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parenting without fear
by Krystal Trammell
Originally published in a traditional homeschooling magazine that’s now out-of-print, c. 2012
I think no one’s ever ready for parenthood. We can read books, observe other parents; we may even take a parenting class or two—but raising a child is so much more involved and complex than what can be covered in the scope of a book, or even a hundred books. No manual on baby care can substitute for your own inner knowing or awareness of what your baby really needs in any given moment. As attachment parenting/unschooling counselor Jan Hunt says, the baby is the book. Children are people from day one—with their own needs, preferences, and feelings—and the relationship between parent and child must be founded with love and mutual respect.
However, in this culture we are not taught nor expected to trust our own inner voice, let alone to trust our children. Mothers and fathers are admonished even from their earliest days as parents, to dutifully seek the advice of experts for their child—whether it be medical, behavioral, psychological, or educational. In some ways, modern parenting has almost been reduced to a factory-style operation, where we expect to be able to plug in certain criteria and then produce a “good” child as if he or she were a commercial product.
Go to any busy shopping center or city park, and you may notice that parents in our culture are often just as controlled as the children they're controlling, because of society's often unspoken yet still-vivid expectations of the parent-child dynamic. We may have progressed in many ways, yet we are still not so far away from dogmatic concepts such as “children shall be seen and not heard”. Show me a screaming child in a grocery store cart, and I'll be able to show you at least several adults nearby who would advocate for a “good spanking”—and most likely a mother or father who is feeling extremely nervous and judged—no matter what he or she does!
We are afraid of what others—friends, our own parents, and even strangers in the street—will say if we don't respond to our child's unique or unpleasant behavior in culturally approved-of ways. We fear our children will turn out “wrong” somehow, if we don't adhere to the commonly held beliefs about how to raise kids. Even if we aren't convinced that punitive discipline is necessary, the psychological burden of society's belief that it is can weigh so heavily on us that we may still use it, for lack of better options in the heat of an uncomfortable moment. Thus, our actions are influenced by fear rather than love, logic, or intuition.
Underneath all of these fears, however, is one that we may scarcely be aware of—but it's the most formidable terror of all: Fear of the relationship between our children and ourselves being damaged beyond repair one day, after all the 'no's, arguments, and angry words are exchanged.
My fears are not my child's
Even in a benign, pleasant situation, fear can still hold us back from experiencing openness and joy in our relationship with our child. Judgment of other adults—even including strangers—is a powerful force that shapes the reactions of parents toward their children, especially in public.
My oldest daughter has always been very assertive and outspoken, even as a baby. She learned to walk at nine months, and wanted to walk everywhere. It was all I could do to hold her hand and try not to impinge upon her joy as she walked slowly, determinedly, down to the corner of our lazy country road; or in a shopping center's parking lot. How I recall the feeling of people's eyes burning into me—they must have thought I was crazy to let her walk so close to the cars!
Then, when she was 15 months old, she started trying to climb the big monkey bars at the playground—by herself. These bars were huge, spaced far apart, and snaked up over my head. I was terrified she would fall and break her neck! This was where the big kids played, but try as I might, I could not deter her. So, I breathed through my fear, hovered over her like a hawk, and marveled as her skill only improved week after week—until she really could climb those monkey bars with the big kids, all by herself.
My feisty, vehement child eventually taught me that my fears are not necessarily her fears, and that's okay.
I could have asserted myself, citing my experience and size as reasons why I was right and she was wrong. I could easily have come up with logical reasons why she shouldn't do what she wanted to do, and stopped her—but I chose not to color her experience of the world with my fears, and let her decide if those monkey bars were indeed fear-worthy.
I still remember the stares of the other parents at the park as I watched my tiny daughter doing things that much older kids were being scolded for attempting to do. I remember how difficult it was to put her desire to climb those bars first, ahead of my acutely uncomfortable feeling of being judged.
Whether it was on the playground when she was a toddler, or now, when she's asking me if she can cook her own dinner or stay at a friend's house (and of course with her younger siblings, constantly)—I still find myself thinking:
My fears are not her fears.
Putting the relationship with your child first
In parenting, as in life, we do ourselves a grave disservice when we give fear the power to control our actions and decisions. Despite the (real or perceived!) pressure from those around us, we simply don't have to buy into the socially-preferred methods of parenting.
Sometimes asserting ourselves and our parenting style becomes tricky around friends and family. The status quo does not change willingly! However, you don't owe anyone any explanations or excuses, and you absolutely shouldn't have to endlessly defend your decisions—just focus on your child, and perhaps also seek out some new friends who support positive, relationship-based parenting.
We can consciously choose to put our relationship with our child first, whether that means looking beyond the behavior when he's acting out of sorts, ignoring the social pressure to control our child for the sake of control—or both.
If a child is doing something “bad”, we don't have to view it through the lens of adversarial parenting, which would call for a swift and stern punishment. We can choose to reject the notion that you and your child are on opposite sides, fighting an everlasting battle against each other, vying for one-ups until adulthood levels the playing field.
We can also choose to question the labeling of any particular behavior as “bad”, and instead see it within context, and try to learn why the child is engaging in that behavior. For example, getting out of bed in the middle of the night, or throwing seemingly good food away might easily be labeled as “bad behavior”—but there also may be a legitimate need or reason. Don't be too quick to label your child's behavior until you have all the facts.
Consciously choosing your path as a parent
The current cultural “wisdom” says that we should make sure our children are polite, compliant, and quiet—and if we're not continually forcing them to toe that line, then we should fear for their futures. (As if our children will automatically become the opposite of what society expects polite children to be, in the absence of threats and punishment...)
We can choose to be our child's ally instead—and refuse to let others fuel our fears. This might fly in the face of conventional child-rearing “wisdom”—but you need only ask yourself: What do you want to prioritize—your fears and worries, or your relationship with your child? What feels most authentic to you?
Honor the personhood of your child, and your child will in turn be more likely to respect you, open up to you, and tell you his own fears. In this way you will work toward a place of mutual respect, trust, love and appreciation for each other—and the old ways of relating will start to feel foreign and disconnected. This won't happen overnight—it's a process that takes years; a labyrinthine path that twists and turns haphazardly—but it's worth it.
No matter the ages of your children, you can implement this new way of thinking. Put the parent-child relationship first, ignore the naysayers, and begin making choices from a place of trust instead of fear. You can start with small things. For example—the next thing that your child asks you—whatever it is—consider saying yes. Sometimes we say no just because something is inconvenient, but sharing small moments with you is sometimes what matters most to your children. Try to remember what it's like to be a child: The little things matter tremendously.
Teenagers and toddlers—the “difficult” ages
Incidentally, teenagers and toddlers are two of the most expansive, growth-oriented stages of childhood. Our culture, however, views children in these stages in a very negative light—willful, disobedient, and selfish. Let's take a closer look at each of these descriptions in turn:
A child being “willful” is simply a young person asserting his will—this is a healthy and positive thing! Instead of condemning the child for wanting to exercise his autonomy, why not help him find ways to safely be autonomous?
Disobedience is a rather useless concept when there are no rules to disobey. Instead of creating arbitrary rules and punishments for breaking them, consider upholding principles to live by. In other words, instead of having a rule that no one touches the stove, and then needing to come up with a punishment for breaking that rule, you can uphold the principle of safety in the kitchen—and work together to learn how that is achieved.
Instead of a hard-and-fast curfew for your teens, you can focus on communication and meeting everyone's needs: The need for you to feel that your child is safe; your child's need to know that he has your trust, and that his friendships and activities are important; your need to go to bed in time to start the next day cheerfully, etc.
Selfishness is an idea that can be applied to both parents and children in various situations. Model thoughtfulness towards others, and don't be either a tyrant or a doormat. Children will often internalize and repeat your own actions, regardless of your words.
None of this is to suggest that we should condone truly destructive behavior or become passive toward our children—quite the opposite: We can become more connected and involved with our child, and we will then be more aware of his or her true motives and intentions, thoughts and feelings. In short, we will know our child and have a relationship with him or her—as the autonomous, unique and intelligent individual that he or she is.
For the record, I think two is an amazing age. My two-year old son simply revels in being alive—and it's contagious to watch him. Toddlers know better than anyone how to “live juicy,” as Sark says. There's nothing “terrible” about being two, or any other age. Kids of all ages can be vibrant, clever, energetic, endlessly interested in the world around them, and extremely capable—especially when they have your patience, loving support, and ample opportunities to prove themselves.
From control to cooperation, from fear to trust
We see entirely too much fear-based parenting in modern society, and it is reflected in a multitude of ways—most notably in the ways that we relate to children: We look for methods of controlling them rather than cooperating with them. We insist that anything we want them to comply with is naturally in their best interests, and so we look for ways to get them to do what they're told, rather than questioning why they are resisting us in the first place.
We've somehow bought into the notion that love and acceptance are scarce commodities, and that if we give our children too much of them, it will somehow damage them. The irony is that nothing could be further from the truth. We as a culture do not respect children as people in their own right—but personhood is evident in each of us, even at the moment of birth. Honor your relationship with your children—and shed your fears.
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