Parenting Expectations Have Changed – Kids Haven’t (with Maggie Dent)

If you’re the parent of young children, there’s a good chance you are very hard on yourself. Australian parenting guru Maggie Dent joins Janet in this episode to discuss the unprecedented pressures and challenges today’s parents face living up to ever-changing standards set by social media, peers, and even schools. Parents are often left feeling overwhelmed and unsupported. Maggie and Janet share their long view perspectives, experiences, advice, and hope.

Transcript of “Parenting Expectations Have Changed – Kids Haven’t (with Maggie Dent)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Maggie Dent back to Unruffled. She’s a parenting megastar in Australia. She’s known as “the queen of common sense,” but honestly, I don’t think that moniker does her justice, because what she has to offer us as parents goes well beyond common sense. It’s wisdom, and she’s got this generous, fun-loving spirit that’s a gift all its own. Maggie’s a popular speaker, a top podcaster, and she’s the author of nine major books. That’s right, nine! Most recently, Girlhood, Mothering Our Boys, and From Boys to Men. And she’s previously been my guest here a couple of times, including a very popular episode, Mothering Boys: Secrets to Understanding Our Sons. And she’s just a joy, what can I say? She’s staying with me right now, here from Australia, and so I’ve got her in person and I’m absolutely thrilled. So let’s go.

Hello, Maggie Dent.

Maggie Dent: Oh my gosh, we are back together again in real time. How cool is that?

Janet Lansbury: I know, so cool, had to take advantage of this. And of course there are a million things that I’d love to hear you share about. But what I was thinking is that you are in this very unique position of being a longtime parent educator, a parent, and a grandparent. You’ve experienced not just the parents that you’re working with that are young parents today, it’s actually your own children as well. You really have an insider view that I don’t have yet, I’m hoping someday! And so I thought you would be the best person to talk about some of the changes that have happened in this generation. Parents today, they have different challenges and expectations than I had 20 to 30 years ago when I was raising my children. And some of them aren’t necessarily improvements, right?

Maggie Dent: You’re so right. Even if we start at the very first observation: that what children need to grow and thrive and become decent human beings hasn’t changed, but the world around our children has changed. Including the expectations that we now have for children that we didn’t have 25 years ago.

It’s so funny, because I feel like the honorary grandmother figure sitting here in front of you. I now have seven grandchildren and the oldest is nine. When I went back into that window, besides it being the most exquisitely wonderful thing I’d ever experienced, even the poop nappies, you’re just still in a state of bliss that’s different to your own because there is something different in that space. But what I noticed and what I observed was that immediately, not just my own daughter-in-laws, but my nieces and the ones I was already working with, they were incredibly hard on themselves. I just felt they were beating themselves up with things that I, and none of the ones that I was having children with, would do.

There was a sense of hurriedness, that everything had to happen faster. Of course we know that we’ve stolen a year of childhood around the western world, the year of five, when our little ones are still supposed to be largely running around outside building sandcastles and pretending they’re unicorns or dragons. We stole that year. And when we did that, the pressure for you to get your kid ready for school has intensified, and yet the capacity for our children to accelerate their development on any level hasn’t changed at all.

And the additional stressors that are happening for parents in all sorts of ways. We actually created too much information as soon as we became digital natives. And I hear mums say to me things like, “Oh, that first meltdown, I thought, ‘Wow, what do I do about that?’ I just go online and see how you fix it.” And you and I, you know, hello! We know that’s an exquisitely important moment of development for children. It’s not problematic, you’re not a lousy parent, your child’s not failing. But all of a sudden that’s the lens with which many parents were looking at their children, and they keep asking me, “So how do I stop that?”

Then there’s that other layer on top of it, that today’s mums, not only are they in the kind of Insta-space of comparing things and seeing endless reels of other mothers who seem to be doing it great—

Janet Lansbury: And bite-sized fixes.

Maggie Dent: Bite-sized, and bite-sized images of incredibly well dressed children. You don’t put the crap photos up. And I think that also puts another, because we are wired as women, we are all looking for, Am I doing as well as those other women are? That’s put another whole layer.

And then the other layer. There’s some things that are great about having a smartphone, a cell phone, and that you can order your groceries delivered to your door. Oh heck, did I ever wish that was happening for me! But what I now know, especially as your children transition into primary school, big school, you have to have so many different apps in order for you to keep up with what’s happening at school, what’s happening in your classroom, what’s happening when you want to order food for your children, whether the bus schedules change. And that’s just within the school sense. If children are playing sports or doing music, you are in other organizational apps. Which means that they are forever on their phone, when I didn’t have that to interrupt me in my connections with my fairly feral boys.

So that’s just a few of the things that means the landscape’s changed. However, what children need has actually not changed.

Janet Lansbury: Not changed. And just to be clear, I want to make sure I’m understanding everything that you’re saying. Here in the U.S., our children start kindergarten at five to six, some are even late fours. So, four, five, six years old. Now that used to be—

Maggie Dent: Completely play, yes.

Janet Lansbury: That used to be nap time, the teacher reading books to you, just socializing, learning how to be in school. I remember the nap time and those little cartons of milk.

And then what you brought up about the parents being so hard on themselves. Okay, I noticed that too in the parents I’m working with. They’re getting so into the weeds sometimes in, Well, what if I just say this and how should I do that? It’s hard to trust ourselves when we’ve got so much information telling us that you could do it this way better and this is how you do that and this is how you fix that. In your mind, does it seem the cause of this perfectionism is all the information? Or do you think it’s something else, like a generational thing?

Maggie Dent: I do think it’s a generational thing. And you and I both know, we’re very much into respectful, responsive parenting that doesn’t need to use shame and fear and punishment. So what happened is a lot of parents today did have that still, even the ones coming through now. So when I go to do something and I know that’s wrong, then I don’t know what else to do, so therefore I have to go and find it. And you look for something that’s going to fix it and there’s no one-size fits or fixes it. And that’s when they start to go, Well, I have nothing else. Can we have a manual?

And there’s the other thing that happens too. We have this anticipation that children don’t turn up really different. Like, the first one might be like the second one. And that’s caused a lot of confusion. My special girlfriend had this beautiful baby boy nine, 10 months before I did, and he was a lamb—what I call a lamb is a sleepy little baby, nods back off to sleep, and doesn’t even scream or yell very much. In other words, he’s a pretty cruisy baby. And I thought, Can’t wait to have one of them! I reckon I’ll be reading books. I’ve been teaching 150 kids and I’ve been on the school board and I’ve been coaching basketball. I’m just going to lay around, read a book. I didn’t get one like that. So when we have the children who are born with the extra sometimes fights in them, sometimes they’ve got special challenges, whether they are neurodivergent or whatever. And all of a sudden, in front of others, you appear to really be not doing your job. Because we know what happens in supermarkets and people judge us and things.

I think the world has become far more judgy generally. We’re all judged so much more. I think that’s added another layer to the why I need to beat myself up with a stick. We know that there’s enough research out there that now shows that if you get your really beautiful, connected, loving parenting right about 30 to 40% of the time, your kids are actually going to be okay. No human can possibly meet all the needs of their children or their child every minute of the day. It is just an impossible thing to do.

Janet Lansbury: And even understand all the needs, much less to meet them.

Maggie Dent: No. So can you see why now the thought, If I learnt more, would that happen? And sometimes—with my hand on my heart, because I love early childhood educators who are deeply passionate about what they do—sometimes they’re the ones that come up to me after they’ve had a child saying, I thought I knew it all. What the heck? Because that lived experience of having a child you’ve brought into the world or you’ve been blessed with, who you love just beyond measure and who at times you don’t like. I think it’s, We’re supposed to be happy and loving our children all the time. No. You can be stressed and finding it really difficult and still love your children. And I think we need to make sure they get that message.

Janet Lansbury: Yes. We lose the plot with them a lot and that’s okay. I mean, that’s expected. The answer is just to find your way back, as best you can. Just find your way back. But don’t expect that you’re always going to be in sync, because you’re not. Sometimes you’re going to really not connect with them well for an entire day or two days or three days. It’s okay. It’s part of learning, it’s part of the process.

And if we could give ourselves that permission, but I think it’s so hard because there’s all the information, there’s the new expectations of kindergarten that are totally unreasonable. As you said, children have not changed in the way that they develop, but the expectations have changed. There’s a big mismatch there.

But then there’s also what I hear about too is peer pressure between parents, partly because of the internet. I remember when my kids were little, there was that wonderful book, The Hurried Child, did you ever read that? David Elkind.

Maggie Dent: Yes, yes.

Janet Lansbury: And that was very eye-opening for a lot of people because it was about doing less, waiting for your child. That they’re on this slower speed, they don’t need all this enrichment in classes. Today it feels like the parents I talk to, it’s totally expected that their child from infancy is in different classes for different things all the time. And God forbid if my child shows an interest in dance, I’ve got to get them to a ballet class. When in fact that can actually discourage their interest in dance, because now somebody’s putting a structure on something that came from their heart, that was so free.

I feel like that’s one big shift that I hear about. I can’t be the one just to say, “You don’t have to do that.” I mean, that doesn’t help. How do parents believe that? How can they know in their hearts and feel good about their choice and that they’re actually being not this person that’s doing something wrong with their friends, but they can be a model of something different? I don’t know, I just feel that should be talked about more. How unnecessary that is, and how that actually isn’t the road to your child learning more and being more enriched.

Because that learning happens when they’re puttering around after they had that experience where you took them to the zoo. And now they’re fleshing it all out in their minds and they’re integrating everything they’ve learned and they’re thinking of ways that they want to play out some of, I mean not consciously necessarily, but play out some of what they learned, to learn more about it and explore what it means.

All of that is the higher-order learning that goes deep, that lasts throughout a lifetime. That’s critical thinking, that’s imagination, creativity, all of those things that we want. And being able to be present in a classroom as a child, instead of being so overdone that more stimulation is just too much.

Maggie Dent: I think parenting’s become a competition. And that is being pressured by just simply the opportunities that you can do. That we think the more I do, the better it will be. And I’m a huge advocate for simplifying it to being, sometimes the less that we do, the more authentic and the more real it is, as you’ve just explained beautifully.

And let’s touch on one little window that I have to keep reframing. That’s one of the things I think you and I do well, every now and then we give a reframe to something that we’re telling ourself because it’s just a story that may be triggered by our own childhood. When toddlers do the things that they do with all their senses to explore the world, whether it’s smearing mum’s very best face cream on the cupboard and then on the floor and then on the dog and then on their hair, they are doing this massive scientific experiment around texture and location and surfaces. And what do we do? We see a naughty child ruining our face cream.

So I keep saying, I want you to keep it in mind that this incredible seeking mechanism, that Margot Sunderland talks about, is they’re just so curious to see what’s out there and how does it work. They’re meant to be doing these sorts of things. And that when the toddler does something, whether it’s the lipstick picture on your wall or the toilet roll has unraveled and been shoved somewhere we didn’t really want it to be, that if we can just pause—and that’s the big one we talk about a lot—if we just pause and not react to that situation. And then we’ll go, Ah, I get this. There’s a potential genius in front of me. “Did you do that all by yourself?” And then we’re going to come in with the next statement, which says, “We don’t draw on walls with the lipstick. We use paper, and we will get some soon. Now you’re going to help me clean it up.” Because what then happens, even though they’re still really curious, is that in the cleaning up then that just sows a slight bit of a dampener on the experience and the chances of them doing it again has reduced a lot. But sometimes they need to do it again. And that’s one of the things I think parents think, I’ve just told you not to do that, you should automatically know that’s not what you do next.

An example of a toddler exploring something was one of my little ones. What do you call baby tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, little baby ones. I had a bunch on the kitchen bench next to her and I was making a salad. She was popping it in her mouth and just going <smush> until it exploded and then put it down and then got the next one. It was the explosion in her mouth that she was just right in the zone of, right? And of course I could have stopped her in that moment and said, “Oh, maybe you shouldn’t be doing that.” But I just watched that little face and those little brain cells that are going absolutely crazy about, does it again, does it again, does it again. That was a massive learning experience for her that didn’t need me to give it any context or to explain why that might not be okay in our world.

I think when we can see that this adventure of the first five years holds the most incredible potential for learning on all sorts of levels, their whole mind, body, heart, and soul. That they’re not just supposed to be a brain that sits on a seat to be tested and a source of data. We can reframe exactly the magical moments that really, some days, want you to just pull your hair out.

Janet Lansbury: Yes. But I thought when you were starting there, I just wanted to interject. We don’t have to be happy about the makeup or the lipstick or the thing.

Maggie Dent: No, no.

Janet Lansbury: I mean obviously we’re going to be upset about that. But I think what you modeled or explained is, try to see this from your child’s point of view, that they didn’t do this to anger you. However, they may have done it to experiment with your responses and to maybe get your attention in some way. That is another reason that children do that. Unconsciously, impulsively they do that kind of stuff. So it can be purely exploratory. It might also be, I’m uncomfortable and I really need you to see me in a way that you’re not seeing me. Even if it’s an angry way that you see me, I need you to see me. And of course they’d prefer it’s not an angry way.

But I think that the difference in those two different examples that you gave is that the tomato, that is a harmless thing. Unless you needed those tomatoes for something you were making tonight. So you could just say, “Here’s a little bowl, can you put those in the bowl? That would help.” But from that lens of knowing that there’s a reason that they’re doing this that makes sense, at least to them, and it’s not that they’re a bad, awful child.

Maggie Dent: Or intentionally being naughty. Even though you say, “No thank you,” and then I’m going to put that cream so much higher up.

Janet Lansbury: Or when I see you going towards my bathroom, I will stop you right there and not let you get into the thing where I have to say, “No, no, no, don’t do that. Don’t do that. Don’t do that.” That’s an uncomfortable place for us to be, I feel like, is not setting the limit early, that we’re allowing that.

But I think the overall message is that the way children are learning things is actually different than what we might think. That it’s not going to that class where the teacher’s saying, “This is music and this is an instrument and you need to do this way” and all that. The real learning is happening when they’re playing in the mud, when they’re playing with tomatoes, if that’s okay with us. When they’re doing all those things that look like messing around. And even when they’re kind of on some level wanting to wind us up, they’re learning a lot right there. They’re learning about their power with us. They’re learning about what their parent does when they get upset and therefore learning, What do I do when I get upset and lash out at somebody because of it, maybe? So they’re learning. They’re learning all the time basically.

Maggie Dent: Totally.

Janet Lansbury: I think I was telling you last night at dinner, there were so many times when I was just in these weird little areas, like a corner of a park next to the trash can where there were cigarette butts nearby that I wouldn’t let my child touch, but they were playing with little pebbles and watching an ant go. And I’d be sitting there nearby, or at least within view of them, thinking, This is my life, I sit by a trash can in the park. But my child is learning something important here. I trust their journey. And if they’re interested in that, they must need to learn something from it right now.

Maggie Dent: I think consumerism has a lot to answer for as well in this space, because we are bombarded. And now that I’m a grandmother that likes to buy their gifts, but I’ve come to the point where they already have enough toys, trust me, way more than we ever had. And then the toys that have “educational” on it, a family might think, well, that’s going to be better, that’s going to make them cleverer. But there’s not necessarily justification. Playing with pebbles on a pavement is equally as educational and it’s in the child’s direction and it’s using what is there right in front of them. Can I tell you, I was in a big huge baby and toddler shop in Western Australia at one point and I saw knee pads for toddlers.

Janet Lansbury: I’ve seen this. Well, they’re for crawlers.

Maggie Dent: Crawlers, as they’re starting to crawl. And I was staring at it thinking, Is this for real or is this a bit of a joke? How many thousands of years have our babies managed to find their way to their feet via crawling without this? And then I realized, if you’re a new parent, how are you to know that there’s a biological kind of growth and development that allows that to happen for most of our kids? Or do you think this will help them do that and I need to spend money to do that?

Janet Lansbury: Or you think they won’t hurt their knees. But what children do, when you observe them, these babies, when you observe them doing their motor skills naturally, is they learn to go gently on their knees. But if there’s a pad there, they’re not going to learn to go gently on their knees. It’s like how using floaties in the pool can be dangerous, because now they think they can do whatever they want in the pool.

Maggie Dent: And that’s how it can get so much more confusing. Because I walk around some of those stores and I’m overwhelmed. A parent who’s just become a parent wants to buy a pram, what do you call them here?

Janet Lansbury: Strollers, yeah.

Maggie Dent: Stroller. There are 50 to choose from, so you want to get the best kind of thing that you can afford. Sometimes that means you’ll go down a rabbit hole of three or four days looking at reviews of things to find that out. And I think, How many of those hours could you have spent gazing into your little baby’s eyes or laying on the floor and watching them kick their legs around?

And I think the time-stealer, that’s like the giant elephant in the room we haven’t mentioned of course, is that the digital world also is being put into our little one’s hands. And far earlier, because it seems to be what everyone does. I just want to touch on the displacement effect of that as well.

The four things that have come up for teachers of five-year-olds is that we have children with poorer fine and gross motor skills because they’re not outside, they’re not catching balls and climbing trees and pulling things apart and building blocks. They have an iPad on their lap. The second one is the inability to initiate and sustain play because they’re not playing as much. And if I want to put a really big heart-centered message out there, it’s that that’s actually what children still need as much as possible. Multi-age children, all genders, in environments where they can get dirty, muddy, and fall over and graze themselves, with a safe adult. And then the next one is that their self-regulation today has dropped so much that they are not as capable. And then the last one is they’ve got less vocab, they’re coming with less words. Marinating our little ones in language, whether it’s songs or it’s conversations or it’s everything, is unbelievably important, not only for them as we go towards learning how to be literate. If you haven’t got enough words, how can you initiate play?

So when we look at those four things, we kind of go, that wasn’t happening 30 years ago because those kids were all in those environments. Being mindful that you can still, especially if you’re on a long-haul flight sitting near me, yeah, there’s no problem with an iPad on a toddler’s lap with some wonderful, healthy thing that they can watch. But I still think we need to go, Where are our boundaries around these things? So that our kids are still able to use their bodies and their minds and their hearts to explore the world with wonderful, safe humans, the way that we’ve done for centuries.

Janet Lansbury: Yes. I want to hear you offer more ideas about that because it is a hard one. This whole thing of keeping our children safe has always been the most important thing, but our definition of safety has changed so much it seems over the years. Everybody’s sick of hearing this, but when we were kids, we went off all day and blah, blah, blah. Nobody wants to hear that anymore, I feel like it’s been overdone. But why did our parents need less assurance than we do, for one thing? And how can we mitigate that? How can we still give our children all the gifts of that play that was so open-ended and with other children and learning so much, so rich. Especially learning about themselves, that they are capable of being out in their small world a little bit, even without their parent looking over their shoulder. We’re not talking about toddlers, we’re talking about school-aged children. How can we make room for that?

Maggie Dent: Well, what we’ve done in Australia is that we’ve created a massive movement and you have to have a movement and a revolution to turn around a social norm that’s locked in. And I’ve just been reading Jonathan Haidt’s latest book on The Anxious Generation, and he says that it’s not just smartphones that have created our teens to be so mentally unwell, it’s the absence of the childhood that builds that resilience. And that he’s calling for particularly America to go back to that. If you have a backyard—and a lot of people don’t have one—what’s in it? What can you put in your backyard? And quite often we find that some of the loose-parts play, where you can just get some logs or anything, rocks and anything, a pile of sand, and just step back. You can tie ropes out of trees and see what kids will do.

The really important thing is that the science shows really carefully that children take themselves to the edge of their own fear each time they participate in something that allows them to stretch and grow. So we don’t have to push them up the tree. If they can’t climb the tree, they’re not ready for the tree. But do we give them opportunities to climb a low log. Or have we got uneven surfaces, which is amazingly good for the brain? Have we got opportunities for them to spin and tumble and balance and roll? Because they’re the things that also work with parts of the brain that means they’re better to sit in a classroom without falling out of a chair. So there are some things we can do.

But I also want you to look around your community, because there’s nature everywhere. And I’ve just crossed this amazing continent from Canada to the U.S. and the most stunning forests and woodlands are everywhere, but we need to be able to take our kids out sometimes, preferably with other children, for picnics, barbeque, whatever. Let’s just get them back into nature. Because nature’s not only a restorative thing, so it’ll calm your kids, before you know it they will have found something and turned it into a wand or they’ll be trying to build themselves a den or a cubby. We just step back and allow the magic to happen. Small bits are all going to add up to something later. There’s a magic in the joy of children having the autonomy to create the play experience without a prescribed adult or somebody saying, This is how this works.

And then don’t forget the magic of cardboard boxes. They’re everywhere, right? And if possible, the best ones are the big ones. Be prepared for your house to look messy while that cardboard box turns into a castle and then it’s an underground cave. We got a new refrigerator at one point and it was a big box and my sons played in it for about three months. It was just so many things. I could hardly ever get them out of the box. Sometimes I even let them have their dinner in the box, because it was just the way we went. One day they left it outside and it got wet. They grieved like a pet had died. And that’s when I realized there was something beyond magic in that experience with that big box with these four little boys over a couple of months.

We don’t always have to organize them into an activity, wherever it is, but if you do have a nature-play organization, and I see they’re starting to grow, please find it. Because what we’re finding is these wonderful educators are reeducating children about how they can interact with the natural world. Because for some of them, it’s almost been a generation that haven’t and that we need to work with them around the genuine fears of what might be something you need to watch out for. I laughed when I was in Tofino up in Canada, because there was a sign as we went on this walking trail, Beware of Bears, Coyotes, and Wolves. And I went, Oh, wow! And then I thought, Hang on, I’m Australian! We’ve got sharks, crocodiles and all sorts of wild animals. We’re going for this walk! But there is a beautiful wildness all across and the kids just need to come back into it and they will do what they need to do to grow.

Janet Lansbury: Yes, I agree with that. I am also thinking as you’re talking about parents who aren’t home with their children all day, and I hate to keep harping on this, but it’s okay if your child doesn’t do any afterschool activity. If they’re going to a preschool program or the grade school program, there’s only so much time in a day. We want to give our children free time. On the weekends, we don’t have to plan a bunch of entertainment. Yes, if the parent wants to get out and do something, great. But maybe do it for you, more than for your child. Because children need to have that unmeasured time that’s not an appointment and not people telling them how it’s done, and they really need that. So there’s always room for that.

Even if it’s just at the very end of day, after childcare, you pick your child up, you maybe sit and watch them for a bit, then you say, “This is what I’ve got to do.” You let them be mad at you, they transition from that. If it happens every day, you’re giving them a chance to transition into, Gosh, I just want to sit here and look out the window. I want to pick my nose. I want to just do something that may look inane but is really important for that child.

Maggie Dent: I often say about the extracurricular activities, we know that some is good for children, but too much is not. And that sometimes you’ve also got to look at the child you have and work out, if you have a high-energy rooster child with a lot of energy, they might be able to do a few more things in a week, but get very careful about your lambs and your children without the same amount of energy. They might want to go and participate in things that their friends are doing, but three weeks, in they can’t. They’re done.

So we’ve got to look at the child, and then we’ve got to look at, What are we like as a family? What’s the stress in our family when we have too much on? And we are now going to sit down as parents and say, I know you’d love to do all these activities, but we’ve worked out that we actually need to have two afternoons where we are not racing around dropping you all off. I know that can be very disappointing and you’re sad at the moment, but choose what two you’d like to do and maybe we’ll work to get better at how we do those things. Because when you are walking in the door after you’ve collected children, in your mind there’s a part of you that wants to cook a delicious, nutritious meal with broccoli and things, and a calm chat around the meal, and then they’re just going to pop in and do a little bit of homework, and then there’s a lovely kind of bath and bedtime. It just is not going to happen. We all end up screaming, and at the end of the day, it’s not good for mom and dad if you’re there and it’s not good for our children. We need to be the people that say, It’s too much and this is it.

Janet Lansbury: Yes, I like to try to help parents have the expectation that your child, especially if your child is in many hours of a program, no matter how old they are, their afterschool time to bedtime, there’s screaming, there’s pushing you, trying to get those boundaries from you unconsciously so that they can yell at you. There’s, maybe not every child, but there’s discontent. And that’s the balance. That’s the yin/yang that they need to have to be able to go and perform all day in these schools.

I think it’s easy to forget that because to us, now we’re home from work and we want to relax and all that. Well for children, it goes the other way. It’s the opposite of relax a lot of the time. And I think it’s a setup for a lot of frustration and disappointment, especially if we see somebody’s videos on Instagram where the children are helping make dinner and cleaning up because maybe that happened once and the parent took a video of it.

The more we have a reasonable expectation, the more we’re going to be able to have the perspective that we need to stay a little cooler. We’re going to have feelings if people are not behaving well, but a little bit more being able to come down into that and relax ourselves. And to say, Okay, this is what I expect. And then if it doesn’t happen, Okay, that was nice. But that’s not what I expect, because all the things that happen all day, you’re going to vent them out somehow. And not in this easy, simple way where it’s just, “Oh my day, mom, let me tell you about it.” I mean, unfortunately it comes out, because children don’t even know they’re doing it, but they need to.

Maggie Dent: I like that concept kind of based on Dr. Mona’s work about being an energy detective. The body, it has no energy left, so therefore the last thing you need to do is to go to the grocery store on the way home and do some shopping. No, that is going to end up a really big meltdown if I’m not able to help them restore some of that. And quite often that’s the meltdown in the car. Your child might have had a great day at school, but there’s just nothing left because it’s taken everything to try and be that child at school. We have to keep tuned into that going, Okay, no, so that might not work right now. Do I have some food to restore them? Do I have a smile on my face? Or whatever it is. We’ve got to work out, how do I restore my child? And how often do kids just get dropped somewhere else to do something else? And that child was already depleted, so by the time you get home, that’s just going to be a massive flood.

That’s why I always encourage people to play really lovely calm music around their home and hopefully have cooked the dinner on the Sunday before that day. So all you do is walk in, quickly heat some food up, and you’re straight into that. Whereas trying to cook the food, with children that have got nothing in the tank and are completely flooded or just frozen with absolute stress. We have to tend to that in a way.

Janet Lansbury: Yes. And I would even say that it’s not so much up to us to restore. Because already to me, in my head, that sounds like, Oh, I have to do all this work.

Maggie Dent: No.

Janet Lansbury: It’s to allow space for your child and be the energy balance for your child to naturally restore in their messy, maybe ugly, in-your-face way. And you don’t have to let it be in your face, you can move your head aside. But just letting it happen and knowing that it may very well happen.

Also, not cooking the meal that you’re going to be mad at your child for just eating the cracker instead of all the wonderful broccoli and beautiful seafood you made for them. A parent recently was telling me how frustrated she gets with the cooking and I said, cook it for your partner and you and then give your child whatever they want from it, but don’t cook special for your child. It’s a setup for disappointment, especially on a weekday.

Maggie Dent: I find that it’s, again, the pressure I find on women is that you’re supposed to be exceptionally good at everything. Your house is supposed to be tidy and you’re supposed to be like, Oh, it’s just like that. That is piled more on women today than it was, so therefore puts more pressure on them. Have I got the right gear on when I drop them off? And things like this. No, this is too much. You’ve got to look at that to-do list and see what can I put off it? Can I just be comfortable, just be me. Our kids don’t really care sometimes about those things.

One of the tips I just want to throw out to parents is I suddenly realized one day it was taking me an hour to fold up my boys’ washing and put it into their rooms. And I suddenly had this epiphany that said, I’d like that hour! So we had a single bed and it became the lucky dip bed. So all the clean washing went on that bed, and they had to find their own washing on it. Well, they thought it was hilarious. They’d dive on it, for years. Even now, every now and then, the lucky dip bed comes up. But I made a cup of tea and went outside and regrouped myself or I was able to cook the meal I had hoped to, but I suddenly realized I wasn’t full of so much resentment. And I realized sometimes maybe we need to just lower the bar, especially while they’re little because gee whiz, they’re hard work. Oh my gosh.

Janet Lansbury: A hundred percent. Yeah. What does lucky dick mean?

Maggie Dent: Lucky dip! Not dick, no! No, oh my gosh. Lucky dip, dip with a “p”. Oh my God, that’s hilarious. Just because I had four sons.

Janet Lansbury: Ah, lucky dip. What does that mean?

Maggie Dent: Yeah, so you put your hand into it, it’s like at fairgrounds, you put it in and you pull a parcel out and whichever’s the lucky one, you get that one. Does that make sense?

Janet Lansbury: Yes, got it.

Maggie Dent: Translate across it.

Janet Lansbury: I had to find out what that meant, it sounded so cool. The lucky dip bed, that’s hilarious, the lucky dip clothing. I love that image of you just saying, You know what, who cares? Like, I care, but there’s going to be many years of my life, like the ones you and I are having now, where I can have my bed perfectly made. That’s another thing we can let go of. And some people, that’s really important to them, and then yes. But just weighing it. Maybe to the person that putting the laundry away is really important to, maybe there’s something else.

I remember a mom saying, “Oh, I don’t care about the main rooms in the house, but the bedrooms I like to all be nice and neat.” I mean, that wouldn’t matter to me, but that was her thing and that’s what she did, and that’s what she expected. And she had to do it for her kids a lot, I’m sure they didn’t just snap to that. So knowing yourself, letting go of a lot of things.

You were also reminding me of the getting fit thing. I remember when I was a first-time mom, and I’d been an actress and I’d been a model, and even then I would see or hear that these actresses, they had the baby and then two months later they’re back working and starring in films and they look fantastic. And I had this expectation, not all the way to that, but at least that I was going to be able to use, we had a StairMaster machine, I remember. It probably was used about three times before we gave it away. But I remember thinking, I should at least be able to do this. And of course I would want to do it, it would be three in the afternoon and my baby was not a happy camper. And it was so frustrating for me because I thought, I’m just trying to do this one thing and they’re not letting me!

Now that must be, with the whole Instagram thing, must be so much harder because you see the moms, they all look great. Some of them are doing really honest things, which I love. Those are heroes as far as I’m concerned, that are doing the important stuff. But we’re seeing all of this around us. The truth is those actresses had nannies.

Maggie Dent: It wasn’t real.

Janet Lansbury: They weren’t with their children as much as I wanted to be. They didn’t have the same investment in that. And I don’t judge that, but that wasn’t what I wanted anyway. I think a lot of times too, these things that we think we want, when we really examine it, that’s not us. That doesn’t matter to us. Kind of tuning in could help, and figuring out what matters to me. Just in terms of housekeeping, in terms of what my kids are doing. And really so much of that we have to trust, I believe.

I’ve said this on my podcast before, but as far as the extracurriculars, if you really let your child be the one to come up with the idea, and maybe you take them to watch first so they know that what their idea was is actually how it is or isn’t, then they don’t tend to get into things that they drop out of. I really trust kids to know themselves. Sometimes we think it’s coming from them, but we’re not realizing how much of an influence we are when we’re lighting up at the idea of seeing them in the tutu in the performance. And understandably. But just knowing that that could end up being us trying to drag a child somewhere to do something that we’re paying for that they don’t want to do. And then that’s just another recipe for frustration.

Maggie Dent: I think the one thing we haven’t touched on, which we need to a little bit, is that the village has disintegrated so much more from when I was momming. And that is huge. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a fabulous group of moms you’ve met with your first baby, nobody’s synchronizing if they’re having another one and before you know it, they’ve gone back to work and you’re by yourself. That’s massive in terms of our ability to sustain this journey.

And I’m loving that there’s some really good, high-quality groups online that have been created in order to support women who have no one. There was one in Australia I’ve just been to, Motherland, which was for rural women. Many of them never met each other. But if you’re miles from anywhere and you’ve had a baby and you are struggling with mastitis or your baby hasn’t slept for days, and the male that you live with is out working all day, that’s not good for anyone.

So what we are looking at, if you can’t create a few people who you can call on, reach out to, who are reaching to you, as we used to do. If you think of a kinship community, there were always women around. If you weren’t well, if your children were sick, there was always other women. And I think that we have to look at that in terms of their mental health as we go forward. And recognize if you’re going on the journey that if you’ve got other people who have kids your age or similar, work that tribe. Like, Can I pick them up? Can you look after mine? Let’s just share and share and share, because every now and then, that’s going to be a godsend to you. As I’ve said in some of my seminars, if suddenly your car breaks down and you’re on the way to pick your kid up from school and you can’t get there, who’s the person that the school knows you have given permission to pick up and are they available? Because that would just drive every parent into a state of unbelievable angst. And I think, how can we rebuild that? We need it.

And then not only that, that tribe allows you to have the neighborhood play. And also have a break when you’ve got the child that really drives everyone mad, that they don’t drive the other people mad when you go for a play at their house. That’s kind of a thing we would do when we’ve got a functioning village, whether it’s in your neighborhood or close by. That we absolutely need to prioritize that tribe, regardless of how many endless hours that we’re working, even if it’s just on weekends that we have a chance, we catch up.

Janet Lansbury: What do you mean by the child that drives everyone mad?

Maggie Dent: Oh yeah, I can remember that. So there’s a few parents who’ve said to me when we lived in the farming community, they have a really hyper boy that just never stops, and he’s really into risk-taking. And he was six or seven, his parents were just exhausted every weekend. But one of the other neighbors would come and pick him up, say, “Look, we’ll take him over for the day, so you’ve got a day without him.” Because he’s at school the other days. And the difference, he’s not quite as interestingly challenging when he’s over at someone else’s house. But that three or four hours can restore. It’s like you can restore yourself with a one-hour break from any of your children because you reset your nervous system. And there are some children who are really, really hard work and I just want to encourage all of us out there, reach out if you know someone who’s got one of them and you can change a life for that child as well as that family.

Janet Lansbury: I love that. And it also speaks to something that’s very true, what you said also about the early childhood educators when they have a child, so our child is going to be very different with us than they are with other people. Very different with their teachers. So when a lot of teachers are giving parent advice, and that’s wonderful, but just know that if they don’t have children, they might not be recognizing how different the relationship is and how much more inclined a child is to perform well with a teacher or another parent than with their own parent. And this is this backhanded compliment they give us that, I trust you. I can vent with you. I can be all my dark sides with you. I can relax with you and be my wacky self and you’ll still love me through it. That’s the model that we want, if we think about it. I think we want, most of us. But yeah, to know that, that it’s not a bad sign that your child is like that because they’re probably totally different out there, and most children are when they’re out with others.

That’s another reason for parents like that to meet with other parents. And the kids of those other parents probably think this is a really fun character to be around because they’re dynamic, they have all the ideas. Let’s play this, let’s do that, we’re going to do that. And they’re exciting. So it’s a win-win, right? For everyone.

Maggie Dent: It’s like getting a phone call saying, “Oh my gosh, your son’s got fabulous manners.” And you haven’t seen them in your house at all. And you go, “Are you talking about my son?” Same sort of thing.

Janet Lansbury: I’m raising my hand, that happened to me. I mean, I knew he had good manners and he has good manners with me. But it was the neighbor saying, “He’s the first one to clean up, to pick up, to ask me as soon as he walks in the door, ‘What can I do to help with the gathering that you’re having?'” And my husband and I are sitting there at dinner with these parents having a dinner party and she’s saying this in front of all the other parents and all the other parents are hating me. And I said, “I don’t recognize who you’re talking about, but that’s wonderful news.”

Maggie Dent: I love it because wherever they’re safest, they can be real.

Janet Lansbury: So we can be that. And it really takes a lot less than we think.

Maggie Dent: I think as we get to the winding-up bit, we need to remember that every stage of development will bring you a gift as well as a challenge. You couldn’t wait for your child to be able to walk and now you can’t find them, couldn’t wait until they could talk and you wish they would shut up. And so it’s exactly the same all the way through, isn’t it? That they’ll come, Oh gosh, they’re able to do that for themselves, but they’re just not on a perfect trajectory. Just focus on the gifts, the magical moments, the snowballs in bed, because that really lets the other stuff just settle in the dust. Just focus on the good bits, the ones that melt your heart.

Janet Lansbury: And they’ll be really small, innocuous moments in your day that you don’t expect, not the ones that you planned for and made the perfect birthday party for. Yeah, I know. It’s so true.

Well, thank you so much, Maggie.

Maggie Dent: Thank you.

Janet Lansbury: I hope I haven’t worn you out.

Maggie Dent: No, no. And like I still say, that in this whole journey, I’m just beyond blessed that I have the opportunity to go back and be amongst the littlest, to be able to kind of share the love and joy of being a much more patient mama figure around them. Because I probably wasn’t as patient as I wished I had been all those years ago. So to all those grandparents that sometimes need to hear, yeah, it’s a different journey for us, different for families today, and we need to be able to support them, in whatever way. They need our support. But the last thing they need is a lecture on how they should be doing it better.

Janet Lansbury: Right. And nobody really knows. And anybody that tells you they know the best way or the only way.

Maggie Dent: There is none.

Janet Lansbury: Run a mile.

Maggie Dent: Good enough, remember? Thirty to forty percent.

Janet Lansbury: Right, and go have the dip down bed? Dip in?

Maggie Dent: Yeah, the lucky dip.

Janet Lansbury: Lucky dick.

Maggie Dent: No dick said there at all.

Janet Lansbury: And with that, alright.

Maggie Dent: Thank you, beautiful lady. Thanks for all your work.

Janet Lansbury: And you too. Thank you so much.

Maggie Dent: I love it.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I really wanted to comment on this because Maggie’s comments about the village really struck a chord. That we need a village – she is absolutely right. Unfortunately, it was also one of the hardest things to achieve if you didn’t have one before you have kids. I tried so hard to forge connections with mothers groups etc and in the end gave it up. Without a history with each other, it was so much work. In the end, during that exhausting first year, I was happier when I accepted it wasn’t to be. I really wish I knew what the answer was. My situation, while atypical, probably wasn’t uncommon – living away from family, away from the places we grew up, all our friends working full time or having moved back to the country or the east coast… I sometimes think mothers groups could be run better with less emphasis on when to start solids and more on getting women together for a coffee.
    Oh and fun but irrelevant fact: we did swimming club with Mrs Dent’s eldest boys. Spins me out listening to this.

    1. Sorry I just remembered the point I meant to make. I have still found the most useful article on managing pressure and fatigue to be your article “why you might be yelling”. We do hope to have a bit of a village for us and the kids one day but in the meantime, that advice has been very sustaining.

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