When my daughter was a baby, my husband used to say: “This is hard but we haven’t even started parenting yet!” I understood what he meant intellectually. We were simply in survival mode — feeding her, changing her, burping her, and putting her to sleep — but I didn’t quite get the enormity of the endeavor that is parenting until my baby became a toddler.
I watched as others parented in ways that wildly departed from my own sensibilities for parenting. I witnessed a dad at the park tell his injured daughter that’s enough already when she cried for a few minutes after falling, I watched an acquaintance send her son to time out when he was clearly pushed to his limit by a sibling, and I overheard a mom at a restaurant claiming her toddler son was just “manipulating” her to get to sit on her lap…the list goes on.
I knew I was witnessing a stark contrast to the type of parent I wanted to be, but I didn’t have the vocabulary, framework or deep understanding of my own parenting philosophy or approach yet.
I took a deep dive into parenting material that resonated with me. I listened to Shelly Lefkoe’s Parenting the Lefkoe Way, I read Michaeleen Doucleff’s Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Humans, Joanna Faber and Julie King’s How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen and Listen So Little Kids Will Talk, Dr. Becky Kennedy’s Good Inside and others.
In these guides I found exactly what I was looking for. Examples of thoughtful, loving parenting jumped off the pages — with explanations of the psychology as to why these methods of validation, respect, kindness, empathy and understanding result in strong parent-child relationships, happier family units, and emotionally healthy, confident and secure kids.
Here are some of my favorite gems:
1. You are not the boss. Your kid is not the boss. This isn’t a zero-sum power game. “Our culture thinks either the adult is in control or the child is in control,” writes Michaeleen Doucleff in Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Humans. “There’s a major problem with this view of parenting: it sets us up for power struggles, with fights, screaming, and tears. Nobody likes to be controlled. Both children and parents rebel against it. So when we interact with our children in terms of control—whether it’s a parent controlling the child or vice versa—we establish an adversarial relationship. Tensions build. Arguments break out. Power struggles are inevitable.”
2. Know your role. I like Dr Becky’s description of a parents’ job: “Keep your child safe, emotionally and physically, using boundaries, validation and empathy.” And I would add: build their self esteem, love them unconditionally and make sure they feel it. All of your actions and interactions should be directed by this job description.
3. Get curious about why your kid is acting the way they are. Behavior is a window into your child’s inner world. It is a symptom of something. What do they need? How are they feeling? Pay attention to what’s happening for your kid and not only will she feel seen, heard, validated and understood, her behavior will shift (over time!), too.
4. Substitute punishment for productive and collaborative change. Time outs and punishments often leave a kid feeling alone in their distress and sorely misunderstood. Punishment is a behavior modification technique that ignores a valid underlying issue. Find out what that issue is. “You are stronger and bigger,” Lefkoe says, “so you can exert your will.” But, she asks, “at what cost?”
5. Do not dismiss your kids’ emotions, even if they seem trivial. “Children depend on us to name their feelings so that they can find out who they are. If we don’t, our unspoken message is: “You don’t mean what you say, you don’t know what you know, you don’t feel what you feel, you can’t trust your own senses,” writes Joanna Faber and Julie King, in How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen and Listen so Little Kids Will Talk. “Children need us to validate their feelings so they can become grown-ups who know who they are and what they feel. We are also laying the groundwork for a person who can respect and not dismiss the needs and feelings of other people.”
6. Empower your child to trust their body’s cues. This means honoring their feelings, tastes, and needs. Just because I made chicken doesn’t mean my kid wants it. I can offer a simple, easy alternative. Just because it’s bedtime doesn’t mean my child is tired yet. She is not a robot! I can give her some relaxing options for winding down. Give your child freedom and respect. She will learn that her feelings and needs are important and that she can trust her body’s cues.
7 Allow space for discomfort and distress. If you’re just making everything better, or glossing over your kids’ hard feelings or rougher moments, you’re missing the opportunity to both teach your kid resilience and show them it’s safe to feel uncomfortable feelings.
8. Teach your kid to love themselves, accept themselves, believe in themselves and trust themselves by loving them, accepting them, believing in and trusting them. This means you’re not critiquing, nit-picking, or judging even if you don’t agree— and the small stuff counts. Your kid’s job isn’t to live up to your expectations. Celebrate them for who they are.
9. Speaking of expectations, don’t expect your kid to act like an adult. Expect your kid to act like a kid. “You should know better” is likely to come out of your mouth when your child actually doesn’t know better (is he not sharing well? Did he leave a toy in the middle of the hallway? Did he act out of a flight-fright-freeze response? Is he full of endless energy and doesn’t know where or how to channel it?). Kids don’t have the experience, knowledge or know how you do. Model good behavior, teach them good behavior, and have realistic expectations.
10. Give your child emotional safety and a life-long sense of self by honoring their attachment and separation needs. “Attachment theory suggests that children are wired to seek out and attach to individuals who provide the comfort and security they need to survive,” writes Dr. Becky Kennedy in Good Inside. Show up in ways that show your child that his vulnerability is okay, that you will take his feelings seriously, and that you will offer validation and support when he is upset.
This is the difference between having a kid that thinks being vulnerable means he’ll be ridiculed, that sharing needs will upset people and push them away, that the only way to make people love them is by being easy and compliant and having a kid that believes he’s allowed to want things for himself, that vulnerability is safe within close relationships, and that he can trust his feelings and expect others to respect and support them.
Children learn that “certain feelings are threatening to attachment,” Dr Becky writes. “The safer and secure a child feels with his parents, and the wider the range of feelings he can feel within that relationship, the safer and more secure his adult relationships will be.” Rules of thumb: be responsive, warm, predictable, and repair when things feel bad.
11. Be playful! Be silly! Be fun! You can infuse harder moments with levity by bringing lightness yourself. Offering humor can cut through harder moments, especially the stress of a non-complying kid.
12. This is so cliche, but it’s worth inclusion on this list: don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Parenting is a many-person job. If you feel overloaded, overwhelmed, overworked, and under-slept, it is no surprise. For hundreds of thousands of years, parenting was a multigenerational undertaking. John Gillis, a historian at Rutgers University said: “the nuclear family (and a mom whose sole job is parenting) is arguably one of the most nontraditional structures out there. For 99.9 percent of the time humans have been on earth, the nuclear family simply didn’t exist. It’s a family structure that’s been around for a tiny pinprick in human history. It isn’t old. It isn’t traditional. It doesn’t have any real roots in the past.” All this to say: get help. Get help from friends, from parents, siblings, from paid help if you can afford it. This is a job meant for a village, literally.
To say parenting is hard is a massive understatement. And parenting with this kind of intentionality takes a daily and never-ending amount of self-awareness, self-regulation, and un-doing of our own unproductive patterns. But I can imagine what the world would look like if all kids were raised with parents who honored their needs, differences, experiences, and feelings, validated them, worked with them, and gave them the tools to feel confident, comfortable, secure and kind individuals. It would be a pretty amazing place.