Providing love and independence

We live in an era where caring for children is more important than it has ever been. (There is a fascinating podcast called 'Suffer the Children' by Dan Carlin on this topic). In the past century we've learned a lot about what's good for our kids, but still parenting remains a fumbling experimental process as we learn how to care for our children as the individuals they are. Having said that here are some guideline thoughts.

Parents play two important roles in a child's life: they make a child feel loved for who they are and they facilitate a child's independence and competence.

How does a child feel loved?

In a nutshell a child feels loved when they feel special to their parents and accepted for who they are. As parents we achieve this through being interested in, listening to, and affirming their thoughts and experiences. That is, we hear them rather than telling them what they should be thinking and experiencing. This kind of acknowledgement is also an important way in which we help children to understand who they are. By providing a mirror to them they can see "I am the kind of person who likes animals more than people", "I get cross when I am jealous", "I have a hard time telling people when they're doing something I don't like" ... 

Supporting children's feelings of being acceptable is sometimes easy and sometimes incredibly challenging. We all come into parenthood with self-judgements about how we are supposed to be and how it is unacceptable for us to behave. For instance, imagine being a person who believes "I need to be interested in the world, to gather knowledge and be able to speak on most topics, otherwise I don't have value."  When a person with this belief becomes parent to a child who prefers to engage in imaginative play and daydreaming, it can be a recipe for great stress! As the parent watches their child's disinterest in art, national geographic, how trees grow .... their anxiety levels rise. "What will happen to my child, they'll never be able to engage in reality, no-one will be interested in them .... " and on and on. This is where it takes courage to recognise and understand our children. To figure out how they think about the world, and how their personalities function in the world. It is not a great idea to mould a child who likes to work with their hands into academia and, of course, visa versa.

You may be thinking "but children do many socially unacceptable things, how should this be handled?" The rule of thumb is feelings are always acceptable, but behaviour is not'. We can't always choose how we feel about things in the way we can choose our behaviour. What this means is that children need to know that their feelings are acceptable even if their behaviour is not. This may look something like “I can see that not getting your own way makes you very cross. It’s okay to be cross, but the rule is that we don’t hit our friends.”

I mentioned that children feel loved when they feel special to their parents. A seemingly obvious way to offer this is through praise. And praise does work but only in a very specific way. Generalised praise like "you're so talented" or "you're amazing" can hurt a child's self esteem. On the one hand if you're not specific about what you're praising them for they don't believe you, on the other hand they can start feeling pressurised to be extremely wonderful. What works very well is to be specific about what you admire in your child. For instance "I was impressed by the way you focused on your soccer game" or "what I like about your picture is the way that you have done some thick lines and some thin lines". If you're specific your child feels noticed and like you are really interested in what they can and can't do.

This brings us to another thought. It's important to recognise the things that your child struggles with. If you can acknowledge these and it doesn't change your love for them, it is much easier for them to accept themselves with their faults. I think most of us know how important that is because as adults we still struggle with self-acceptance.

A last thought on nurturing a sense of being valued is to mention the importance of special time between parents and children. This may be bed time stories, outings, or conversations and so on. The essential message here is "as your parent I like you and I want to spend time with you."

How does a child feel competent?

Competence offers a sense of “I can trust myself to look after myself, I won’t fall apart if I don’t have someone organising my life for me ....” Creating competence is about nurturing independence, a process that is easier for some than it is for others. Those of us who feel excessive responsibility for the well-being of our children often don't know how to insist that they pack their own school bags, make their own lunch, and solve their own problems ... ! Yet it is so important for us to do this. Children both desire their independence and resist growing up. Gaining independence is frightening because it involves losing the safety of dependence, and risking trust in their own abilities. And trusting their own abilities is how children start feeling confident and competent. As we manage this tricky balance between giving support and expecting independence, we need insight into  what our children are capable of doing and what is still beyond their ability.