Since most of the advice I share is focused on the infant, toddler and preschool years, parents who have older children frequently ask me, “Is it too late?” My answer is an unqualified “never.” The follow-up question is, “Great, so how do I begin?”
I answer that by sharing some of the ways my mentor Magda Gerber’s Educaring Approach (also known as RIE) has continued to inform my parenting with my own children, now 20, 16 and 11:
1. Keeping faith in our kids’ competency
Magda’s first principle is about having basic trust in infant competence. Belief in our kids as capable, whole people is a self-fulfilling prophecy that fosters tremendous self-confidence and the healthiest parent-child dynamic imaginable.
When we begin with trust, our children have opportunities to show us that they are able to figure out life’s challenges like walking, talking, how toys work, climbing, toilet learning, reading, homework, eventually applying to college, etc. Through these autonomous struggles and accomplishments our trust in their abilities grows along with their self-confidence.
Alternatively, if we don’t truly believe our kids are capable of handling age-appropriate tasks without our assistance, or we worry that they’ll be crushed by frustration, mistakes, disappointments or failures, we might perpetuate a cycle of dependency.
For example, the need some teenagers seem to have to be prodded or nagged to do their homework has often been created by parents who believe children need them to nag to get the job done. Putting an end to a cycle like this one entails stepping back and letting go, having faith in our child to cope with age-appropriate situations, and allowing the issue of completing homework to be worked out where it should be — between children and their teachers.
Practicing basic trust as children grow means intervening as minimally as possible:
- Whenever children have choices, let them choose — trust children’s individual learning agendas rather than imposing ours on them
- Honor each child’s unique developmental process rather than focusing on results, accomplishments, milestones
- Calmly support children through their frustration, disappointment and even failure, so that we normalize these difficult, but healthy life experiences.
- Let kids do it their way, even if we might believe ours is better
2. Encouraging inner-directedness, “process” and communion with self
“But the child does not want to get anywhere; he just wants to walk, and to help him truly the adult must follow the child, and not expect him to keep up…” – Maria Montessori, Education for a New World
If we allow them to, children will remind us of the importance of now and impart other affirming messages like less is more, simple is best, earlier is not better, life is not a race and the joy is in the journey.
But rather than be inspired, many parents mistakenly believe it’s their job to help their kids get ahead, so they stimulate, teach, place them in enrichment classes every day after school, and fill their weekends with exciting activities and events.
These parents might not realize that children actually learn best when they do less and have more time to digest, integrate and assimilate their experiences.
How do we discern “enough” stimulation from too much? Again, the answer will always be trust. To raise inner-directed, passionate kids we must encourage them to listen to the quiet voice inside them, the one only they can hear and that parents can easily drown out. Begin with an enriching home environment and let children clearly indicate their need for more. And don’t over-praise, so journeys and accomplishments can continue to be self-rewarding.
3. Accepting children’s feelings without judging or rushing them
Letting our kids express intense feelings is one of our biggest challenges, because most of us weren’t encouraged to do this by our own parents. We might have been told that our outbursts were silly or wrong, urged to hurry up and feel better, sent away or punished. Our feelings made everyone uncomfortable and we got the message they weren’t welcome.
So when our kids cry, yell or hit-the-floor tantruming, the emotions we buried can get triggered, and we unintentionally pass this invalidation on down to our kids.
(And, by the way, that’s my only explanation for the popularity of comedy sites focusing on crying toddlers. Like abuse victims who are compelled to become abusers themselves, the fans of these sites seem to feel giddily empowered ridiculing the vulnerabilities of small children.)
The way most of us diminish feelings is far more subtle and loving. We don’t ever want to see our kids hurt or upset, so we try to calm them down by reassuring them, “It’s okay”, “You’re fine”, “It’s just a…” But these responses also invalidate, because when children are upset they don’t feel fine, and our words can’t change that. Our “comforting” responses are confusing, diminishing, teach children not trust their feelings and maybe even to fear them.
Unfortunately, resisting the urge to calm the feelings never gets much easier. Kids are going to get their feelings hurt. A lot. They’ll get rejected by friends, not make the A- team, lose the debate, do poorly on the test and get their hearts broken. Such is life. And it will take every bit of our strength to zip our lips, bite our tongues, just listen, nod, and acknowledge, “That was hurtful.” Of course, what we really want to do is shout, “They didn’t deserve you!” “You’ll do better next time!” “It’ll be alright” (well, that last one might be serviceable…after we’ve listened to the tears for a good long time).
The healthiest message children can get from us is that their darkest moods and harshest feelings will be heard, accepted, understood by us, even when these feelings are about us (more on that to come). Fostering a close lifelong bond with our kids is as simple as that.
I share many more details about this approach in
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available on Audible!)