Photo by Ranier Ridao on Unsplash
By Jan Pringle
I just returned from a morning of pure joy as a nanny for a two-year-old — a job that included the tricky transition of dropping her off at the daycare. Many of you might be surprised that I classified a morning of this nature, with a toddler, as enjoyable given the “terrible twos.” If I rewind 20 years ago, when my own children were young, that would NOT have been the case! Today, however, with the experience I have as a retired kindergarten teacher and practicing parenting consultant, nearly every interaction I have with children is positive; it has everything to do with the philosophy of parenting that I have invested in for the last 15 years.
When my children were young, I made a vow NOT to parent the way I had been parented. In her book Kids Are Worth It!, Barbara Coloroso talks about the “Jellyfish,” “Brick-Wall,” and “Backbone Parenting” styles, claiming that the supple yet firm and flexible Backbone Parent is the ideal.
The Jellyfish Parent wants to be their child’s friend rather than disciplinarian, often giving the child far too many choices or very little structure. A child in this setting may begin to feel anxious and unsafe, having too much responsibility at such a young age.
My father, however, was the typical Brick-Wall parent, controlling with an iron fist and often resorting to corporal punishment. It was his way or the highway. This style of discipline negates entirely what a child is feeling or wanting. The child learns through threats, punishments, time-outs, and brute strength to acquiesce and avoid the power struggles; at no time will she feel as if her feelings matter or that they have been heard. Even with the awareness of not wanting to repeat my father’s style of parenting, I still gravitated towards it, and then felt guilty for not being more respectful and flexible. I frantically searched for alternatives, yet continued my rigid discipline. I didn’t like my style, and eventually, I didn’t like me.
Fortunately, I have changed. With over 20 years of experience working with children and mentoring parents, I approach caring for children so much differently today. To what do I owe this shift in philosophy whereby the child is not to be mastered by the parent or caregiver, but met by them? I learned so much from the writings of Janet Landsbury in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, where she encourages parents to adopt a respectful parenting style and connect with their children. She takes the everyday situations we face with our children and applies the principles of RIE Parenting (Resources for Infant Educators) founded by Magda Gerber, giving us concrete strategies for dealing respectfully with children — and in turn, forming strong attachments.
Why was it so hard for me initially to let go of my Brick-Wall parenting style? Fear. I was afraid that my children might experience pain or hurt; I believed it was my job to protect them. Maybe they wouldn’t have the answers in life, because when I was young, I was told that I didn’t have the answers. I had a fear that if my children experienced natural consequences, they would suffer too much pain; again, I felt it was my job to protect them. Finally, I had a nagging belief that I was responsible for their feelings, so I had to try to stop them from crying at all costs; I perceived tears as a reflection of my poor parenting skills. In hindsight, I can see how unhealthy and false these belief systems were and the effects they had on my children. Daily, I work on forgiving myself, knowing I did my best with what I had. Part of my amends has been to talk freely to my children about my previous parenting style. I have also chosen to pay this knowledge forward by mentoring parents about this healthier, more connecting method of parenting.
What does this new style look like? I am a loving leader that children and parents can respect and look up to. I find myself asking the children in my care to do something rather than telling or ordering them. Yes, sometimes they do resist my request; the young child is in a developmental phase which is all about expressing their strong will. So, they often prove to be lofty challengers. However, in most cases, if I say, “I would like you to…” there is an inherent willingness on the part of the child to meet my needs. When they don’t want to do what I have requested, I honor that by saying, “It looks to me like you don’t want to stop what you are doing to do what I asked.” How connecting and affirming is that? Even the non-verbal young child will feel heard and respected. Then I give them a choice: “Would you like to do what I am asking by yourself, or would you like me to help you?” Or maybe I suggest that we will do it together when I have finished singing one song. In other words, I have a whole new bag of strategies for this compassionate style of caregiving.
Furthermore, I am totally cognizant of allowing the child to have their emotions, as I no longer take responsibility for what they are feeling. Instead, when they have a meltdown or tantrum, I support them. We all know as adults how important it is to be able to vent; a tantrum is a child’s way of venting. Can you imagine how powerless they must feel in a world where very little is under their control? They need to vent. Sure, it doesn’t change the outcome in most cases, but it allows them to experience sadness, frustration, and anger, and still be loved and supported. How wonderful is that?
My most recent “aha” moment came just last week when I was caring for my two-year-old, as I was about to lift her out of her chair after breakfast. As I always do, I tell her of my intentions before I act. In that split second, I realized something: if I am always doing something TO a child without their knowledge (telling them before I do it), I am in effect like a giant treating them like a puppet. How does this affect their self-esteem and worthiness? Conversely, when I include them in the process (by telling them what I am going to do before doing it), I give them the message that they are worthy of being involved — that I value them. Each and every time I parent this way, I am building their self-esteem. I wonder what the world would look like if every child could be raised in such a validating way.
Jan Pringle is a retired Waldorf Kindergarten Teacher and mother of two grown children, who has filtered over 25 years of life lessons of working with parents and children to create her passion – Loving Leadership Parent Consulting. Through parent mentoring and guidance, she empowers you to be a gentle leader, creating respectful boundaries that improve the family dynamics.
She mentors parents and caregivers virtually and personally from London, Ontario, Canada.