by Meredith Montgomery
Fueled by unconditional love, parenting with presence embraces all potential connections between parents and their children.
Shelly Lefkoe, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Guide to Effective Parenting, believes that children learn what we model as important values. She tells her daughters they should treat her with dignity and respect, not because she’s their mother, but because, “That’s how you treat people, and that’s how I treat them.”
Minneapolis college student Casey Martin often joins his father, Kirk, in presenting Calm Parenting workshops for parents, teachers and students around the country. In growing up, he’s seen firsthand, “If you have a connection with your kids, you can have a lot more influence on them.”
Noting that sometimes children feel like their parents love them, but don’t necessarily like them, Martin emphasizes finding ways to identify with their interests. “I love cars, and my dad used to invite me on test drives when I was a kid. Both of my parents took time to connect with me, which had a huge impact on our relationship.”
Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist with the University of California Greater Good Science Center, recognizes the importance of talking explicitly about values. When we see kids doing something we value, ask them how it made them feel, she advises. “Teens don’t necessarily know that their parents value character over grades,” Carter says, “particularly if parents tend to monitor grades more than aspects of a child’s character. What do you talk about more—their achievements or their character? If it’s the former, consider that you unintentionally might be sending the wrong message.”
Overprotection of children by what’s termed helicopter parenting, can cause a disabling sense of entitlement where kids begin to believe, possibly unconsciously, that they are entitled to a difficulty-free life, Carter observes. “There’s an epidemic of cheating because students don’t want to try hard, and they expect to be rescued,” she says. “Although it’s terrifying to let our kids fail, when we don’t let them experience difficulty, they see mistakes as being so awful they must be avoided at any cost. To gain mastery in any arena, we must challenge ourselves, even if that means making mistakes.” “We lose sight that we’re not raising children, we’re raising adults,” says Malibu, Calif., marriage, family and child therapist Susan Stiffelman, author of Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids. “Empower them to cope with ups and downs. Help them know and trust themselves by not legislating their opinions and by allowing them to experiment.”
Children often struggle with transitions, especially when things don’t go as planned. Martin recommends, “When kids throw tantrums or argue to get out of a challenging situation that’s causing them anxiety, help them work through it. Tell them that you know they’re feeling anxious, that you’ve felt that way before, too, and then help by giving them something specific to do or focus on.”
Independent outdoor play has been proven to help kids learn to exert self-control. America’s children aren’t allowed to roam freely outside to experience nature as previous generations did. In Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv cautions against being limited by modern factors such as restrictive subdivision covenants and media-induced fear. “There are risks outdoors, but there are huge psychological, physical and spiritual risks in raising future generations under protective house arrest,” he says.
Louv prefers what’s called a hummingbird approach: “Hummingbird parents don’t hover over their kids with nature flash cards; they stand back and make space for exploration and problem solving through independent play, while remaining nearby, ready to zoom in at a moment’s notice if safety becomes an issue.”
Armin Brott, host of San Francisco’s Positive Parenting radio program, reminds parents to increase opportunities for independence as youngsters grow. “Test a child’s ability to handle more freedom by providing the opportunity to prove that they can. If they succeed, it’s a confidence builder. If not, it allows them to see for themselves that they’re not ready yet.”
The first eight years of a child’s life are the most formative, effecting personal beliefs that will shape the adult that they’ll become, including impediments to fruitful self-expression. Fostering connection and confidence entails preventing children from forming negative beliefs while keeping them safe.
Lefkoe suggests focusing on what serves the child’s highest good in that moment. “Get to the source of problems instead of talking about your expectations not being met, which is irrelevant,” says Lefkoe. “Guide them to learn to discern what works and what doesn’t. You want your child to thrive, instead of always trying to live up to others’ expectations.”
Parents can serve as a safe haven for kids. Stiffelman says, “Allow them to speak the truth without being corrected or shamed. If they tell you they’d like to do something you don’t approve of, resist the urge to react with immediate advice and talk to them about their decision-making process. Be present enough for them to let them hear themselves think out loud.”
“Children need affection, attention, acknowledgment and unconditional love, not discipline. When you punish kids, they feel absolved: ‘I did something bad, I got punished, now we’re even,’” says Lefkoe. When they get caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing, she recommends (with children as young as 5) asking them, “What are the consequences of your actions? Do you want to live with them? Your goal with this conversation should be that your child walks away feeling like they made a mistake, but it was a great learning opportunity.”
As kids mature and are faced with potentially dangerous scenarios, “You don’t want them worrying about what their friends will think; you want them thinking about the consequences,” says Lefkoe.
Navigating the Teen Years
The intense journey of adolescence is about discovering oneself and how to reach full potential. Carter says, “I had to constantly remind myself that this is their journey, not mine, and that it’s going to sometimes be dark and difficult.”
“The more power you give kids, the less they feel the need to test the universe,” says Lefkoe, who reminds parents that while it’s relatively easy to control young children, rebellious teenagers are harder to handle when they feel they have something to prove to an overbearing parent. Offering calculated risk-taking opportunities that don’t involve drugs and alcohol is beneficial in the teen years. “You want them to know how to handle freedom and be responsible once they are on their own,” she says.
“When I got my driver’s license, I always came home before curfew,” says Martin. “I learned that if I could control myself, my parents didn’t feel the need to control me, which gave me a ton of power in my life.”
Brott observes that as the parenting role changes, “We can offer to help, but it’s equally important to learn to let go and admire the young adults they’re becoming.”
Teens desperately want to not feel like a kid, adds Stiffelman. “They may tell you to back off, but stay present and engaged—like wallpaper. The more you ask their opinion or invite them to teach you something, the more they’ll feel your support.”
With sex education, the authors of The New Puberty, Pediatric Endocrinologist Dr. Louise Greenspan and Adolescent Psychologist Julianna Deardorff, Ph.D., emphasize the importance of being approachable from a young age, so kids naturally turn to their parents when sensitive questions arise.
“It shouldn’t be about having ‘the talk’; it’s about maintaining an ongoing conversation,” says Greenspan. “Body odor is a good starting point in talking about body issues because it’s not intimidating and can be comfortably addressed by either parent.” Avoid rushing into subjects they’re not ready for by focusing on answering the questions that are posed, while offering a glimpse into the near future.
Deardorff says, “Pubertal changes happen over time, so be patient. Parents have a lot of anxiety and anticipation about puberty. When you start to see the first signs, you don’t have to communicate everything all at once.”
Consider throwing a puberty party or a health workshop for a son or daughter and their friends. Invite a parent that is comfortable with the subject matter—a nurse, physician or teacher—to get the conversation started. “Fight the urge to emotionally or physically withdraw,” counsels Deardorff. “Sharing activities is a form of communication, too.”
Kids as Teachers
“By paying attention, we can learn a lot of skills from our kids,” says Brott. Generally, youngsters have a greater tolerance for other people’s mistakes and opinions than adults, and tend to be more laid back. They regularly teach spiritual lessons about giving and receiving love and happiness in ways we never imagined.
Through all the inevitable challenges, Stiffelman notes, “When parenting with presence, we orient ourselves with whatever good, bad or difficult moment is unfolding and bring more of our self—our heart, consciousness, understanding and compassion—to hold steady as the seas get rocky. Children offer us opportunities to confront the dark and dusty corners of our minds and hearts, creating conditions to call forth the kind of learning that can liberate us from old paradigms.”
It all allows us to lead more expansive and fulfilling lives as we open ourselves to more of the love, learning and joy that the adventure of parenting can bring. When we embrace the healing and transformation that is being offered through parenting with presence, the rewards can be limitless.
Meredith Montgomery publishes Natural Awakenings of Mobile/Baldwin, Ala. (HealthyLivingHealthyPlanet.com).