When I was a chid we were told we couldn’t leave the table until we were finished. If I tell Jocelyn to eat her supper and she won’t leave the table until she is done we will be there until midnight and beyond. Lately, as my three year old is determining her autonomy and power in the world I have been very aware of how much I fight and when to just let go. It is also something that has been discussed by so many other mothers I know and not only those with feisty, know-it-all three-year olds. Basically, it has been about realising that how we think we should parent is not necessarily what our children need or is best for our children.
How we think we should parent is based upon our own experiences of being children, the beliefs we have formed while growing up and of course, at the heart of it we parent in a way that best matches our personalities. It would be pointless for me to have a completely laissez faire parenting style – really laid back and chilled. That is just not me… It would be inauthentic and cause me to be completely at odds with myself, probably making me anxious and affecting my children. However, if I had to allow my oft-present perfectionism and need to control to determine my parenting style I would really battle with my daughter and I would strip her of self-efficacy and self-esteem.
I have learned that if Jocelyn does not want to wash her hands for dinner RIGHT NOW as she is finishing a puzzle that it is actually not the end of the world to let her just finish her puzzle and then wash her hands. That way when I say it’s time to wash hands she happily skips off to do that and then finishes her food without fuss. If I force her to wash her hands NOW she gets upset, I get upset, she doesn’t eat her food, I get upset etc (I’m sure most parents will recognise this spiral of misery!) I have had to learn that If Jocelyn doesn’t want to eat all her vegetables she can have some fruit instead. If eating meat balls makes her gag then there really is no point forcing her to eat them and she can have some bread and peanut butter instead (in fact peanut butter is a primary source of protein in our household!).
When I was pregnant I had very set ideas about what my children would eat and how they would eat. I have really had to let that go. I now give Jocelyn a choice for dinner and the only rule is she has to at least try it once before leaving it. The result….the other night Jocelyn thanked me for giving her broccolli. Yes, she THANKED me (well actually said ‘sank you’) for giving her broccolli. This giving of choices and negotiation is really how I parent her most of the time in most situations.
I know my child well and when I force her she will say no on principle. She has a (very) healthy willpower and I don’t want to break her willpower and give her the message that her opinion doesn’t count. I know this will trigger fear for many and still causes little flare ups of fear for me too around beliefs like “it will just set a precedent” and “then my child knows that she can get away with anything”. In fact fear is another huge component of our parenting style and this tends to be fear that we will lose control.
I do agree that boundaries are important. In fact, I will never forget a client whose parents were extremely lax with him being the ‘laat lammetjie’ in the family. He told me he used to have repetitive dreams of being in space and just drifting further and further with nothing to stop him. Boundaries provide a vital sense of security for children and provide something to push up against to know where they stand.
So it’s really quite an art learning to find the balance between when to enforce control and boundaries and when to let go. The no-brainer is around safety. Jocelyn knows that if it involves safety and I lose my temper and tell who what to do and how to do it that I am being serious and she must listen to me. It’s a bit more tricky with the smaller things like when to leave a play date, washing hands before dinner, getting into the bath, getting out the car…you know… all those things that feel like a fight each and every day! (which is often complicated by the fact we don’t have all day available to us to allow our little pride and joy to rule the world!) Yet, when I respect Jocelyn and allow her to have her say, to do it her way and to try things out, then she respects when I say no. This goes even further in terms of activities like potty training and a friend recently shared with me how she was battling so much with potty training until she just let it go and let her daughter get on it with in her own time. After three difficult days of continued accidents her daughter just ‘got it’ and started to tell her mother when she wanted to go to the toilet! We need to trust our little people…..
The truth is that I am human and that when I am tired, in a hurry, and frustrated I then start trying to control Jocelyn and set limits with even the small things. Unfortunately, we usually both end up angry and resentful and nowhere. When I negotiate with her, give her choices and step back a little she is actually often very compliant and easy…..and even thanks me for brocolli! We both end up happy and she feels validated and respected yet will also listen to me when I do set boundaries (well for the most part anyway… we still have to have some fights so she can help me to grow!)