Children grow up in spite of their parents, and they only really need a few basic tools to realise their potential. Many of us parents experience concern over our parenting ‘skills’ and anxiety over whether or not we get it right. We often under-estimate our children’s abilities, and end up over parenting them. In truth, the essentials are simple, even if they are not easy to implement.
In presentng these ideas my qualifications are my experience. Firstly of being parented, of actively observing my childhood friends being parented, and of noting the various different styles of our parents and the various outcomes of these styles. Also, I have extensively read about parenting and I have enthusiastically and joyfully parented my own children for 10 years. I offer these ideas as food for thought for other thinking parents.
Parenting is hard. It is the most demanding thing we can undertake. If we are paying attention it presents us with an opportunity to reassess our values as well as all of our own shortcomings. It also presents us with a massive lesson in taking responsibility, and a huge opportunity for personal growth. However the greatest thing it offers us is immense joy.
What is the goal of Parenting?
First of all let’s remind ourselves what parenting is aiming to achieve. The Wikipedia definition is this: Parenting or child rearing is the process of promoting and supporting the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development of a child from infancy to adulthood. Parenting refers to the aspects of raising a child aside from the biological relationship. I would add that parenting has to be about adequately preparing young people for life, ensuring that they are functionally literate. This does of course plave upon parents shoulders the responsibility to know what constitues functional literacy and what needs to be known in order to be prepared for a successful life on earth. Most importantly in this respect is that children need to be able to think for themselves. Any young human being that has acquired this most essential life skill is effectively ‘up and running’.
Let’s assume two things as given before we start. Lets assume as parents that we love our children and want the very best for them. Lets also take as given the provision of security in its basic sense. That is, providing for all the physical needs of children including a secure and stable home environment. Fostering a complete sense security does of course extend into the psychological and emotional, but these needs are specifically addressed by the points below.
Effective parenting means demonstration
Effective parenting is about demonstration. Everyone knows from their own experience that we remember how people are, their way of being, their actions, far more than we remember their words and proclamations. It is expressed another way by saying ‘lead by example’. If words alone were worth anything, we would all remember everything that was ever said to us. But we know that is not the case.
The most powerful teaching is demonstration combined with appropriate words. Occasional well-chosen words stating principles, offering encouragement or explaining reasons are very helpful. But they must be consistent and congruent with the demonstrated action. Most often we hear words, or indeed offer them, in contradiction to demonstrated action. Again, we all know that this combination is empty and meaningless.
If we wish our children to be kind – demonstrate kindness; if we wish our children to read books – demonstrate reading books; if we wish our children to be healthy – demonstrate the practices that lead to health. What ever values we wish to instill, we must demonstrate. The flip side of this is that we have to be mindful of what behaviour we do habitually demonstrate when we are not specifically trying to teach them something – for that is what our children will remember!
Effective parenting involves trust
As with any learning, there is little point in demonstrating anything without also giving the opportunity for the student to have a go at it themselves – parenting is the same. So as we demonstrate being responsible, we must allow our children to practice it; as we demonstrate intelligent considered decision-making, we must allow our children to practice that; and as we demonstrate sound judgment, we must allow our children to practice that too. This requires that we trust them to an appropriate degree.
Assuming we intend our children to be capable, considerate, knowledgeable, aware and trustworthy (etc, etc) young people, we must allow them the opportunity to show us how they are doing. We will have no way of assessing their progress unless we trust them sufficiently to demonstrate their recently acquired skills. And people love to demonstrate their acquired skills.
Everyone loves to be trusted and children are no exception. When we trust people they rise into trustworthiness. It is a judgment call for parents and guardians, and trust must be metered out with careful consideration of the circumstances and the individuals. No one said it was going to be easy 🙂 but there is no doubt that extending trust reaps huge rewards in the growth and development of our children, as well as the quality of the relationship we develop with them as a result.
Effective parenting means Acknowledgement
It is essential to acknowledge our children in all their steps towards becoming a functional human being. It serves many purposes that may not seem obvious at first glance.
- It serves to keep open lines of communication. It serves to foster that ongoing relationship that is so essential and so joyful. If we parents keep acknowledging the things that we and our children deal with we are building the dialogue and taking the opportunity to share what we know to be important. What we choose to ignore, such as negative behaviour or undesirable actions, has more power when set in contrast to our habit of acknowledging that which we wish to encourage or give the thumbs up to.
- Every time they act with insight, knowledge and wisdom, lets acknowledge our childen. Everytime they face a struggle or a challenge, acknowlede them and their dealing with it or experience of it. This implicitly demonstrates that we care, that we notice, that we are watching them – and all children love to be watched and noticed! Some parents spend years pushing their children into their bedroom or away from an ‘inappropriate’ discussion, only to find that they have no relationship with them when it really matters, when talk of sex or drug use is necessary so that guidance can be offered. If we parents habituate acknowledging situations and especially difficult and challenging ones, we not only keep building that relationship, but we demonstrate the need to deal with things, as opposed to ignoring them and hoping that they will go away (irrational).
- Some people whether parents or not have a habit of not saying ‘hello’ specifically to the children of another person. No one likes to be ignored, and it is considered bad manners to not acknowledge all people in any particular gathering – within reason, of course. If we make a point of specifically saying a few words to even the smallest children, we are sending them a message that they are worth bothering with, they are significant, they are just as important as all these big people. This need is probably easier for parents to recognise than people who have never had children. Children are not ‘non-people’, you don’t suddenly reach an age (say 16 or 18) when you become significant. All people have a need to be acknoledged.
- As we trust our children and they rise to express trust-worthiness, it is so beneficial to acknowledge their effort and their achievement. And with every little mountain they climb, whether or not it matters to us, lets acknowledge their actions.
- It is never too late to acknowledge the unspoken. Sometimes years may pass by with an action or an attitude unexplained. This can be fuel for thoughts that never get answered and go around and around inside heads without resolution. Simply acknowledging a difficulty or an evasion, a problem or a feeling, can have miraculous healing effects and render a troubling and painful unresolved bundle of thoughts into a non issue in an instant. Acknowlegde and heal. Let things be said and shared and issues can disolve – often with no need for blame or even explanation. Acknowledgement alone can sometimes heal.
Effective parenting means being rational
Being rational is essential to being effective. To be irrational is to be illogical, inconsistent and to exhibit contradictions in behaviour. This is self-evidently not a good thing. Being rational means using our faculty of reason, and enables us to function in everyday life. It is self evident that children require rational behaviour to be demonstrated by their caregivers. It is rational to spend adequate time with our children and to willingly offer all of our love and attention to these young people that we are bringing into the world.
The challenge with being rational is to be consistent. To say one thing and do another is irrational. To not complete tasks or plans is irrational. To suddenly do something just because we feel like it, is irrational, particularly if the action is contrary to other established principles of behaviour.
Children need to see rationality demonstrated at all times. It is effectively demonstrating sanity, or being in touch with reality. When they are exposed to the opposite – irrational behaviour – it sows the seeds of all kinds of psychological and emotional problems. If we want our children to develop into functioning human beings we must ourselves model functionality by being rational. This is arguably the most important thing we can do for our children.
Rational behaviour is a broad concept and one that requires parents to spend some time thinking about what they do, and why. Ultimately it is irrational to force or coerce any human being to do anything. It is in the nature of human beings that they do not function efficiently under coercion. This has many implications for parenting. The point here is not to prescribe policy or techniques – only to stimulate thought and consideration. If we make our children do anything at all, whether going to bed at a particular time, doing their homework or sharing a toy, it is best to be conscious of our motives and all the implications. Sometimes it can help if we consider for a moment how much we ourselves like to be told what to do.
Obvious examples of irrational parenting include; shouting at children in order to get them to stop shouting; smacking them for hitting another child; making them do something and saying “because I say so” in place of an explanation. Less obvious examples include protecting children from every form of danger and at the same time expecting them to develop an ability to look after them selves, which means to develop the ability to decide for themselves what is dangerous and what is not and to act accordingly. Another example is to make every decision for the child and dictate almost every aspect of his experience and at the same time expect him to learn to take responsibility for himself. Another less obvious example is to ‘protect’ children from truth. Truth is that which accords with reality. It is irrational to protect children from reality while expecting them to learn to deal with it. Quite often children are better able to deal with reality than their parents or guardians.
The vast majority of people are rational in some areas of their lives and less so in others, or rational most of the time but occasionally not so. Few are exclusively rational. Strictly speaking it shouldn’t be necessary to say that rational behaviour should be demonstrated consistently because inconsistency is itself irrational. However, because we are rational most of the time, but irrational some of the time, it is worth mentioning. Lets look at some other aspects of being rational.
Demonstrating the benevolent universe premise
What is the benevolent universe premise? It is the sense of life which emcompasses knowledge that reality is a safe place to be, that people are fundamentally good, rational, and that you can deal with them. It is the conviction that ideas matter. this means that knowledge matters, that truth matters, and that one’s mind matters. It leads to the belief that pain and frustration, setbacks and suffering are the exception, not the rule.
For human beings to grow and learn, to develop and to expand their horizons, for them to be comfortable to stretch out and become all that they can be, they must feel safe. The benevolent universe premise translates into thoughts that people are generally rational and good, reality is knowable, goals are achievable, anything is possible, I can make it in this world!
The opposite of this would be the malevolent universe premise, which holds that the world is inherently dangerous, that people are generally evil, that disasters are the norm, and that suffering is all you can expect.
All children begin life with an implicit expection of rationality, consistency and intelligability from the adults they encounter. They desire to understand and to be understood. They do not begin with the malevolent conviction that the universe is chaos and that nothing makes sense, that irrationality, inconsistency and injustice are all he or she can ever expect. Even without consciously forming these concepts, they begin with the assumption that happiness and fullfilment can be expected, not misery and frustration, and that people will be honest, open, direct and rational.
Of course no one can demonstrate a conviction that they do not have, and no one can embody a belief in the nature of things, or a personal philosophy that they do not subscribe to. To this extent parents are challenged to examine their own convictions, their own beliefs, their own understanding of the way things are. Conscious parenting must necessarily have a philosophical underpinning of some sort. This speaks to the opportunity for personal development and growth, the opportunity to become more conscious through parenting.
If we can provide a home where the benevolent sense of life prevails, and if we can demonstrate our trust in the world being a safe place, we will do much to help our children hold on to this truth. For example, we can reaffirm in the minds of our children that it is a cause and effect reality, and that what they need do to achieve a desired result is to put into effect the necessary causes, but with a confidence that they can achieve their goals. Often parents attempt to protect children from disappointment by discouraging ‘crazy dreams’. Although rooted in well meaning, this is counter-productive. Similarly being over protective implicitly demonstrates that there is always danger ‘out there’ or that there is an ever-present risk of accident. Obviously sensible precautions must be taken where appropriate.
If humans accept that reality is a safe place and that they live in a world that supports them, they will grow and stretch out, they will aspire to achieve, they will learn to embody possibility, they will dare to dream. If they accept that reality is dangerous and that disaster is the norm, they will shrink away, not bother, shelve ‘unrealistic’ plans, protect against disappointment. Which would you want for your child?
Demonstrating that reality is knowable
In order for human beings to be motivated to think and to find out, in order for our sense of curiosity to be nurtured and fed, we must hold fast to the premise that reality is fundamentally knowable AND that we can know it! Yes there is much that we do not know, and yes there are as yet unsolved mysteries. But it all represents a challenging path of discovery that awaits the curious young mind.
Children have already sussed out how to walk and talk and move their bodies around, they only need their belief in the ‘know-ability’ of reality to NOT be crushed and destroyed by their primary caregivers, modern schooling or the culture in which they find themselves growing up.
This is another issue where parents may need to consider their own convictions first. Yet another fabulous opportunity for parenting to act as catalyst to personal growth and development! It is never too late to revise our convictions, to reconsider all our assumptions and generalisations, and to rekindle the incentive to think and find out.
Human beings need to think, it is our most basic survival skill. We have no innate knowledge like animals. We have to figure things out. Children will value thinking and not loose their natural curiosity to the extent that they hang on to the conviction that reality is fundamentally knowable. If parents support a child in this respect, they encourage and nurture her greatest possible asset – her thinking mind.
It is in our children’s best interest that we demonstrate our conviction that reality is knowable by acting upon that premise. We can do this by demonstrating our own predisposition to continue learning, by demonstrating wanting to know along with finding out. Today with the Internet this has never been easier.
Demonstrating respect for individual rights
All rights stem from the principle that we have a right to our own life. Rights are a relatively new concept in human history and are poorly understood by most adults. The essentials for parenting fall into two main categories:
- To demonstrate to our children basic property rights – the concept of owning stuff, not stealing other peoples stuff, and looking after your own stuff.
- To demonstrate respect for peoples right to not be coerced with violence – no hitting of anyone, by anyone. Everyone has the right to not be forced to do something or to part with something that is theirs.
Ownership is important. It is another one of those duff steers within the Matrix to believe that everyone should own everything and that material possessions are not important – they are. The concepts of kindness, giving, generocity and helping others are all built upon the concept of owning things. If you own nothing, you have nothing to give. Unless you have worked for something or exchanged value in order to acquire it, giving it to some one else is hollow and meaningless. Leaning to own stuff and enjoying the concept of “it’s mine” are essential foundations of human learning. It helps children if we are clear about who owns what, and commonly used house hold equipment must be understood to be owned by mummy and daddy. Privilege of use can then be exchanged for other values – such as specific required behaviour.
Each child benefits from enjoying clearly undersood full ownership of their toys. This means that they get exclsuive right of use of the toy, and control over the use of that toy by anyone else. In a practical sense this means the right to decide if anyone plays with their toy, who plays with his/her toy, and when. Permission to use someone elses toys must also be sought. Not stealing another child’s toy and putting things to right if another childs toy is accidentally broken are all aspects of property rights that can be easily learned by children if they are assisted by guardians who are aware. They are foundational to the concepts of free trade, the voluntary exchange of goods and services.
No hitting – the non aggression principle
If we value peace and want a peaceful world, the most practical and effective thing we can do as parents is to demonstrate not to aggress against other human beings. This means not initiating the use of force in order to get someone to do something or part with something. It means not coercing others into actions that they would not choose voluntarily. If we demonstrate non-aggression we teach by example that reason is more powerful than force, and we will raise children who do not speak the language of violence.
However, parenting with the non-aggression principle raises a number of tricky questions for parents. How do I get the children to bed, to school, to eat their dinner, to have a bath, and so on… No one said parenting was easy. It means relying on the art of negotiation and persuasion. This may be too far outside the box for some parents, but it is a key reason why many parents choose to facilitate their children’s self-education in the home environment. Forcing compulsory school attendance breaks this principle and is a glaring contradiction (irrationality) that undermines many good intentions.
I am not saying that force should never be used. There are some circumstances where force is required. For example, intervening for safety reasons or to protect one child from another is reasonable and justified. But this is not violence because it is not the initiation of the use of force.
Social exclusion can be a powerful last resort in cases of sustained disruptive behaviour where persuasion and negotiation fail. No child wants to be removed from the group. In our tribal past exclusion would have meant death. Today it is an effective option when all else fails to explain that the consequence of continued disruption will be removal from the group, to their room or other equivalent place.
Many families practicing variations of the concept of peaceful parenting achieve the management of the family unit without any set rules. With a little flexibility all goals can be achieved by persuasion and negotiation, even bed times, baths and eating meals.
Some people incorrectly interpret negotiation or trading with children as bribery. But that is something quite different. Bribery is threatening to reveal some wrong-doing by another person in order to compromise them. Offering to trade good behaviour for the use of certain equipment (computers and televisions) is simply offering one form of value for another. It is reasonable and it is optional, or voluntary. Most often children are happy to trade compliance in one direction for a privilege of use in another.
It is entirely possible to raise children without force and coercion, without making them do things they would not choose to do. It does mean that parents have more work to do in reasoning with their children and it does mean always coming up with a persuasive argument. However this practice instills good habits of social interaction for all involved. I encourage my 9 year old to reason with me, and if he comes up with a good argument for not doing something that I ask, I concede. Watching his mental process and negotiation skills developing as he thinks his way around some obligation is truly wonderful.
The 4 essentials of effective parenting are demonstration, trust acknowledgment and rationality. Rationality being the broadest of these concepts, and arguably encompassing them all.
The number and quality of material possessions that children have or dont have doesn’t matter, what school they go to (or if they even go to school) doesn’t really matter, and how many clubs they go to doesn’t really matter. Nothing really matters that much except that they grow up in an environment of consistent rationality. If this happens they will have the best start. Quite often they do alright even without these essentials of effective parenting. Children grow up in spite of us parents.
Please join the conversation, and comment below
Nigel Howitt, May 2017