Janet discusses the challenges and benefits of authenticity — how being real with our children helps us to achieve our goals as parents, strengthens our relationship, and even makes our lives easier. Janet says that it was Magda Gerber who modeled authenticity for her, and her teachings “freed me to embrace my authentic, messy inner life and my messy parenting and my messy relationships. And this is what I would love to pass along in my imperfect way so that you too can be inspired to be authentically imperfect (or imperfectly authentic).”
Transcript of “The Power of Authenticity with Our Children – Why It Matters”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be talking about authenticity in the way that we relate to children. I have to say I thought twice about this topic because I know that people listening here love getting practical advice, things they can put into action right away. This is more general advice, but it does something really important, which is to improve the quality of our relationship. And that ends up having practical benefits. Because a high-quality parent-child relationship where there’s mutual trust and respect is the key to preventing and ameliorating problematic behavior and creating more cooperation because children feel that they’re on the same team as us. They feel respected and perceived as the whole and capable people that they are.
Okay, so first I want to talk about what I mean by authenticity with children. But I guess it helps to first talk about what I don’t mean…
Authenticity might be thought of as we should yell at our children when we’re angry or get really annoyed with them and tell them how annoyed we are with them. That’s not what I mean. I’ve talked in other podcasts about sharing our emotions with children, and how to do that in a way that isn’t frightening for them because we’re very, very powerful to our children. So when we do blow up, and it does happen to the best of us, it’s scary for our children. There’s no way around that. They don’t appreciate that kind of authenticity and it’s not helpful. Just as we wouldn’t, under the heading of authenticity, tell our friend that she got the most disastrous haircut ever or that we really don’t like somebody or other things that are not considering the other person.
What I want to talk about today is not being fake. So not putting on a show for children, not prioritizing image consciousness over honesty, or being over-enthusiastic, pretending we’re less capable than we are, talking down to children, playing down to children.
I’m not saying I’m perfectly authentic by any stretch. One of the beauties of raising children is that they inspire us to work on ourselves to be better parents for them, and this work takes hold and makes us better as people. That’s been true for me. I’m still not always authentic. For example, I love Photoshop and I love the filter that makes me smooth and not have wrinkles, and I realize that that’s not totally authentic. But it’s not that important to me and my work that the way I look is always totally raw and real. It is important to me with children.
Magda Gerber, my mentor, encouraged me, and it made so much sense to me, to be a real person to my children so they can know me, not some perky parent side of me. Magda inspired me to this bravery: being honest and facing the music with children, facing their feelings, whatever they are, and not trying to change them or manipulate them in any way. And although I could never do phony very well, and I’m not a good liar, I wasn’t brave about being honest and facing conflicts head-on, but I’ve gotten better at that because I’ve been inspired by wanting to be an authentic leader for my children. And that’s another example of something I’ve gained by trying to do it for my children and I end up gaining it for myself: being a confident leader. I had to find this in myself for the sake of my first daughter and it’s helped me to gain confidence as a person.
The thing about children is that they can read authenticity. They’re not consciously thinking about that, but they sense when what we’re saying and doing doesn’t match the feelings that are behind it that they’re feeling from us. And it’s confusing for them.
Newer research shows that babies are born highly aware. Will they call us out on being phony with them? No, because they don’t know anything different. They know what we’re showing them. They know the way that we’re behaving with them and they accept that as normal. But it feels uncomfortable to them when there’s a mismatch in what we’re putting out versus what’s inside of us.
So again, this doesn’t mean putting it all out there no matter what, but it does mean not acting as if we’re very happy or excited when we’re not. Magda gave this wonderful simple example. This is in her “Dear Magda” column that’s available on magdagerber.org. She says:
“Allow your child to learn about you. Be genuine and honest in your interactions. You do not need to put on a sweet smile when you’re awakened in the middle of the night. You are sleepy, so act sleepy. Accept the feelings of your baby, positive as well as negative. Do not try to stop the crying with a pacifier. Do not tickle a sad baby. You may save your grown-up child many dollars spent on therapies where they have to relearn how to cry and how to show feelings.”
So this is one of the big benefits of our work towards being more authentic with our children. We are the prime models for them for what a human being is, and what relationships are. And so our authenticity teaches them to be authentic, to have their messy feelings and processes, and to know that life isn’t just this smooth path where everything’s perfect and easy without conflict. Children need to experience all of their feelings and every age-appropriate aspect of life to build resilience.
So what is it that makes us sometimes less authentic or inauthentic with children? It’s because of the way we perceive them. If we can’t relate to them as a person, if we’re uncomfortable or we don’t perceive them as a person as is often the case with babies and young children, then it’s like we’re compensating for that by overdoing it.
It’s interesting because the elderly are also often on the receiving end of these oversolicitous, insincere types of interactions. And with children, there’s often subtle manipulation involved. Like, I want to over-congratulate you — good job! good job! — when you’re doing something that I want you to do like picking up your toy. So I make a big fuss out of this because I want to make sure you keep doing this or I want to encourage you to keep doing this.
Or maybe I’m pretending that I can’t do this task like stack blocks because I want my child to feel less frustrated and more confident and able. So if they feel like I can’t do it either, then somehow that’s going to make them feel better.
And underneath that on our end is I’m uncomfortable and impatient with your process around skill building. I don’t like the messy frustration that you feel. That’s uncomfortable for me and I don’t want you to have to go through that. It’s well-intentioned, right? We’re well-intentioned. So I’m going to try to help you skip some of these steps and just feel better because I can’t do it either, you see. And here’s what I do when I’m frustrated. I just keep trying.
But think about that. How does that feel when we’re with someone who’s really good at a game, let’s say, and they play poorly just to let us win to help us feel better? Does that make us feel more encouraged, more capable? No, it makes us feel less capable and secure in ourselves rather than more because we know what’s going on and children definitely do. They sense it.
With these tasks, let’s say the skill building of playing with toys and getting things to work the way they want them to, frustration tolerance is an important part of this learning and they need to learn this experientially, going to the depths of their frustration rather than feeling like somebody needs to rescue me out of this or in some way, make it better for me. That makes us feel weaker, less capable. And then when we use tricks with children to distract them when there’s a conflict or a limit that we have to set.
One example Magda gave was a swimming class where the parent has a child who’s upset because they’re being dunked into the water and the child looks upset and the parent is smiling and saying, “Isn’t this fun? Isn’t this great? You can do this.” So the child feels very alone, right? And like something’s a little wrong with them for not feeling like these important people are telling them they should feel.
So for children, our inauthentic interactions can be confusing, unsettling, patronizing, demeaning, and belittling. Our children are just in the process of learning how to navigate feelings and relationships.
You’ve heard me talk here about my qualms about using play. Well, anyway, I don’t like the idea of using play because play to me is very precious, but using play to help children cooperate better… It is manipulative if we are trying to think of a game to get our child from point A to point B.
However, we can do this authentically if, let’s say, we feel like lightening ourselves up and we’re feeling silly, and my child and I both know I’m just being silly and we both know that I want them to brush their teeth. And in another moment, I would rely on this authentic relationship that I’ve been working on, this quality relationship to say, “Come on my dear. You’ve really got to brush your teeth. I know you don’t want to. Ah, it’s a big drag, but we’ve got to do it. Please come with me. Come on. Let’s go.” Putting my arm around my child, being honest about “I know it’s hard for you. You don’t want to do it.” And that’s where our relationship is gold because children want to internalize our values and follow our directions when they feel that we’re not manipulating, that we’re genuinely on their team and working with them, and we understand them and we’re willing to accept all their negative feelings about things. We’re relating to them as people.
So if we’re going to be playful, be playful from a place of authenticity, not manipulation. Then play is fun for us too and more fun for our children when they know they’re joining us in something that we’re genuinely into.
Another benefit for our children is when we raise them with this genuineness, I keep wanting to say messy genuineness, is that they become very aware of inauthenticity. It stands out to them. In today’s culture, with all the technology and social media, inauthenticity is rampant. Even these social media sites, they encourage you to start other accounts. You could have several accounts. You could pretend to be other people. And then all the image consciousness on Instagram and Facebook. We’re changing our bodies and our faces. And yes, as I said, I do a little smoothing, but we’re misrepresenting ourselves. And it’s important for children to be able to be critical thinkers about what they encounter because it’s everywhere. And this is a gift that we can give them through our commitment to authenticity with them.
If someone’s talking to them in this overenthusiastic, phony way, they’re not going to trust that. And that’s good. That’s healthy. They’re not going to be had. They’re not going to buy into those things. They’ll keep their perspective and their distance. They have a much better chance of that if we show them in a million different ways what authenticity looks and feels like.
And of course, children are born authentic. They could be inauthentic if they tried and that’s why they’re so fun to be around. They’ll tell you, “Mom, your breath smells bad.” Or, “That looks terrible.” And from children, I appreciate that. Or like the child that came over here who told us that our house was very, very small. It’s disarming. And this authenticity that children have is gold to encourage, to protect. We have a lot of power in that area if we can commit to being authentic ourselves as much as possible.
And what else is in this for us? A lot, because inauthenticity is less effective overall than our genuine, confident leadership. And often it’s even less effective in the moment.
So a common question parents ask me is: “What do I do when I acknowledge my child’s feelings” (which is something that I always recommend), “I acknowledge my child’s feelings and they tell me to stop talking and they don’t like it and they get really annoyed?”
That usually happens when… well, there are actually two reasons. One of them is just that let’s say our child is angry about something and we’re saying: “That really seems like it made you really angry.” And then our child is actually showing us, yes, they are really angry by saying, “No, you’re wrong. Go away, dah dah dah. I don’t like this.” So they’re still sharing that feeling and that’s good, right?
But the other probably more common thing is that we’re saying the words and we’re not really being authentic. We’re not really able to relate to our child in that moment in the way that we’re saying them. So we’re saying “it made you mad that that happened, I understand.” Or some other version of that that comes out of our discomfort. We’re actually not okay with our child feeling like that. We’re actually annoyed with our child feeling like that, or we’re worried that our child feels like that. And that’s going to come through.
When we’re just saying words and we’re not really saying them with that permission: you get to feel this feeling you’re having, and I hear you, I really do, there’s a big difference.
So we want to say those acknowledgments authentically or they’re only going to make our child more upset. Or feel more disconnected from us when they’re upset. That’s, I guess, the bigger danger that we don’t want. We want our children to feel like they can share these feelings with us because if not us, who? And they need to share them. But if we’re too uncomfortable or we give them these kind of lip service responses that we’re just saying because we really want them to stop and we want to just do our part so they’ll stop feeling like that, then it’s discomforting for our child.
So we have to mean what we say. And if we don’t feel like we can mean what we say, it’s actually better not to say it. Better just to nod your head, focus on your breathing and focus on letting the feelings be, calming ourselves.
Then when we get more comfortable with our children’s emotions, (which we’re never going to get completely comfortable with, but we’ll get more comfortable the more we practice allowing emotions to spill out, the waves to pass us), then we will be able to say, “Yes, I hear you. This did not go the way you wanted, or you don’t like when I say those things,” whatever it is. We’ll feel safer to do that authentically, which is the only way it works.
Another reason on our end to practice authenticity: performing is tiring. Maybe if a person is constantly performing and that’s just who they are, like they just don’t ever let the mask down, then maybe they become accustomed to that. But most of us aren’t like that, and it’s exhausting when we feel like we’ve got to think of a game to get our child to do this thing or help them with this feeling by acting a certain way or change the way they feel by saying just the right words.
When we’re going at these things inauthentically, then it’s not going to work, and we’re going to wear ourselves out from all the performances.
If we can be ourselves and be open and messy: “ah, yeah, I didn’t like it when you did that, but I love you. And I’m sorry it went this way,” whatever it is — allowing your child to go through all the feelings and not trying to distract them or change them — that letting go is… yes, it’s a hard perspective shift. It’s hard for us to kind of flip that switch, but once we start to do it, it’s so much easier than trying to control things that we don’t control. And as parents, we need to preserve our energy. It’s a very taxing job, especially in the toddler years. It’s physically tiring and emotionally tiring.
Another benefit to authenticity: we’ll feel clearer, less convoluted. We won’t be going at every situation with this I’ve got to have a strategy for this and figure this out. And what am I supposed to do here? We’re going to let life happen more. We’re going to be inside ourselves, staying in our lane with our child, letting them do all the things that they’re capable of doing, like feeling all their feelings and developing their skills, with all the frustration and moments of wanting to give up that go with that. We’re not going to try to control those things by coming in with inauthenticity. We get to be ourselves. It’s so much clearer than trying to figure out: What do I do in this situation? What do I have to put on for that? And how do I make this happen? That’s confusing work that is better off not in our job description.
And the truth is that these feelings that we’re hoping to avoid, are going to come to the surface eventually. They have to. Feelings don’t disappear because we’ve ignored them or distracted children out of them. They’re only pent up. They can even fester. They can emerge later in less recognizable ways that are going to throw us off balance more easily, or even possibly create anxiety, and depression in our children. We don’t want that. So we might feel like we’ve saved something in the moment or made something better at that time, but all the realities and emotions and conflicts in life have to be passed through for children to develop in a healthy direction. So facing the music honestly, letting feelings be as much as we can really matter.
I feel blessed that I had Magda as my teacher. She was an incredible model of authenticity. She didn’t have an ingenuine bone in her body. It was a little bit intimidating and amazing to be in her presence. And her teachings freed me to embrace my authentic, messy inner life and my messy parenting, and my messy relationships. And this is what I would love to pass along in my imperfect way to all of you so that you too can be inspired to be authentically imperfect or imperfectly authentic, something like that.
Anyway, I hope this is helpful to you. Thank you for listening.
Please check out the other podcasts and posts on my website. They’re all categorized by topic and you should be able to find whatever you’re looking for. There are many of them. Also, if you’re not aware of my books, please check them out. They’re best sellers on Amazon. No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting are also available on firstname.lastname@example.org and you can get one for free by using a link in the liner notes of this podcast. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Google Play, Barnes & Noble, and apple.com. And if you find this podcast helpful, you can help it to continue by giving it a positive review on iTunes and by supporting my sponsors.
Thank you again. We can do this.