around the house?”  It’s their home, their family, their things.  Part of belonging to our family team is sharing the responsibilities and work for everyone’s benefit. The limitation of a system like the charts we had is that, if a task isn’t on the chart, my boys don’t believe they should have to do it.  (Read about how our pocket money system also backfired on us here).  Although the charts served us well for quite a long time, my boys seem to have outgrown them in a certain way.  At 5 and 8 years of age now, I’d like to progress beyond charts and rules to helping my boys develop a genuine sense of responsibility and caring for our home, our belongings & our family.

Let me dream a little here.  Ideally, my husband or I would notice something that needs doing, ask one of our sons to do it and they would just do it.  No complaining that it’s their brother’s turn to do a job and why do they always have to be the one to do the work.  No pleading to do it later, which we all know never comes (at least, not without consistent nagging).  No using up my own time and energy getting them to do a job that I could’ve done myself with less effort than I was using trying to get them to do it.
 

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD OF CHORE CHARTS

Honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to make the shift from resistance to willingness around chores.  I really am just thinking out loud about this for the first time here.  But here are some initial ideas –

  1. Talk with my boys about the need to do chores and our values around them. Through these discussions, my boys can understand that our home works better for us all when there is a degree of organisation & tidiness and that everyone can help to maintain that order.  We can integrate our values into these conversations.  For example, gratitude is one of our family’s values and we already talk about how caring for our things shows our appreciation for them.  Other values might include, contribution, respect and helping others.
  2. Be flexible with the terms. It’s not reasonable to spring a time-consuming job on our child unexpectedly so, when appropriate, I would be willing to negotiate the terms.  This reflects some of the give-and-take I’m wanting to nurture in our family.  For example, if my son is in the middle of something, I could agree to letting him do the job when he has finished what he’s doing.  But this flexibility would only remain as long as he proves to be reliable, taking responsibility for getting jobs done under the agreed conditions.
  3. Include my boys in chores that I do. Whenever I do a job, I can ask myself, “would one of my sons be capable of helping in some way?” and, if so,  include them.  When they do chores with me, it is more fun and it gives them a greater sense of teamwork. By experiencing some of what my husband and I do, they may also develop a better appreciation for all the work we put in to making things work smoothly for our family.
  4. Appreciate contributions they make. If I show appreciation and thanks for the work they do, they will feel good for having made a contribution and may be more motivated to keep helping out.  As they develop a greater sense of responsibility for our home and our things, they may start taking initiative and doing small jobs without being asked, which I’d definitely want to acknowledge. (Imagine that!)

 

IN SUMMARY: FROM SYSTEMS TO VALUES

As I’ve written this essay, I’ve realised that the shift I am trying to make is from an extrinsic, systems-based approach to chores to an intrinsic, values-based approach.  I want the focus to be more on our family’s culture around chores than the processes we have. I haven’t figured it all out, I’ve just painted a picture of where I want us to go. 

Practically, I suspect the answer might lie somewhere in the middle – as it usually does.  Perhaps we will create a chart for essential daily chores that my boys can take responsibility for independently.  Then, I can get them involved in other jobs as needed in a more collaborative way that honours our family’s values and motivates my boys to pitch in. 

And, for the record, my son did clean out his part of the car that afternoon.  He left the door and the boot wide open in a display of resistance – but it got done.  

 

Much love,

 

 

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I’m fortunate that almost all the comments people leave on my essays and social media posts are positive and kind.  I don’t think I write anything particularly controversial but my ideas can be unconventional at times and, very occasionally, someone leaves a comment like “that won’t work!” as if I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.

To give an example, one such comment was left about an essay I wrote called Why We Don’t Need To Teach Values To Our Children.  It was about encouraging our children to turn inwards to their innate sense of right-and-wrong when they’ve made a poor decision, rather than criticising them for their behaviour.  I wrote –

“…we don’t have to judge, punish and lecture them when they stray from their natural state of Love.  Because they already know, in the instant that they do the apparently unloving thing, that what they did wasn’t right”.

I could hear the commenter’s scoffs as I read their words.  And I get it – if the measure of “working” is that, after one or two applications of my suggested approach to direct our child inward, they would always make the “right” decision, then, no, it wasn’t going to work.

So, what does it mean to say that our parenting is “working”? 

 

CRITERIA FOR PARENTING THAT WORKS

When I was teaching primary school, we developed a set of criteria for each learning outcome by which to evaluate our students’ levels of success.  Essentially, we broke each goal down into smaller components so that we could say very specifically why a child had or hadn’t met the outcome and to what degree.  I decided to have a go at writing criteria for my parenting and this is what I came up with.

Parenting that works…

  1. BENEFITS MY CHILD IN THE LONG TERM, sometimes at the cost of short-term ease. If we simply want things to be easy (which, if we’re honest, usually means getting immediate compliance from our children so we can go about whatever it was we were doing), our tendency is to be over-controlling and to resort to strategies that don’t pass anything of value onto our children except, often, fear of our disapproval or punishment. But, if we repeatedly bypass the work of parenting in this way, we bypass the benefit for our children.  Each parenting moment is loaded with opportunities for them to learn valuable skills that they can take with them into life.  Examples of such skills are – how to manage emotions, how to have self-awareness, numerous practical skills and the ability to understand another’s perspective.   The list is endless.

Consider the example I opened with – criticising and punishing our children for making apparently poor decisions teaches them nothing new.  However, helping them to tune in to their intuitive knowing teaches them that they have an internal compass they can check in with at any moment to guide them towards the most loving action.

  1. NURTURES MY CHILD’S SELF-WORTH. I believe in everyone’s inherent worth but, unfortunately, most of us spend our lives questioning our worthiness. Apart from feeling low, when we feel unworthy, we hold ourselves back in our lives.  Keenly familiar with this experience myself, I try to consistently reflect my children’s worth back to them, even in the challenging moments.  Because, when our children see that we believe they are unquestionably worthy, they are more likely to believe it themselves.

Back to the example from the introduction – if we use the guise of “teaching them good values” to judge and lecture our children for making a poor decision, it takes them straight to a feeling of unworthiness.  When we, instead, teach them something useful (in this case, to turn inwards to their essential loving selves), they feel worthy because we have taken the time to guide them and we are showing them that we believe in them.

  1. FOSTERS CONNECTION BETWEEN MYSELF & MY CHILD. The quality of our relationship with our children is where our power as parents lies.  An authentic connection with our child provides them with things such as the safety to be themselves, the motivation to learn from our example and the willingness to allow us to coach them or to ask us for help.  Every interaction with our child is an opportunity to shape our relationship with them and it’s up to us whether we use it to strengthen or weaken that valuable connection.

In our example – when we barrage our children with disapproval & punishment for poor decisions, we separate ourselves from them and, for that time at least, we are no longer the safe place that they need us to be.  Their trust in us gets chipped away by our judgement.  However, when they see us, instead, putting in the effort to teach them the skills of turning inwards, they feel accepted and that we are interested in them, rather than preoccupied with their behaviour.  

 

BRIEF SUMMARY: GETTING HONEST WITH OURSELVES

I think we often conflate “parenting” with “discipline” when evaluating ourselves as parents.  We think that, if we have our kids “under control”,  we’re doing a decent job.  But you may have noticed that none of these criteria are about how our children behave.  They are all about the way we behave as their parents and, especially, our motivations.   For me, the extent to which our parenting is working is the extent to which we are prioritising our children’s wellbeing over everything else, including getting our kids to do what we want them to.  (Gulp)  

 

Much love,

 

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When I was expecting my first baby, I devoured baby care books.  I used my library card to borrow almost every book that had been written about newborn babies and, from there, chose the best ones to actually purchase.  I packed the chosen few along with my birth plan in my hospital suitcase.  I was going to do this parenting thing right from the very beginning.

Well, the birth plan proved to be irrelevant and the books were too.  But I didn’t realise this about the books until they’d already put my baby and myself through the wringer.  My baby did not behave in the ways the books told me he would and very little the well-loved experts had written helped to make parenting him any easier.  I became very stressed – angry at myself and my baby for not “doing it properly”.

Some of you may be asking why did I cling to these books so tightly if they were stressing me out?  Others of you may already know the answer – because you relate.  

WHY WE READ SO MANY PARENTING BOOKS

I read the books because I didn’t think I could do it.  I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to keep this baby alive, let alone ensure he thrived in every way.  My insides were a tangle of self-doubt and, with a sense of the importance of the task before me, my confidence was at an all-time low.

These days, our society has us believing that there’s not much we can do without expert guidance.  It wants almost everything we do to be “research-based”, validated as “best practice” by someone with letters after their name.  It jams everyone and everything into important-sounding theories, including babies and their parents, measuring our actions against scientifically-proven ideals.

Well, I didn’t have a PhD in parenting so I put my trust in the experts who did.  I was a good student, too.  I read their books thoroughly, marking them with post-it notes and diligently following their guidelines.  The books had me doing all sorts of crazy things and making myself (and probably my poor baby) crazy in the process.  But I didn’t question them because they were written by the experts.  They couldn’t be wrong – I was doing something wrong.  My sense of failure was tangible.  

WHY WE DON’T NEED ALL THOSE PARENTING BOOKS

It took me a long time to come to the realisation that, as a parent, I was the expert.  It was my job to be the expert – not in baby care and parenting in general, but an expert in my own child in particular.

To become the expert, I had to carry out the research myself, observing my child and using what I learned to inform myself going forward.  Of course, I didn’t have the pure objectivity that a scientific researcher does because I was connected to my child biologically, emotionally and spiritually.  But I did have the ability to be present.

Getting present when we’re tired, stressed and anxious takes discipline but it helps us to connect with our children so that we really see them.  And, when we open ourselves to really seeing them, our intuition kicks in.  It shows us what’s going on beneath their behaviour and how to respond with what our child really needs.  (I have written more about how to use our intuition in our parenting in this essay).

Our power as parents is in the quality of our relationship with our children, not in our ability to implement a plan laid out for us by an expert.  In fact, our children can feel us applying strategies to them and it doesn’t feel good, often undermining that connection that tells us so much of what we need to know.  

HOW TO READ A PARENTING BOOK

Of course, there are lots of great parenting books out there and I have a number of them on my own bookshelf.  But I have sifted through them and kept only the ones that offer wise perspective, leaving room for my own judgement and the messiness that is childhood, parenting and family life. So keep your favourites on the shelf, but here is the rule: As you read, look for what resonates. 

If you read with an open heart, rather than with the fear of “doing it wrong” or desperation to find a “solution” to whatever parenting challenge you are facing, you will get a feeling for how well the ideas fit with your child and the circumstances before you.  Take what feels true and leave the rest.  (That’s true for my essays also.)  

IN SUMMARY: FOLLOW THE REAL EXPERTS

Those of us who are inclined to over-research parenting do so because we don’t trust ourselves.  But, if we’re willing to put aside our fear and its desire to control, we will find that we have access to intuitive wisdom we can trust.  The ideas in the books that we read offer us suggestions from which to choose the most suitable actions, they are not to be treated as the instruction manuals we often find ourselves looking for in the midst of challenge and self-doubt. My experience is that, once we trust ourselves more, we will also begin to trust our children.  We will realise that they  are the experts on themselves and we simply have to follow their lead.  

 

 

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Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Mahatma Ghandi

I didn’t really get this well-known quote until relatively recently.  I used to think it was an inspiring thought but, really, what difference could little old me make in the world?  I thought Ghandi’s words were for other people – the type of exceptional people who achieve extraordinary things that go down in history – like he did. 

Then my husband and I had children, creating our own little “world” of sorts.  Within this little world, everything felt magnified and I saw for the first time how the behaviour and attitudes of those around me (my boys) often mirrored my own.  Having felt relatively inconsequential within the larger settings I’d lived in as a child-free adult, such as university and work, it surprised me to see the power of who I was in a situation. 

Let me offer an example you may relate to.  I noticed that, when I am feeling tired & overwhelmed, my shouty self appears (you can read about her here).    My ability to tolerate small annoyances or to respond consciously to challenging behaviour vanishes and I seem unable to be constructive.  I resort to raising my voice because I just want my boys to stop making so much noise/getting out of bed after they’ve been tucked in/fighting with each other…!

Next thing I know, my boys’ own shouty outbursts have shot up in frequency.  Their fuses seem to have suddenly shortened and every irritation has them roaring either at each other or at me.  When I’m not respectful and kind in my interactions with them, their interactions become less respectful and kind also.

Fortunately, what this points to is the fact that the opposite is also true.  When I am peaceful and intentional with my boys, they are more peaceful themselves (well, as much as can be expected of two energetic brothers).

HOW OUR BEHAVIOUR IMAPCTS OUR CHILDREN’S

As parents, our behaviour has a two-fold impact on our families.  One is energetic – if we bring the energy of impatience and irritation into our day, for example, our children can’t help but absorb some of that feeling.  One is obvious – our kids learn by watching us.

So, in many respects, parenting is more about us than our children.  We set the tone for our family life and we get to decide whether it will be light and uplifting or heavy and difficult.

Since realising this, when I feel that the dynamic in my family needs shifting, I have become more inclined to look at myself than at my children.  Instead of “fixing” them, I try to lift myself. 

HOW TO BE THE CHANGE IN ANY SITUATION

One of the times for us to be particularly aware of our ability to be the change is when our children aren’t being very co-operative.  Perhaps they’re refusing to help when they’re asked to do a chore.  Perhaps they’re winding their sibling up, just because they know exactly where the buttons are.  Perhaps their frame of reference seems only to include themselves, as if no one else in the family is important.  

When getting co-operation from my boys feels elusive, I ask myself, am I co-operating with them?  I try to think of the range of the opportunities I’ve had recently to co-operate for their purposes.  Did I wait until they had finished their game before asking them to set the table, rather than insisting they do it when it best suited me?  Did I help Thomas to get ready for school because I could see he was feeling tired this morning?  Did I adjust my plans for the day to accommodate Jake’s request to stay after school and play football with his friends?  Often I notice that the times when my boys are less co-operative with me and each other are the times when I have been busy, mentally preoccupied with my own affairs and less considerate of theirs.

To give a couple of other examples:  When the family is becoming bored and mopey, I’m usually feeling in need of invigoration myself so I think about what might invigorate me first – a visit to an art gallery or a brisk walk, perhaps.   When my boys are becoming complainy and demanding, I notice the state of my own gratitude practice and make an effort to stop & for appreciative moments throughout the day.  Making an effort to show up as my best self helps my family to do the same.

IN SUMMARY: CHANGING OUR FAMILIES, CHANGING THE WORLD

We can be quick to imply that our children aren’t good enough in some way.  I know I am guilty of complaining to my husband at times that one son or the other is being particularly lazy or moody or self-centred.  But complaining about our children does not help them to be their best selves and putting pressure on them to be different will not lift them up.  Raising the energy of the situation and quietly showing them how it is done is far more empowering.  

And, if this is true for our families, imagine the change we can effect in the world.

Whether we’re thinking about parenting or some other aspect of life, we all know that, really, the only thing we can control is ourselves.  (I admit that I often forget this.  But, when I remember it, I always feel kindda relieved).

It turns out that Ghandi’s words are not about grand achievements, remarkable talent or, even, magnetic charisma.  It’s about who we are in each little moment because who we are seeps into every person, event and thing that is part of that moment.

Is there something you would like more of in your family – consideration, laughter or communication perhaps? How can you be these things?

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For the victims of the Mosque shootings in Christchurch

Just as my sons’ school assembly was closing on Friday (two weeks ago now), the Principal told the student leaders he would like to address the children.  He looked somberly at the rows of parents sitting at the back of the hall saying, “I don’t know if you’ve heard about the events in Christchurch…”, as a brief explanation of what was to come.  We hadn’t heard and resisted the temptation to get our phones out there and then to find out what it was that he was referring to.  He didn’t announce what had happened but briefly spoke to the children about diversity, pointing out the range of nationalities and races represented in our own school hall, and how, as a school, we value inclusion and kindness.  It was a short and heart-felt moment but I wondered what on earth had happened to prompt it.

Once I found out the news that a man had open-fired in two Christchurch mosques in the name of white supremacy, killing 50 people, I was in horrified shock.  And my heart ached. Firstly for the victims and the community of people the attacks were aimed at.  Secondly for New Zealanders – all New Zealanders – who, until then, had felt safe in the knowledge that “that kind of thing doesn’t happen here”.  This essay, is about how I approached talking to my children about what had happened.

SHOULD I TELL MY KIDS?

You may know from my previous essays that I think it’s important not to over-protect our children. Not letting them experiences the realities of life as children, steals from them the opportunity to learn attitudes and skills that will help them to navigate future challenges.  I consider it my job to equip my boys as best I can to deal with whatever may happen – practically, mentally and spiritually – but to do so according to their readiness.

I didn’t want to tell them about the Christchurch shootings.  I worried that I would be pulling their sense of safety and their ability to trust others from underneath them.  I didn’t want to leave them feeling vulnerable and insecure.  I admit I was tempted not to say anything – they’re so young, they don’t need to know, I thought – but I knew they’d hear about the events from somewhere else.  By being the first to tell them, I had a little more control over how they received the news and could help them to process it before hearing other people’s take on the events.

TELLING THEM

I spoke to Jake and Thomas separately, to give them each the chance to have the conversation they needed to have without the other interrupting.  I began by telling them the basic information about what happened in Christchurch then, from there, allowed their questions to shape the conversation. 

Thomas (who has just turned 5) questioned me mostly about the police’s role in catching the gunman and where he is, seeking reassurance that everyone is safe now.  He didn’t seem to want to talk at length about it and I sensed it didn’t feel particularly real to him.

Jake (7 years old) was more concerned with why the gunman did what he did. We discussed race, nationality and religion – topics we’ve spoken little about in the past.  There hasn’t often been a need in our conversations until now to differentiate between groups of people.   Our differences had never seemed particularly relevant until we needed to talk about the shootings in Christchurch.  But I have found myself questioning this – was my not talking much about race, nationality and religion until now an oversight born of Love for everyone… or from the privilege of being a white person in New Zealand? (There is nothing like parenthood to make us reflect on ourselves.)

As you can see, talking about events such as these can open a can of worms – there are so many topics that could be explored. When parenting, this can make us shy away because we feel that we don’t have all the answers (and we don’t).  But, although it was an opportunity to talk about these issues, our conversations had to be first about helping my boys to process what had happened. It was about them learning how to work through pain, confusion, vulnerability and injustice. Letting them lead the conversation helped me to both pitch the discussion according to their readiness and to see where their main concerns were. It gave them the chance to ask questions and to share their thoughts on the events.

THE LANGUAGE WE USE

Having to talk about the shootings with my young boys made me very conscious of the language we tend to use around such events. While New Zealanders have come together and on the whole seem determined to support one another, there is a lot of fearful, judgmental language around at the moment too. This is understandable but I wondered how useful the kinds of phrases I was hearing everywhere were. I chose different words when talking about it, including with Thomas and Jake. 

To start with, a lot of people talk about religious and racial “tolerance” but I realised what an inadequate word “tolerance” is.  It implies putting up with something.  For me, difference is not something to put up with, but to value, appreciate, respect and honour. 

I also avoided labeling the gunman as “a bad man” because no person is all good or all bad, although their actions may be clearly one way or the other.

I didn’t talk with my boys about “fighting against terrorism” or the “war on terrorism” as these words lead us into the kind of violent mindset that the gunman himself had. 

Jake and I talked a lot more about how similar all people are and our inherent equality with one another.  We prayed for the victims, their families, the gunman and his.  Apart from being more constructive, I think this will help my boys not to spiral downward in the way I have watched some people do as they repeatedly speak about this from a place of judgement, hatred and fear.  We can’t always choose what happens but we always get to choose the slant we put on things.

IN SUMMARY: FACING THE MESS

My conversations with my boys were messy, jumping around from point to point.  But these events are messy too.  I tried not to necessarily tidy it all up but to let my boys sit with their responses and questions.    The events of our lives don’t come in neat little packages and being able to accept that is an important life skill. 

I hope that, by following my boys’ lead, they were able to bite off what they could chew and address the issues that were of most concern to them.  I feel sad that their sense of security has likely been compromised to some degree but I hope I have shown them that that they can face difficult events, difficult thoughts and difficult feelings.


Much love to you and your little souls,



PS  This essay was written from the fortunate position of not living in the city of Christchurch myself.  My family and I have been able to discuss these events from a safer-feeling distance and I want to acknowledge that it will have been a very different experience for families living in Christchurch and, indeed, in other parts of the world where people live with both the threats and realities of various forms of violence and tragedy.

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